Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador/La mafia de pobres que desangra El Salvador. NYT y EL FARO

Una investigación conjunta de THE NEW YORK TIMES y EL FARO

The scene after gang members in Olocuilta, El Salvador, killed six people on a bus in 2014 because the owner refused to pay extortion. Fred Ramos / El Faro

The scene after gang members in Olocuilta, El Salvador, killed six people on a bus in 2014 because the owner refused to pay extortion.
Fred Ramos / El Faro

The gangs that make El Salvador the murder capital of the world are not sophisticated global cartels but mafias of the poor.

SAN SALVADOR — On a sultry evening in late July, the Salvadoran authorities executed their very first assault on what they called the financial cupola of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the largest of the ruthless gangs that have made El Salvador the murder capital of the world.

Until that point, the National Civil Police had followed an almost choreographed routine, again and again, as they sought to cripple the gangs economically. In the dead of night, often accompanied by television cameras, officers would batter down the doors of ramshackle houses in marginalized communities and then arrest and put on display a cluster of tattooed and half-naked men.

Between 2012 and 2015, the total amount confiscated in these showy anti-extortion raids was $34,664.75 — an absurdly tiny sum considering that the United States has designated MS-13 as a global criminal organization on a par with the Zetas of Mexico, or the Yakuza of Japan.

On July 27, however, in a mission baptized Operation Check, the authorities shifted gears. They deployed 1,127 police officers to raid scores of supposed gang fronts, including car dealerships and bars, motels and brothels.

With great fanfare, they presented to the news media rows and rows of impounded buses and cars, along with 77 suspects identified as the financial operatives of MS-13 and their collaborators. Among them were the supposed C.E.O. of the street gang, Marvin Ramos Quintanilla, and two other leaders portrayed as controlling millions and possessing luxuries unimaginable to the destitute gang members beneath them.

But the presentation was something of an exaggeration, as are many official characterizations of the gangs whose criminal sophistication and global reach tend to be overstated by authorities frustrated that they cannot vanquish them. For instance, that supposed chief executive officer hardly lived like a kingpin; he leased a squat concrete house with a corrugated roof in a neighborhood where rents rarely reach $400. He owned an old Honda Civic and a Nissan van.


Leaders of the MS-13 street gang in the Ciudad Barrios prison in 2012. The gang’s supposed chief executive, Marvin Ramos Quintanilla, is on the far right, and its senior national leader, Borromeo Henríquez Solórzano, known as El Diablito de Hollywood, is seated and wearing a black cap. Paul Coll / Ruido Photo

With an estimated 60,000 members in a country of 6.5 million people, the gangs hold power disproportionate to their numbers. They maintain a menacing presence in 247 of 262 municipalities. They extort about 70 percent of businesses. They dislodge entire communities from their homes, and help propel thousands of Salvadorans to undertake dangerous journeys to the United States. Their violence costs El Salvador $4 billion a year, according to a study by the country’s Central Reserve Bank.

And yet, the reporting determined, MS-13 and its rival street gangs in El Salvador are not sophisticated transnational criminal enterprises. They do not begin to belong in the same financial league with the billion-dollar Mexican, Japanese and Russian syndicates with which they are grouped. If they are mafias, they are mafias of the poor. El Salvador has been brought to its knees by an army of flies.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-6-39-45-pmMS-13’s annual revenue appears to be about $31.2 million. That estimate is based on information in the 1,355-page file of Operation Check, to which El Faro got exclusive access. Wiretapped conversations reveal that the gang’s national leadership ordered its 49 “programs,” or chapters, to turn over all the money earned in a single, typical week, which happened to be in April. It collected $600,852.

It sounds like a lot of money. But if divided equitably among the estimated 40,000 members of MS-13, each gang member would earn $15 a week and about $65 a month. That is half the minimum wage of an agricultural day laborer.

But the gangs — MS-13 and its main rival, the 18th Street gang — do not distribute their proceeds equitably. They use them to pay for lawyers and funeral services, for weapons and munitions, and for the support of those serving long prison terms and their families. Theirs is a criminal subsistence economy; even many of their leaders are barely solvent.

“That the authorities call them ‘businessmen’ — either their intelligence is invalid or it’s pretty crude,” said Rolando Monroy, a former Salvadoran prosecutor who oversaw money-laundering investigations until 2013. “The gangs are like an anthill. They are all after the same thing: something to eat.”

Unlike other groups considered global organized crime syndicates, the Salvadoran gangs do not survive on the international trafficking of cocaine, arms and humans. While they dabble in small-time drug dealing, gun sales and prostitution, they engage primarily in a single crime committed over and over within Salvadoran territory: extortion.

Inside El Salvador, they hold the reins of power largely because of a chilling demand repeated — or implied — daily across the country: Pay or die.

“Look, the thing is we’re not joking around,” said one threat in childlike handwriting delivered to a bus owner recently. “Get something together. If not, we are going to burn one of your new minibuses.” It was signed by the 18th Street gang: “18 sends its best.”

A Message Written in Lead

At 4 p.m. on a summer day in 2015, two young gang members intercepted a businessman as he was returning home from work. “I have kids. Calm down, please,” he managed to say before the youths grabbed him, threw him to the ground and shot him: in a shoulder, in the stomach, and twice in the face.

They were delivering a message written in lead.

“It was because of the extortion, not for any other reason,” the man’s son said.

The man owned a bus. His son, who also owned a bus, said his father, tired of being extorted, had finally stopped making his $1 daily payment to the gang three weeks before his death. It murdered him because of $21.

Among Salvadoran businesses, transportation companies, whose vehicles crisscross gang territory, have proved especially vulnerable to extortion. Over the last five years, it has been more dangerous to drive a bus than to fight gang crime: The gangs have killed 692 transportation workers — and 93 police officers. (This is according to an analysis of internal government data that, like most data in this article, is not considered public information but was obtained by El Faro.)

Genaro Ramírez, the owner of a large bus company and a former member of Congress, calculates that he has handed over $500,000 in gang extortion payments over the last 19 years. “It’s a matter of survival,’’ he said. “When they tell you they are going to kill you, you don’t have a choice.”

Between 2013 and 2015, the National Police received 7,506 reports of extortion, which the authorities see as just a small fraction of the total. In the same period, some 424 gang members were convicted of this crime, most of them low-level people who made the pickups and were caught with the cash.

The payment of extortion by bus companies is so commonplace that some have employees whose principal role is to negotiate with the gangs, which are continually raising their rates and demanding extras like Christmas bonuses or buses to take them to the beach or to the funerals of associates.

The only transportation company chief who has refused to be extorted — and has made his refusal public — is Catalino Miranda. Mr. Miranda owns a fleet of several hundred buses.

Since 2004, the gangs have killed 26 of his employees. But he refuses to reconsider his position.

“As I told one of them,” he said, referring to a gang representative, “go ahead and kill them. This cannot continue for a lifetime.”

Mr. Miranda spoke in his office, with a 9-millimeter pistol lying atop a mess of papers on his desk, and rifles and flak jackets piled in a corner. He spends $30,000 a month on security, he said. He has cameras posted in all his buses and stations, and eight security guards, armed with assault weapons, who patrol the gang zones his buses move through.

When his employees are killed, he hires private detectives to investigate, because “the state does not have the capacity to protect witnesses.”

“They use you,” Mr. Miranda continued, “and they abandon you.”

Resisting the gangs is not an option for small-business owners, however. Many of them live in gang-controlled neighborhoods themselves and cannot escape the pressure to pay. That was the situation for the bus owner killed in the summer of 2015.

The bus owner’s son, who is 38, spoke of his father’s death in an open-air restaurant beside the Pan-American Highway. The son carried a pistol — he always has one by his side, even when he sleeps, he said — and sat facing the entrance, with his back to a ravine, so he could track comings and goings.

Like most businessmen who recounted their experiences with shakedowns, the man spoke on the condition of anonymity. His father was one of 154 transportation workers who lost their lives to gang-run extortion rings in 2015. To talk is to risk becoming another statistic.

It all started one afternoon in 2004, he recounted, when a couple of teenage gangsters boarded a bus on their route. The youths demanded the driver’s license and registration, reviewed the documents and then handed the driver a disposable phone before jumping off.

After the shaken driver returned to the terminal, the phone rang. The voice on the other end laid out the terms of their new relationship: $10 a week not just for the one bus but for each of the 10 buses on the route.

The man, his father and the other bus owners held an emergency meeting to discuss whether to report the demand to the police.

Many victims do not bother. Extortion investigations require them to make payments to the gangs while the police watch and collect evidence. But the gangs almost always find out, and the victim is threatened or killed before the investigation is completed.

Even so, the men decided to call the police. Soon, two detectives stationed themselves inside their terminal and, posing as bus owners, negotiated a rate with the gang: $1 a day per bus.

Over the next three years, the police arrested three gang leaders, including one who lived next door to the man’s father. The investigation expanded to other crimes and dragged on. The bus owners kept paying extortion.

The situation deteriorated. Between 2004 and 2012, MS-13 killed five bus drivers on their routes and one of the police investigators assigned to their case. In 2012, the gang tried to kill the man himself, surrounding his house, he said at the restaurant.

After his father’s murder, the gang increased its extortion on the route — to $1.50 a day.

The man sold his bus.

Little Devil of Hollywood

When the Salvadoran authorities draw a flow chart of MS-13’s organizational structure, they always put a mug shot of El Diablito de Hollywood, the Little Devil of Hollywood, at the very top.

Hierarchically, El Diablito — Borromeo Henríquez Solórzano, 38 — is as far above “homeboy” as one can get. If gang leaders are enriching themselves at the expense of the rank and file, Mr. Henríquez should be the wealthiest capo di tutti. And yet.

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, Mr. Henríquez and his family fled the Salvadoran civil war along with thousands of their compatriots who resettled in Los Angeles neighborhoods dominated by Mexican gangs. Mara Salvatrucha was born there and then.

At the end of the 1990s, as part of an anti-gang offensive and a crackdown on “criminal aliens,” the United States shipped planeloads of gang members made in the United States back to El Salvador and other Central American countries. El Diablito returned to his homeland in one of those waves of deportation.

He was just a teenager, but in that era coming from Los Angeles conferred status in the branch of Mara Salvatrucha that had sprouted in El Salvador. (Loosely affiliated but largely autonomous branches now exist in other Central American countries and in pockets of the United States outside California.) It was like arriving with a seal of “original product,” and El Diablito, clever and garrulous, quickly parlayed that into a position of power.

Prison, where he was sent in 1998 after getting a 30-year sentence for homicide, only solidified his stature.

Soon after he was first locked up, Mr. Henríquez summoned the leader of one of Mara Salvatrucha’s most powerful cells to visit him in prison, the leader related in an interview. At that time, the gang had no reliable revenue stream, though members sold drugs on street corners, committed petty robberies and demanded small handouts from bus drivers. But Mr. Henríquez had a moneymaking plan, he told the leader.

El Diablito said he wanted to institutionalize extortion nationwide, the leader related. He was insistent that the leader accede to the plan, or quit: MS-13 would tolerate no dissidents. The leader communicated the new directive to his troops. A few years later, the leader quit and emigrated to Washington, D.C., where he now owns a small business in a Salvadoran neighborhood.

Like El Diablito, most of the national gang leaders operate from behind bars. Through ready access to cellphones and private visits with lawyers, they retain tight control of their organizations — the money the gangs earn and the havoc they wreak.

