Ruben Reyes Jr. ’19


At his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump beckoned to the parents of two girls murdered by members of the Salvadoran gang, MS-13 or la Mara Salvatrucha. The four adults were shown on national television in tears as the President spoke about their daughters and claimed that the young men who’d murdered them had been in the United States precisely because of the country’s immigration system. Against the backdrop of their tears, Trump called on Congress to increase a border wall and provide funding for Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In 2017, in the same Long Island neighborhood where the two daughters Trump spoke of were murdered, ICE detained at least 32 teenagers on the assumption of affiliation with MS-13. Months later, after the teenagers had been taken to detention centers states away from their homes, 14 were released when a judge ruled that the federal government did not have adequate evidence to prove their affiliation. The link between immigrant policing and MS-13 in Long Island was not as straight-forward as Trump’s State of the Union portrayed it.

This paper attempts to track the way that MS-13 grew as a result of U.S. policies, including immigration reform passed in 1996 that sought to increase national security. The expanded definition of an “aggravated felony” was central to the criminalization of a broad array of Salvadoran immigrants who were detained and deported for offenses, unlike those of MS-13, that did not pose a serious national security threat. Through a close reading of speeches given by Presidents Obama and Trump, I will argue that, since at least 2008, MS-13’s actions have been conflated with those of the undocumented Salvadoran diaspora at large to justify an expansion of immigrant policing and deportation policies. Finally, a literary analysis of Salvadoran-American poet Yesika Salgado’s debut collection, “Corazón,” reveals that Salvadoran diasporic authors contra-dict these discourses. Salgado does this by centering the domesticity of the majority of Salvadoran immigrant communities, specifically through reframing the image of the machete in a positive light.


Salvadoran immigrants have been coming to the United States since as early as the nineteenth century, often working for transnational companies or providing desperately needed labor in the United States. Salvadoran immigration escalated during The Salvadoran Civil War which lasted from 1980 to 1992. The war and its aftermath led to the massive displacement of nearly three million Salvadorans (Rodriguez, 2009), the majority of whom resettled in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, the 2.1 million Salvadorans living in the United States in 2015 made up the third largest Latino ethnic group in the country (Antonio et al, 2017).

In the 1980s, many Salvadorans fled the country to avoid political violence. The United States provided the repressive, authoritarian Salvadoran government with over 4 billion dollars throughout the 80s, even as the military government oversaw a multitude of human rights violations (Bourgois, 2001). A statistical survey from 1984 found that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) apprehensions soared in 1983 and 1984 when military sweep operations became “larger and more frequent” and that “fear of political violence appears to be the dominant motive for Salvadoran migration” (Stanley, 1984).

Though the link seemed clear, the United States government at the time did not acknowledge the immigrants as refugees. Salvadoran migrants qualified for refugee status under the United Nations 1951 Convention and the US Refugee Act of 1980, but the United States’ political and financial support for the Salvadoran government prevented the U.S. government from legally granting the distinction (Abrego, 2017). Fewer than 3 percent of Salvadorans who applied for political asylum in the 1980s were accepted. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) only offered a path to citizenship to immigrants who migrated to the United States before January 1st, 1982, which covered only a portion of Salvadoran immigrants given that cutoff was only two years into the war (Abrego, 2014).

This forced many Salvadorans to live in the United States as undocumented immigrants and made a large portion of the Salvadoran diaspora susceptible to restrictive U.S. immigration policy. The lack of legal status prevented undocumented Salvadoran immigrants from being able to “plan toward a stable future” (Abrego, 2017). An inability to work legally led most Salvadoran immigrants to live in “poor urban centers with high levels of racial and ethnic tensions” and to be “disproportionately employed in service, manufacturing, and construction industries characterized by instability and low wages.” (Dingeman-Cerda et al., 2015). Responding to “poverty, racism, and discrimination they experience as the stigmatized and marginalized of society” (Ward, 2013), many recent immigrants turned to gangs, their marginalization sparking, and sustaining, the rise of Latino gangs such as la Mara Salvatrucha.


