The Truce. De Daniel Castro

How the United States helped spoil a plan to end gang violence in El Salvador.



When I met Raúl Mijango, in a courtroom in San Salvador, he was in shackles, awaiting trial. He was paunchier than in the photos I’d seen of him, bloated from diabetes, and his previously salt-and-pepper goatee had turned fully white. The masked guard who was escorting him stood nearby, and national news cameras filmed us from afar. Despite facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, Mijango seemed relaxed, smiling easily as we spoke. “Bolívar, Fidel, Gandhi, and Mandela have also passed through this school,” he told me, “and I hope that some of what they learned during their years in prison we should learn as well.”

A policeman from the special emergency unit Halcones patrols a neighborhood in San Salvador, May 19, 2011 © Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images
A policeman from the special emergency unit Halcones patrols a neighborhood in San Salvador, May 19, 2011 © Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images

For the past eleven months, Mijango had been held in Sector 9, a VIP cellblock of the Mariona prison, for inmates who have “been involved in political things,” he said. He told me that he spent twenty-two hours a day with sixteen other men inside his cell, a space designed for four. There had been a news report that he attended yoga classes with former president Elías Antonio Saca, who was in prison on corruption charges. Mijango laughed when I asked about it. “No more yoga classes,” he said. “The instructor got hurt.”

Mijango, a former leftist guerrilla commander during El Salvador’s civil war, had been charged with conspiring with gang members to extort a food distribution company. He claimed that the charges against him were baseless and politically motivated. The government was targeting him, he said, because he had dared to take a new approach to the country’s problem of gang violence. In 2012, he negotiated a secret truce between El Salvador’s two largest gangs, ­MS-13 and Barrio 18, whose decades-long war had driven the country’s annual murder rate to rank among the world’s highest. Mijango’s truce cut the murder rate by more than half. It was the most dramatic reduction of gang violence El Salvador had ever experienced, and Mijango was invited by similarly afflicted neighboring countries, such as Honduras, to replicate the endeavor.

But now, seven years later, the truce is gone and buried, and the extortion charges are the latest of several indictments related to Mijango’s role as negotiator. Many Salvadorans have come to view him as a public enemy who helped strengthen gangs and attempted to enrich himself in the process. Others hail him as a hero who saved thousands of lives at great personal risk, and they blame the United States for sabotaging the truce and ruining the country’s best chance in years to curb gang violence.

For over twenty years, Mijango argues, the overwhelming influence of the United States on Salvadoran law enforcement has led to tremendous mistakes in security policy. Mijango believes that the United States pressured the Salvadoran attorney general’s office to prosecute him because it had opposed the negotiations from the beginning. “Condemning me has to do with the act of consummating that persecution,” he told me, “to not allow the possibility that in El Salvador, or in any other country, someone will think that that’s a way of solving the problem. It’s that simple.”

Before I came to see Mijango, I had not been back to El Salvador for seven years, since the beginning of the truce. My father is Salvadoran, and when I was a child we visited often, even during the civil war, a twelve-year conflict between the US-supported military government and the left-wing guerrillas of the ­FMLN. One excuse for my absence was that my closest cousins were now living in the United States, but—even as my family and I ranted on Facebook about Trump and the American media’s portrayals of El Salvador as a giant gang factory, a “shithole,” full of anonymous, tattooed, brown men staring out menacingly from behind bars—part of what had kept me away was fear. My father’s hometown, an idyllic place in my childhood, was relatively safe during the war, though sometimes we could hear mortars going off in the distance. When we passed soldiers on the road, creeping into the brush with their guns drawn, adults would assure me they were only “playing.” For a while, I thought a guerrilla was a kind of murderous ape. Swaths of the town are now split between Barrio 18 and ­MS-13. Members of my family have been threatened. Gangs even control the delivery of goods; my cousin told me that they really got on her nerves when they halted shipments of Coke after the delivery company refused to pay the extortion fee. Corpses have been found on the picturesque hill overlooking the town, the one we strolled up each morning during our visits.

San Salvador has become one of the most violent cities in the world. Despite the new malls, craft breweries, and recently renovated public spaces, the capital is a city of locked metal gates and private security guards toting shotguns on street corners. Seemingly every structure stands behind a wall of barbed wire. Much of the gang activity is concentrated in marginalized neighborhoods, but throughout the city a sense of risk can accompany the most basic activities, such as using public transportation or stopping at certain red lights. Above all, gangs manifest their power through extortion and territorial control, creating a geography of safe and unsafe spaces, a map of violence that shapes daily life. A common warning is allá asaltan: “They mug people there,” the third-person plural asaltan suggesting an invisible “they”—a faceless, sinister group, a uniform other. Nearly everyone I met had a story about being held up or threatened, even if, in true Salvadoran fashion, they often told it with a laugh.

For the past several years, since the collapse of Mijango’s truce, gang violence in El Salvador has been a leading cause of migration to the United States. Between October 2013 and July 2015, nearly eighty thousand unaccompanied minors from Central America were detained by US authorities along the Mexican border. According to a study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 66 percent of Salvadoran minors interviewed at the border cited having been threatened or victimized by “organized, armed criminal actors” as a primary reason for fleeing the country. A 2017 report found that gangs are now responsible for 84 percent of forced displacement from El Salvador. In October, as a caravan of roughly five thousand Central American migrants, originating in Honduras, made its way toward the US border, a smaller caravan of Salvadorans followed, despite the US ambassador’s public pleas for them to stay put.

“I think if the US had been with us and given us a chance,” one of the negotiators told me, “there may have been less displaced Salvadorans showing up on their border.” The story of the truce and its dissolution is central to understanding the United States’ responsibility for the current migration crisis, and it suggests what it might take to comprehensively address the root problem of gang violence in El Salvador today. “We were convinced that after twenty years, the formula of repressive action to resolve the problem of violence wasn’t producing results,” Mijango told me. “We said, ‘We have to find another way here.’ And we found it.”