This became chillingly apparent in 2012 when the government was negotiating a truce with the gangs and Mr. Henríquez was emerging into the public eye as a spokesman for MS-13. The leaders sent out an order from behind bars: Stop killing. And from one day to the next, homicides dropped 60 percent to a level that, with small variations, was maintained until the government’s negotiations with the gangs, which were highly unpopular, ended two years later.

During the truce, a team from El Faro was allowed to interview gang leaders in the Ciudad Barrios jail, which was dominated by MS-13. For over a decade, the gangs have been separated by institution to reduce internecine warfare; this has had the unintended effect of strengthening them by uniting rather than dispersing their leadership.

Dressed gang-fashionably in baggy, black athletic attire, Mr. Henríquez insisted that he survived on money sent by relatives in the United States and by a brother who sold used cars in El Salvador.

“Do you realize it is difficult to believe that one of the most visible leaders of MS-13 does not derive a penny of his income from illicit activities?” a reporter from El Faro said.

Mr. Henríquez paused, then responded: “My money does not come from extortion.” But he was pressed: What about illicit activities more generally? El Diablito answered with a derisive smile: “It doesn’t come from extortion.” And all the other gang leaders laughed, cryptically.

That year — 2012 — the United States Treasury Department designated MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization, alongside four criminal syndicates: the Zetas, the Yakuza, the Russian Brothers’ Circle and the Italian Camorra. It was the first street gang that had ever received that designation.

The next year, the Treasury put personal sanctions on Mr. Henríquez, which had the effect of forbidding Americans to do business with him and authorizing federal investigators to freeze his financial assets.

No evidence has surfaced that any of Mr. Henríquez’s properties or assets in the United States were frozen.

Sanctions were also placed on El Diablito’s wife, Jenny Judith Corado. The Salvadoran government arrested her in 2013 and accused her of belonging to a Mara Salvatrucha extortion ring. It could not prove her connection to the ring, however; she was freed and ordered to turn over the money that a judge considered the provenance of extortion: $50.

Now, Ms. Corado does not appear to be enjoying a life of luxury or even comfort. With her children beside her, she spends her days hawking used clothing and lingerie from a stall constructed of tin cans in the busy public marketplace of San Salvador.

In the news conference announcing Operation Check (as in the chess move), the authorities spoke of gang leaders’ “luxuries,” their “investments” and their “various millions of dollars.”

“These leaders are living a different life than the gang members beneath them,” Douglas Meléndez, the attorney general, said. “The gang members beneath them should know.”

It was a communiqué directed at the street, at those rank-and-file gangsters who put their lives on the line for little tangible reward: While their leaders may have been preaching a doctrine of brotherhood, they were secretly enriching themselves at the expense of their brothers, their soldiers, their homeboys.

The luxuries, however, consisted of 22 imported but used cars, each valued at about $8,000. The confiscated cash amounted to $34,500. And the investments numbered three: a taqueria and bar in Soyapango, a working-class community in the San Salvador metropolitan area; a vegetable stand in a rural marketplace; and a highway restaurant that is decorated with a deer’s head, offers karaoke and has three waiters who primarily serve buckets of beer bottles.

The gangs’ credo of fraternity and equality does not allow for any personal gain at the expense of the brotherhood, and they at least theoretically enforce it brutally. “He who makes himself rich at the expense of the street is going to die,” a leader of the 18th Street gang said in an interview.

So even a vegetable stand is a risky venture, and the wiretapped conversations in the Operation Check file reveal that some gang leaders went so far as to pay extortion fees to their own gangs on their private businesses in order to hide their involvement with them.

Howard Cotto, the general director of the National Police, estimated in an interview that 50 to 70 gang leaders, including Mr. Henríquez, have accumulated some money or business interests. But only enough, he said, to permit their families to escape “conditions of poverty, overcrowding, unhealthy conditions and sheet metal” and have a chance at a future.

“I cannot say the leaders are living in places of luxury,” he acknowledged.

Most of the leaders, in fact, are expected to spend the rest of their lives in prison, either in solitary confinement or in malodorous cells shared with dozens of others.

‘Keep Two Bucks’

One day in 2014, an imprisoned leader of the 18th Street gang who goes by the alias Chiki was issuing instructions to a low-level gang member identified as Shaggy.

Speaking by phone from the Izalco penitentiary, Chiki, who was serving time for extortion, ordered Shaggy to make a pickup of an extortion payment. It was $100 from an operation in Colonia Rubio in the department of La Unión. And, though Shaggy risked up to 20 years in prison if caught, there was something special in it for him, Chiki said.

“Keep two bucks so you can get yourself something to eat,” Chiki said, in what turned out to be a wiretapped conversation. He added: “And tell El Demente,” the Demented One, “to give you some custards for your kid.”

Chiki, whose real name is José Luis Guzmán, was the third in command of the 18th Street gang’s Southerners faction in eastern El Salvador. Another prison wiretap recording showed an even higher-level 18th Street leader, Carlos Ernesto Mojica, getting involved in negotiations with a chicken vendor who sought to lower her monthly extortion payment to $200 from $400.

That these leaders were overseeing such small-bore operations typifies the pettiness of gang business. While officials publicly portray the gangs as international criminal syndicates and narco-gangs, law enforcement records and data tell a different story — as do some authorities when speaking privately or in one-on-one interviews.

In the four years before Operation Check, the biggest sum collected in a police anti-extortion raid was $6,377; some raids netted only $5.

“I have never had a case involving the quantity of money necessary to maintain organized crime,” said Nora Montoya, a judge who has handled gang extortion cases for decades.

Similarly, Mr. Cotto, the police director, said the term “narco-gang” was “sensationalism” and could be misinterpreted as suggesting that Salvadoran street gangs were working directly with the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas in the transshipment of drugs from South America to the United States.

“This is not the case. It is definitely not the case,” he said.

Although Salvadoran gangs sell drugs, they do it like street-corner dealers, not international operatives. From 2011 to 2015, the National Police seized 13.9 kilograms of cocaine from gangs; that was less than 1 percent of the total seized. Three-quarters of the gang members prosecuted on drug charges over the last few years were charged with possessing less than an ounce.

A veteran cocaine dealer in San Salvador said serious drug-trafficking organizations wanted nothing to do with the street gangs, which are considered unreliable and volatile.

“The wholesalers I work with would not sell to the gang guys,” he said. “They don’t trust them.”

Over a decade ago, the police confiscated an account ledger from José Luis Mendoza Figueroa, a founder of MS-13, that contained no evidence of any drug business. Instead it showed weekly receipts that averaged $14 from the 19 “cliques” — the smallest gang units — he controlled, and trivial outlays for bullets ($8), taxis ($25), Christmas dinners, liquor and “$50 for the homeboys in prison.”

A couple of years ago, federal agents seized a similar ledger from the treasurer of the Park View Locos clique of the MS-13 in Usulután in southeast El Salvador. A log of one day’s expenses showed $30 for a cellphone chip, $10 for “mujer chief” (the chief’s wife or woman), $35 for “another woman” and $10 for food, with $29 listed as the balance.

The notebook also contained the gang member’s grandiose musings: “The day I die I want to be remembered as a strong street-level soldier, a committed delinquent, and at the hour that the shots ring out, I want to be marked ‘present.’”

Grunts Seeking Respect

According to an internal code, only leaders can speak on behalf of the 18th Street gang. But in the rural department of La Paz, one of the most violent in El Salvador, a 15-year-old gang member clambered to his feet from an old mattress on the dirt floor of a mud-walled house to defy that rule. He had agreed to grant an interview on two conditions: that his identity be protected, and that breakfast be provided.

The boy, gangly and pimply, is a fledgling member of the 18th Street Revolutionaries, a faction of the 18th Street gang, and he works as an extremely small-time roadside extortionist. He collects $15 monthly from each of three food trucks that rumble through his district carrying chewing gum, Pepsi sodas and Bimbo bread. He then turns over the proceeds to the leader of his clique.

“All the loot goes to weapons,” the youth said; he himself was awarded a 9-millimeter pistol and many nights takes it out on “patrol.”

Like so many young recruits, the teenager is an obedient soldier who risks his life to protect his territory without earning a penny from his organization. It is a bargain for the gang leaders who manage the gang economy: tens of thousands of grunts who are not seeking personal profit, only respect and a sense of belonging.

One of 14 children, the boy never went to school and does not know how to read or write. He probably could have found work in the nearby sugar-cane fields, where, even if conditions were miserable, he would have earned $100 a month. But, feeling bullied and vulnerable at 13, he believed that gang membership would give him something less tangible but more valuable at that age.

“I was a kid: I was stupid,” he said about joining. “A bunch of crazy guys were messing with me because I was a kid, smacking me in the head, knocking me around. It made me think: I have had enough. Since I joined up, nobody screws with me.”

The department of La Paz, with all its sugar-cane production, is fairly lucrative for the gangs. The Federation of Associations of Sugar Cane Producers said in June that its members had paid $1.5 million in extortion fees over a recent five-month period.

But none of that trickles down to the rank and file. So in order to survive, the boy runs his own little racket on the side: “private extortion,” gang members call it. His particular clique forbids members to extort their neighbors. Instead, he collects and pockets “rent” from a few poor businesses on the periphery of his clique’s zone.

He said he netted $40 a month — “only enough for what I’m going to eat.” Despite his age, he is mostly left to fend for himself by a hapless mother with too many mouths to feed.

While the teenage gang member talked, three of his little siblings circled the breakfast — scrambled eggs, beans and plantains — that waited in cartons on the floor. He gave his younger brother permission to open a carton. The little boy, who had matted hair and a dirty face, let out a squeal of delight, and proceeded to attack the meal with his hands.

In two years of gang life, the teenager has already witnessed and participated in significant bloodshed. He said he had been involved in two “collective homicides.” In both cases, members of a rival gang had dared to breach the invisible border that separates MS-13 from 18th Street territory. One man was looking to buy some marijuana; the other to meet girls at a village festival. They were killed for their defiance.

In the spring, the 26-year-old leader of the teenager’s clique — whom he knew as Shadow — died in what the police described as a clash between the authorities and gang members. The boy was not present, but he had witnessed the deaths of three other clique members in February in another encounter described as a clash, he said.

The boy said none of his homeboys had been carrying weapons that winter day. Hiding in a trash pile, he watched as the police killed his friends, teenagers like him, and then, he said, placed guns around their bodies to make it look as if they had fallen in crossfire.

Two neighbors who are not gang members supported his version of events in interviews, and it is not far-fetched: El Salvador’s attorney general for human rights has 31 open cases against the police for alleged summary executions of 100 gang members over the last year and a half.

The day of that interview and in follow-up conversations throughout the summer, the boy made it clear he was scared of the police. Since February, officers had been stopping by his house from time to time, and he had spent much of his time hiding from them in the mountains.

“I need to save money to get out of here,” he said. “If they catch me, they’re not going to let me live.”

They did catch him, in October, and arrested him for extorting $40 — his private extortion — from a local merchant. He was jailed, and faces up to 15 years in prison.

Failure of the ‘Iron Fist’

As violence peaked in 2015, reaching levels unseen since the aftermath of El Salvador’s long and brutal civil war, entire communities abandoned their homes because of gang threats. It became such a recurring phenomenon that television channels interrupted their programming to broadcast live the precise moment in which dozens of families fled, on foot or in pickup trucks tightly packed with suitcases, mattresses, chickens and pigs.