Though formed in the United States, la Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13 has become a transnational gang, spreading to thirty-one states and the District of Columbia in the United States and throughout Central America (Funes, 2008).  Between 1998 and 2005, the United States deported 46,000 people with criminal convictions to Central America, including gang members. Upon returning to their countries of origin, these deportees were marginalized in societies which were, very often, foreign to them. In El Salvador, deportees—regardless of whether or not they were involved with a gang—were profiled by police, intimidated by gangsters, and discriminated against by employers, often because of their tattoos or American accents. (Dingeman-Cerda et al., 2015). In El Salvador, this social marginalization was furthered by laws that associated men with tattoos with gangs and made membership to a gang alone grounds for imprisonment (Funes, 2008).

In response, some of the deportees to El Salvador were “compelled or forced to join gangs” (Dingeman-Cerda et al., 2015). This perpetrated gang violence further, spreading violence throughout the country and putting more Salvadorans at risk. To flee violence, many Salvadorans, particularly recently arrived deportees who are doubly targeted by law enforcement and gangsters, migrated back to the United States. Even after the Civil War, immigration from El Salvador to the United States continued as Salvadorans fled a nation increasingly susceptible to gang violence. Though nearly all Salvadoran immigration since the 1980s can be linked to the U.S.-funded civil war (Dingeman et al., 2009), the connection was seldom made. The American public viewed “illegal immigrants” and la Mara Salvatrucha as equally “criminal,” an opinion aided by immigration reform that expanded the definition of a “criminal.” This legislation laid the groundwork for politicians to construct discourses in the 2000s that criminalized the larger Salvadoran immigrant community.

According to scholars Ruben G. Rumbaut and M. Kathleen Dingeman, history shows that increased immigration “fuels nativist alarms, perceptions of threat, and pervasive stereotypes of the newcomers” (Dingeman et al, 2009). In response, immigration law has often been changed under the guise of  “national safety.” In 1996, immigration reform under Clinton’s presidency contributed to the further criminalization of undocumented Salvadoran immigrants. The passing of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded the legal definition of an aggravated felony to include misdemeanors and minor infractions, such as undocumented reentry after deportation, shoplifting, and failure to appear in court (Funes, 2008). Petty crimes became grounds for deportation, contributing to the notion that Salvadoran immigrants were inherently criminal and opening up the possibility for all immigrants to be conflated with MS-13’s high profile crimes.

The 1996 legislation also included a provision that was used under both the Trump and Obama administration to further police undocumented immigrant communities. The provision, known as the 287(g) program, was the basis of the 2008 Secure Communities program which helped “deputize state and local authorities to enforce immigration law.” It increased the odds than an individual who had contact with a state or local authority would be confronted about their immigration status, and by the time Obama stopped the program in 2014, “the program had identified an astounding 2.4 million people as deportable,” a large chunk of the total 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Additionally, nearly 50 percent of those deported under the program were deported for misdemeanor or minor charges, such as traffic violations, while another 18 percent were deported for non-criminal offenses (Abrego et al, 2017).

In 2017, Trump passed two executives orders meant to reinstate the main tenets of the Secure Communities program, and went further by eliminating the 2014 Priority Enforcement Program which had “shielded approximately 87 percent of the unauthorized population from removal” (Abrego et al., 2017). In 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, ICE reported that 73.7 percent of total arrests were of people with criminal convictions, and 15.5 percent were of individuals with pending criminal charges (ICE, 2017). On the surface, these statistics imply that ICE was targeting criminal immigrants, like the MS-13 gang members who murdered four Latino teens in Long Island that year (Robbins et al., 2017), but a breakdown of the statistics complicates ICE’s actions.

In 2017, 68,346 immigrants were arrested for non-DUI traffic violations and 2,517 immigrants were arrested for immigration related reasons. Thousands of others were arrested for infractions that legally had criminal distinction, but a questionable effect on national security. This included 2,087 immigrants arrested for “Health/Safety,” 3,988 for “Liquor,” and 5,919 for ambiguous “Family Offenses.” The crimes that MS-13 has historically received the most media attention for made up a small subset of total arrests during the first year of the Trump presidency. Homicides accounted for less than one percent of total arrests and sexual assaults charges made up about one percent of arrests (ICE, 2017). The bulk of immigrants who were arrested by enforcement bodies were not individuals who posed a graphically violent threat to society.