Immigration and Naturalization Service agents of the Violet Gang Task Force arrest young men, Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, 1994 © Donna De Cesare
Immigration and Naturalization Service agents of the Violet Gang Task Force arrest young men, Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, 1994 © Donna De Cesare

The war between ­MS-13 and Barrio 18 started in Los Angeles. ­MS-13, now the larger of the two gangs, was formed in the late Seventies, when Salvadorans who had fled to L.A. at the onset of the civil war banded together in the face of anti-immigrant discrimination from established black and Chicano gangs. They were young men who felt rejected by their new home. Barrio 18 is much older, an offshoot of Clanton 14th Street, one of the oldest Hispanic gangs in California. Members of Barrio 18 are known as los números, the numbers, while ­MS-13 are las letras, the letters. In both gangs, there is an emphasis on the power of words, palabras, and the value of verbal agreements. Leaders on the street are called palabreros. No one knows for sure how the feud between the two groups began, but it has killed tens of thousands and bred an obsessive mutual hatred that has become an integral part of the gangs’ identities. In one neighborhood in San Salvador, ­MS-13 allegedly banned DC shoes because the letters could be interpreted as shorthand for dieciocho, eighteen. At a Salvadoran prison in 1995, computer classes were abruptly suspended because veterans of Barrio 18 refused to touch computers whose operating system was MS-DOS.

Many rightly blame the mass deportations of gang members from the United States in the mid-Nineties for the growth and radicalization of gangs in El Salvador, but Salvadoran policies were just as decisive. In 2003, ARENA, the right-wing party, implemented a repressive security strategy known as Mano Dura, or Iron Fist. At the time Mano Dura was introduced, the homicide rate was actually at its lowest level in years. But transforming gangs into national bogeymen proved politically successful, helping ARENA hold on to the presidency in the next election. Mass arrests were often carried out simply on the basis of appearance; wearing baggy clothes could be enough. And the United States supported Mano Dura vigorously. Roberto Castillo, a police inspector who was later involved in the truce, told me that law enforcement advisers from the American Embassy even gave arrest quotas to the Salvadoran police. “Lots of young men were captured and stuck in the holding cells, even though they weren’t gang members,” Castillo told me. “They became gang members there.”

Over time, gangs became more sophisticated, and more violent. The year 2009 was the most violent since the end of the civil war, with 4,369 homicides. The number of documented extortion cases also skyrocketed. That same year, the ­FMLN, the party of former guerrilla insurgents, captured the presidency for the first time, with a left-wing candidate, Mauricio Funes. Funes appointed David Munguía Payés, a former general for the military government, to be the new minister of public security, a post that would give him control of the state security apparatus, including the prison system. At the time, few appreciated that his appointment would reshape the gang war. The expectation was that Munguía Payés would double down on Mano Dura. But, in fact, he had accepted the post only on the condition that he be allowed to explore an alternative.

Colonia Las Palmas, a neighborhood controlled by the Barrio 18 gang, San Salvador, September 10, 2016 © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Colonia Las Palmas, a neighborhood controlled by the Barrio 18 gang, San Salvador, September 10, 2016 © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

When Munguía Payés hired Mijango as an adviser, the ex-guerrilla was running a small business selling liquefied-gas tanks. The two men, former wartime adversaries, had struck up an unlikely friendship. Mijango had served as an FMLN congressman, but had since broken with the party over what he viewed as corruption and had abandoned politics altogether. Many of his fellow guerrilla commanders had been able to carve out successful lives for themselves after the war, but Mijango was broke. Like small businessmen throughout the country, he was forced to pay extortion fees to gangs, and he had learned to negotiate with them. “That was when I realized that they were people you could talk to and reach agreements with,” Mijango said in an interview with El Faro. He and Munguía Payés had often discussed employing the same approach at the state level. After the general’s appointment, they got their chance.

In February 2012, Munguía Payés sent Mijango to meet with the head of security at El Salvador’s maximum-­security prison, Zacatecoluca, which lies behind massive barbed-wire walls about forty miles southeast of the capital, in the hot and humid Lempa River Valley. My grandfather, a former civil servant, was posted in the nearby town for several years, and his second wife had a catering business that provided food to the prison. That was before a gang rebellion, in 2014, turned the town into a battle zone—before the prison became known as “Zacatraz.” Today the prison houses more than six hundred of the country’s most dangerous criminals. The cement-block structure contains six floors. The lowest and darkest, Sector 6, is reserved for “The Heroes,” allegedly the oldest and worst offenders, who have access to a single window, about ten centimeters wide. The temperature inside often rises above one hundred degrees. The prison is home to the leaders of ­MS-13 and Barrio 18. In El Salvador, convicted gang members are usually grouped into designated prisons exclusive to each gang, but in Zacatecoluca, the bitter rivals are forced to coexist.

Mijango proposed to the head of security what seemed like a suicidal plan. With Munguía Payés’s support, he planned to bring the two gangs’ leaders into a single room—without shackles, guards, or cameras—to discuss a ceasefire. By the time he approached the head of security, he had been visiting the prison for weeks, meeting individually with gang leaders to explore the possibility of a truce. As if convincing the heads of ­MS-13 and Barrio 18 to negotiate were not enough of a challenge, Mijango also had to make sure the warring factions within the two gangs, particularly Barrio 18’s Revolucionarios and Sureños, were on board. “We talked to each group, to the MS, to the Mirada Locos 13, to the Revolucionarios, to the Sureños, to the Mao Mao, to La Maquina, to the ones they called the MD, and all the organizations related to the problem of violence,” Mijango told me. “We started talking to each one of them, in the sense of, ‘Look, you all are shitting on the country. We have to find a way to resolve this problem because in the end it affects you, too.’”

