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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Holding the microphone close to her lips, Ana Elizondo begins to sing. Her teenage daughters Eunice and Abigail kneel next to her as her 14-year-old son Marcos plays the guitar and her husband Antonio Miranda claps. This Christian family living in the outskirts of San Salvador sings and prays like this four times a week with their family and neighbors.
It's a way for the mourning family to find comfort.
Three years ago, Elizondo's youngest son Josue Miranda, then just 14, disappeared. She remembers the phone call he received just before it happened.
"He was going to have a blind date," Ana explained.
She doesn't know who made the call, but Josue left his job that afternoon to meet a girl and never returned. He was last seen that fateful day at a corner bus stop near the grocery shop where he worked. After that, the trail went cold, police say.
Elizondo counts the days since his disappearance and often cries out loud. She has gone to that corner – and to many others – looking for possible witnesses. She said she's been to the police, to emergency rooms, to local jails and even to the morgue. She's spoken with neighbors, classmates and friends repeatedly.
Every two weeks she takes a one-hour bus ride to the prosecutor’s office to try to get an update.
"But no, there is nothing," she said.
Apart from knowing that he's a minor without police records, and that he disappeared in 2011, the investigators only tell Elizondo what she has become used to hearing: With no body and no witnesses, they have no leads.
Fleeing the gangs
Three weeks ago, Elizondo returned to the prosecutor's office and, yet again, received no news.
"Authorities tell me to be patient, to bring them some new information, but I don’t know anything," she said as tears rolled down her face.
In her heart, she said, she feels Josue is dead, killed because he refused to join a gang. Considering the statistics, she could be right.
Thousands of children and adolescents in El Salvador are the main targets of these violent groups, most of which traffic in drugs. Gangs often first harass youngsters to join, then threaten them. If they still resist, the youth risk getting killed. Police say in the first eight months of this year, an average of 11 people were killed every day in this nation of 6.3 million people – less than the populations of Tennessee and Indiana.
Gangs have been around El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala for more than two decades. Their proliferation has given way to several new groups like the Mao Mao, Maquina and Locos 13. But the two most powerful groups, the Mara Salvatrucha (often shortened to MS-13) and the Barrio 18 gang, control most of the neighborhoods around these countries.
They are everywhere. Traveling to Elizondo's home, we saw men watching our car, and immediately making phone calls. We knew that they knew we were in their territory.
And Elizondo knows too well that her family lives at risk. Her eldest son, whom she asked not be named, left for the U.S., afraid he would be killed because he didn't want to join a gang either.
Finding their identities is a complex task because the victims, for the most part, are tortured and dismembered.
People constantly leave their neighborhoods to escape gangs' extortion and death threats. A study cited by UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency, reported that in 2012, 130,000 Salvadorans fled their homes because of insecurity. Internally displaced Salvadorans are moving at record levels in Latin America, and fear is often what motivates them.
But most youngsters don't leave. Many join the gangs because they want to, or because they have no other options. And every time one resists, the cycle of violence and death rolls on.
Since 2013, more than 2,100 people have gone missing, police say. Salvadoran civil police deputy chief Howard Cotto said all of these are suspected victims of criminal violence, and that the majority of them have simply vanished without a trace.
Inside the morgue
At the medical examiner's office in San Salvador, the scale of the problem is very apparent.
On the same day that Elizondo left the prosecutor's office miles away, the Perez family arrived holding a picture of their teenage daughter who disappeared 18 months before. Walking behind them was Maria Eugenia Ayala, holding her 22-year-old son's photo, and crying. He's been missing since January.
Inside the morgue, another family was sitting on a bench waiting for news. All were clearly desperate, saying they'd looked everywhere for lost relatives.
“We are looking for her, whether she's alive or dead. And if she's dead, we want the authorities to turn her over to us,” said Jorge Perez, whose 16-year-old daughter disappeared.
Many families and many mothers of the disappeared have become the first line of investigation in the search for their loved ones. And they say they will go all the way to find the truth of what happened to them, as harsh as the truth may be.
