SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The image of Giovanni Miranda’s blood spilling onto his newborn child endures. Prior to his murder by El Salvador’s notorious gangs, or maras, two weeks ago, Miranda’s perpetual smile and determined spirit had charmed his neighbors.
That hope for a better future has, for now, been replaced by the image of Miranda’s son, Simón, being baptized into Salvadoran society with his father’s blood. But Miranda's killing was accepted as customary in El Salvador, which has been dubbed by the United Nations as one of the deadliest countries in the world.
On June 27, according to friends and neighbors, two gang members walked through Miranda’s body shop, entered the bedroom he shared with his wife, Celia, and son, and shot him seven times. His was one of the 664 murders that made June El Salvador’s most violent month since 1992, when a peace accord ended 12 years of civil war that left 80,000 dead.
The opening and final chapters of Miranda’s life take place in El Salvador. But his story is fastened to the United States — the country where he spent most of his life — and to a U.S. immigration policy that deports undocumented immigrants to countries where their lives are at risk. Miranda's story symbolizes how immigration and drug war policies in both countries are swallowing the spirit that upholds the Central American nation.
Miranda’s earliest memories were marked by migration. “I remember the loud vans, the helicopters and how the coyotes hid my mom and me under buses,” he said recently in a Texan-Salvadoran-laced English accent. “We eventually came out from under and crawled in sewers and walked for miles before we got into the U.S. I remember thinking we were on a big adventure.”
After moving around Oklahoma and Michigan in search of work, Miranda’s mother, who raised Giovanni alone, settled in Dallas, Texas, where she enrolled him at John J. Pershing Elementary School. It was at Pershing that he discovered one of his passions.
“I fell in love with cars when I was ten,” he said in early June while taking a break at his body shop on Chiltiupán, a busy commercial street in Santa Tecla, a suburb of San Salvador. The shop was located in one of San Salvador’s “safer,” less mara-influenced neighborhoods, he said. “I saw this chopped top 59 Merc (Mercury) and it was over for me. I knew that I wanted to paint cars when I grow up.”
Miranda, 32, followed this craving through high school, working for several body shops. “I worked for my uncle for a while and then worked at other places. My bosses always loved my work,” he said recently, his face beaming in the shaded garage that barely fit the banged up BMW and Lexus cars he was bringing back to life. While in high school he also discovered he was undocumented. After high school, Miranda helped care for his first wife, three children and mother by working at several body shops— a time he recalled recently as “pretty sweet.”
But that life was interrupted in March 2009, when Miranda suffered a traffic accident. His license was suspended. Although Miranda was a legal resident, immigration authorities discovered that he had been arrested in 2002 for possesing half a gram of cocaine. Deportation proceedings followed. While lawyers haggled over his fate, Miranda says, he bounced from one detention center to another. Then, in 2012, an immigration judge decided to deport him to El Salvador.
Miranda is one of the estimated 2.2 million people deported during the tenure of President Barack Obama, who has defended his policy as one that targets “criminals.” Deportation critics, however, point to several studies showing that up to two thirds of deportees under the Obama administration have committed minor infractions, like traffic violations, or have no criminal records at all.
The deportation of thousands like Miranda, critics add, has intensified the economic crisis that fuels record homicide rates in Honduras and El Salvador, resulting in a circle of violence and deportation that traps thousands of immigrants.
Denied political asylum by the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, Central Americans like Miranda faced a stark choice: Live in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants or return to the danger of their homelands. Some young men from poor families went on to found the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs in the U.S., only to be deported to Central America, where they established a gang culture that had no precedent in the region.
U.S. foreign policy experts say Washington further inflamed violence by spending more than a billion dollars in El Salvador during a 12-year war to defeat the FMLN, the civil-war-era leftist guerrillas who now represent El Salvador’s ruling political party. In a twisted fate that defines Salvadoran life, the FMLN government is following the U.S. policy playbook used by their right-wing predecessors: deploying the military to fight gangs, a move strongly criticized by human rights organizations and gang prevention experts.
When he arrived in El Salvador in 2012, Miranda found himself in a homeland he never knew. “I got here and said ‘WTF,’” he said. “I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have a dime on me.” After three months in La Unión, on the Pacific Coast, where a fellow deportee invited Miranda to stay, he made his way to San Salvador, where he calculated his prospects for work were better. Once here, Miranda quickly realized the extent to which maras rule El Salvador.
“There were people being killed left and right and the cops would stop me all the time because of my tattoos,” said Miranda, who had never belonged to a gang. “I realized there were a bunch of places I can’t go either because of the gangs or because of the cops.”
Again, Miranda turned to cars to pull himself up. After finding some gigs with a local garage, and earning $250 a month, he realized he could make more money on his own. Within a couple of years, he saved enough money to open his own shop on Chiltiupán.
As of January, his body shop — and two tiny makeshift rooms behind it — housed his Salvadoran dreams of work, family and a better life. Like many deported from the U.S., Miranda brought and benefitted from skills not easily matched in El Salvador. Buoyed by the possibilities, he quickly became one of the leaders of an association of returnees seeking help from the government in rebuilding the country by helping them transfer their skills into Salvadoran society.
“We brought together a bunch of people for several meetings with (government) officials,” said Miranda. “But we never saw any help from the government. Nada. A lot of promises, but never saw anything.”
Miranda, nonetheless, soldiered on — a requisite spirit in a country afflicted by extreme poverty, natural disasters and war. In little time, Miranda’s craftsmanship landed him high-end clients. “Pretty soon, I’m gonna have to get a bigger place,” he said in early June. “Man, with my baby, this new place, I feel reborn.”
After cleaning an extra room crowded with car parts, Miranda determined that he could rent the space as an apartment. He quickly found a tenant, someone who, he said, “seemed pretty decent and mostly kept to himself.” But after not paying rent for two months, the tenant came home one night to find that Miranda had put a lock on the door to his room.
“You better lemme in or you’ll pay me for this,” the man said, according to Miranda.
Miranda stood his ground and continued working. Less than a week later, two gang members came into the shop, entered the back room where Miranda sat with his family and shot him. The police have no leads. They have vowed to pursue a deeper investigation, but Miranda’s neighbors say that’s a typical response in a country where 90 percent of all homicides go unsolved. Neighbors and friends believe the tenant did what so many Salvadorans do to resolve conflicts: hire marreros to settle disputes.
“I never thought I’d end up here again,” said Miranda in June, weeks before he was killed. “My family, my home, my country are back there (in the United States). I made my dreams there.”
Looking proudly at the garage and the tiny room where his wife and son were, Miranda pondered his new future. “I didn’t want to be here, but I have to make the most of it,” he said. “I don’t really have a choice. It’s either that or go back to feeling depressed. And I’d rather be fixing cars.”