Given that 46 percent of foreign-born Salvadoran immigrants are undocumented, and another 25 percent hold temporary or partial legal statuses without paths to citizenship (Dinegman-Cerda et al., 2015), Salvadoran immigrant communities have been disproportionately affected by the criminalization of undocumented immigrants. Though many deportable offenses were defined legally as “criminal,” statistics reveal that the majority of immigrants faced the risk of deportation for offenses that posed almost no threat to national security. In this context, MS-13 was incredibly important because their visibility was used to criminalize the broader Salvadoran diaspora, particularly the sector without permanent legal status.


Though separated by two countries, El Salvador and its citizens have a strong connection with the nation’s diaspora.  Benedict Anderson’s seminal work on nationalism argues that national identity is based on  “an imagined political community.” For El Salvador, this imaginary allowed a sense of “a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 1983) between Salvadorans in El Salvador and those in the United States, regardless of inequalities between the two groups. The trope of el hermano lejano, fueled by El Salvador’s politicians and press, squeezed the entirety of the “aggregate of various immigrant waves, generations, and identities” under a single label (Rodriguez, 2009). In practice, this built a shared identity between all Salvadoran immigrants, regardless of citizenship status and class. This constructed, transnational identity empowered American politicians to form dominant political discourses that criminalized all Salvadoran immigrants by focusing on the violent crimes of MS-13.

I use the term “dominant political discourse” in this article to refer to the narrow way la Mara Salvatrucha is talked about by politicians and the manner in which MS-13’s actions are conflated with those of the broader Salvadoran diaspora. These narratives offer a single, incomplete narrative to explain MS-13’s connection to immigration, yet ultimately influence the way many people in United States viewed Salvadoran immigrants. In writing about Dominican literary traditions, Lorgia Garcia-Peña’s argues that hegemonic historical narratives, which I refer to as “dominant political discourse” in this article, are sustained by historical documents that support a “national ideology.” Borrowing from that framework, I focus on political speeches as the historical documents that sustain an ideology surrounding Salvadoran immigrant criminality.

Salvadorans gangs have been used by media and politicians “to stereotype the Salvadoran migrant community as criminal” (Dingeman et al., 2009). These stereotypes drive politician’s actions, particularly in the way they frame immigration, often using MS-13 to justify immigration policy decisions. Most insidiously, the criminalization of Salvadoran immigrants hides the degree to which policies affect the entire diaspora, not just members of MS-13. As explored earlier in this paper, the increasingly broad legal definition of  “criminal” has inflated the gravity of offenses that immigrants have been deported for. Obama-era speeches occulted the fact that “criminal” offenses often included infractions that were of low-risk to public safety.

Though Obama’s deportation policies from 2008 to 2012 were based on policing a wide net of offenses, he consistently claimed that his administration had prioritized “criminals.” On July 15, 2012, President Barack Obama gave a speech that invoked his administration’s deportation of “criminals” to justify Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive order meant to protect youth who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. In the White House Rose Garden, Obama claimed, “We focus and use discretion about whom to prosecute, focusing on criminals who endanger our communities rather than students who are earning their education. And today deportation of criminals is up 80 percent” (Obama, 2012). In wielding the statistic chronicling an increase in deportations of “criminals,” Obama clouded how expansive the legal definition of a “criminal” was. He attempted to juxtapose the image of hard-working students and young professionals with those deported for criminal charges or convictions, hiding the fact that immigrants deported under his administration included those removed from the country for and traffic violations and other less heinous “crimes.”

In a televised speech to the nation concerning immigration on November 20th, 2014, Obama repeated the statistic, saying that “That’s why over the past six years deportations of criminals are up 80 percent, that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security” (Obama, 2014). Again, Obama framed his deportation policy as only targeting immigrants who were a “threat,” a dubious claim at best given the spectrum of crimes that counted as criminal under U.S. law at the time.