Mijango found that many gang members were in an existential crisis. They worried that their own children would join a gang and end up in prison like them. Some of them were part of the old guard, from Los Angeles, where gangs had played by a different, more restrained set of rules. While they accepted some of the blame, they wondered how they had become part of the rapid escalation of violence over the past decade. A few had already considered a dialogue with other gangs, but for the most part, the idea was taboo within their ranks, and possibly deadly.

Gang leaders were skeptical when Mijango told them that he’d been sent directly by President Funes to negotiate with them in order to lower the homicide rate. Politicians had tried to negotiate with them before, often in pursuit of votes from the communities they controlled. But soon the gangs found something to like about Mijango: he, too, had been an enemy of the state. There was a natural affinity between the ex-guerrilla, who had spent years trading blows with the military during the war, and gang members who had lived through Mano Dura. Borromeo Henríquez Solórzano, aka “El Diablito de Hollywood,” who had institutionalized MS-13’s extortion practices nationwide, was the gang’s leader and spokesman. “We like the fact that you’re the one who’s come,” he said, “because we know you’re not like any of those corrupt sons of bitches who came to see us before. That’s why we’re going to listen to you.”

Gang members were also willing to listen because they wanted something: better prison conditions. Adam Blackwell, a diplomat from the Organization of American States (OAS), a forum focused on regional cooperation, had recently presented a study of the country’s carceral system to security officials. The study found that Salvadoran prisons were overcrowded by 300 percent. “They had kids sitting in prisons with hardened criminals,” Blackwell told me. “It was a disaster.” Better conditions also meant more frequent family visits. Henríquez Solórzano, the leader of ­MS-13, had a specific request. Every year, for his birthday, his mother traveled from Los Angeles to see him, but they were always separated by a glass wall. What he wanted most was to be able to hug her.

The head of security at Zacatecoluca, a colonel, rejected the idea of a gang summit out of hand, but he soon got a call from Munguía Payés, who ordered him to allow the meeting to take place. The colonel agreed to step out of the way, but absolved himself of any responsibility if Mijango and his team didn’t make it out alive.

A cell in Cojutepeque prison, which housed 1,200 inmates in a space designed for 300, 2012 © Pau Coll/Ruido Photo/El Faro
A cell in Cojutepeque prison, which housed 1,200 inmates in a space designed for 300, 2012 © Pau Coll/Ruido Photo/El Faro

On the day the negotiation was set to take place, the atmosphere in the prison was especially tense. Due to a logistical error by security personnel, an ­MS-13 member had encountered a Barrio 18 member in a hallway, and the resulting fight ended only when the guards violently intervened. When Mijango arrived, a few minutes late for the meeting, the prison still smelled of tear gas. The colonel wanted to postpone. “You have no idea how bloodthirsty these people are,” he warned. “If they take you hostage, how am I going to rescue you?” Mijango, who was known for his bravery during the war—as the leader of the guerrillas’ special forces battalion, he was remembered for often laughing as the military closed in on them—was undeterred. Aware that Mijango had the full backing of the minister and the president’s blessing, the colonel could do nothing to stop him. He gathered over a hundred guards to stand ready outside the room in case of trouble.

As Mijango had stipulated, not a single guard was present as he sat down at the table. Roberto Castillo was there, as was Adam Blackwell, who had been sent by the OAS to broker the ceasefire, and a Catholic bishop named Fabio Colindres. The security cameras were blocked. Mijango had brought liters of soda; cigarettes; ice, which was a treasure behind the prison’s scorching cement walls; and boxes of fried chicken from Pollo Campero, the chain beloved by Salvadorans with a patriotic zeal. Shopping for the meal was what had made him late. “I’ve always thought that humanity’s best invention is the table, where everyone can sit in a condition of equality,” Mijango told me. “And if on that table you put a good plate of food, you can settle any difference.”

Yet it was hard to imagine a plate of fried chicken breaking a decades-long cycle of homicidal hatred. “A member of the MS could never be at a table with a Sureño,” Castillo said. “But apart from that, it was even more inconceivable that a Sureño would be together with a Revolucionario at the same table. And it was crazier to think that all three were going to be at a table.” Mijango hadn’t even told the gangs that their enemies would be attending the meeting.

Mijango sat at the center of the table, to separate the groups. The two factions of Barrio 18 came first. Among them was Carlos Mojica Lechuga, “El Viejo Lin,” the leader of the Sureños, a former guerrilla with a shaved head and a tattoo in cursive across his forehead that read, “En memoria de mi madre Rita.” They sat down on one side of the table without incident. But when the ­MS-13’s delegation entered the room and saw their rivals, they froze. Henríquez Solórzano, their leader, asked what was going on, and upbraided Mijango for not warning him beforehand. He said that it was too soon for the joint meeting.

“When is that moment going to come?” Mijango replied. “Who was going to determine it? We’re the ones who were going to determine that. And this is the moment. If you want to leave, then leave, but you’re not going to be able to share what we’ve brought.” Though visibly angry, Henríquez Solórzano sat down, his delegation whispering among themselves. “It was frightening,” Blackwell told me. “What I remember is just how terrified I was, because we were in this room with all of these guys, you know, no guards, no guns, no security, and I’m like, you know, who am I, the little white guy here.”

After the bishop led a prayer, Mijango urged the gangs to forget the fight that had occurred that morning and gave a speech about why they needed to stop killing each other and how it would benefit the country. When he finished, no one said a word. He waited for one of them to speak. He served the food, hoping it might help, but the gangs ate in total silence, stealing glances at one another.

