Love and death in Central America gangs
Police frisk alleged members of the MS-13 gang in Ilopango, El Salvador on September 20, 2012 - by Jose Cabezas
Short of stature and thin, Sharon still bursts into tears when she remembers that day in 2009, when she found the body of Jose Adan.
Her sad tale highlights how tight the grip of Central America's notorious street gangs, or maras, can be.
Jose Adan was a soldier in one called the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). His chapter controlled a neighborhood in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa.
The gangs are the scourge of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
"We had a beautiful relationship. When our baby was born, he wanted to quit the life to dedicate more time to his son and me. They would not let him," said Sharon.
For security reasons, both names are fictitious for the purposes of this story.
On February 21, 2009, Jose Adan did not return home. Sharon got nervous, starting to think the worst, because he had already received warnings over his decision to quit the gang.
"We went to church. We wanted to seek out God, but it was already too late," says Sharon.
After a sleepless night, it was Sharon herself who found the body -- in a pond atop a hill. That is where the gang tends to leave the bodies of its victims, many of them from its rival, the Mara 18.
In Honduras, which the United Nations describes as the most violent country in the world among those not enduring a war, the two gangs have been active since the 1980s.
People are terrified of them -- their extortion, drug trafficking and hired killers.
- Love at first sight -
When he died, Jose Adan was only 18, like Sharon. And like her, and perhaps most gang members, he came from a broken family.
They had met out on the streets of the neighborhood and it all happened in a flash.
"It was love at first sight," Sharon recalls.
They had fun, organizing dances and attending local festivals. But when he went out, Jose Adan always carried a .38 caliber handgun.
When she got pregnant, she had to leave her mother's home and go to live with Jose Adan at the house he shared with his father.
"A mara is a family. We celebrate Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Christmas. A lot of money is moved. He used to like to give me presents," says Sharon. She has mementos of her beloved: a black wallet and a big stuffed animal -- a crocodile.
"He would sing lullabies to the baby. He was very affectionate," she adds.
And that soft heart is what led him to ask to get out of the MS-13. But that is like asking for a death sentence. From that moment, he fell into disgrace with his superiors.
"They killed him in a horrible way. They tortured him. And then they tied a rope around his neck and choked him to death," said Sharon, her voice breaking and drying a few tears.
- Beyond the grave -
It was after he died that Sharon learned Jose Adan had been a hired killer, drug dealer and extortion money collector. These are the three most dangerous jobs a mara member can have.
She too is a member of the MS-13, but the groups are structured in a compartmental way so that only a few know what others' jobs are.
Sharon is what is called a "bandera", or flag. They lead a normal life and maintain a normal appearance, without the tattoos that many members sport.
Her job is to be the gang's eyes and ears out on the street, giving notice when rivals or the police show up in the neighborhood.
Her district, which she asked not to name, stretches over a hillside in a poor area of Tegucigalpa. Houses are built of concrete bricks with bars over the windows.
Gang members idle away the hours outside bars, well dressed and sometimes wearing the caps of American baseball teams.
Sharon now lives with another man but says she is not happy. She misses Jose Adan terribly.
She sent her son, now five, and a three-year-old she had with her current companion to live with her mother in Choluteca, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Tegucigalpa.
"There, children are raised with another mentality. They are healthy," she said with a sad sigh.
No gang life for them, she says.
For herself, life feels empty now, without Jose Adan.
"I love him and will always love him. He will always be in my heart," she said.