Another quote from that same speech ties immigrant communities to MS-13 very directly. In describing deportation priorities, Obama claimed that his administration was removing “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids” (Obama, 2014). La Mara Salvatrucha is invoked as the “criminals” and “felons” that the Obama Administration is targeting, furthering the inaccurate idea that the only immigrants being deported were those committing the kinds of crimes the Salvadoran gangs were. Obama also said that his policies would help non-criminal immigrants. He said that, “If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported” (Obama, 2014). Again, he implies that these “criminals” are the likes of MS-13 gang members, the Salvadorans most explicitly “constructed as criminal” (Cienfuegos, 2016).

Presenting MS-13 as the gold standard of immigrant criminality in the context of immigration reform pushed the idea that gang violence was inherently tied to immigration and that deportations were only used to ensure national security. The dominant political discourse that Obama constructed in his speeches relied on a link between MS-13 and deportations. All the while, it hid the degree to which non-gang members were being deported. Research from 2009 found that 76 percent of Salvadoran immigrants were removed from the United States because of immigration violations, not criminal convictions (Dingeman et al., 2009).

The way the Obama Administration used gang violence to justify the policing of immigrant communities set the stage for the outwardly cynical, nativist, and racist rhetoric Donald Trump furthered. On July 28th, 2017, President Trump gave a speech to law enforcement in Long Island outlining his administration’s plan to address violence perpetrated by MS-13 in the borough. Throughout the speech, Trump graphically narrated the high-profile crimes committed by MS-13 members, and continued to dehumanize them by repeatedly referring to them as “animals.”

“I was reading—one of these animals was caught—in explaining, they like to knife them and cut them, and let them die slowly because that way it’s more painful, and they enjoy watching that much more. These are animals” (Trump, 2017).

Furthermore, though the speech was about MS-13 specifically, Trump conflated the issue of MS-13 with broader immigration policy. He claimed that the Obama administration, “enacted an open-door policy to illegal migrants from Central America. ‘Welcome in. Come in, please, please.’ As a result, MS-13 surged into the country and scoured” (Trump, 2017). In this quote, Trump contributed to a discourse that ignored the origin of MS-13 and the ways U.S. deportation policies fueled their rise. Additionally, he conflated all forms of immigration with gang violence, saying that “a failure to enforce our immigration laws had predictable results: drugs, gangs and violence.” At another point in the speech, Trump frames his proposed border wall as a “vital tool” to curb gang violence, again marking immigration as the source of a variety of social issues.

President Trump’s discourses painted all undocumented immigrants as the source of violent criminal activity, but the claims were rooted in more speculation than fact. Research from the early 2000s showed that Latin American immigrants, even those that live in poverty, were less likely to commit violent crimes than U.S. born individuals. Among various ethnic groups, incarceration rates for U.S. born individuals were nearly five times as high as their immigrant counterparts, and the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants were for Salvadorans and Guatemalans (Dingeman et al., 2009). Though Trump’s speeches more explicitly conflated all Salvadoran immigrants with MS-13, Obama’s speeches did so as well by equating “criminals” with gang members. Both politicians constructed dominant political discourses that hid the way their respective immigration policies criminalized the Salvadoran immigrant community as a whole, leading to the removal of many individuals who were in no way affiliated with MS-13.


It was in this context that, in 2017, Salvadoran-American poet Yesika Salgado released her collection, “Corazón.” Salgado is a Los Angeles based poet whose collection is primarily about romance and heartbreak, but often makes references to her experiences as a Salvadoran-American diasporic author. Though her ethnicity is not the main concern of her debut collection, references to her Salvadoran-American identity are mentioned throughout her poems. These references are significant because they are antithetical to the the kind of criminalization of the Salvadoran diaspora that politicians like Trump and Obama engage in. Scholar Lorgia García-Peña argues that, “literature works, at times, to sustain hegemony, while at others, it serves to contest it” (Garcia-Peña, 2016) leading her to coin the term “contra-diction.” In contra-dictions, “dictions” are the “performance of language and meaning” that run counter to hegemonic narratives to offer a subaltern perspective of historical “truth.”