Having failed to guarantee them daily security, the police nonetheless supervised their moves. Pedro González, the chief of the anti-gang unit, showed up at one mass exodus, from a condominium building in suburban San Salvador. After imploring residents in vain to stay put, he led them in an alternate response.

“It doesn’t matter who here is Catholic or evangelical, let us raise a prayer,” he said. “That is the most important, let us turn to God.”

Over the years, the Salvadoran authorities have tried to quash the gangs with military might, to prosecute them into oblivion, to banish them with lengthy prison terms and, briefly, to negotiate with them. (The dialogue was corrupted by, among other things, the secret efforts of the two major political parties to court the gang leaders’ electoral support at the same time.)

When the government ratcheted up its “iron fist” approach last year, three gangs, working in coordination, responded with a show of force. On a Sunday night, they distributed written and oral messages to bus owners and employees: “He who takes out a vehicle tomorrow is going to end up glued to his steering wheel.” To underscore their seriousness, they killed a driver and burned three microbuses as a warning.

The next day, six drivers who had disobeyed their order were killed. The authorities sent soldiers and tanks into the streets, and deployed government vehicles to substitute for the buses, but the gangs succeeded in almost completely paralyzing San Salvador’s transportation system for four days. Some 1.3 million Salvadorans were affected; many high schools and universities suspended classes and the economy suffered an $80 million loss, according to the Chamber of Commerce. It was a ruthless show of force.

This year, with Operation Check, the government conducted one of its most professional law enforcement efforts to date, and comments by senior officials suggested a new willingness to approach the gangs as a complex phenomenon with deep roots in the profound inequalities of a country where a third of the population lives in poverty.

Yet by hyping its findings, the government continued to misrepresent the gangs as sophisticated criminal organizations, ruthlessly driven by a thirst for financial gain. And though in Operation Check it acknowledged a distinction between the culpability of leaders and rank-and-file members, that distinction was lost on the street.

The authorities have continued to treat all gangsters as mortal enemies and have doubled down on their use of force. Some 424 gang members had died in confrontations with the police this year as of September.

“If the use of force is not the correct path in this moment, at this stage, at this juncture, then what is?’’ Óscar Ortiz, the country’s vice president, asked in late October.

The government cites as evidence a recent drop in murders: 4,431 by mid-October, compared with 5,363 by that point in 2015. But that is still the second highest toll since 1995.

In Operation Check, the government sought to sow dissent in gang ranks by portraying the leaders of MS-13 as self-interested profiteers. Afterward, a written message sent out from a Mara Salvatrucha-dominated prison demanded that “justice” be meted out to those revealed by Operation Check to have betrayed the gang, according to an American official in El Salvador who monitors the gangs.

As of yet, though, there do not seem to have been any revenge killings, internal purges or mass defections.

For a gang member tired of the gang life, at any rate, there is nowhere to go. Those who are not incarcerated are marked, quite literally with tattoos, for life. There are no rehabilitation centers where they can seek refuge, no programs to reintegrate them into society and no gang-prevention initiatives aimed at high-risk youths.

The only alternatives appear to be those that gang members themselves spray-paint on walls throughout the country: “Jail or the Cemetery.”

PDDH concluye que Policía y militares cometieron ejecuciones extralegales. El Faro

Entrada principal de la finca cafetalera San Blas, en San José Villanueva, lugar en el que la madrugada del 26 de marzo de 2015 el Grupo de Reacción Policial mató a ocho personas, entre los que había dos civiles. Foto archivo El Faro.

Entrada principal de la finca cafetalera San Blas, en San José Villanueva, lugar en el que la madrugada del 26 de marzo de 2015 el Grupo de Reacción Policial mató a ocho personas, entre los que había dos civiles. Foto archivo El Faro.

Casi nueve meses después de que se abrió el expediente de la primera de las dos matanzas investigadas, la máxima instancia que vela por los derechos humanos en el país, la PDDH, concluyó que policías y soldados no solo masacraron a personas rendidas y el farodesarmadas, sino que trataron de encubrirlo. Según el procurador David Morales, ni la PNC ni Fiscalía ni Fuerza Armada dieron la información necesaria para aclarar dos masacres perpetradas en 2015 por fuerzas de seguridad, una en la finca San Blas (San José Villanueva) y la otra en el cantón Pajales (Panchimalco), que dejaron 13 personas muertas. La institución tiene otros 28 casos en estudio y admite que podrían ser aún más.

Óscar Martínez y Roberto Valencia, 25 abril 2016 / EL FARO

La Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) mintió en su versión de lo ocurrido el 26 de marzo de 2015 en la finca San Blas, en el cantón El Matazano II de San José Villanueva. No mataron a ocho personas (entre ellas dos menores de edad) en un enfrentamiento, como aseguraron, sino que fueron “ejecuciones extralegales”. Asimismo, la Fuerza Armada mintió en su versión de lo ocurrido el 15 de agosto de 2015 en el cantón Pajales, de Panchimalco. No mataron a tres hombres y a dos menores de edad en un enfrentamiento, sino que esos homicidios fueron “ejecuciones extralegales”. Estas fueron las conclusiones de las investigaciones de la Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (PDDH), presentadas en conferencia de prensa tras casi nueve meses de investigación por David Morales, el procurador general.

La investigación de la PDDH se basó en el análisis de autopsias, entrevistas a forenses, entrevistas a sobrevivientes de ambas masacres, visita a los lugares y, en el caso de San Blas, en el análisis del dictamen de la Unidad de Control de la PNC. La Fuerza Armada, dijo Morales, no entregó ni un documento. La Policía y la Fiscalía colaboraron lo mínimo. Más bien, en palabras de Morales, todas las instituciones involucradas “dificultaron la investigación”. El informe de la PDDH no solo habla de las ejecuciones, sino de la alteración de las escenas del crimen. En ambos casos, concluye la institución estatal, la escena fue contaminda. En la masacre de la finca San Blas, agrega, cuatro cadáveres fueron cambiados de lugar antes de que llegara el Instituto de Medicina Legal.

Ambas investigaciones fueron abiertas por la PDDH tras la publicación de materiales periodísticos. El Faro publicó en julio de 2015 la crónica ‘La Policía masacró en la finca San Blas’, mientras que La Prensa Gráfica publicó en octubre del mismo año el reportaje ‘Cinco muertes sin explicación’.

Negligencia en las investigaciones y negación de información

Antes de desmenuzar las investigaciones, Morales pidió un momento para rechazar las “informaciones falsas” que acusan a la PDDH de brindar “protección a delincuentes”. “Es falso que para tener seguridad haya que ejercer violencia ilegal y violentar los derechos humanos… El Estado no puede ser igual o peor que el criminal”, sentenció. Remató trayendo a cuento una década oscura para el país: “Si el Estado comienza otra vez, como hacía en la década de los ochenta, a ejercer la violencia ilegal, y esta es tolerada, lo único que tendremos es un escalamiento de la violencia, una respuesta más atroz de las pandillas”.

Según la PNC, desde finales del año pasado se registran entre dos y tres “enfrentamientos” al día con pandilleros. Esa es la categoría bajo la que Policía y Fuerza Armada presentaron los hechos de los que se habla en el reporte de la PDDH. En la gran mayoría de enfrentamientos no hay bajas ni heridos de parte de las autoridades, pero sí muertos del lado de los supuestos delincuentes.

La introducción del procurador fue una reprimenda para las autoridades de seguridad de El Salvador: “Es motivo de preocupación para esta Procuraduría que se estén presentando desde el año pasado hasta lo que va de 2016 casos de supuestos enfrentamientos armados entre autoridades de seguridad con grupos delictivos, y en los cuales diferentes medios de comunicación están recogiendo elementos de información en el sentido de que pudieron haberse producido ejecuciones extralegales. Evidencia de que no necesariamente hubo un enfrentamiento; o, si se dio, el grupo de personas intervenidas fueron neutralizadas y pudieron ser objeto de privación arbitraria de la vida con posterioridad. Alrededor de 30 expedientes de trabajo han sido abiertos en mi gestión por casos que suponen este tipo de sospechas. Esos 30 casos suponen un aproximado de un centenar de personas fallecidas”, dijo Morales, antes de iniciar con los reclamos concretos a las autoridades por omisiones realizadas en los casos San Blas y Pajales.

Morales lamentó “la debilidad de las unidades de control interno de la Policía”. Dijo que en ambos casos “no han garantizado una investigación seria y efectiva, y que han ignorado información relevante o cometido negligencias graves”.

Tras cuestionar los métodos de contraloría interna en la PNC, Morales enfiló contra el exfiscal Luis Martínez; el ministro de Defensa, David Munguía Payés, y contra la dirección de la PNC: “Tuvimos una total negativa de colaboración para acceder a la información fiscal por el anterior fiscal general, Luis Martínez. Parece estar cambiando a raíz de una mayor apertura del actual fiscal… Falta total de cooperación por parte del actual ministro de Defensa en el caso Pajales. Se negó a entregarnos la información requerida… Recibimos poca colaboración de los últimos dos directores de la Policía: comisionado Ramírez Landaverde y comisionado Howard Cotto. Tampoco remitieron la información requerida”.

David Morales, procurador para la Defensa de lso Derechos Humanos (PDDH). Foto cortesía PDDH.

David Morales, procurador para la Defensa de lso Derechos Humanos (PDDH). Foto cortesía PDDH.


Según Morales, las excusas para no entregar información, al menos entre la Policía y la Fiscalía, venían encadenadas: la Policía aseguraba que ya la había remitido a la Fiscalía y que no se había quedado con ninguna copia; la Fiscalía aseguraba que ya la había recibido, pero que era información bajo reserva. El procurador invitó al actual fiscal, Douglas Meléndez, a ordenar una investigación para determinar si hubo encubrimiento de parte de altos funcionarios.

Cadáveres arrastrados y armas cargadas

La PDDH presentó un resumen de los hallazgos. En el caso de la masacre en la finca San Blas, aparte de la negligencia en el procesamiento de la escena, agrega dos inconsistencias determinadas durante la investigación. La primera se trata de una “inconsistencia con el estudio fotográfico de la escena y manipulación de las armas encontradas”. Ya en la publicación del reportaje se señalaba que en el caso de Sonia Guerrero, de 16 años y novia de uno de los pandilleros, la pistola Glock encasquillada junto a su cadáver y los dos cargadores aparecían en dos posiciones distintas. Eso era evidente en fotografías que circularon en las redes sociales, tomadas antes de que forenses del Instituto de Medicina Legal llegaran a la escena.

Sonia murió de un solo tiro en la boca. Consuelo Hernández, madre de uno de los muertos, escuchó todo a pocos metros de distancia, sometida por los policías en la parte baja de la finca. Según Consuelo, Sonia suplicó por su vida. Los agentes del Grupo de Reacción Policial (GRP), con insultos, le ordenaron que se hincara. Ella lloraba y les pedía tiempo para explicarse. Sonia era novia de Taz, un pandillero de 34 años que murió en la misma matanza.

