‘He’s got a long list of offences,’ says the officer at the reception of a police station in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. He holds up a paper and starts reading: ‘Deprivation of freedom, aggravated assault, reception of illicit goods, unlawful association.’ The officer is talking about the heavily tattooed prisoner staring down at us from the elevated parking lot serving as a temporary holding cell for recently arrested gang members.
His name is Juan Carlos, he says. About 10 prisoners lie next to him, all handcuffed to the railing. A plastic canvas protects them from the sun and the rain. Chipwood panels cover the iron bars they’re leaning against. When we approach them, the smell of sweat and urine penetrates our nostrils. We speak to them briefly as several of them tell us about their arrests, mostly for stolen cars, they say, as the police cut short our talk with them. The officers don’t know what the prisoners are telling us, as these gang members, or maras, speak to us in fluent English. Many of them grew up in the US.
We’ve arrived in El Salvador to see for ourselves the human effects of the violence that is rapidly making the country the deadliest place in the world. After a one-year dip in the murder rate following a truce negotiated between criminal gangs and the government of Mauricio Funes in 2012, the killings have spiked again this year, with a projected murder rate of 91 per every 100,000 inhabitants for 2015. This means nearly 6,000 people will be killed this year. According to police statistics, as of 2 August, 859 people had already been murdered.
Much of El Salvador’s violence is attributed to gang members. The prisoners we met are members of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, a transnational criminal gang which originated on the streets of Los Angeles along with its main rival, the Barrio 18 gang. Its founders were refugees from El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, which killed over 75,000 people. Under the Clinton and Bush administrations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Central American gang members were deported back en masse to weak post-war nations unable to accommodate them.
As the MS13 and the Barrio 18 competed for territory over the years, using tactics like murder, rape and extortion, they became known as some of the world’s most brutal criminal gangs. El Salvador, with a population of 6 million, now counts 72,000 gang members, and they have gathered enough weapons to compete with security forces in what some have called a low-impact war.
It has been 7 months since President Salvador Sanchez Cerén, the leftwing president elected in June 2014, announced his strategy ‘Plan Safe El Salvador’, a soft approach which includes violence prevention programmes as well as institutional reforms aimed at improving prosecution rates. But as violence peaked in recent months, Cerén has been implementing increasingly hardline policies and proclaiming ‘zero tolerance’ toward the gangs. Amidst both political pressure and public scrutiny he has increased deployment of police and military forces to combat gang violence, much like the Mano Dura, or ‘Iron Fist’ approach that caused the murder rate to soar when it was last implemented in 2003.
The maras on the parking lot shuffle about, trying to get more comfortable on the thin mats that serve as beds. ‘There was no space left in the Bartolinas,’ says their guard when we ask him why these men are being held here. ‘Bartolina’ literally translates as ‘dark cell’ or ‘dungeon’, and is used to refer to the temporary holding cells where the police keeps arrested gang members while they wait to be seen by a judge. By law, this has to occur within 72 hours of arrest. These men have been here for over 3 weeks without seeing one.
When passing by the Bartolina of Zacamil in the north of the city a few hours later, we meet Monica, a woman wearing heavy makeup and a blue top. She is holding a small plastic bag containing 2 pieces of red meat. It is all she is allowed to bring her husband, who, she says, got arrested 2 months ago and who depends on her for food. Monica worries most about the health conditions inside. ‘The environment is nasty; they get skin infections, and my husband feels ill. There are so many people inside. There is no light and they all drink from the same bucket. How can you live like that?’ she complains, and with reason: police jails here exceed the maximum capacity on average by 63%.
Visits inside the cells are strictly forbidden, as police try to avoid drawing attention to the dire conditions inside.
Massacre on a football field
At 8pm on 2 August, 5 bodies lie scattered across a football field in the Veracruz neighbourhood of Cuscatanancingo, north of San Salvador. We arrive around 9 pm; 5 hours after 9 men came up from the side of the nearby Acelhuate River and caused the massacre. ‘The river marks a border between 2 territories belonging to opposing gangs,’ says one of the investigators. He thinks the victims were members of the Barrio 18 gang. Empty bottles of beer suggest the massacre occurred after the match. The killers, likely members of a rival gang, had successfully fled the scene.
After tomorrow’s papers have led with this bloodbath, these murders will be forgotten and likely remain unsolved, adding to the country’s 94% impunity rate. Though bystanders at the scene help police identify the victims, they don’t talk about what happened. They have learned to apply the rule of ‘see, hear and stay silent’, an instruction sometimes written on street walls, and put in place by the gangs.
