When Silvia Sarmiento saw the photo of drowned Salvadoran migrants Oscar Martínez and his toddler daughter Valeria, she gasped and recalled how close she'd come to their fate.
Two years ago, in the town of Ahuachapán, El Salvador, a gang massacred Sarmiento's husband and threatened to kill her. Seeing no choice but to flee the country, she trekked to the U.S. border and crossed the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft – which ripped midway and began sinking.
“If the river had been wider where I crossed," says Sarmiento, "I might have drowned.”
Drowned, she says, as Oscar and Valeria did when they tried to swim across the Rio Grande two weeks ago. The image of their corpses on the river bank, still holding each other, devastated people around the world.
“I cried more painfully because I realized that could have been me," says Sarmiento, who is now a housecleaner living in Lake Worth waiting for her asylum request to be processed.
"That little girl could have been my own daughter.”
But Sarmiento says she felt buoyed last week – because El Salvador’s new president, Nayib Bukele, said something unprecedented about those tragic border deaths:
“It is our fault."
Meaning: El Salvador’s fault.
Bukele admitted Oscar Martínez took his young family out of the country because he saw little else for them there except crushing poverty and horrific violence. And the reason for that, said Bukele: El Salvador’s gross inequality and the vicious gangs that often rule whole towns.
“People don’t flee their homes because they want to," Bukele told reporters in San Salvador. "People flee their homes because they feel they have to."
And that’s the fault, he added, of El Salvador's neglectful governments and embezzling elites. And not just in El Salvador but also Guatemala and Honduras. Those three countries, known as Central America’s Northern Triangle, produce most of the migrants who arrive at the U.S. southern border today.
"Why?" Bukele asked. "Because our governments have been so corrupt, have been stealing other people’s money.”
Bukele, who only took office last month, is a center-right politician with an admittedly populist streak. Still, it’s almost unheard of for Central American leaders to admit their countries are to blame for the tragic necessity of illegal immigration. He acknowledged what every Central American migrant already knows: their brutal, backward living conditions are what force them to leave.
Bukele’s statement was especially remarkable to Salvadoran migrants living in South Florida who’ve made their own dangerous odysseys to the U.S. Like Sarmiento – whose husband Salvador was gunned down by thugs because he refused to join their mara, or gang, the MS-13.
“He had been in the military, so they wanted his expertise with weapons,” says Sarmiento. “He said no, he just wanted a peaceful life farming corn, so they stopped him in the middle of the road one day and shot him several times.
“After that they started threatening my life. I couldn’t stay in El Salvador any longer.”
Sarmiento had to leave her own toddler daughter with her mother. She hasn’t seen the girl in two years.
But she says hearing Bukele insist El Salvador itself has to take responsibility for the lonely desperation of migrants like her raised her spirits.
“As a Salvadoran,” Sarmiento says, “it was the first encouraging thing I’ve ever heard my government say.”
Salvadoran expat Hector Orellana agrees: “I almost cried, y’know, because I was waiting for somebody to say that a long time ago.”
WORSE THAN WAR
Orellana is an air-conditioning technician in West Palm Beach. He himself crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. in the 1980s, escaping El Salvador’s civil war – and military death threats he’d received because he was a student protester.
Orellana points out the epic inequality and lawlessness that sparked that long-ago conflict are still far from fixed in El Salvador.
“I went there last year and you can feel the negative [air] of the people, y’know, the way they look,” he says. “It’s terrible. It’s worse than when we had the war. If you work in a factory you have to work 12 hours and you make $7. Food is very expensive there. You cannot survive with that.”
The workers’ wages Orellana cites are often that low, according to data on El Salvador. Expats like Orellana hope President Bukele will change that situation. But Central America experts say it’ll be tough.
“I think Bukele is right: the elites in Central America have resisted important changes and reform for far too long,” says Jose Miguel Cruz, a Salvadoran expat and international relations professor at Florida International University who heads the school's Central American immigration project.
Cruz fears the region’s powerful elites – especially in Guatemala and Honduras, where the quasi-oligarchies are even more strongly tied to government than El Salvador’s is – may instead push back against Bukele blaming them for mass migration.
“Bukele is walking a thin line,” says Cruz. “Among the elites his remarks may have not been received very well.”
Still, says Cruz, those public remarks are “pretty unusual” and potentially powerful as a result. That's especially true since U.S. leaders like the front-runner Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, say aid from Washington to reform Central America’s benighted Northern Triangle is key to curtailing illegal immigration.
Bukele is indeed walking a thin line, say Salvadoran expats like Sarmiento and Orellana – but at least a Central American head of state is finally walking it.