La segunda inconsistencia resaltada por la PDDH es la contradicción entre las declaraciones de agentes y la familiar de una de las víctimas. Consuelo era la madre de Dennis Alexander Martínez Hernández, de 20 años. Él no era pandillero, era el escribiente de la finca que poco a poco se tomaron pandilleros de la Mara Salvatrucha. Este lunes, Morales lo reconoció: “Hemos confirmado que Dennis Alexander Martínez no habría sido miembro activo de pandillas, sino el joven escribiente de la finca”. Sobre el testimonio de Consuelo, el procurador dijo que es “consistente y creíble”. Consuelo Hernández de Ramírez, pobre y campesina, escuchó a su hijo suplicar también por su vida la madrugada del 26 de marzo. Luego escuchó el disparo que, de arriba hacia abajo, atravesó la cabeza de Dennis.

En la escena registrada por la Policía, a Dennis le habían colocado a su alrededor dos corvos y un cuchillo.

El hermano de Consuelo, Jesús Hernández, que habló por teléfono con Dennis hasta que el muchacho salió del cuarto y fue asesinado, desapareció 19 días después de la masacre, mientras iba hacia la finca. Apareció un día después con el cráneo destrozado y un lazo alrededor del cuello, muy cerca de la finca San Blas. Murió asfixiado y macheteado, según la autopsia. Él, a gritos, acusó a los policías de asesinos mientras procesaban la escena. Miembros de la familia, tras el asesinato de Dennis, recibieron llamadas del teléfono celular que Dennis tenía, el mismo que ocupó para hablar con Jesús antes de ser sometido por los policías. Los familiares no contestaron, pero interpretan las llamadas como una amenaza.

Consuelo, la madre de Dennis y única testigo que declaró ante la PDDH, fue amenazada de muerte vía telefónica en noviembre de 2015. Ese mes huyó del cantón El Matazano II, donde está la finca San Blas.

El informe de la PDDH agrega una lista de razones más por las que condena la actuación policial de aquella madrugada. Dan crédito a que la escena fue “contaminada deliberadamente”; que “cuatro cuerpos fueron movidos de su posición original”; que el examen serológico no registra muestras de sangre en las armas, algo muy raro teniendo en cuenta que se presentó el hecho como un enfrentamiento y que quienes supuestamente portaban esas armas murieron baleados; que los cuerpos no estaban en “posición de atrincheramiento”, sino expuestos, como si no se hubieran cubierto o no hubieran estado en ningún enfrentamiento; que cargadores de las armas que presuntamente tenían los masacrados estaban “llenos de munición, pese al supuesto enfrentamiento de 45 minutos”; que hay una persona con “edema cerebral y múltiples lesiones… lo que hace presumir nuevos disparos causados ya estando herido”.

Imagen tomada un día después de la masacre de la finca San Blas. La sangre pertenece a Ernesto Hernández Aguirre (a) Bote, de 17 años de edad, uno de las ocho personas fallecidas en la matanza. Foto archivo El Faro.

Imagen tomada un día después de la masacre de la finca San Blas. La sangre pertenece a Ernesto Hernández Aguirre (a) Bote, de 17 años de edad, uno de las ocho personas fallecidas en la matanza. Foto archivo El Faro.

Sobre esta masacre, el expediente SS-0309-2015 de la PDDH concluye que hay elementos suficientes para establecer “la privación arbitraria de la vida por ejecución extralegal en perjuicio de Dennis Alexander Hernández Martínez y Sonia Esmeralda Guerrero, por responsabilidad de efectivos policiales que formaron parte del operativo”.

Acerca de los otros seis muertos en la finca San Blas, el informe dice que “existen elementos suficientes de investigación para establecer la presunción respecto a que se haya producido igualmente la privación arbitraria de la vida por ejecución extralegal”.

Disparos a quemarropa

La versión oficial en el caso del cantón Pajales se dio por medio de comunicados de prensa de la Policía y la Fuerza Armada. La versión consigna que la noche del 15 de agosto de 2015, militares y policías habían detectado movimiento de pandilleros en la zona del caserío La Loma, cantón Pajales, Panchimalco. Llegaron al lugar y fueron recibidos a balazos por miembros del Barrio 18-Revolucionarios. Los pandilleros, consignó la versión oficial, los atacaron desde el interior de una vivienda de adobe. Ellos respondieron y los mataron a todos, menos a uno, a quien detuvieron.

Testimonios recavados por periodistas de La Prensa Gráfica revelaron que las ejecuciones ocurrieron fuera de la vivienda, que los cuerpos fueron arrastrados luego a su interior y que en la casa estaban un hombre y una mujer mayores, tres mujeres jóvenes, una niña de dos años y un niño de cuatro.

Los pandilleros no vivían ahí, sino que habían llegado huyendo de los militares y policías. Llegaron armados pero, según la versión de los testigos, dejaron las armas cuando se vieron acorralados en la casa. Se entregaron y fueron fusilados ahí mismo.

En el caso SS-0369-2015 presentado por la PDDH se le da crédito absoluto a la versión publicada por La Prensa Gráfica. El informe detalla que, aparte de todas las evidencias que también presenta el caso de la masacre de la finca San Blas, en esta ocasión hay dos elementos contundentes más que personal de la Procuraduría corroboró en su propia investigación: “Un cuerpo revela tatuaje de pólvora y otro ahumamiento”. Eso significa que a uno le dispararon desde una distancia menor a 60 centímetros, y a otro a una distancia inferior a los 30 centímetros. Tres de los cuerpos muestran edema cerebral, además de otros disparos que debieron provocarles la muerte. Todo apunta a que fueron rematados cuando ya estaban heridos.

En este caso, la PDDH concluye que para los cinco muertos “hay elementos suficientes de investigción para establecer la privación arbitraria de la vida por ejecución extralegal… Por responsabilidad de efectivos  policiales y militares que formaron parte del operativo conjunto”.

La PDDH, al final del documento, hace sus recomendaciones y conclusiones finales. Por ambos casos declara el incumplimiento de la ley de la PDDH por parte del exfiscal Luis Martínez; del exdirector de la PNC, Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde (hoy ministro de Justicia y Seguridad); del actual director, Howard Cotto; y del ministro de Defensa, general David Munguía Payés. Exige a la Fiscalía investigar las amenazas contra Consuelo Hernández y los familiares de Camila, una testigo que desapareció tras la masacre de Pajales. Pide investigar la muerte de Jesús, el hermano de Consuelo, así como brindar protección a ella y su familia. Pide a la PNC y a la Fiscalía que se realicen investigaciones “objetivas y efectivas” en ambos casos. Pide lo mismo a la Inspectoría de la Policía.

Oenegés cuestionan al gobierno; también Estados Unidos

Los señalamientos de la PDDH a la administración de Salvador Sánchez Cerén y a la Fiscalía en materia de derechos humanos son el más reciente episodio de la preocupación que en distintos sectores han despertado el guerrerismo del gobierno, desatado en enero de 2015 y que con el paso de los meses no ha hecho sino aumentar en intensidad y en número de víctimas.

El pasado lunes 4 de abril, el Estado salvadoreño –representado por su canciller, Hugo Martínez– tuvo que comparecer ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH). Las oenegés Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (Fespad), Servicio Social Pasionista (SSPAS) y el Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (Cejil) acusaron al gobierno de desatender los derechos humanos en su estrategia de seguridad ciudadana.

“Las masacres sobre las que se ha pronunciado la PDDH no son dos casos aislados”, dijo Abraham Ábrego, director de Fespad, quien señaló que tanto la PNC como la Fuerza Armada están haciendo “un uso excesivo de la fuerza”.

El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores, Hugo Martínez, fue interpetado ante la CIDH por representantes de las oenegés Fespad, SSPAS y Cejil el pasado 13 de abril en Washington, Estados Unidos. Las tres organizaciones creen que el Gobierno está violando los derechos humanos en su estrategia de combate a las pandillas. Foto cortesía CIDH.

El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores, Hugo Martínez, fue interpetado ante la CIDH por representantes de las oenegés Fespad, SSPAS y Cejil el pasado 13 de abril en Washington, Estados Unidos. Las tres organizaciones creen que el Gobierno está violando los derechos humanos en su estrategia de combate a las pandillas. Foto cortesía CIDH.

Verónica Reyna, subdirectora de derechos humanos del SSPAS, fue más explícita en su denuncia: “Desde el Estado se ha dado la permisividad para que se cometa este tipo de arbitrariedades; hay elementos para creer que se está permitiendo una política de exterminio a la Policía Nacional Civil, y los controles internos no están funcionando, e incluso están facilitando que se den estos casos”. De la Fiscalía dijo que durante el mandato de Luis Martínez se hizo “del ojo pacho” ante las denuncias de abusos de las fuerzas de seguridad.

Tanto Ábrego como Reyna se mostraron confiados en que en las próximas semanas la comisionada Margarette May Macaulay, relatora para El Salvador de la CIDH, viaje a El Salvador para corroborar sus denuncias contra el Estado salvadoreño.

Aunado a los señalamientos de las oenegés, el interés de la CIDH y la investigación de la PDDH, Estados Unidos también se ha pronunciado sobre este asunto.

En su informe sobre la violación de los derechos humanos en el mundo que el Departamento de Estado presentó el pasado 13 de abril, Washington señaló al Gobierno: “En 2015 hubo numerosos reportes de fuerzas de seguridad relacionadas con asesinatos extrajudiciales”. Entre los casos señalados está la masacre de la finca de San Blas.

Pandillas aseguran que tenían pacto electoral con el FMLN. El Faro

Un comunicado firmado por las tres pandillas asegura que en los días de la elección presidencial de 2014 sostuvieron reuniones con los más el faroaltos dirigentes del partido hoy en el gobierno y que llegaron a acuerdos para procurar que el FMLN ganara la elección presidencial. Aseguran que dan por roto el acuerdo y que no permitirán que el Frente se organice ni haga campaña en “sus” comunidades.

Carlos Martínez, 18 abril 2016 /EL FARO

Voceros de las tres pandillas más grandes de El Salvador hicieron llegar este lunes 18 de abril un comunicado a El Faro en el que aseguran haber tenido un pacto con el partido de gobierno para favorecerlos durante la elección presidencial que en 2014 se resolvió en una segunda ronda.

El documento, firmado por los “voceros nacionales” de la Mara Salvatrucha y las dos facciones del Barrio 18 (Sureños y Revolucionarios), dice que las pandillas dan por roto los acuerdos que aseguran haber hecho con el gobierno: “Hemos decidido suspender definitivamente cualquier tipo de acuerdos que en años pasados han existido con el FMLN para generar en nuestras comunidades apoyo electoral para ellos y para impedir el voto para la oposición”.

En el comunicado, los pandilleros no se limitan a hacer señalamientos generales, sino que agregan nombres de dirigentes políticos del partido con los que dicen haber entrado en negociaciones directas: “Luego de la publicación del video de una reunión entre pandilleros y dirigentes de Arena, el gobierno ha acusado a Arena de haber hecho pactos con las pandillas, cuando en verdad los que han negociado nuestro apoyo electoral han sido dirigentes del FMLN al más alto nivel, como Benito Lara, Medardo González y José Luis Merino. Todos ellos se han reunido con nosotros y nos han ofrecido que el nuevo gobierno del FMLN iba a reducir la represión contra nuestra gente y abrir canales para buscar el diálogo…”, afirma el comunicado.


Medardo González es el secretario general del FMLN y José Luis Merino forma parte de la cúpula del partido y es pieza clave en la estructura de la empresa Alba Petróleos de El Salvador. Benito Lara fue diputado y cuando inició el gobierno del presidente Salvador Sánchez Cerén, el 1 de junio de 2014, asumió como ministro de Justicia y Seguridad Pública. En enero de este año dejó el cargo y ahora es asesor presidencial en materia de seguridad.

