By Cindy Lamonthe
The burning buses are only a few neighborhoods away.
They’re not so near the overpriced apartment that I’ve shared with my friend for the past six months. I’m being evicted—tossed out with my belongings. Due to a series of unfortunate legal events with my landlord, I’ve been informed of the decision over a heated phone call that ended with me shouting into a dead receiver.
It’s summer in San Salvador, June 2010. I stuff clothes, shoes, perfumes, pillows, and dirty laundry into large garbage bags, banging my big toe in the process while hurriedly stashing every last item into boxes and old suitcases. The furniture will have to wait. My ride, Don Cesar, a forty-two year old cab driver who has driven me through crowded streets before, is running late. The clock says 8:15 PM when I make the call. No answer. I’ve kept the TV on for news.
For years, violent gangs had besieged the public transit system in El Salvador by extorting bus drivers and impoverished travelers.
El Presidente Funes declared a 9:00 PM curfew since the first charred bus was overtaken by la Mara 18 earlier that night—violent gang members who opened fire on the first bus on the outskirts of El Salvador’s capital. Dousing gas generously, before twenty-four men, women, and children lit up the sky in June. For years, violent gangs had besieged the public transit system in El Salvador by extorting bus drivers and impoverished travelers. The latest attacks were a result of gang retribution between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. “Un acto terrorista,” Funes called it.
My hands tremble imagining mothers and fathers, whose tinged faces, shielded children with bodies that in an instant turned to ash. Their bodies pressed against molten heat, crying out for a help that would never come.
My first impression upon arriving in San Salvador in July 2003, was of hot, vapid air that overlapped the city—a cloud of smoke trailing behind cars and chicken buses. The sidewalks slathered in sun and dirt as people trotted behind one another in a beeline. That first drive through the dingy streets made my skin break out, as we rapidly weaved between vehicles, cutting drivers off before torpedoing onto the highway.
El Salvador—The Savior—is considered one of the world’s most violent countries, inhabited by over six million people who travel by foot and on large outdated school buses—the majority imported from the US. Mothers carry their small bundles on raw pavement, past the señoras asking for change, or the bolitos—drunken men who roam the sidewalks. My first experience with monsoon rain came shortly after I arrived, in the form of hot sticky air relieved by massive downpour in the evening. Muddied water lapped up pedestrian heels on their way to work—the swish, swish, swish between footsteps.
Mareros—fourteen-year-olds gangsters with ink splattered on folds of skin, and metal hidden between denim pants.
By hurricane season I learned to cautiously climb into crowded buses with other strangers who huddled between knees and elbows, struggling to balance bodies with their bags from el mercado. During these short trips, I made fish faces at toddlers who hung from their mother’s necks. Families who had no other choice but to ride this Russian roulette of daily assaults by armed mareros—gangsters deported back from the US. Many of them, recruited fourteen-year-olds with ink splattered on folds of skin, and metal hidden between denim pants.
The siren of my phone startles me at 8:45. Don Cesar’s voice cracks on the other end, apologizing for the delay, but they’ve closed off various parts of town. He says he’ll be here in five minutes and that I should start carrying my belongings outside. I scramble to gather the black bags, dragging them to the front door as darkness descends. I promise myself that tomorrow will be different. That the silvery cast of moon on pupusas with friends will wipe out the news of spangled bodies. The stammering in my chest alerts me to the hour. For now, my tears remain firmly lodged in place—gathering like a storm as I wait behind glass.
Only a few weeks ago, I returned from vacationing to find my room completely inundated: bedding, laptop, shoes—all ruined. El huracán said my roommate as I gaped in disbelief. Water damage from clogged gutters had been the culprit for thousands of dollars in loss. At twenty-five, I was no stranger to losing. I had already lost two wallets, four ex boyfriends, my American life, and my brother to suicide. Ten cuidado—my lawyer warned after a month of hashing out legal debates with my landlord over property damages. “You don’t know what she’s capable of, or what kind of friends she keeps company.” Lawsuits in El Salvador were notorious for ending in the plaintiff’s homicide, as evidenced by the slew of daily assassinations in the dozens. Civil war had ended in the country more than eighteen years ago, but the body count continued to rise.
When Cesar arrives at 8:50, we quickly pack everything into his white Subaru and drive up the now emptied streets, noticing that the normally crowded pupuserías are now vacant. Random cars with tinted windows drift beside us, dimming their headlights as eerie smoke ascends into sky ahead. I heave uneasily from the stench—violent pounding pushes into my chest as my head fills with hot blood.
“El país está en llamas,” Cesar shakes his head—the country is in flames. The fist in my throat threatens to dislodge before we make it to our destination.
Don Cesar looks back at me in the mirror, his furrowed brows as uncertain as mine about whether we’re being followed. His normal, chatty demeanor is encumbered by vigilance. We drive steadily as to not attract attention by other motorists, edging our way through the city’s heart. Mareros were known for hunting the streets at this hour, often hijacking drivers with guns from hefty motorcycles; quickly killing off the men and kidnapping young women who were later found with torn clothes in ditches.
“El país está en llamas,” Cesar shakes his head—the country is in flames. I nod quietly, clasping the fist in my throat that threatens to dislodge before we make it to our destination. My hands are cold even in the eighty-degree heat. Earlier footage had relayed images of victims tarnished by fire, of families and strangers crying out for justice on sidewalks—their faces fixed in my mind’s eye: one, two, three times. I offer silent, angry reveries before glancing at my phone: 9:00. Several texts from concerned friends appear on my screen. Cuidado.
The upcoming lights glow like strange beacons casting full yellow circles once we make it to the green gates of the new place I’ve rented. At five past nine, my shoulders slink heavily against the door as tears blend with smoke.
Curfew is now in place.
Cindy Lamothe is a biracial expat and writer with a Licentiate in Journalism and Communications. Her work has been published in The Weeklings, The Manifest-Station, Inspiration for Mind Body, and Sweatpants & Coffee, among others. She lives in Antigua Guatemala, and you can find her via Twitter.