Salgado’s poetry is written in contra-diction precisely because it challenges the dominant political discourses that conflated MS-13 with the broader Salvadoran diaspora. As Lindsey Cienfuegos does in her work on cultural representations produced by MS-13,  an analysis of Salgado’s poems will use “fiction to discuss the controversial topic of gangs because I concur that the socio-historical process of gang formation and our knowledge of that process cannot be separated from fiction because historical narrative is already ‘one fiction among others’” (Cienfuegos, 2016). Specifically, a literary analysis reveals that Salgado challenges the way la Mara Salvatrucha was used to criminalize the broader Salvadoran diaspora by reframing the image of the machete and presenting it as a positive, and central, piece of Salvadoran-American life and identity.

The machete appears in multiple poems from Yesika Salgado’s collection, “Corazón,” which is notable because of the machete’s historical significance. Machetes are commonly used in the rural, agricultural departments of El Salvador for various types of farm work, but they have come to attention in the United States for more sinister reasons. Through the 2000s, “Salvadoran gangs have since been the subject of media sensationalization and politicization” (Dingeman et al., 2009), a trend marked by a heavy focus on instances of la Mara Salvatrucha using machetes to commit murder.

In 2003, a pregnant, seventeen-year-old Honduran immigrant named Brenda Paz was stabbed multiple times with a machete by members of MS-13, leading the Washington Post to call it a “‘savage’ and ‘brutal’ affair.” Paz’s story “put the Mara Salvatrucha at the forefront of American television and radio” (Cienfuegos, 2016). In addition, a 2005 editorial published in Human Events, a conservative political newspaper, claimed that MS-13 “the El Salvador based syndicate has a love affair with machetes” (Malkin, 2005).

The focus on the machete as a murder weapon lasted, prompting even President Trump to focus on the brutality of MS-13’s machete killings. In his speech to Long Island law enforcement officials, Trump argued that la Mara Salvatrucha, “shouldn’t be here. They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives” (Trump, 2017). This latest narration of MS-13’s violent crimes followed a trend of “savage violence” dominating discourses surrounding la Mara Salvatrucha, with an emphasis on the primitive nature of the machete (Cienfuegos, 2016). These dominant political discourses fed into the general fear that MS-13 gang members would infiltrate middle-class life with violence (Cienfuegos 2016), an economic-based anxiety that applied to the Salvadoran diaspora more broadly.

In response, Salgado’s poem “Los Corvos” centers the machete in a positive light, completely separated from la Mara Salvatrucha. The poem starts by narrating the way the narrator’s mother and grandmother garden with a machete and ends by comparing the narrator’s lover to a weed that can be similarly cut out. Instead of viewing the machete as a threat to commonplace, domestic life the way President Trump’s speech constructed it, Salgado includes the machete as a centerpiece of her home life. The poem opens with the lines, “we keep a machete in our home/Mami uses it to cut the weeds/on Saturday afternoons” (Salgado, 2017).

Here, the machete is stripped of the brutality and primitiveness that dominated political discourses by describing the blade’s use in the context of the homey pastime of gardening. Additionally, the machete is centered as part of the household. The use of “home,” instead of “house” or another synonym, is important because “home” carries a much more positive connotation, one closely associated with comfort and intimacy. Diction further conveys a sense of comfort found within the machete when Salgado writes, later in the poem, that “the blade is our friend.” The word friend similarly conveys a sense of comfort and intimacy.

The second stanza of the poem focuses on the way the narrator’s grandmother used a machete in El Salvador, subverting the danger of the machete by reframing it as a non-threatening tool instead of a savage weapon. The narrator’s grandmother uses the machete to clear “tree branches” and “overgrown bamboo” and Salgado writes that, “Mamita, mami’s mami,/used to grab her own machete/back in El Salvador…/her tiny frame in the distance/her right arm extended/the blade catching the sunlight” (Salgado, 2017).

First, referring to her grandmother as “Mamita” is critical to portraying the machete as non-threatening because it softens the depiction of the machete’s wielder. In the Spanish language, the suffixes “-ita” or “-ito” are commonly added to names as a term of endearment. The suffixes are diminutive, implying that Mamita is small in stature, further conveyed by the descriptor of her “tiny frame.” Salgado rids the machete of its perceived danger by framing her grandmother, through both description and diction, as non-threatening.

