MS-13 Gang Warns Teen: “Join or Die”

Posted on November 8, 2017 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Hear Victor’s First-Person Account


Victor accepts Robin Hood Heroes award
Victor accepts Robin Hood Heroes award

A gang member from MS-13, the deadliest gang in the world, held a gun to Victor’s head.

“Join or die,” he warned Victor.


Check out Victor’s harrowing escape in this first-person account shared yesterday, November 7, 2017, at the Robin Hood Heroes Breakfast in Manhattan. The event honored Victor and two fellow refugees along with four agencies including the one that helped transform his future, Terra Firma, a program of Catholic Charities NY, the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, and the Children’s Health Fund.

"Robin Hood's Heroes Breakfast is an opportunity for us to highlight the incredible resilience of New Yorkers fighting through poverty in all of its forms,” said Wes Moore, Robin Hood's CEO, “as well as the life-changing work our community partners do every day to empower that resilience."

I was born in El Salvador and raised on a farm with my brothers and sisters. I went to school in my town until ninth grade and then I traveled to a bigger town for high school and that is when the trouble began.  One day two classmates invited me to join the gang MS -13.

This gang is known all over the world for killing, kidnapping and drug dealing. I told them I would think about it but I never thought about saying yes…I knew I didn’t want to be a criminal.

Two weeks later the gang leader stopped me after school and took me to an empty street and told me So are you going to join us or not because -

If you’re not going to join I’m going to kill you” and then he put a gun against my head.

I thought he was going to shoot me but there was another person with us and he was worried someone might see us so they let me go. That night I told my parents what happened...

My parents knew I had to leave the country.  It was that simple.

I couldn’t go to Honduras, Guatemala or Mexico because they have gangs too. The place I could be safe was the U.S. I already had family living in New York so I could stay with them. My parents thought my little brother should come with me because no teenager is safe from gangs.

A few days before we left I went shopping with my mom. She kept asking me:

“Are you okay, are you okay are you okay?”

I said ‘Mom I’m fine.’ 

But I wasn’t really fine. I was scared and I was so sad to leave her. 

My mother and father have given me the best gift, a loving family.  I wanted to honor that gift so right before I left I made a promise to my mother. “Mama, I promise to protect my brother’s life like it was my own.’

Robin Hood, New York's largest poverty-fighting organization honored Victor and two fellow immigrants along with agencies that helped transform their lives -- Catholic Charities’  Terra Firma, Breaking GroundChildren's Aid, and The Door -- at its 28th annual Heroes Breakfast.  He was introduced at the breakfast by TV anchor Katie Couric and fellow distinguished journalists and Robin Hood board members.   

The next afternoon my brother and I began a three-month trip to Texas.  We traveled by car, bus, train... Finally we got to the Rio Grande.

It was January. It was very cold because we were at night in a tiny plastic boat.

I was scared but when we made it to Texas I felt so happy.  I wanted to hug my brother but there was no time. We had to run.

A few days later it started raining.  We were walking through muddy fields so our shoes got stuck. I was able to keep going but my brother has a bad knee so he fell behind.  The group could not slow down because they might get caught.

I could not leave my brother because I made a promise to my parents and because he’s my brother.  So the group went ahead. It was dark by then. My brother and I walked slowly following the light of the moon.  We were in the middle of nowhere.

We were completely alone except for the wild animals that were following us. 

Then in the middle of the night we were arrested by the immigration patrol.  My brother was still a kid so he was sent to a juvenile detention center. I was only 18 but that meant I was sent to the adult center. 

Now we were both alone. After two months in Texas they put me on a plane to my family. They had to come up with more money to pay my bond but then I was released.  I went to the Bronx and finally saw my little brother who already got out of detention.

Seven months after leaving my village we made it.  We were finally living with our family in New York City.  But I didn’t feel completely happy because I felt alone. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t speak English and I didn’t feel comfortable talking about what I have gone through…

My brother’s lawyer told us about an organization called Terra Firma. She said they provide free help for kids like me…

Cofounded by Catholic Charities Immigration Attorney Brett Stark, Terra Firma provides integrated legal services, medical care, and mental health counseling to young refugees.

We were nine young people in our group. We were all from different parts of the world. But we all left our countries to escape violence.

We all went to hell getting to New York. Hearing their stories made me feel not alone.

Telling my story gave me power.  It made me feel like a hero, not a victim.

Terra Firma also helped me enroll at Emma Lazarus High School, where all the students are learning English. I will graduate in January and I plan to go to college to become a history teacher.

And Terra Firma is where I met Brett, my amazing lawyer (from Catholic Charities NY.) With Brett’s help, I have applied for asylum. Because my home is here now — in New York.

I know my parents still worry about us. I want them to know my promise still stands. I will always help my younger brother. I also want them to know this because of Terra Firma and Robin Hood we are not alone anymore.

Meet Victor in this video filmed at the Robin Hood Heroes Breakfast

Learn more about Catholic Charities NY’s Terra Firma


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