El Faro contactó con voceros de las dos facciones del Barrio 18, quienes avalaron el texto y aseguraron que la MS-13 también comparte el contenido del comunicado. Sin embargo, no fue posible establecer contacto con algún miembro de alta jerarquía de esa pandilla.

Según los pandilleros contactados, las sesiones con el FMLN tuvieron lugar en el contexto de la elección presidencial y afirmaron que se reunieron con los dirigentes de izquierda “antes de la primera vuelta (electoral) y después de la primera vuelta electoral”. La primera ronda electoral tuvo lugar el 2 de febrero y la segunda, el 9 de marzo. De resultar real la versión de las pandillas, significaría que los políticos de izquierda citaron a los líderes pandilleros, más o menos en las mismas fechas en que también se reunieron con ellos el vicepresidente de Ideología de Arena, Ernesto Muyshondt, y el alcalde de Ilopango, Salvador Ruano.

Uno de los pandilleros consultados explicó: “Es que cuando Arena nos buscó para equilibrar las cosas ya teníamos un pacto con el FMLN. O sea que no se podía porque ya había un acuerdo con el Frente”.

Posterior a la primera vuelta electoral, voceros de Arena acusaron reiteradas veces al FMLN de tener pactos con pandilleros para que estos impidieran a los votantes areneros acudir a las urnas. De hecho, el ahora diputado Muyshondt justificó su reunión con pandilleros argumentando que el encuentro buscaba convencer a las pandillas de que le permitieran a sus seguidores salir a votar.


En el comunicado también se asegura que ha habido reuniones con el diputado Guillermo Gallegos, del partido Gana, quien en noviembre próximo asumirá la presidencia de la Asamblea Legislativa gracias al pacto que su partido ha hecho con el FMLN. Gallegos es impulsor de medidas de corte “manodurista”, como juzgar a los pandilleros menores de edad como adultos y ofrecer armas a la población civil para que combatan a las maras. En el comunicado, las pandillas también dicen haber sostenido encuentros con el expresidente de la Asamblea Legislativa y del partido Arena Walter Araujo. Araujo, expresidente del Tribunal Supremo Electoral, fue candidato a alcalde de San Salvador por Gana en marzo de 2015.

El Faro intentó contactar con los dirigentes del FMLN mencionados en el comunicado. El teléfono de Medardo González se encontraba apagado; a Benito Lara se le explicó por medio del sistema de mensajería Whatsapp las razones por las que el periódico quería contactarlo, pero no respondió. Se intentó buscar al vocero del gobierno, Eugenio Chicas, pero no atendió las llamadas a ninguno de los dos celulares.

El único que se pronunció fue Guillermo Gallegos, quien negó cualquier encuentro con pandilleros: “Nunca me reuní con terroristas. Eso es falso. Mucho menos con Walter Araujo, casi nunca coincidimos en campaña. Ellos (pandilleros) pueden decir cualquier cosa, pero yo con terroristas no me he reunido ni me reuniré. Que sepan los terroristas que nunca me amedrentarán y que seguiré haciendo todo los esfuerzos que sean necesarios para que no castiguen a los salvadoreños”, dijo.

Anuncian boicot contra FMLN y Gana

En el comunicado, los pandilleros aseguran sentirse “defraudados” por los dos partidos que mantienen una alianza en la Asamblea Legislativa y advierten que para elecciones próximas (las de alcaldes y diputados están programadas para 2018) no permitirán que ninguno busque votos en lo que consideran sus territorios, prohibiendo incluso cualquier tipo de propaganda alusiva al Frente o a Gana.

“Los dirigentes del FMLN y Gana nos han defraudado, porque ninguna de sus promesas se han hecho realidad. Por lo contrario, promueven nuestra aniquilación por medios militares. Por tanto, nuestras comunidades nunca jamás volverán a ser canchas para que el FMLN o Gana busquen votos y organización partidaria. Por eso hemos dado instrucciones a nuestros territorios de no permitir actividades partidarias del FMLN y Gana, ni el uso de sus distintivos, como banderas, camisetas, gorras, etc”, dice el documento, que agrega con letras resaltadas: “Quienes nos han declarado la guerra no pueden esperar que los recibamos en nuestros territorios”.

En el documento también se dice que las tres organizacio nes criminales se adjudican la reducción de los asesinatos ocurrida desde finales de marzo, cuando cayeron de más de 20 diarios a un promedio que ha rondado los 10 cada día: “Las cifras de homicidios de las últimas semanas demuestran que somos hombres de palabra y cumplimos. Debido a nuestra decisión de suspender todas las acciones ofensivas, la cuota de sangre ha bajado de 24 muertos diarios a 11”, aseguran, aludiendo a su compromiso lanzado el 26 de marzo de frenar su propia violencia mortal y se comprometen a mantener su ofrecimiento vigente.

El Salvador’s gangs call a cease-fire, but many doubt it will hold. The Washington Post

Joshua Partlow, Mexico Bureau Chief, The Washington Post

Joshua Partlow, Mexico Bureau Chief, The Washington Post

Joshua Partlow y , 3 abril 2016 / THE WASHINGTON POST

One of the gangsters, a black bandanna over his mouth and two rosaries around his neck, tapped his clawlike fingernail on the table.

Next to him was a sworn enemy, a man with a black fisherman’s hat pulled down over rainbow-tinted sunglasses.

The two rivals, and their tens of thousands of followers in El Salvador’s dominant gangs, have called a halt, for the moment, to their street war with each other and the government. On March 25, Mara Salvatrucha and two factions of the 18th Street gang announced a cease-fire, a respite from the fighting that has made El Salvador one of the world’s deadliest countries.

Inmates stand next to a police vehicle while being transferred to the Quezaltepeque prison in El Salvador on March 29. (Fred Ramos/For The Washington Post)

Inmates stand next to a police vehicle while being transferred to the Quezaltepeque prison in El Salvador on March 29. (Fred Ramos/For The Washington Post)

washington post“We’re not friends,” one of the gangsters, a spokesman for the 18th Street gang, said in a rare interview last week, alongside a Mara Salvatrucha representative. “But the three gangs are united in this effort to come together to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country.”

 Many, though, expect the cease-fire will be temporary, a lull in an ever more chaotic battle, a moment that simply shows the enormous gap that separates these gangs from the government. El Salvador’s ferocious pace of violence, with more than 2,000 murders in the past three months, has exhausted all sides. Dozens of police and their relatives have been hunted down and killed by gangsters, provoking defections from the ranks. The gangsters complain about police running death squads, their friends being driven off in pickup trucks and disappearing.

But despite the enormous toll on both sides, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has remained defiant, vowing to tighten security at prisons and relentlessly pursue gang members.

“The government has said there’s no chance of dialogue with the gangs,” Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, the minister of security and justice, said in an interview.

The Salvadoran gangs are descendants of gangs formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by immigrants who fled this country’s civil war. Many of their leaders were eventually deported back to El Salvador. The country is now a patchwork of gang-controlled neighborhoods. Their members extort residents, kill, kidnap, rape and serve as sentries against rival cliques. The gangs and experts who study them estimate their active ranks at 70,000 people, not including the tens of thousands behind bars.

After Sánchez Cerén was elected in 2014, he criticized his predecessor’s decision to negotiate with the gangs, and vowed to punish them with the full force of the law. The conflict has steadily escalated.

“I think there is really a fatigue with the war,” said Juan Jose Martinez, an anthropologist who studies Salvadoran gangs.

“This is not like the violence we’ve always had,” he added. “This is a crisis of violence.”

But Sánchez Cerén, a former leftist guerrilla leader during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, has vowed to intensify the crackdown on the gangs. Following months of police raids, his government plans to transfer hundreds of jailed gang leaders to solitary confinement, and has proposed what it calls “extraordinary measures” to further disrupt gang communications. “With these cruel criminals, it is not possible to have an attitude of tolerance,” Sánchez Cerén said last week.

Ramírez Landaverde dismissed the possibility that the current pause could stretch into a more durable peace, saying the gang landscape is fragmented with hundreds of small cells and cliques.

“Often it turns out they [gang leaders] don’t have the backing of all the groups, or all of the members,” he said. “Many of them don’t participate, and you can see proof in the streets. They’re killing like nothing happened.”

‘This is kicking the hornet’s nest’

The streets, however, do seem to have calmed. Over the first six days of the gang cease-fire, initially set for 72 hours but now with no official endpoint, an average of 10 people were slain each day, less than half the rate of killing in the first two months this year.

The representatives from Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street agreed to an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss their self-imposed cease-fire. They met with a reporter in the top-floor office of a Lutheran church in an industrial part of San Salvador, where they have come repeatedly to see religious and community leaders in recent months.

They said they have agreed, for now, to respect each other’s territorial limits.

“They have their territory, we have ours,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said. “We are demonstrating to the Salvadoran people, the international community, that we are capable of coming here, stopping this whole wave of violence. We can stop everything.”

The gang members said, however, that they had lost faith in the possibility of negotiating directly with the government, and asked for the international community — the United Nations, the European Union, Pope Francis — to step in as a mediator.

Past attempts at ending the gang war have failed. A 2012 truce, negotiated by former guerrillas and religious leaders, with the support of former president Mauricio Funes, lasted for two years and then fell apart after the government imposed tighter conditions on jailed gang members. Critics say that the gangs used the time to rearm and grow stronger.

The current one-sided truce could quickly be followed by more violence, as the gangs seem determined to fight back if the police do not ease up.

“This is kicking the hornet’s nest,” Raul Mijango, a politician and former guerrilla who helped negotiate the previous gang truce, said of the government’s current approach. “These iron-fisted actions — today it’s total war declared against the gangs — have not been effective against these types of problems. On the contrary, what they’ve always done is increase them.”

Some of the gang members’ statements had a political flavor: They described the government as corrupt and exploitative and labeled members of the administration as hypocrites, former guerrillas who betrayed the poor people of El Salvador once they got into power. The gang members cast themselves as benefactors, offering survival in a poor job market.

“If there isn’t work, how are you going to survive? You can’t eat air,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said.

They also said they were frustrated that the government has not invested more in programs to reintegrate gang members into society, or provide jobs for them. They seemed particularly outraged about the conditions inside prisons, where they said gang members are sick and dying and receive insufficient medical care. In their neighborhoods, they complained, there were indiscriminate arrests and killings.

“The police arrive in a community and grab everyone in sight,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said. “They show up, push the kids against the wall, beat them, put them in the cop car, and drive them to a rival territory, where they know they’ll be killed.”

But the gangs have also murdered police at an ever-increasing rate — at least 12 this year, plus dozens of their relatives. The growing danger has devastated police morale. Over the past year, a movement has surged within police ranks, led by lower-ranking officers who complain about poor pay, insufficient equipment and the risk of dying. Hundreds have quit, police said, many of them heading north to try to cross illegally into the United States.

In response to the rising gang violence, authorities have cut off family visits to inmates and deployed soldiers to guard prisons. The legislature approved Sánchez Cerén’s request for more power to transfer inmates to higher-security facilities, where they would have less access to phones, visitors and weapons. His government has already moved some 300 mid-level gang leaders to more secure facilities in an attempt to block imprisoned leaders from running their gangs. The president has also called for building three jails for people awaiting trial in an effort to ease the crowded conditions.

