He was 17 years old when he fled El Salvador, one of the world’s most dangerous nations, leaving behind his mother and two sisters. His father and uncle had paid a smuggler $5,000 to ensure his safe passage to the United States — all to leave behind the gangs that he said had murdered some of his friends.
“They started killing kids,” the teen, now 18, recalled this week through a translator. “The violence every day was worse.”
But in his first weeks as a student at Chelsea High School last fall, men hanging around the school accused him of being in a rival gang, and he quickly began to fear for his safety.
“I came from El Salvador from the same problems and I’m fleeing from the same problems,” said the teen, who left Chelsea High and moved out of town to escape the threat.
The teen recounted his journey from El Salvador and how he found sadly familiar threats of gang violence in Greater Boston. He spoke against a backdrop of last week’s indictment of 56 members of the MS-13 gang. The Globe is withholding the teenager’s name for his safety.
Law enforcement officials said members of the notorious international MS-13 gang recruited vulnerable teenagers, mostly immigrants and children of immigrants, from three area high schools, including Chelsea.
A sweeping federal indictment on Friday accused MS-13 gang members of murder, drug dealing, and other crimes. Five murders were connected to the arrests: those of three teenagers in East Boston and in Chelsea, a mother of three, and a 29-year-old man.
One of the teens, Cristofer Perez de la Cruz, who was killed in January, had planned to return to his native Guatemala after life in Chelsea became too risky, his mother told the Globe last week. He was attacked by MS-13 members eight months before he was killed.
For the teenager who spoke to the Globe this week, the de la Cruz death was all too familiar.
“The truth is, it looks like the same case as in El Salvador,” the teenager said.
Mary M. Bourque, Chelsea’s schools superintendent, said school officials had not seen evidence of students being recruited for gangs at the high school but have worked closely with Chelsea police to investigate allegations.
“They said I was involved in gangs because I was from El Salvador,” the teenager said. “They wanted problems. They think because of the color of your clothes that you are from the other gangs.”
He told his father, who withdrew the teenager from the school in October. They moved from the small room they rented in a house in Chelsea to a friend’s home in Everett.
“I had a dream to continue my education,” said the teen, who had been excited about learning English and had been taking classes twice a week for two hours at Chelsea High School. “I don’t want violence in my country and I don’t want violence here because I want a better life.”
The teenager said he never reported the incidents at Chelsea High School because he was new and had not yet established a relationship with teachers there.
The teen is now in the process of seeking asylum. His hope is to someday reunite with his mother and sisters, who are 17 and 20, in the United States, away from the violence of El Salvador. But first, he said, he must learn English and find a good job.
Lucy Pineda, executive director of Latinos United in Massachusetts, an Everett-based nonprofit, is working to help the teenager stay in the country.
Pineda said the mounting violence in El Salvador should help him make his case. “We know the reality, but you have to show proof,” she said.
Pineda is concerned about what a judge might say about the teen not being in school.
“The judge wants to see that you want to be a part of the community,” she said.
And the teenager said he, too, wants that, but he seeks to avoid the gang violence that terrified him in his homeland.
Pineda has helped the teen get a job working for an oil company and he has enrolled in ESL classes. Pineda said she is also trying to get the teenager into Everett High School.
“I would like to stay here to have a better future one day,” the teen said. “I want to go to school, to college . . . this is a country where they open the opportunities. I want to be something in my life.”