>> this is a special edition of "nightline." gang land. >> tonight we go deep inside the murder capital of the world. the place where this is a homicide nearly every hour, even grieving families aren't safe. we're right there for gunfire at a wake. and we take you inside this overcrowded jail brimming with allegedly violent gangsters. now the gangs are operating in nearly every state in the nation. this teenager hoping for a new life here in the u.s., and what he learned on his judgment day. >> this special edition of "nightline," gang land, will be right back.
this is a special edition of "nightline." gang land. good evening. tonight we're taking another look inside one of the most dangerous countries on earth. these gangs from el salvador are now operating in nearly every state of america. families on both sides of the border caught in a toxic cycle of violence.
>> reporter: it's the middle of the night in the murder capital of the world. >> something is going on in the area. >> reporter: we're in el salvador on patrol with the cops. >> this is a very dangerous place. >> reporter: they take us to this rundown police station where they're holding allegedly vicious combatants in this all out gang war. how many people are they holding here? >> 169 people in here? [ speaking foreign language ] >> reporter: i'm sure you can get a sense of how small this is, but this is tiny. they're just piled on top of
each other. what does it say on your forehead? [ speaking foreign language ] >> reporter: 666 he says. diablo. they're only supposed to be in here for 72 hours. how long have you been? ? >> one year. >> reporter: this place a sign this place may be overwhelmed. do you ever get to step outside? >> nah. >> reporter: by young people who feel they have no choice but to join a gang. how strong is your bond with other gang members? [ speaking foreign language ] ♪ >> reporter: this is the war next door. in tiny el salvador, just south of the u.s. border, there's nearly one homicide an hour. >> rains, shootings and stabbings, ms 13 as made a trial
of shootings in boston. living in your neighborhoods in california. >> reporter: and now there's death in america. active in 46 states. [ speaking foreign language ] >> kill, rape, control. >> reporter: here in the capital, the two main gangs, ms 13, have carved up the city into warring factions. >> it's a very hot area. >> reporter: this is our translator who, like the cops, doesn't want gang members seeing his face and targeting his family. every night this team from the local morgue heads out to collect the bodies. it's only 9:00 and the body count is already at seven. seemingly, everybody is at risk here. we find a 23-year-old named carlos shot inside his own home
after ordering a pizza. this is his mother. [ speaking foreign language ] >> reporter: it was her baby. she insists her son wasn't even in a gang. [ speaking foreign language ] >> this keeps going all night, every night, 24/7. >> reporter: we're heading into a neighborhood controlled by bario 18. we're going to talk to the gang leader in the neighborhood. we had to get advanced permission before we entered. if you don't get permission before you enter, you're in serious danger.
we're here to meet the local gang leader who goes by the name of plavo which is spanish for nail. you control this area? does that mean you have to resort to violence? >> sometimes if we need to go hard, you go hard. >> reporter: if you walked into an ms area? >> they kill you. if we go that way, they would maybe kill us too. >> reporter: that's how fierce the loyalty is? you'll kill someone? >> yes. >> reporter: he moved to virginia where he joined a join and then got deported back to el salvador where his gang life continues. now he wants to speak back into america in part to escape gang life because he says he's tired of taking orders from the leaders, most of whom are in prison. even though they're locked up, they can make a phone call and
have somebody killed? >> yep. >> reporter: who would they ask you to kill? maybe a cop, maybe someone else. >> reporter: you don't know why? >> no. you just do it. >> reporter: that's crazy. >> yeah. it's crazy. >> reporter: and you're saying you do it because if you don't, you feel they'll kill you? >> maybe i'll be killed. >> the weapons are mostly used here by gang members are pick axes, machetes and guns. >> reporter: we're at the city morgue with a woman who is a part of a team of archaeologists who identify victims found in unmarked graves, often dismembered. >> reporter: given this is your job, do you ever lose sight that this is a human life? >> you do get desensitized. especially working here in el salvador, there's deaths all around us. we're used to this. >> reporter: this place is a
brisk, efficient, processing center for human misery. one technician tells us they see an infinity of death. every day families come to the morgue to search for the missing, and to identify and collect the dead. [ speaking foreign language ] >> reporter: we meet araselda. her 17-year-old son was killed last night, alexis. just two months ago one of her other sons was murdered by the gang. at which point she says she applied for asylum in america for her family. she's still waiting for a response. [ speaking foreign language ]
coming up, she invites us to her son's wake where we are completely unprepared for what happens next. [ gunfire ] >> reporter: and we'll meet a teenager who escaped the gangs by fleeing to america where he's now fighting to stay. >> this special edition of "nightline" will be right back. dad, you can just drop me off right here. oh no, i'll take you up to the front of the school. that's where your friends are. seriously, it's, it's really fine. you don't want to be seen with your dad? no, it's..no.. this about a boy? dad! stop, please. oh, there's tracy. what! [ horn honking ] [ forward collision warning ] [ car braking ] bye dad! it brakes when you don't. forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking. available on the redesigned passat. from volkswagen.
