How Four Dudes Skated from El Salvador to the U.S. to Flee Gang Violence

A 2,000-mile skateboard quest to the U.S. border – past gangs, cartels and beefed-up immigration patrol – turns out to be the easy part

The patinetos (From left): Kevin, Rene, Eliseo, and Kelvin in Oaxaca. Credit: Levi Vonk

I first spotted Kelvin, Rene, Kevin and Eliseo cruising on skateboards down the interstate in a deserted part of southern Mexico. Kelvin was leading the pack, whooping wildly into the vast expanse. They had ridden over 400 miles from the capital of El Salvador. "The gangs grabbed our other skater friends back home," says Kelvin. "They almost killed them. They beat them badly. So we're going to Los Angeles to find a safe place to skate."

He takes a drag on his cigarette and stares out over the dusty tracks of Mexico's La Bestia ("The Beast"), the treacherous train passage that thousands of Central Americans ride to the U.S. border each year. Kelvin has sworn never to board it. He flicks ash onto his faded, second-hand basketball jersey, which reads "North Caroline." Behind him in the street, his friend Rene coasts by on a beat up skateboard, his Beavis and Butthead t-shirt flapping loosely against his skinny frame. He slides to a stop beside us. "By the way," he says. "Where is Los Angeles? Is it near California?"

Astounding stories of flight are not uncommon in the middle-of-nowhere Mexico, where undocumented Central Americans are often escaping violence and destitution, but these four skaters — or patinetos — are the rare group trying to enjoy the trip. "Using skateboarding to cross borders is really radical," Kelvin says. "When skateboarding started, they broke the rules because they were prohibited from skating. There are some that still think that skating is bad. But it's better to be on a skateboard, breaking barriers, breaking the law because, in reality, the world shouldn't have borders."

Back in El Salvador, skating was supposed to be a kind of protest. Shredding in the park meant not cowering from gangs. But things had gotten too dangerous. "You can't even walk in the streets," says Eliseo. "They'll rob you on the corner or ask you where you're from, and if you say the wrong neighborhood they'll shoot you where you stand."

In March, Kelvin and the other patinetos (who asked that I not use their last names) left San Salvador in the dead of night, and skated three hundred and fifty miles through Guatemala to the border town of Tecún Umán. That was the easy part. It's fifteen hundred miles across Mexico, much of it past growing ranks of Mexican immigration security agents, kidnappers and extortionists. And then there's the business of actually crossing into the US — where armed Border Patrol, infrared cameras, and electric fences make it one of the world's most militarized borders. 

The patinetos have discovered an unlikely advantage, though: attention-grabbing ollies and kick flips can be a form of camouflage. Officials tend to have certain qualities in mind when looking for migrants: poor, haggard and lost. The skaters, with their devil-may-care swagger, often coast by authorities without prompting a second glance. "Skating has served us well crossing Mexico," says Rene. "It's a new way to migrate."

In July 2014, Mexico's president Enrique Peña Nieto launched the Southern Border Strategy, a US-funded immigration policy that aims to capture Central Americans along Mexico's southern border before they get anywhere near the US. New immigration checkpoints were installed throughout southern Mexico, especially along the route of La Bestia. As a result, the number of Central Americans deported from Mexico nearly doubled last year to 51,565; the deportation of children ages ten and under has skyrocketed by over five hundred percent.

To avoid these new checkpoints, Central American migrants like the patinetos travel at night through deserts or dense jungle — areas even immigration agents avoid for fear of gangs and drug cartels. Criminal groups like the Mara Salvatrucha, one of El Salvador's most notorious gangs, often do big business kidnapping Central American migrants fleeing to Mexico; they have been known to harvest and sell the organs of migrants whose families can't pay ransoms.

The patinetos made it to the Mexican border from San Salvador in about a week. From there, they typically stayed in free shelters run by the Catholic Church that dot migrant routes in Mexico. Otherwise, the patinetos slept on the streets, sometimes relying on the generosity of local skaters for food. "That's how we break borders with skating," says Kelvin. "We can connect with other guys practicing our sport." 

A thousand miles into their journey, however, things began to unravel. The patinetos bickered over the little money they had, and the pace of their progress. Rene and Kelvin wanted to stick to skating and traveling on foot in remote areas. But Eliseo and Kevin were tired. They argued the time had come to board La Bestia.

In Mexico City, Eliseo and Kevin caught a train in the middle of the night to Querétaro, the next big city northward – Kelvin and Rene didn't even know they had left until the next morning. Within hours, Eliseo and Kevin were apprehended by Mexican immigration officials and put on a plane back to El Salvador. Their skateboards were confiscated.

Rene and Kelvin continued on alone. Their families sent them a little money, which they occasionally used to buy bus tickets; this far north, they figured, immigration officials wouldn't suspect that two punk kids in the back of a bus were undocumented. After two months on the road, Kelvin and Rene had traveled two thousand miles and made it to the US border.

But their problems were far from over. Members of Los Zetas, one of the most violent cartels in Mexico, informed them that they would have to pay a fifteen hundred dollar toll to cross into the US. Anyone who didn't pay would be shot on sight. Kelvin and Rene could never afford the fee, so they made a break for it at night.

"We tried to cross and got all the way up to the wall," says Kelvin. "Then Border Patrol showed up." He and Rene hid in some shrubs until dawn. "We had to swim back to Mexico to escape," he says.

Rene and Kelvin's families pooled together money for a coyote a month later. They were not allowed to take their skateboards with them, but they made it across.

Things only got more complicated in the United States. (Kelvin and Rene have asked that I not disclose their location.) They are staying in a coyote's one bedroom, one bathroom halfway house with twenty other people. In the bedroom, a small hole punched out of the drywall behind a dresser leads to a secret chamber in case the house is raided. "Five days ago immigration found a different smuggler's house nearby and took everyone," Kelvin says. "They could come for us at any moment.

Everyone there is waiting to be smuggled through the nearby Border Patrol checkpoints, a trip that costs three to five thousand dollars. To earn their keep, Kelvin and Rene work around the house, cooking, cleaning and helping the coyotes prepare for their runs. They lay as many as fourteen people flat in a truck bed, and send them off into the night. Neither of them knows when it will be their turn. 

"They couldn't kill me in Mexico, they couldn't kill me in El Salvador, but just imagine if they finally got me here," Kelvin says. "This is where we've suffered the most."