Some doubt that the government’s defiance is as strong as it seems. Throughout the conflict, governments have often denounced the gangs publicly while reaching out to them privately. The existence of the 2012 truce, revealed by the El Faro newspaper, was never supposed to have been public knowledge. Some experts suspect a new covert deal is already in the works between the gangs and the government. Religious leaders are among the only people openly working toward that outcome now.

“The whole world is opposed to dialogue,” said Rafael Menjivar Saavedra, a Lutheran pastor who has met with the gang members. “My response to them is, ‘So what’s your alternative?’ ”

– – – – – – – – – –

Two Salvadoran gangsters walk into a church

The spokesmen for the 18th Street gang Revolucionarios and MS-13 sit side by side making gang signs but discussing their truce. (Fred Ramos for The Washington Post)

The spokesmen for the 18th Street gang Revolucionarios and MS-13 sit side by side making gang signs but discussing their truce. (Fred Ramos for The Washington Post)

Joshua Partlow, 3 abril 2016 / THE WASHINGTON POST

SAN SALVADOR — For such a small country, just 6 million people, and one not in openly declared war, the number of killings El Salvador endures is hard to fathom. So far this year, there have been more than 2,000 murders (the D.C. metro region, with roughly the same population, has had 52). Many consider El Salvador’s homicide rate to be the highest in the hemisphere or the world.

That’s why the recent cease-fire declared by the country’s most powerful gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Revolutionaries, was so important, even if it ends up being temporary. In the first days of the cease-fire, homicides have dropped by more than half. But such truces have fallen apart before.

Spokesmen for two of the gangs agreed to meet with The Washington Post to talk about their cease-fire inside an office in a Lutheran church in San Salvador. The 18th Street spokesman showed up first. He was telling us a bit about his life, how he’d joined up as a kid because he thought it was cool — “I never wanted to be president or an airplane pilot” — and how, he claimed, police had recently slammed the left side of his face into the pavement, when a spokesman from his enemy gang walked into the church office.

The two had met during the temporary truce a couple of years ago. They agreed to talk as long as they weren’t identified. Before they went on camera, they wrapped black bandannas and towels around their faces and pulled hats down low over their eyes.

The Washington Post: Could you explain why this cease-fire started on Friday, and why you’re here now?

18th Street Revolutionaries gang spokesman: We’ve arrived at a moment of reflection to see how we can control all of this. We’re seeing too much suffering, not just among my men and the other gang’s men, but also in the civilian population. It’s too much. It’s not just at our hands — people say we’re responsible for the majority of crimes in this country, and we know that’s not true. There’s also another class of delinquents. We call them political delinquents. They’re not going to sit down with us here. They’re not here, they operate in another way. And they don’t call themselves delinquents, they call themselves “representatives.”

Let’s not talk about truces. This isn’t a truce. This is a peace agreement, a reflection on everything that has happened recently, all of the injustice. It’s the people who are dying. They’ve had enough. And still, even after we declared peace, the deaths are still filling the news. It’s not us. Now it’s clear that we’re the victims of this injustice.

WP: So are the three gangs [Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street Revolutionaries and the 18th Street Sureños] now united? Are you now friends?

Mara Salvatrucha gang spokesman: No, we’re not friends. But the three gangs are united in this effort to come together to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country, so the Salvadoran people can see that it’s not just gangs that kill. There’s another group of people that’s killing: the police, the army, and the whole world knows it. But in our country right now, human-rights advocates aren’t doing their work. They’re not supporting the people in the way they should be. They’ve been threatened so they’re staying quiet. They don’t investigate what’s happening in our country.

The rich people are living peacefully in gated communities, they go everywhere in their cars. It’s the poor people that risk their lives to travel in buses, work and go to school in violent communities.

The police arrive in a community and grab everyone in sight. In a neighborhood dominated by the Barrio 18 gang, or the Mara Salvatrucha, they show up, push the kids against the wall, beat them, put them in the cop car and drive them to a rival territory, where they know they’ll be killed. We have proof of this. It’s why we’re saying that our people are victims of abuses of the army and the police. It’s abuse of authority.

And people face discrimination for living in communities dominated by gangs. If they go to a bank and ask for a loan, they’ll be refused. If they apply for a job, they’ll get rejected. Employers ask, where do you live? In such-and-such town. If it’s a town dominated by gangs, the person will be turned down.

So, what opportunities exist for people? None. There are no opportunities for people.

WP: What is your opinion of the emergency measures the government announced?

18th Street: The governments have invented these kinds of measures before, and what I have to say about it is this: Repression doesn’t reduce violence, it just brings more repression. Because if someone’s attacking my family, I’m going to attack them. We’re demonstrating to the Salvadoran people and to the international community that we are capable of stopping all violence. We have stopped it all. We did the same thing last time. For 72 hours, we promised that there would be no homicides, and we kept our promise. Now we’re shifting the responsibility to the government, to the Minister of Security and Justice.

WP: So this effort is intended to show that the government is committing violence, too?

MS-13: Correct.

18th Street: El Salvador is so obsessed with the gangs, it forgets about the rest of the population, about health care, about everything. We believe that the country as a whole has to advance, and the gangs are sucking up all the resources — the schools, the hospitals.

WP: There was a truce two years ago. The homicide rate declined but then rose again. Some critics say it’s because the gangs used the time to re-arm and become stronger. Is that what’s happening now?

MS-13: Everyone criticizes the truce. But during the truce, there were days with zero homicides. The average dropped from 23 homicides to 15 homicides, and there were many days with four, or three. And those homicides weren’t committed by the gangs, they were committed by others. But remember, Salvadoran politics is dirty and corrupt. There are congressmen who own funeral parlors, congressmen who own private security firms. The violence benefits them.

WP: One of the principal complaints against the gangs is rampant extortion.

MS-13: With respect to extortion, it’s something that not only the gangs do. The gangs always get blamed for everything. We’re used as the towel for the whole world to wipe itself on. If you read the news, you’ll see the police is extorting, too. Other people who aren’t from the gangs — criminal bands — are extorting. People in the government. The whole world is extorting. But who gets blamed? The gangs.

WP: How do you see the future of the gangs, in the long term? Do you want to become a political party?

MS-13: We’re never going to become politicians. We are always going to be the gangs. They’re the politicians, we’re the gangs, and the only thing we ask for are reinsertion programs — for the population, for the communities, for the prisons. If you go to a prison, all you’re going to find is a storage space. You’re going to find sick prisoners. There are no doctors that prisoners can go to for treatment when they’re sick. If you go to Zacatecoluca, the maximum-security prison, they’re killing the prisoners there. This government is killing them psychologically. They’ve put sheet metal above them so the cells heat up. They can’t withstand the heat. The prisoners suffer from colon sickness, from ulcers, from terminal illnesses. But no one sees it. People are dying inside the prison, and nobody sees it.

WP: During the cease-fire, are the gangs going to keep killing the police?

MS-13: The gangs have never declared war on the police. The police and the government have declared war on the gangs. But the gangs on the police? On the government? No. If the gangs declared war on the police or on the government, there would be a ton of deaths every day.

WP: More than there already are?

MS-13: More than there already are. You know why? Because in the communities where the gang members live, there are also police officers and government workers. If we declared war on them, every day there would be 40 police officers dead.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.


Gobierno aísla a mandos medios de las maras, y estas responden con cese indefinido de la violencia. El Faro

El Ministerio de Seguridad quiere cortar la comunicación entre los máximos líderes, los mandos medios y las bases de las pandillas, y este 29 de marzo dio un paso firme en esa dirección con el traslado de 299 cabecillas a un modulo de aislamiento construido en el penal de Quezaltepeque, además de otras medidas complementarias. Todo esto, en una coyuntura en la que las pandillas han demostrado con su cese de hostilidades de 72 horas –prolongado indefinidamente según anunciaron a El Faro voceros de los tres grupos– que tienen capacidad para desplomar las cifras de homicidios a voluntad.


Foto Fred Ramos/Faro

Roberto Valencia y Carlos Martínez, 29 marzo 2016 / EL FARO

el faroUn módulo especial del Centro Penal de Quezaltepeque acoge desde este martes 29 de marzo, y en teórico régimen de estricto aislamiento, a 299 cabecillas de la Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) y de las dos facciones del Barrio 18 (Revolucionarios y Sureños). Con esta medida de fuerza, sumada a un estado de emergencia declarado por 15 días en las siete cárceles con presencia mayoritaria de pandilleros y otras decisiones complementarias, el Gobierno trata de cortar la comunicación entre los líderes encarcelados y las clicas que operan a lo largo y ancho del territorio salvadoreño. Un golpe rotundo.

“Y este nomás es el inicio”, dijo exultante el ministro de Seguridad Pública, Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, en una multitudinaria conferencia de prensa celebrada en el penal, en medio de un despliegue policial y militar propio de una visita papal.

El nuevo módulo del penal quezalteco bien podría considerarse, por sus condiciones, como una ‘sucursal de Zacatraz’, como se le conoce la cárcel de máxima seguridad ubicada en el municipio de Zacatecoluca, La Paz. El traslado de los 299 cabecillas -que se hizo con un despliegue militar que incluyó Humvees blindados y cuatro helicópteros- se desarrolló pocas horas después de finalizar el cese unilateral de acciones violentas por 72 horas que las pandillas anunciaron el sábado 26 de marzo.

Durante esos tres días, el promedio de asesinatos cometidos en El Salvador ha sido de 9.3, muy por debajo de los 22.8 promediados en los 25 primeros días del mes.

“Los 299 trasladados son las personas identificadas, tras procesos exhaustivos de investigación de la PNC y de nuestras unidades, como las que tienen un alto grado de responsabilidad a la hora de enviar órdenes desde los centros penales para el acometimiento de actos delictivos contra la población salvadoreña”, dijo Rodil Hernández, director general de Centros Penales.

Antes de su llegada a Quezaltepeque, estos reos eran inquilinos de las cárceles de Izalco, Chalatenango, Cojutepeque, Gotera y Ciudad Barrios.

En la estructura organizativa de las pandillas, el principal centro de mando recae, por lo general, en un pandillero encarcelado, que es el titular de la clica, o uno de sus titulares cuando la clica es muy numerosa o forma parte de una programa, en el caso de la MS-13; o de una tribu, en el caso de la 18.

A partir del 16 de abril de 2015, el Gobierno regresó al Centro Penal de Seguridad Zacatecoluca a los máximos líderes de las tres pandillas, y con ello dificultó sus posibilidades de comunicarse con el exterior con fluidez. Ese papel lo habrían asumido, según la información que maneja el ministerio, los 299 pandilleros ahora encerrados en el módulo especial de Quezaltepeque.

“Esperamos garantizar su aislamiento, y con ello el cese de la comunicación desde los penales hacia afuera”, dijo Ramírez Landaverde.

La elección del penal de Quezaltepeque, tradicionalmente uno de los más vulnerables del sistema penitenciario, tiene una doble explicación: por un lado, Zacatraz está lleno; y por otro, según señaló Rodil Hernández, el módulo se ha construido con celdas pequeñas e independientes que separan a los internos y permiten su control, con galeras distintas para cada pandilla, no hay condiciones de hacinamiento, no tienen tomas de corriente ni cableado que permitan recargar teléfonos u otros aparatos, la iluminación es con dispositivos no manipulables, y el personal asignado para su cuidado es proporcionalmente mayor.