Their missing children could be among the remains in dozens of boxes, numbered and piled up in two dark rooms at the medical examiner's department. The chief forensic anthropologist investigating their identities is Armando Quijano.
He said the remains of at least 80 people are here, but added that there are hundreds like these around the country who have not yet been identified. Tracing them is a complex task, he said, because the victims, for the most part, are tortured and dismembered.
¨We can only find body parts. By doing this the criminals are sending the message of what they are capable of doing to their victims,” Quijano said.
But that message is also a strategy. Cotto says that what is most worrying is that the practice of disappearing bodies helps gangs hide a crime so that investigators can't trace the culprits, and sometimes even the victims.
At a local jail, gang members packed in tiny cells were uncompromising about their disposal of victims.
"These are things that only we know. I can’t explain it to you. It’s a rule of the gang," said a member of the 18th Street gang who only identified himself as Alfonso.
Digging for truth
Bodies and body parts are often disposed in remote, inhospitable, dangerous areas, many of which are gang-controlled. And only a few people dare to look for the disappeared in those areas. Israel Ticas, the only forensic criminologist in El Salvador, is one of them.
In 25 years, Ticas has exhumed the remains of thousands of people at more than 800 gravesites. But he said his job is a slow process. Cases can only be resolved if witnesses provide information about locations and victims. Sometimes the information is imprecise and usually it must come from gang members involved in the crimes. But because they have a code of silence punished with death, that rarely happens.
As Ticas and his team uncover graves, desolate mothers often stand by, waiting for news. They resort to Ticas as their last chance to find their loved ones. They give him details about their children: photos, what clothes they wore, the dates they went missing. And they often cry on his shoulder.
Sometimes it takes months to find a victim's remains.
"I would like to have a special gift to be able to know there is a cemetery here or there and to tell a mother, 'Here is your daughter,' so they can find some relief," Ticas said. "They tell me, 'Please find at least some of my child’s bones so I can die in peace.'"
Elizondo has also been there.
"Seven months went by. The bodies were on top of each other. The police and firefighters mixed up all the bones. Most were mutilated so they had to reconstruct each one. In the end my son wasn’t there," she said.
An attempt at reform
David Morales – one of the most outspoken human rights defenders in the country – said the neglect of those who have been forcibly disappeared is rooted in El Salvador's 12-year-civil war, which began in 1980 and left more than 75,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared.
Members of the government acknowledge there is a problem, and say they are taking the necessary steps to implement new policies.
"Is there more to be done? Of course," said Benito Lara, the Minister of Justice and Security. "We can’t hide the fact that we have problems that are forcing us to make reforms," he said.
For several years, one government after another has put in place different policies to counter gang violence. A strong-fisted approach, by which thousands of youngsters were arrested, only filled up the jails.
After elections in 2009, the government formulated a security policy for the first time that involved victims' assistance, prevention and police reform. However, efforts to implement development programs in neighborhoods to deter minors from joining the gangs have been meager, he said, mainly because El Salvador lacks resources.
But there has been one thing that worked, at least partially: a gang truce.
In 2011, the leadership of the region's major gangs – MS-13 and Barrio 18 – agreed to a non-aggression pact to stop the killings, reportedly facilitated by the government in exchange for concessions. The homicide rate immediately dropped by more than two-thirds in one month, according to the Salvadoran Police. Over the following two years, daily killings fell from 14 to six.
But in 2013, the truce broke after the government of Mauricio Funes appointed a Justice and Security Minister who decided not to back the truce because he didn't believe it was working.
Killings soared again, and again El Salvador had one of the highest murder rates on the planet.
Late last month, gangs in El Salvador developed another truce. But there is no evidence yet that it's resulting in a reduction in murders, and Salvadorans have yet to be convinced better times are ahead.
So Elizonda doesn’t bring down her guard. She's concerned about the well-being of her children. She turns to God and prays for protection. But amid her grief she realizes she must be brave.
"My children are running a risk every day but I can't lock them up," she said. "They must confront the life we are living every day. And that means, you go out and you may never return."