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>> reporter: right there clinging to loved ones, the only remaining son, the likely target. [ speaking foreign language ] >> reporter: the preachers resume, an act of defiance. >> a car stopped right here and was shooting at the funeral of this guy. i'm nervous. i am. what are we doing? >> we're going to check with the police.
>> they won't catch the guy. the guy is already gone. day by day, people live here like this. it happens every day. >> reporter: and for this mother and her only remaining son, the danger is not over. they have to get through the burial in the morning. the next day we learned that the best hope for avoiding violence at the funeral may come from a man accused of having close ties to the gang, the mayor. he denies the allegations but with our cameras rolling -- [ speaking foreign language ] he actually calls a gang leader and asks the gang to stand down. [ speaking foreign language ] ♪
gang. >> reporter: they look like school kids. >> absolutely. >> reporter: we're with undercover cops in los angeles. this is where the gangs actually started before spreading throughout the country and the continent. >> right in the middle of this neighborhood is a mural with a dude with a machine gun. >> reporter: they have tent cals all over the use, allegedly engaging in drug dealing, prostitution and extortion, and then sending the proceeds back to the leaders in el salvador. >> reporter: all the businesses around here, the street vendors, odds are they're all paying protection money to the gang? >> yes. >> reporter: when did you get into trouble with the gangs? when did they first start threatening you? >> when i have, like, six and five years, i think. >> reporter: this is a young man who made the journey to america alone at 13. he recently learned after he
left el salvador, gang members hunted down his mother, brother, and little sister. >> they tried to kill my family, my mother, my little brother, my sister. >> reporter: it's very sad. >> yeah. i miss them. >> reporter: his very survival may hinge on getting asylum here in america. >> his very life is at stake. >> reporter: so the stakes couldn't be higher? >> i don't think they could. >> reporter: if you don't get asylum and you have to go back, what do you think will happen? >> they going to kill me. kill my family. >> reporter: we went looking for his family in el salvador, and we found them living in fear.
we can't go to where she lives because she moves around constantly. she basically lives in hiding from the gangs. so we're picking her up now at a mcdonald's and taking her to a safe location to do an interview. his mother and siblings tell us how gang members burst into their apartment one night firing shots. that's a gunshot wound? wow. [ speaking foreign language ] >> reporter: so you put your leg up to protect her head from the gun? did you tell the cops? >> no. >> reporter: why not? [ speaking foreign language ] >> reporter: are you still scared? do you miss your brother?
no kid should have to live like this. the el salvador is declaring gangs terrorist organizations, but some critics say the police are going way too far. they've been accused of forming death squads, and the gangs are hitting back with ferociousness, sending the murder rate to record levels. >> reporter: are you losing the fights against the gangs? >> i don't think so. >> reporter: we ask one of the country's top cops about the government's current crackdown. even after this very difficult year, so many people so scared and so many people dead, you still believe this is the right strategy. >> yeah. i think we're in the right way. >> reporter: on one of our final days, a top gang leader agrees to speak with us. he says the government doesn't have control. he and the gangs do. >> reporter: is this just going
to get worse? what's the solution? he says the government is scaring us into war, and as a show of force right on camera, he announces a cease fire between ms 13 and bario 18. the next night we go back to the morgue and crickets. this is really stunning illustration of the power of the gangs. the morgue is at a standstill. nobody. within days, however, the vie lens resumes with so many lives hanging in the balance. coming up, judgment day for francisco. >> i'm a little bit nervous. >> reporter: and his struggle to stay in america. don't let dust and allergies get between you
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