One of the most valued items of the meal was ketchup. It was prohibited in Zacatecoluca because, the gang members explained later, the guards claimed it could be used it to manufacture explosives—a suggestion that made Mijango and Castillo laugh. Both had extensive experience making explosives during the war. According to El Faro, an ­MS-13 member saw that the ketchup and other sauces were on Barrio 18’s side of the table and asked for someone to pass them down. A Barrio 18 member complied, and the sauces were passed back and forth. The gangs remained otherwise silent, until Henríquez Solórzano, apparently sick of the tension, finally stood up. He walked around the table, in Mijango’s direction, and then past him. With everyone watching, he came to where Mojica Lechuga, the Sureños leader, was seated. Mojica Lechuga stood up. Henríquez Solórzano extended his hand, and Mojica Lechuga shook it. Then they began speaking in En­glish. Both had become gang members in Los Angeles. “Please, in Spanish,” Mijango told them. “Not everyone here speaks En­glish.” “I was just telling him,” Henríquez Solórzano replied, “that this is the historic opportunity we’ve all been waiting for.”

Children and insurgents in rebel-held territory, San José Las Flores, Chalatenango, El Salvador, 1988 © Donna De Cesare
Children and insurgents in rebel-held territory, San José Las Flores, Chalatenango, El Salvador, 1988 © Donna De Cesare.

Less than a month after the meeting, Mijango helped bring the gangs to an agreement, which stipulated that they would cease hostilities between them, as well as toward law enforcement and civilians, and participate in a process of dialogue. In exchange, they would receive better prison conditions, the abolition of harsh anti-gang laws, and the cessation of police and military activity in gang territory. Everyone agreed to keep the accord a secret. Mijango and Munguía Payés knew there would be an outcry if the public found out about the negotiations before they could point to concrete results, and the gangs needed time to get the clicas on the street in line. Thirty gang leaders, accompanied by Mijango, were allowed to leave the prison in buses provided by the government, to meet with clicas and reestablish their control.

After this meeting, the leaders were transferred permanently out of Zacatecoluca to lower-security prisons where they would have access to phones and could continue coordinating with the clicas on the outside. But a few days later, El Faro released a bombshell report that detailed the agreement. The revelation that the government had held clandestine talks with convicted gang members and had granted them unusual benefits was a stain that would forever mar the truce in the eyes of a population traumatized by violence and corruption. It exposed what would be two of the ceasefire’s most debilitating flaws: zero transparency and a total lack of a communications strategy.

For the negotiators, the report was a disaster, and the accord suddenly appeared untenable. But then the number of murders started to fall. The month before the transfers, there had been an average of 13.6 homicides a day; afterward, that number fell to single digits. “We caused, in forty-eight hours, a reduction in the situation of violence in the country that hadn’t been accomplished in seventeen years,” Mijango told me.

These results soon quieted the truce’s harshest critics, and the agreement eventually garnered bipartisan political support—­unheard of in El Salvador. The murder rate dropped from 70 per 100,000 in 2011 to 41 per 100,000 in 2012. Mijango convinced the gangs to surrender weapons in public ceremonies as a gesture of good faith. Among the weapons they relinquished were ­M16s and a Claymore mine, supplied to the Salvadoran military by the United States during the war. The first ceremony, in Ilopango, a municipality just outside the capital, was a grand spectacle in the main plaza. The mayor spoke, as did Munguía Payés, who by then had admitted the government’s role. They were followed by representatives of both gangs. The simple act of gang members gathering en masse and showing their faces had a powerful effect.

“The people didn’t know what the hell was going to happen,” Paolo Luers, a journalist and former guerrilla press officer who became part of Mijango’s team, told me. Music was playing and a platform had been set up in the plaza. Suddenly, a column of ­MS-13 members approached, followed by Barrio 18, and soon the plaza held about two hundred gang members. “Before, they had killed each other, and they never let themselves be seen like that,” Luers said. Spectators were astonished that there were so many gang members in their community. “This utopia is possible,” Mijango said in more than one interview.

Mijango was sought out even for matters unrelated to the truce. Families turned to him when their sons went missing. The line between mediator and gang representative became increasingly vague, and in one crucial case, legally murky. In 2012, Mijango mediated a negotiation between Arrocera San Francisco, a food distribution company, and the gangs who were extorting it. He convinced the gangs to lower the monthly extortion fee from $15,000 to $6,000, and to modify the form of payment from cash to goods, such as rice, beans, diapers, and cooking oil, so that gang members could sell the products at stores that would employ their families. Although the company ultimately benefited—the owner sent gang members Christmas baskets and turkeys in gratitude—prosecutors would later accuse Mijango of being an accomplice to extortion. According to Blackwell, these negotiations were part of efforts to increase support for the truce in its next phase, especially among the business community, which had been heavily opposed at first. But there was no clear strategy or order from Mijango’s superiors to proceed in this way. “His passion to find solutions . . . may have gotten the better of him,” Blackwell told me.

A man and his son leave El Salvador del Mundo Square, San Salvador, in a migrant caravan bound for the United States, January 16, 2019 © Jose Cabezas/Reuters
A man and his son leave El Salvador del Mundo Square, San Salvador, in a migrant caravan bound for the United States, January 16, 2019 © Jose Cabezas/Reuters

Throughout the process, Mijango viewed the Americans, not the gangs, as his principal antagonist. He knew that without the support of the United States, which funds Salvadoran law enforcement, the truce would be unsustainable. Mijango told me that US security officials initially reacted to the talks with anger, claiming that they interfered with intelligence operations. Gang informants, after years of getting nothing in return for their cooperation with the FBI, had stopped talking to the Americans, and saw the truce as a better option for improving their conditions. But negotiators continued to lobby the Americans, even traveling to Washington to meet with diplomats and security officials.

