Carlos thought his life was over when in 1993 a Los Angeles judge sentenced him to 45 years in prison for murder.
But after more than two decades at the Correctional Training Facility in California, commonly known as Soledad State Prison, he was visited by a fellow Salvadoran woman who gave him hope.
“She told me my family was waiting for me. She told me to do productive things,” said the 50-year-old, who was released in February after serving 26 years of his sentence and deported to El Salvador. There he lives in his sister’s house in his hometown and does gardening and repairs furniture.
Carlos is one of dozens of Salvadorans helped by Elizza Jurado to get out of U.S. jails so they can start a new life in El Salvador, a country hit by poverty and violence, but where she thinks they can move on with help from their families. Carlos asked that his last name not be used for safety reasons.
Jurado, a 62-year-old Salvadoran sociologist, says she feels the need to advocate for her “forgotten” compatriots behind bars in California, who she believes deserve a second chance. They are old or sick, or some committed their crimes as minors. Others, after decades in prison, have obtained school degrees or learned a trade. Jurado, who mostly depends on the support of the inmates’ families and has hardly anyone to help her, wonders for how long she will be able to lobby for them.
The activist says she has helped gain the release at least 200 men since she started aiding them 14 years ago. They need to show remorse and have a record of good conduct in jail. From the moment she meets them until they leave jail an average of seven years pass.
“I tell them that if they waste their time in jail, they won’t find a job,” she said. “Many of them learn English. That helps them a lot in El Salvador. Let’s not waste deportees’ abilities, whether they come from prison or not.”
Although the situation has improved over the last three years, El Salvador, with 6.5 million people, is still one of the most violent countries in the world.
In 2015, the most violent year in recent history for the country, 6,425 people died violently. Last year it was 3,340, according to government data.
Gangs, however, are still involved in drug trafficking, organized crime and extortion. The 18th Street Gang and La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, two of the biggest gangs in El Salvador, originated in California.
Salvadoran criminologist Ricardo Sosa thinks having a criminal record in the U.S. would not necessarily prevent these deportees from finding jobs in El Salvador. The country, however, is not ready to receive them, he added. Their families may be able to.
“The support of the family is key,” he said. “The family can find opportunities for them and help them at first, offering a place to live and giving them the opportunity of maybe working in the family’s business.”
Inmates who hear about Jurado write her letters. She then meets their families in El Salvador and both try to put together a package that includes photos of the family home, invitations to local Alcoholics Anonymous groups and job opportunities the inmate could have in the Central American country.
The package is sent to the Board of Parole Hearings, at California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Jurado travels to the U.S. every year to visit inmates and to meet with parole officials and go over prisoner lists. If officials approve the release of an inmate after a parole hearing and the governor supports the decision, the inmate is released and could be deported.
“Some of these men come from broken homes. They were mistreated as children,” said Jurado. “I feel that all this work, if it stops, will be a blow for them. Who is going to look after them?”
A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the department works collaboratively with Jurado but can’t talk about her because it needs to remain impartial when it comes to all of their stakeholders.
Jurado, who has experience in prison rehabilitation, works for a coffee producer to pay the bills.
In 2005 she created Asaple, the Spanish initials for the Salvadoran Association of Support to Those Who Lack Freedom Overseas. The group is formed by relatives of prisoners and over the years it has also helped Mexicans and Guatemalans.
The government of President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) helped Jurado by giving her transportation to prisons and having consular officials accompany her in her jail visits as well as organizing media events, she said. Jurado was traveling then with a government visa.
Help stopped, however, due to a lack of understanding between Asaple and the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who requested logs of ex-prisoners that Jurado considered confidential information.
The Salvadoran activist now travels with a tourist visa and says her work has been increasingly difficult. With the meager incomes in El Salvador, families have little money to give her.
Jurado says she recently handed a letter to the new government of President Nayib Bukele to ask for support. Government spokespeople, however, say they have not received such a letter.
Nowadays, relatives of inmates in Los Angeles raise money to pay for Jurado’s flights and Homies Unidos, a group who helps youth stay out of trouble, helps finance her stay, food and sometimes transportation in the U.S. In September, Jurado plans to see almost 100 prisoners in California and Arizona.
One of them is José Guillén, a 28-year-old Salvadoran who has already served 10 years in California State Prison for murder.
Since he committed his crime before turning 18, Jurado plans to ask for a review of his case. She is the only hope for his family, who runs a little convenience store in the rural area of El Paisnal.
“I have faith in God because of the work Elizza and Asaple are doing,” said María Sara Guillén, the mother of José. “We are happy because we have seen cases of people who were sentenced to life in prison and they are getting out of jail.”
Carlos dreams of having cattle and owning his own home.
He says he is no longer the 24-year-old factory worker in California who felt alone in the 1990s and joined a gang to feel he “belonged somewhere.” In prison he says he learned English and carpentry.
Things went differently for Luis Ortiz, another Salvadoran Jurado helped release.
Ortiz, who spent 25 years in prison for attempted murder, was deported in 2015 but only lasted a few months in El Salvador. He fled to Mexico after being threatened by gangs. He is now a member of the auxiliary police in Rosarito and provides security to a local hotel.
Jurado “fights for us,” he said over the phone. “I got out of jail because of her help.”
Current Salvadoran foreign ministry officials said they don’t have information on how many Salvadorans are in U.S. jails. In 2014, officials said 1,112 Salvadorans were incarcerated overseas, most of them in the U.S.
Jurado says she’s not ready to give up despite a lack of funds.
“Sometimes I have felt broken,” she said. “Like when I see mothers and fathers who are dying and they beg to see their sons one last time. They die and their sons are still in jail. We feel their pain but need to keep going.”
Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens reported this story from New York and AP writer Marcos Aleman reported in San Salvador.