Gang territoriality creates a complex situation for both regular citizens and authorities, as many Salvadorans have to pass through gang-controlled areas to get to work or school. Wherever you go, the graffiti will tell you who is the boss in that area. ‘If a gang member sees you walking through his neighbourhood, he will check your ID. If it says you’re from a neighbourhood controlled by a rival gang, he’ll kill you,’ says Luis, a member or the forensic team we came here with.
After the forensics finish documenting the crime scene, the team loads the bodies into the truck, but with the weight of 5 corpses added to the vehicle, the car stalls as we head up the hill to exit the neighbourhood. As Luis rolls the car back down the road to try again, we all feel the tension; it is past midnight in a gang-controlled area and we are no longer accompanied by the police. Luis puts the engine in first gear and heads up the road again. When the car finally passes the hill’s tipping point, we all sigh in relief. We’re headed to the next crime scene. The daily killings are starting to feel normal.
Two days after our last visit, an officer at the police station uses a hose to clean the blood off a stretcher used at a crime scene. He then sweeps the bloodstained water off the pavement. Behind him, 2 members of the Barrio 18 gang are being cuffed to the railing of the parking lot. A piece of wood separates them from the members of the MS13 whom we met the last time we were here. Some officers stand around, quietly talking to each other as they wait to go on patrol. They are mourning the loss of a colleague killed by the gangs the day before.
The officer was killed during intensified police actions, which followed the killing of 7 bus drivers in the past few days. According to the government, the B18 gang paralysed the country’s public transport system in order to pressure the government to negotiate with them. Now the officers are on constant duty. ‘They say you have to be crazy to be a police officer here,’ says Officer Garcia, alluding to high risk and low wages.
That night, we join the Halcones, or ‘Falcons’, El Salvador’s fast-response police unit. They were founded to combat kidnappings and robberies, but now their sole purpose is to combat the gangs. ‘We’ve had several confrontations with maras,’ says one of the Falcons, as he points at a hole in the hood of the car caused by a 40-calibre bullet. ‘Just a few days ago, that resulted in the death of one of them,’ he says. Reliable numbers of deaths resulting from police actions are hard to find, but President Cerén has attributed 30% of the violent deaths that occurred since March to confrontations with police, and promises to continue his zero-tolerance approach.
As we stand in front of a red light in the Falcon’s pickup truck, Pedro points at a woman on the street corner. ‘She is one of them; she’s seen us and is notifying them we’re coming,’ he says. As the light turns green, the men speed into the neighbourhood across the street. As the pickup comes to a sudden halt, Pedro jumps out of the car and forces a man onto the ground. He had been drinking at the bar on the street corner and looks like a regular guy. The same happens with 2 young men who drive into the neighbourhood. They are frisked, roughed up and yelled at before they are let go. This is arguably a mild version of the kind of actions that are part of the government’s policies of zero tolerance.
Several days later, we get a call from Inspector Musulman, head of the precinct, urging us to come to see how the police are detaining about 20 young men in a gang-controlled area after forcing them from their homes. We feel slightly uncomfortable watching a handful of what seem like randomly selected detainees being guarded by about 50 police officers. ‘They take innocent people and treat them like criminals,’ says the grandfather of 2 of the boys as he desperately watches them being taken away in pickups. In the past, the United Nations has denounced police actions where people are detained because their relatives, friends or neighbours are linked to the maras.
None of the officers here are willing to comment on the actions, but one of the detainees sitting on the pavement, shirtless and bowed down is willing to talk. As he stands up he reveals the numbers 1 and 8 written on his arms and chest. He is frustrated with the way police handle the violence, ‘they need to have a dialogue with us. The authorities now mess with one’s family, which one doesn’t tolerate. They need to deal with us, not them. That is the mistake they’re making these days.’
In El Salvador’s recent history, both iron-fist policies and dialogues with the gangs have failed, as so far neither one of those strategies has provided for a long-term solution to the violence. So far, President Cerén’s intended soft approach with ‘Plan Safe El Salvador’ has been overshadowed by his hard response to the recent increase in violence, proving there is no easy solution to the problem.
As the president attempts to consolidate his actions and policies, the police forces and institutions interpret the orders on the ground and a low-intensity war rages on. Meanwhile, the average Salvadorian can only wait, hope and pray.