Nevertheless, in October 2012, about eight months into the truce, the US Treasury Department designated ­MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization.” ­MS-13 is larger than Barrio 18 and has a more widespread presence in the United States, but many have argued that the gang’s reach and finances are not even close to those of other groups on that list, such as the Japanese Yakuza. It was a move intended to make it more difficult for the gang to transfer money from the United States to El Salvador, but it also made it illegal for US federal agencies to financially support social programs that engaged directly with members of the gang, as some of Mijango’s community initiatives did. “The gringos drew a line,” said Luers, who was in close contact with the Americans. “They said, ‘Not one dollar for programs that work with gangs directly.’”

According to Mijango and Luers, there was a difference of opinion between US diplomats, who were in favor of the truce, and US law enforcement officials, who were opposed. The Salvadoran government itself was torn. President Funes’s public stance on the negotiations remained ambiguous. Abroad, Funes promoted the drop in homicides, but in El Salvador, he continued to present the truce as an accord strictly between gangs, with the state involved merely as a facilitator. What this meant for Mijango and the other negotiators, in practical terms, was that they were for the most part on their own. Many police officers, veterans of Mano Dura, had no confidence in the process, and in some cases even tried to disrupt it. Castillo, one of the few officers involved, recalled having to evade fellow police officers when he went into neighborhoods to pick up weapons that the gangs surrendered.

Mijango became the public face of the truce, a role that Blackwell says was a bad fit. In televised interviews, he was often put on the defensive. Sporting a neatly trimmed goatee and a white guayabera (an emblem of peace throughout Latin America), he would call on the government and the public for more robust support, and in his gravelly smoker’s voice, sympathize with the gang members. “They find something in the gangs that fills that void that society and family haven’t been able to fill,” he told El País. When asked about a particular homicide, he sometimes sounded like a Mafia consigliere, complaining about rebellious clicas and promising that gang leaders would fix the problem—obviously through violent means. In a call that later became public, he urged Henríquez Solórzano, the ­MS-13 leader, to punish a gang member who had killed someone. “You all know what to do,” Mijango told him.

By the end of June 2013, Mijango’s utopia began to show cracks, as powerful critics of the truce emerged. Luis Martínez, the attorney general, who had strong ties to ARENA and a close relationship with the American Embassy, called the process “hypocritical” and Mijango “a buffoon and a liar.” Martínez falsely claimed that gangs were becoming better armed and more violent. Media outlets spread false reports that gangs were killing just as much as before, but burying their victims in clandestine cemeteries. The cemeteries did exist, but they had been around for years, and most of the bodies exhumed were found to have been buried before the truce. Mijango was circumspect in his rebuttals but claimed the attacks were a political ploy by the right, because continuing to support the truce would mean “recognizing the success of this leftist administration, and their own failure.”

For the most part, politicians in both parties had remained supportive, citing the decrease in homicides. That changed as the 2014 presidential election approached. ARENA’s presidential candidate, Norman Quijano, condemned the truce. “The government comes to an agreement for the delinquents to have a better quality of life in the prisons,” Quijano said. “For them to have plasma screen TVs, for them to have open-ended conjugal visits . . . but where is the agreement to protect honorable citizens?” In short order, ­ARENA formally distanced itself from the truce, and the presidential candidate from the ­FMLN soon did the same. (Salvadoran law prevented Funes from running for a second consecutive term.)

Public opinion no doubt played a role in the parties’ reversals. One poll revealed that 83 percent of Salvadorans had a negative opinion of the truce, and 43 percent believed it had not reduced violence. This was partly a result of the sensational and critical media coverage, but it was true that the negotiators’ focus on the murder rate had led them to ignore other aspects of gang activity, such as gender-based and anti-­LGBTQ violence. The truce had done nothing to address extortion, the practice that affected civilians most widely. (Castillo claims that they had begun discussing extortion with the gangs.) It was also true that gang leaders were enjoying plasma screens and conjugal visits in the prisons. Some had access to cable and internet, water heaters, and cell phones, and were allowed to host prostitutes and to throw parties behind the prison walls. A video of a so-called pornofiesta that went viral several years later showed strippers dancing naked in front of gang members at the Izalco prison in 2012.

The most serious blow to the truce, however, came when the Supreme Court decided to investigate the validity of Munguía Payés’s appointment as minister of public security. According to the Chapultepec Peace Accords of 1992, only civilians could hold the post, and Munguía Payés had commanded government forces during the war. In May 2013, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a military officer, even a retired one, to direct the ministry of public security or the national civil police. Munguía Payés, who had been responsible for enabling the mediators’ access to the prisons, was soon dismissed. Mijango called it an attempt to boycott the truce.

President Funes appointed Ricardo Perdomo as the new minister of public security. Perdomo, who had been involved in the truce as chief of the Office of State Intelligence, had never opposed the process, but Mijango didn’t trust him. On Perdomo’s first day in office, he held a staff meeting where he announced that “the party” was “over.” The mediators would no longer be allowed into the prisons. Journalists would be denied access as well. Before Perdomo took over, Nelson Rauda, the head of the National Prison Directorate, had arranged for two gang leaders to leave the prisons for a televised interview with the pastor of an evangelical church. The interview took place on the same day as Perdomo’s first staff meeting, and the next day, Rauda was fired. At a press conference, Perdomo announced investigations of the officials who had enabled the interview. He was accompanied by Martínez, the attorney general, and Mari Carmen Aponte, the American ambassador.