Estado de emergencia y más

Además del traslado y aislamiento de cabecillas, el Ejecutivo declaró un estado de emergencia por 15 días –el máximo tiempo que permite la Ley Penitenciaria– que afecta a las seis cárceles que el Estado asignó de forma exclusiva a las pandillas, y también al penal Zacatecoluca. Esta medida tendrás que ser avalada por los jueces de vigilancia penitenciaria encargados de cada una de las prisiones.

Durante dos semanas, estarán suspendida las visitas familiares de todo tipo, incluida la visita íntima, y solo se permitirán “visitas de asistencia profesional, pero también estará reguladas y monitoreadas”, dijo Rodil Hernández.

Asimismo, los privados de libertad estarán en encierro permanente en su celdas, sin horas de patio, y se suspenden las salidas, salvo emergencias médicas.

Pero además de los traslados y del estado de emergencia, el Ministerio de Seguridad anunció medidas adicionales, que suponen en la práctica una intromisión de la Policía Nacional Civil en labores propias de la Dirección General de Centros Penales.

Desde este martes 29 de marzo, y hasta nuevo aviso, cada uno de los siete centros penitenciarios seleccionados tendrá como “enlace” a un integrante de la PNC. “Esta día inicia un nuevo modelo de cooperación interinstitucional”, dijo Rodil Hernández. El director del centro penal tendrá que coordinar todos los temas de seguridad con ese representante de la Policía.

El cambio es unas de las consecuencias de que la Inspectoría General de Centros Penales haya sido asumida de forma permanente por el subcomisionado Fernando Roque Mártir.

Y por último, tanto la PNC como la Fuerza Armada comenzarán a verificar viviendas y establecimientos que operan en las colonias aledañas a las cárceles. ¿La razón? “Porque tradicionalmente, los alrededores de los centros penales han sido ocupados por personas que buscan introducir ilícitos”, dijo el ministro.

Algunas de estas medidas solo podrán ejecutarse durante los 15 días que permite el estado de emergencia, por lo que Ramírez Landaverde aprovechó para pedir a los diputados que hagan reformas legales que respalden las iniciativas contras las maras diseñadas por el Gabinete de Seguridad.

299 cabecillas de pandillas fueron trasladados a un nuevo módulo de aislamiento en el penal de Quezaltepeque. 29 de febrero 2016. Foto: Fred Ramos

Foto Fred Ramos.

“Las medidas que se han tomado son las que la Ley Penitenciaria ya establece, pero para mantenerlas y potenciarlas se requieren otro tipo de disposiciones que las regulen”, dijo, y pidió a los diputados que “nos aporten herramientas para establecer un cerco” contras las pandillas, y “no solo en el tema de las comunicaciones”.

Consultado sobre si una efectiva interrupción de la comunicación de los ranfleros con las clicas dispersas en el territorio nacional no sería como patear un avispero, esta fue la respuesta del ministro: “Ante cualquier medida en el sistema penitenciario, es necesario considerar la posibilidad de que haya repercusiones negativas tanto dentro como fuera de los penales, pero el Gobierno ha dispuesto medidas extraordinarias en diferentes ámbitos relacionados con la seguridad”.

En otras palabras, es un riesgo que merece la pena correrse y para el que creen estar preparados.

Las 72 horas de ‘calma marera’

En los primeros 25 días del mes de marzo hubo 571 asesinatos en El Salvador, un promedio de 22.8 cada día. En los días 26, 27 y 28 de marzo, se cometieron 28 homicidios –según la PNC–, lo que deja un promedio de 9.3, un descenso brutal de casi el 60 %.

El sábado hubo 17 homicidios; el domingo, 9; y el lunes, ‘solo’ 4.

Cuando se acerca la lupa, las cifras incluso se redimensionan. Así, de los cuatro homicidios de este lunes 28 de marzo, uno es un pandillero que murió en un supuesto intercambio de disparos con policías; otro, una señora que murió en el Hospital Zacamil luego de ser agredida, pero que estaba ingresada desde el 12 de enero; un tercero, fue un joven que la PNC baleó porque el carro en el que se desplazaba no se detuvo en un retén; y el cuarto, es un pandillero de la 18 asesinados en Coatepeque (Santa Ana), sin que aún se sepa quién lo mató.

De algunas manera, las pandillas han mostrado que aún mantienen la capacidad sobre sus estructuras en la libre.

Hablan las pandillas

Cerca de una hora después de que las autoridades concluyeran su conferencia en el penal de Quezaltepeque, las pandillas convocaron a un reducido número de medios a su propia conferencia de prensa. Un periodista de El Faro recibió una llamada en la que se le convocaba de urgencia a un lugar –que se acordó no mencionar– en el que las pandillas harían pública su reacción a las medidas especiales anunciadas por el Gobierno.

Representantes de la MS-13, de los Sureños y de la Revolución aseguraron que sus estructuras han decidido prolongar indefinidamente su disposición de reducir los asesinatos.

“Hemos hecho el llamado a nuestra gente… ya que terminó a medianoche las 72 horas, a que le demos continuidad, que prorroguemos esto, que se continúe la baja de homicidios, que estemos a la expectativa de lo que suceda y que veamos de qué manera nos cuidamos…”, mencionó el representante de la facción Sureños de la 18.

Los otros dos representantes, luego de decir el nombre de su pandilla y de realizar los gestos que los identifican, lanzaron órdenes similares a sus respectivas estructuras.

Para los pandilleros resultó importante subrayar que esta decisión es absolutamente unilateral, que prescinde de mediadores, y que no tiene a la base ningún tipo de diálogo con las autoridades; sin embargo, también resaltaron que esta decisión no obedece a que las medidas extraordinarias del Gobierno les hayan hecho sentir acorralados.

“No lo estamos haciendo por miedo, eso jamás ha sido nuestra reflexión, sino que creemos que ya es tiempo que esto pare. Sin mediadores, sin política…. nos está funcionando, hasta que las estadísticas lleguen a cero. No estamos acorralados, claro lo hemos dicho: ¡Jamás van a poder exterminar a las pandillas!”, sentenció el vocero de la Revolución.

Los pandilleros se negaron a ponerle plazo o condiciones a su ofrecimiento y aseguraron que para mantener este descenso de asesinatos basta con que la PNC no abuse de su autoridad. “No le pedimos al Gobierno que nos agradezca nada, ni a la Policía que nos agradezca, sino que nos dejen seguir trabajando en esta dirección”, mencionó el pandillero de los Sureños.

Los tres representantes de pandillas hicieron ver que existen permanentes canales de comunicación entre sus estructuras y que son capaces de llegar a acuerdos entre sí.

Al finalizar la conferencia, El Faro se detuvo a conversar con uno de los pandilleros, quien aseguró que si es cierto que el Gobierno ha conseguido aislar a los mandos medios de las tres organizaciones, corre el riesgo de que sea imposible mantener autoridad sobre sus miembros en las calles: “Si llegara a ser cierto… quiere decir que de 22 asesinatos pudieran subir a 27 o 30”, advirtió y se apresuró a matizar: “No es amenaza, es una realidad que sin cabeza este volado pierde el control”.

299 cabecillas de pandillas fueron trasladados a un nuevo módulo de aislamiento en el penal de Quezaltepeque. 29 de febrero 2016. Foto: Antonio Montes

Foto Antonio Montes.


The Executioners of El Salvador. El Salvador is in Serious Trouble. Reflections on Salvador’s Gangs

El incremento de la violencia ha puesto nuevamente a El Salvador en el ojo de la prensa internacional, sobre todo en Estados Unidos. Reproducimos aquí 3 artículos de diferentes medios, que nos parecen los más interesantes y mejor investigados, y agregamos links para los demás que recientemente han salido.

Segunda Vuelta

The Executioners of El Salvador. By Daniel Alarcón/The Newyorker

 A suspected gang member detained by police in San Salvador. PHOTOGRAPH BY MANU BRABO/AP

A suspected gang member detained by police in San Salvador. PHOTOGRAPH BY MANU BRABO/AP

Daniel Alarcón, escritor peruano-estadounidense

Daniel Alarcón, escritor peruano-estadounidense

Daniel Alarcón, 4 agosto 2015 / THE NEWYORKER

Earlier this year, the International Business Times ran this bewildering headline: “El Salvador to Become Deadliest Peace-Time Country in the World.” It’s an odd turn of phrase; something about it doesn’t quite scan. Perhaps, given the context of life in El Salvador, it’s best to reëxamine what we mean when we say “peacetime.” Consider this: since the collapse, early last year, of the truce between local gangs and the government, the murder rate has risen by a staggering fifty-two per cent. Or this: El Salvador, with a population of a little over 6.3 million, registered more than six hundred murders in May, the most since the end of the civil war. (For comparison: despite its reputation for violence, Chicago, with a little under half the population of El Salvador, had forty-eight murders that same month.) Or this: more than thirty-five police officers have been killed so far in 2015. Everyone has been touched, directly or indirectly, by the chaos, and Salvadorans of every social class have learned to cope with the constant sense of insecurity. One friend likened returning home from abroad to being splashed with boiling water—and he wasn’t referring to the heat. If this is peacetime, one shudders to think what a war would look like.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 7.08.29 PMI was in San Salvador two weeks ago, when El Faro, a local online newspaper, published an explosive investigation into a killing at a farm just a few hours from the capital. The article was entitled “Police Massacre in San Blas,” and it re-creates, through eyewitness testimony, the examination of forensic and ballistic reports, and private social-media postings by police who were present, the events of March 26th of this year, when eight alleged members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha were killed at a coffee plantation. The official story, reported at the time, told of a police raid and a subsequent shootout; Roberto Valencia, Daniel Valencia Caravantes, and Óscar Martínez, reporting for El Faro, uncovered something very different, a series of events that sounds more like an extrajudicial police killing. Most but not all of the dead were gang members, and some appeared to have been executed. The official story of an extended gun battle has also been called into question by El Faro’s reporters. One of the victims, Dennis, was just twenty years old, and had worked at the farm for six years as an “escribiente.” Basically, he lived onsite and kept track of the hours that all the employees worked. He was, by all accounts (except those of police), a quiet, church-going young man, not a gang member. Months before the killing, a local Mara Salvatrucha clique forced its way onto the compound. Its members occasionally slept at the house or partied there, and there was little the employees of the farm could do about it. Men like these don’t ask permission. A few weeks before he was killed by police, Dennis told his pastor about the uncomfortable situation. He said he was afraid. Moments before he died, Dennis was on the phone with his mother, Consuelo. She told El Faro’s reporters that she heard her son begging for his life. She lived close enough to hear the shots that killed him.

I met with one of the authors of the story, Óscar Martínez, the night before it went live on the Web site. Óscar is best known in the United States for “The Beast,” his 2013 chronicle of life on the harrowing migrant trail through Mexico. He’s always a bit manic, but that night, Óscar seemed unusually jittery, even anxious. He and his co-authors were all preparing to leave the country the following morning, for their own safety. This extraordinary measure says a lot about the kind of backlash that El Faro was expecting. As the violence has increased, the debate about what exactly should be done about it has become even more poisonous. Thus far, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s populist response has been to disown the truce that held for the better part of two years, and instead confront the gangs directly. No politician wants to be seen as soft on the gangs, which are rightly seen as a scourge. The public, for the most part, supports this strategy. For El Faro to criticize the police is to risk being seen as defenders of the gangs that everyone despises. Óscar had already received death threats for an earlier story about police misconduct.