Lastly, Salgado presents the machete as an integral part of the Salvadoran immigrant identity, finding a sense of pride and strength in its image rather than a source of criminality. Salgado frames the machete as part of the tradition of Salvadoran immigrant families, saying that “I come from women/who fend for themselves.” The narrator then uses the image a source of power in her own life, saying that “you are a weed/I know to slice you out of me.” The metaphor of a toxic man in her life as a weed continues to reframe the machete for use in the domestic sphere, not for murder, while simultaneously presenting the machete as a staple of the Salvadoran immigrant identity.

Salgado’s poem “A Salvadoran Heart,” is divided into four different sections that talk about her relationship with her Salvadoran-American ethnicity. The very first section offers the narrator’s genesis story. She writes, “I come from women of corn and cotton fields/of machete/and fire” (Salgado, 2017). The machete is presented as a foundational part of her identity, alongside “corn” and “cotton fields.” Corn is important as both the staple of Mesoamerican diets and religious belief system held by the indigenous people of what is now El Salvador (Rodriguez, 2006). For many years, cotton was a main Central American export (Rodriguez, 2009). Both cotton and corn are foundational to the history of the Salvadoran nation as the source of economic and cultural sustenance. Including them in this paragraph implies that cotton and corn are, metaphorically, a central part of the narrator’s Salvadoran-American identity.

Later in the poem, Salgado metaphorically uses two fruits, jocotes and mangos, in the same way. Jocotes and mangos are both popular fruits cultivated in El Salvador. When the narrator says that “my tongue came to me through a jocote seed” and that “I am the daughter of a river and mango tree” (Salgado, 2017), she frames these objects positively, as the sources of her voice and life respectively. By including machete alongside the images of corn, cotton, jocotes, and mangos, she implies, positively, that the machete is a critical aspect of her Salvadoran-American identity.

By making the machete personal, she decriminalizes the tool and presents in a positive light. Salgado’s use of the machete in both these poems serves as a harsh contra-diction to the images of male, machete-waving, barbaric MS-13 gang members perpetrated by politicians seeking to justify broad immigration policies. She highlights the law-abiding, domestic lives that the majority of Salvadoran immigrants live, throwing into question the dominant political discourses that paint Salvadoran immigrants as criminals. Salgado’s use of the machete is not necessarily reactionary or consciously sparked by the specific speeches given by Trump and Obama. It is likely that she writes about the machete because her childhood home prominently featured one with a practical purpose—gardening. But given that the machete is so loaded for the Salvadoran diaspora given its sensationalized relation to MS-13, the reframing of the machete in her poetry is important to illustrate the way the Salvadoran diaspora understands itself outside of dominant discourses of criminality. 


Due to U.S. immigration law and deportation policies, Salvadoran immigrants have been extremely susceptible to policies that sought to police and remove unauthorized individuals from the country. Immigration laws meant to improve national security contributed to the broad criminalization of Salvadoran immigrants, with the expanding definition of a “criminal” fostering the growth of MS-13. The gang received more visibility and scrutiny from both the press and politicians. Laws are not created in a vacuum and the discourses used to justify them are often as important and significant as the laws themselves. Eventually, MS-13 would be used by both the Obama and Trump administration to justify their respective immigration policies, conflating the violent crimes of MS-13 and the minor offenses of the Salvadoran diaspora in the process.

In response to this broad criminalization of the Salvadoran diaspora, Salvadoran-American authors seek contra-dict dominant political discourses in their poetry. Yesika Salgado’s reframing of the machete in Corazón offers a rich case study, but it is only a sliver of an expanding literary tradition. Further work needs to be done to understand, for example, the discourses that motivated a Salvadoran-American poet to write lovingly of the tattoos on a MS-13 gang member (Zamora, 2017). Political discourses, magnified by popular media and pundits, often drown out the individual experiences of the Salvadoran immigrants who are being implicated in national debates. Given that hegemonic discourses hide multitudes, simplifying complex sociopolitical situations and obscuring the voices of the oppressed, literature is a valuable and necessary site to construct a fuller history of the Salvadoran-American experience.





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