By January 2015, the truce was dead. The ­FMLN had won a close presidential election, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the new president, declared that the government would no longer negotiate with gangs. He sent the leaders back to Zacatecoluca. According to Mijango, the move was influenced by the Americans, who had just financed the construction of an even stricter new sector at Zacatraz, and wanted it put to use. That August, 907 homicides were committed, making it the most violent month of the century so far. The police intensified attacks on gang territory, forming special battalions, and were backed by more than seven thousand troops. Congress changed the legal code to make it harder to prosecute officers for killing in the line of duty. Reports surfaced of extrajudicial killings, and gangs responded by targeting police officers: in addition to the violence between the gangs themselves, a war between gangs and the state began. Overall, that year, the murder rate jumped by 70 percent, with 6,657 homicides committed. El Salvador became the murder capital of the world.

Raúl Mijango (second from right) at a press conference with leaders of Barrio 18 and MS-13 in Ilopango prison © Pau Coll/Ruido Photo/El Faro.

A  few days after arriving in El Salvador, I visited a military base to speak to a high-ranking official involved in the truce. It was the brief but rainy winter season, and there was a pounding thunderstorm nearly every afternoon, but that morning it was sunny. The grounds of the base were a quiet green oasis from the traffic and noise of the capital. After being waved through one checkpoint and waiting in the car to pass through another, I watched soldiers stroll by, saluting their superiors, and it struck me how similar the experience was to entering a gang-controlled neighborhood—the checkpoints, the strict adherence to established codes, the chain of command. In one office, an M16 commemorating the war was encased in glass. The official told me there was in fact a gang-controlled neighborhood about a mile away from the base. I considered these two worlds, tightly ordered spheres of masculinity, so close together.

Before his involvement in the truce, the official had been a firm believer in Mano Dura, but that changed as he learned more about gangs. He said that they were a valve for social discontent, the same way the ­FMLN had been before it became a mainstream political party. Gangs had, in a way, replaced the guerrillas. “Who are the gangs?” he said. “The children of our bus drivers, workers, et cetera. And those were the people who the ­FMLN attracted.”

Mano Dura paralleled the military’s tactics in the years leading up to the war, when government forces targeted young men whose wardrobes imitated American fashion styles. My father, who had long hair and wore jeans, was arrested in the Seventies with a group of friends after someone falsely accused them of being guerrillas. The police blindfolded them and took them to a holding cell in San Salvador, where they were kept and questioned for days. When I told Castillo this story, he nodded and said, “A lot of us here became guerrillas not because we read Marx or Che Guevara. You know what my motivation was? When I was young, my dad came home beat up by the police.”

According to many people I spoke with, Salvadoran law enforcement tactics are now even more repressive than during the height of Mano Dura. In 2017, a UN representative investigated both the police and the prison system, and found rampant human rights violations. Police officers harass, and in some cases torture, civilians in gang-controlled areas, and they are feared just as much as gangs. The ­FMLN was, in effect, applying the same tactics that had been applied to its members throughout the civil war. “In the military, we did the same thing during the war,” the official told me. “We’re making the same mistakes.”

The official was convinced that dialogue was still the solution, and he had talked to many politicians who felt the same but couldn’t say so publicly. He also echoed the sentiment that the United States still viewed gangs principally as a security issue rather than a social one, which was ironic, he said, since the truce had been partly modeled on peace negotiations with gangs in Los Angeles. The current American ambassador, Jean Manes, has characterized the police repression as the actions of rogue officers and has voiced support for the same extraordinary prison measures that the UN representative had found to be in violation of human rights. Though the United States does fund some reinsertion programs, the bulk of recent US aid has gone to law enforcement and prison construction. For Salvadoran security officials, a different approach would carry the risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in support.

An OAS delegate inspects guns at Gerardo Barrios Square, where alleged gang members handed over weapons as part of a partial disarmament agreement, San Salvador, July 12, 2012 © Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images
An OAS delegate inspects guns at Gerardo Barrios Square, where alleged gang members handed over weapons as part of a partial disarmament agreement, San Salvador, July 12, 2012 © Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

Mijango told me that the government has targeted him ever since the collapse of the truce. In 2014, Luis Martínez, the attorney general, accused Mijango of hiring someone to kill him, and then tried to connect Mijango to a kidnapping, though neither charge made it to court. In 2016, a new attorney general ordered Mijango arrested, along with Castillo and fourteen others involved in the truce, including psychologists, teachers, and prison wardens. The charges included organizing terrorists and introducing illicit objects into prisons. Mijango acknowledged that bringing food and cigarettes into Zacatecoluca was against the law, but, he pointed out, he was acting at the behest of the president and the minister of public security. He and the other defendants argued that they were being scapegoated for their participation in what had been essentially government policy. The judge seemed to agree. He dismissed the case and suggested the attorney general’s office investigate the “chain of command,” ostensibly pointing to Funes, the former president, who has since fled the country to avoid charges of corruption and was granted asylum in Nicaragua.

But Mijango’s legal woes didn’t end there. He was recently charged with homicide. The indictment centered on the phone call with Henríquez Solórzano, the ­MS-13 leader. Prosecutors interpreted “You all know what to do” as a directive to kill the gang member who had committed murder. The gang member was later assassinated in prison. Mijango’s case has yet to go to trial.

Mijango is now the only one of the truce’s core team of negotiators in prison, and he believes this is because he is the least powerful among them. Munguía Payés is the current minister of defense, and Colindres, the bishop, has the backing of the church. Mijango also has enemies across the political spectrum dating back to his break with the ­FMLN and, as the face of the truce, has been a target in the media. One recent headline read, “The Mutation of Raúl Mijango: From Guerrilla to Gang Member.” The day I met Mijango in the courtroom, when he was on trial for the extortion charges, the only person who had shown up to support him was Luers, his former guerrilla comrade. It had been a year since they’d last seen each other, and as they waited for Mijango’s co-­defendants, imprisoned gang members who would participate virtually on plasma screens, the two old friends sat together chatting, as if they expected all of it to be over soon.