Óscar, who is thirty-two, sees things differently. “We’re a society that knows nothing about peace,” he told me. “I’ve never lived it.” These days, El Salvador, he argued, is in the grip of something terrible, something frightening and lawless, and it’s natural for people to be outraged. But allowing police to kill with impunity is far too dangerous a proposition in a country with El Salvador’s history of state violence.

Last week, the Salvadoran defense minister, David Munguía Payés, told the press that there were somewhere between five and six hundred thousand people involved with gangs. Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 are the two most powerful organizations, but there are many others. If that figure is to be believed, that’s about ten per cent of the country’s population dedicated to drug dealing, extortion, and mayhem—so what do you do? Again and again, I heard the same solution being offered, sometimes blithely, sometimes through jaws clenched in rage: kill them all. Kill their girlfriends and their families. Kill their children. One man apologized as he proposed this solution—he found it unseemly to be advocating genocide—but most did not. One young woman, soft-spoken, exceedingly polite, detailed her life in a gang-ridden neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital. It was one terrifying encounter after another, each delivering the same dispiriting lesson: she was helpless in the face of the gangs and their malevolent power. She had done everything she could to avoid them, and still they found ways to control her life. Her father was forced to pay extortion money to one of the gangs—she wouldn’t say which one. By the end of our conversation, she was almost weeping with fury. “I’m a Christian,” she told me, “but those people aren’t my brothers. I would burn them all.”

It’s easy to empathize with that anger. I heard her stories and others like them, and I confess that I began to feel it, too. But can you create policy from rage? Every time I heard this horrifying solution discussed, I felt despondent. Leaving aside the ethics, mass murder like that is not plausible, neither politically nor practically. I found myself making this argument again and again, and afterward would replay the conversation and my role in it, and feel even more depressed. The very fact that a proposed genocide has to be discussed in terms of its practicality, and not its immorality, tells you a great deal about the gravity of the situation in El Salvador.

The night before he left the country, Óscar told me that he understood the anger, and he knew that he and his co-authors would be attacked for his investigation. “I only hope,” he said, “that the readers who applaud the fact that the police are now judge, jury, and executioner don’t suffer one day at the hands of the police they’ve empowered.”

Aquí el link a la nota del International Business Times
mencionada al principio de la nota arriba:
El Salvador to become deadliest peace-time country in the world

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Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 3.39.19 PMCentral America, it often seems, is a region that lurches from one crisis to the next. So much so that the whole concept of crisis has become somewhat hackneyed and a tad meaningless.

Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America

Tim Rogers, senior editor for Latin America of FUSION, the joint digital platform of UNIVISION and ABC News

Tim Rogers, 30 julio 2015 / FUSION

Central America, it often seems, is a region that lurches from one crisis to the next. So much so that the whole concept of crisis has become somewhat hackneyed and a tad meaningless.

There are loud calls for the president to resign in Guatemala, and serious concerns about a return to dictatorship and dynastic rule in Honduras and Nicaragua. Human rights abuses abound throughout the region.

But nowhere in Central America is the situation more worrisome than El Salvador. The country is immersed in an escalating conflict that increasingly looks like a new civil war between gangs and the state. As the government’s offensive against the gangs gears up, the country’s murder rate has jumped by an appalling 55 percent, pushing the country towards a level of violence it has not seen since the worst days of its civil war in the early 1990s. The government insists it won’t negotiate with the gangs or allow itself to be defeated by the criminal organizations.

But increasingly, it’s a conflict that’s claiming collateral damage — including tourists. Last Saturday night, two unidentified gangsters on a motorcycle hurled a grenade into the restaurant at the Sheraton Hotel, blowing out windows but — miraculously— injuring no one. The incident was quickly denounced by the Salvadoran attorney general as an “act of terrorism.”

On Wednesday, gangsters fired on a group of Canadian tourists who were driving back to their hotel in the colonial town of Suchitoto. The car was hit with bullets but nobody was seriously injured.

The U.S. embassy issued a security message yesterday warning U.S. citizens in El Salvador to avoid outdoor seating in restaurants and bars.

How a bucket of fried chicken could prevent gang war in El Salvador

“The U.S. Embassy is aware that criminal elements in El Salvador have threatened to escalate the level of violence by attacking hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and other public venues,” the embassy warned in its July 29 release. “The grenade attack at a major hotel on July 25 demonstrates both a will and a capability to carry out such plans.”

The embassy also reiterated its boilerplate list of other recommendations for U.S. citizens in El Salvador to avoid using public transportation, avoid wearing jewelry, avoid walking around the city after nightfall, and avoid exercising outside.

fusionThe embassy’s long not-to-do list is not appreciated by El Salvador’s tourism sector. Mercedes Perla, executive director of the Salvadoran Tourism Chamber (CASATUR), says she thinks the embassy’s warning is blowing the situation out of proportion, and is entirely counterproductive to the U.S. government’s efforts to help El Salvador’s small business growth.

“This is terrible for tourism,” Perla told Fusion, referring to the embassy’s warning, not the terrorist attack on the Sheraton. Perla acknowledges concerns about El Salvador’s worsening security problem, but says the tourism sector’s real problem is the media, not the gangs.

“The media is affecting us more than gang violence,” Perla told me. “Tourists are not normally targets of gang violence. These were isolated events.”

Crime happens everywhere, she says, but not all crime is treated equally. “In Costa Rica you can get robbed at any red light, but nobody talks about security problems there. And I lived in the U.S. for one year and had my credit card cloned and my car stolen.”

But unfortunately for El Salvador’s tourism industry, which draws more than a 1 million foreign visitors each year —mainly to its famous surf breaks — the universal nature of crime has little bearing on the escalation of brazen violence in El Salvador, which appears to be taking on more of a political nature, as evidenced by a foiled gang plot to attack the presidential palace earlier this month.

Increasingly, the violence is affecting everyone. This week an estimated 80 percent of public transportation in the capital was shut down for three days when bus companies went on strike to protest gang extortion. The government blamed the transportation shutdown on the Pandilla 18 Revolucionarios, or 18R, and in retaliation moved two of its incarcerated leaders back to solitary confinement Zacatecoluca maximum security prison.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 3.52.26 PMIn another worrisome sign of trouble, the office of the presidency released a statement this week denying that the Salvadoran Army is conspiring against the government of left-wing President and former FMLN guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

“There are absolutely no soldiers implicated in any operation to destabilize the government,” the presidency said in a statement, as the president himself left for Cuba for what he called routine medical treatment.

Whether the plot rumors are true or not, it’s never a good sign when the president feels the need to assure the country of the army’s loyalty.

So why should anyone else care about the problems in the smallest country in Central America? Because, as Refugees International pointed out in a report released today, gang violence in El Salvador is forcing thousands to flee their homes into neighboring countries, including the United States.

While the government focuses its attention on trying to combat the gangs, very little attention is being paid to the gangs’ victims,” said Sarnata Reynolds, senior advisor on human rights for Refugees International. “With no official government programs in place to help them internally, the only option for many is to flee to other countries.”

The D.C.-based group claims that “roughly 90 percent of the country under the de facto control of criminal gangs,” making El Salvador “one of the deadliest countries in the world.” Last year alone more than 32,000 unaccompanied Salvadoran children arrived at the U.S. border, many fleeing gang violence. The exodus continues now, though many more immigrants are getting nabbed in Mexico as border-control efforts move south.

If the situation of violence continues to spiral in El Salvador, the country will continue to export its problems on the rest of the region. Then there won’t be any reason to visit El Salvador at all, because it will come to you.

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Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 3.54.45 PM


Michael Busch is senior editor of Warscapes, an independent online magazine that provides a lens into current conflicts across the world.

Michael Busch, 3 agosto 2015 / WARSCAPES

A Warscapes reader from El Salvador wrote to me last night, requesting clarification on something I wrote in my post on El Salvador’s gangs and ISIS. Specifically, he queried a passage that I realize now was very poorly phrased. I had written, “How the responsibilities of the government to its people can be meaningfully balanced against the preferences of gangs, who wield real power across El Salvador, is a puzzle that has so far eluded a solution.”

It strikes me that the passage is not only badly written but coy, as well. What I intended to suggest, without explicitly arguing the point, is that I’ve come to think that another round of peace negotiations between the gangs and the government is the country’s best hope. It’s a position I’ve taken up in another piece I hope will be published soon, but as I discussed with the reader in a private email exchange, the short and long of it is this.

The gangs exercise power throughout the country, and they’re not going away any time soon. They maras have outlined a series of demands that are politically unappetizing but, from what I can tell, are no worse than the price of continued bloodshed at increasingly grotesque levels. Too, these demands have been put forth as distinctly negotiable items, not hardline, take-it-or-leave-it deal breakers. Initiating dialogue with the gangs on these issues—as well as any others that the government puts forward—seems to me a much better approach than ratcheting up the violence through a militarized response.

The idea of another truce is not popular, politically or otherwise. A piece in InsightCrime this morning warns that the likelihood of peace through negotiations is doubtful. The author, Michael Lohmuller, points out that,

…it is unclear to what extent the MS13 and Barrio 18 leadership can control its members and deliver immediate benefits such as a reduction of violence. The gang leaders have been transferred back to a maximum-security prison facility, ostensibly limiting their ability to coordinate and exert control over the day-to-day activities of members on the street. Furthermore, gang leaders reportedly agreed to halt violence in early 2015, yet El Salvador just experienced the two deadliest months the country has seen since its civil war.

Another gang truce also heightens the potential for increased violence in the long term, similar to how murder rates in El Salvador have been soaring since the breakdown of the first truce. A second gang truce thus raises the possibility of a cyclical effect, with periods of lowered homicide rates punctuated with periods of extreme violence.

From where I sit, Lohmuller’s first point about gang leadership is precisely why negotiations make sense. As I argued in my previous post, gang leaders probably have substantial interest in keeping control of their rapidly growing organizations. Peace talks would allow them to pursue this objective, which would be to great public benefit if it translated into dramatically reduced body counts. Whether that would happen immediately is anyone’s guess, and beside the point. If gang leaders failed to demonstrate command and control, their bargaining power would be greatly reduced to the government’s advantage.

As to Lohmuller’s second observation about igniting cycles of future violence: this tastes like thin soup. The threat of future conflict hangs over all peace negotiations—their very raison d’etre. The specter of future conflict should be the motivation for talks, not a deterrent. And while collapse of the first truce has resulted in extreme violence, a sample of one is just that. Whether another effort is doomed to failure and more violence can hardly be divined from the experiences of 2013-14.

All of this aside, prospects for peace appear remote. The government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén—like the old mano dura regimes of the ARENA era—appears to believe it can kill its way to peace, an approach I don’t think is true, or good. Figuring out ways that the government can engage productively with the gangs on some things—without sacrificing the security and well-being of its citizens—seems to me to be the biggest challenge El Salvador currently faces. Sadly, it’s one that the government so far has rejected even considering.

El anterior artículo de Michael Busch:
Are El Salvador’s Gangs “More Vicious than ISIS”?

El reportaje de TIMES MAGAZINE:
Inside El Salvador’s ‘War Without Sense’

How America Exported A Gang War

Joaquín Villalobos en EL PAIS:
Un millón y medio de muertos

La nota de INSIDE CRIME:
Should El Salvador Renew the Gang Truce?

El reportaje de National Public Radio NPR:
In El Salvador, Gang Killings Take An Agonizing Toll