Life after: Escaping gang violence

Jun 17, 2024 | News

Cenia Elizabeth Munoz, her husband Angel and their children feared becoming statistics in the gang violence that was rife in El Salvador. After fleeing the UK, arriving just before Covid-19, a university bridge course and a warm welcome helped the family feel safe and hopeful again.


Cenia Elizabeth Munoz, her husband Angel and their children would hide from the gangs near their home every evening when they lived in El Salvador. “We had be so quiet. “If they know that you are watching or listening to them, then you’re in trouble,” she says. “Our lives were always in danger.”


The couple heard gunshots one night and hid under their kitchen table while they waited for the police. “A young boy had been killed near my house. We could hear the family crying. We could see the dead body of his family lying on the street.


After they married in 2014, the couple built a two-bedroom house on land that Angel’s father had given them in San Pedro Perulapan in the central region Cuscatlan. They hoped to have children someday. Munoz says, “But the gangs spread like a plague.” “And our house was a little isolated. We never felt safe. Our house and car were surrounded by gangsters. They controlled the city in which we lived. You couldn’t visit a friend or go to a park in a city controlled by a rival group. They would ask for your ID and could even kill you .”

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In the 1980s Salvadorans who fled civil war in El Salvador formed gangs, especially in Los Angeles. They were originally formed to defend their communities, which were in poor neighbourhoods. After the war ended, in 1992, thousands of gangs were deported back to El Salvador where they created a stranglehold on terror. In 2015, El Salvador had the highest homicide rates in the world.


Munoz: “It is sad because there are so many positive things in my country.” “The people are very friendly and the weather is almost always sunny. There are beaches, rivers, mountains, and the weather is almost never rainy.” But we haven’t had good governance. Corruption destroys nations, and this was the case for many decades. Over time, crime, poverty, and the police force became weaker.”


Angel was on the way to catch a train when two gangsters, with a gun in their hands, demanded his ID. He ran away in a panic and hid in a shoe store for six hours. Munoz says, “He was lucky.” “We know many people, including friends and parents of our friends, who have been killed by gangs .”


We knew we were safe, so we focused on our hopes for the future. We focused on our hopes and dreams for the future.


The couple knew that they had to leave El Salvador in order to survive. Munoz says: “If we moved [within El Salvador], the gangsters would know that we came from rival gangs’ city.” They flew into Heathrow to begin their asylum application in early 2020, just before the Covid-19 epidemic set in. They were then taken to Cardiff and were split between nine hotels. Munoz says that the loneliness of lockdown “was the hardest part”, but they knew they were safe. We focused on the future .”


The family finally settled into the UK after they moved to a small flat in Reading. They took online courses to learn English and sought advice at Sanctuary in Chichester, a refugee support center they found “really amazing”.


The couple was thrilled to welcome Grace in 2021. Munoz beams as he says: “She’s been the joy of our lives.” “I’ve really enjoyed going to her playgroups and I’ve learned so many vocabulary words from nursery rhymes, and baby books. She inspires me to be better, because I want to make her proud of her parents .”

She inspires me to be better, because I want to make her proud of her parents.


Munoz, who had hoped to become a teacher when she was in El Salvador, gave up her dream of becoming a teacher so that she could earn money working at a call center. “[Then in the UK] I only expected to do something like clean houses – just to survive,” she says. She is now confident after taking the 12-week From Adversity to University Course at the University of Chichester to ‘bridge’ the gap for people without qualifications into higher education.


The couple was granted refugee status and allowed to work last year after their asylum claim was finally approved. Munoz, whose husband is a delivery driver at the moment, is studying to become an English-speaking teacher and is looking for part-time employment.

“I feel as if this country has welcomed me.” She says, “I always find British people to be very friendly.” “I am grateful to [the UK]. We have many opportunities that we didn’t have in El Salvador. We have realised we can be much more than just immigrants in this country. We have the chance to participate in this community.”


Photography: Alexander Thomas



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