Alfredo Quijano, one of the prosecutors, told me that there are no legal protections for those who mediate negotiations with gangs in El Salvador. Mijango’s case was unprecedented. Quijano explained that by convincing gangs to lower the payment and modify its form, regardless of his intent and the company’s gratitude, Mijango was participating in extortion. It might’ve been a different story, Quijano added, if Mijango had convinced the gangs to stop extorting the company altogether, but the negotiation facilitated a continuation of the crime. Quijano also said that some of the company’s products had been found at a house owned by Mijango, which implied that he had benefited from the arrangement.

The fact that there was no legal strategy in place to protect the mediator of a government-backed truce was the product of the Salvadoran state’s reluctance to fully embrace the process, as well as the improvised manner of its execution. Some form of involvement in illegal activity or some degree of moral compromise was probably unavoidable in Mijango’s sprawling role as national gang whisperer. Professor José Miguel Cruz, a Salvadoran researcher at Florida International University who published a study of the truce, told me that this conundrum applies to anyone who cultivates close relationships with gangs, even with good intentions. “It’s very hard to establish a sort of clear line between . . . helping them to take the right steps . . . and helping them to continue with their criminal activities,” Cruz said.

But even the most skeptical Salvadoran journalists I spoke to, who readily question Mijango’s methods and point out his shortcomings, dispute the notion that he is corrupt. “I think that he entered the process because he believed in the process,” Óscar Martínez, one of the El Faro journalists who first broke the story of the truce, told me. “I don’t think he entered the process because the gangs gave him money or the government gave him a super salary. I think that later he did something braver. I think he continued with the process even while knowing that he was going to end up very screwed by this.”

The body of a young man, allegedly murdered by gang members, San Salvador, January 19, 2018 © Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images
The body of a young man, allegedly murdered by gang members, San Salvador, January 19, 2018 © Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

On October 12, 2018, Mijango was convicted in the extortion case and sentenced to thirteen years and four months in prison. “They’re going to screw him,” a well-connected former judge had predicted to me. “This is something political.” The prosecution’s main witness was a gang member involved in the extortion who testified against Mijango under a plea bargain. The Salvadoran Supreme Court announced that the truce case, in which Mijango and others had been acquitted in 2017, would be retried. The homicide case is pending. As masked guards hauled Mijango out of the courtroom after the extortion verdict and reporters with microphones swarmed him, his easy smile was gone.

Mijango’s complicated legacy, however, will linger. The gangs have become more politically savvy, and the question of dialogue—of who has talked to gangs and who hasn’t—is now an essential one in Salvadoran politics. Nayib Bukele, who was elected president in February, was criticized for negotiating with gangs during his term as mayor of San Salvador and avoided the subject during his campaign. “Now you say . . . ‘dialogue with gangs’ and everyone thinks of the truce,” Martínez, the journalist, told me. “Now a politician who mentions it loses three points in the election. And when he does it again, he loses six.”

But Martínez pointed out that the government already negotiates with gangs in order to fulfill its most basic duties. It simply delegates that responsibility to its lowest rung of civil servants. In order to repair a broken pipe in a gang-controlled neighborhood, a water and sewerage employee has to ask the clica’s permission. A public-school teacher who wants children from the other side of the community to attend school has to talk to the gangs. Martínez believes that, because the truce was badly executed, it made the concept of dialogue politically impossible. For Salvadorans to be open to the possibility of dialogue again, Martínez said, the violence will have to spread beyond marginalized communities, until everyone, including the middle class and the decision-makers, is truly sick of it.

Popular desire for dialogue would depend upon accepting that the roughly sixty thousand gang members in the country, as well as the family networks who rely on them, are part of society and cannot all be imprisoned or killed. But most Salvadorans are far from ready to endorse a softer approach. For many, the idea of gangs as victims of repression is laughable. When I mentioned Mijango’s name, people would often insult him, sometimes profanely, for coddling gang members. One of my drivers in San Salvador, a former lawyer, told me that she had once been stopped and threatened by gang members because of the color of her hair; she had dyed it a shade of red that was reserved for their girlfriends. Her hair was darker now. When I asked her what should be done about gangs, her response was immediate. “All of them to the fire,” she said, “and let’s start from zero.”

‘Either They Kill Us or We Kill Them’. De Azam Ahmed/NYT

In one of the deadliest cities in the world, an embattled group of young men had little but their tiny patch of turf — and they would die to protect it. Journalists from The New York Times spent weeks recording their struggle.

Azam Ahmed, NY Times bureau chief, México


SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Three sharp cracks rang out, followed by three more in quick succession. The thoroughfare emptied. Two old men ducked behind a corrugated fence. A taxi jerked onto a side street. A mother shoved her barefooted toddler indoors.

The shooter, an MS-13 gunman in a tank top and black baseball cap, stood calmly on the corner in broad daylight, the only person left on the commercial strip. He stuck the gun in his waistband and watched the neighborhood shake in terror.

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Bryan, Reinaldo and Franklin scrambled into a neighbor’s dirt yard, scattering chickens. In panicked whispers, they traded notes on the shooting, the third in less than a week. Only days earlier, a child had been hit in a similar attack. Bryan, 19, wondered what response the few young men still living in the neighborhood could muster, if any.

Mara Salvatrucha, the gang known as MS-13, was coming for them almost every day now. It raided homes, deployed spies and taunted them with whistles at dusk, a constant reminder that the enemy was right around the corner, able to charge in at will.

There was no avoiding it. The neighborhood, a patch of unpaved roads no bigger than a few soccer fields, was surrounded on all sides.

To the east, near the Chinese takeout where the three friends used to splurge on fried rice, MS-13 was planning its takeover of the area. To the south, past the house repurposed as an evangelical church, the 18th Street gang was plotting to do the same. North and west were no better. Gangs lined those borders, too.

In reality, not much differentiated the neighborhood where Bryan and his friends had grown up from the ones already controlled by gangs. There was a sameness to them — the concrete homes worn by age; the handcarts offering fried chicken and tortillas; the laborers trudging to work at sunrise, waiting for buses on busy corners.

But for Franklin, whose family had been there for generations and who had a child of his own on the way, the neighborhood was his entire world. Reinaldo and Bryan felt the same way.

Only bad options remained for them: stay and fight, abandon their homes and head elsewhere, maybe to the United States, or surrender and hope one of the invading gangs showed them mercy.

All three had been members of the 18th Street gang, but were sickened by the cadence of murder, extortion and robbery of their neighbors, the people they had known all their lives. Seeking redemption, they kicked the gang out of the neighborhood, vowing never to allow another back in.

Now, they were being hunted — by their former comrades in 18th Street, and by MS-13, which wanted their territory.

And so the young men doubled down for their own protection, transforming back into the thing they hated most: a gang.

“The borders surround us like a noose,” said Bryan, standing in the yard with the others in their group, the Casa Blanca. “We don’t want the gangs here, and for that we live in constant conflict.”

Reinaldo, 22, stood guard, watching the street for any signs of movement.

“Lots of people ask me why we’re fighting for this little plot of land,” he said. “I tell them I’m not fighting for this territory. I’m fighting for my life.”

By Derek Watkins | Sources: Times reporting and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa, a local nonprofit organization.

Some of the boundaries shown here are imprecise, and uncolored parts of the map show areas where gang control is unclear.

From 2018 through early 2019, The New York Times followed the young men of Casa Blanca in this tiny corner of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, one of the deadliest cities in the world, and witnessed firsthand as they tried to keep the gangs at bay.

Shootouts, armed raids and last-minute pleas to stop the bloodshed formed the central threads of their stories. MS-13 wanted the neighborhood to sell drugs. The other gangs wanted it to extort and steal. But the members of Casa Blanca had promised never to let their neighborhood fall prey to that again. And they would die for it, if they had to.

Almost no one was trying to stop the coming war — not the police, not the government, not even the young men themselves. The only person working to prevent it was a part-time pastor who had no church of his own and bounced around the neighborhood in a beat-up yellow hatchback, risking his life to calm the warring factions.

“I’m not in favor of any gang,” said the pastor, Daniel Pacheco, rushing to the Casa Blanca members after the shooting. “I’m in favor of life.”

The struggle to protect the neighborhood — roughly four blocks of single-story houses, overgrown lots and a few stores selling chips and soda — encapsulates the inescapable violence that entraps and expels millions of people across Latin America.

Since the turn of this century, more than 2.5 million people have been killed in the homicide crisis gripping Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Igarapé Institute, a research group that tracks violence worldwide.

The region accounts for just 8 percent of the global population, yet 38 percent of the world’s murders. It has 17 of the 20 deadliest nations on earth.

And in just seven Latin American countries — Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela — violence has killed more people than the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen combined.

Average homicide rate per 100k people. By Allison McCann

Source: Igarapé Institute and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Cities include the 50 highest homicide rates in the world and a group of prominent others for comparison, all with populations of at least 250,000. Average homicide rates are from 2016-2018 or the latest data available.

The violence is all the more striking because the civil wars and military dictatorships that once seized Latin America have almost all ended — decades ago, in many cases. Most of the region has trudged, often very successfully, along the prescribed path to democracy. Yet the killings continue at a staggering rate.

They come in many forms: state-sanctioned deaths by overzealous armed forces; the murder of women in domestic disputes, a consequence of pervasive gender inequality; the ceaseless exchange of drugs and guns with the United States.

Underpinning nearly every killing is a climate of impunity that, in some countries, leaves more than 95 percent of homicides unsolved. And the state is a guarantor of the phenomenon — governments hollowed out by corruption are either incapable or unwilling to apply the rule of law, enabling criminal networks to dictate the lives of millions.

For the masses fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, the United States is both a cause and solution — the author of countless woes and a chance to escape them.

Frustrated with the stream of migrants treading north, President Trump has vowed to cut aid to the most violent Central American nations, threatening hundreds of millions of dollars meant to address the roots of the exodus.

But the surviving members of Casa Blanca, who once numbered in the dozens, do not want to flee, like tens of thousands of their countrymen have. They say they have jobs to keep, children to feed, families, neighbors and loved ones to protect.

“There is only one way for this to end,” said Reinaldo. “Either they kill us or we kill them.”

‘The Next Time, They Will Kill Me’

The men entered without a word, pushing through the thin curtain hanging over Fanny’s front door with the barrels of their AK-47s.

She let out a stifled yelp as they spread through the house, their assault rifles shouldered. After the shooting the day before, the MS-13 gunman had watched Bryan, Reinaldo and Franklin race into Fanny’s backyard, one of the few places they felt safe.

Now it was night, and Fanny was alone. The men did a final sweep for Casa Blanca members, then left as suddenly as they had entered. The message was more terrifying for its silence: They could come and go as they pleased.

A single mother of three, Fanny was a surrogate mother to the Casa Blanca members. She had known them since childhood; they had defended her son from bullies in grade school. As they grew up, her house became a refuge, a place to escape broken homes.

And now, for her closeness with the young men, she had fallen into the cross hairs of MS-13. Shaking with fear, she called her cousin, Pastor Pacheco.

“The next time, they will kill me, I know it,” she told him.

Fanny drew respect in the few blocks controlled by Casa Blanca, but she had no sway beyond the neighborhood, which was where the pastor came in. He knew the leaders of all the gangs.

He had a slight paunch and a wide face that permanently lingered on the verge of a smile. An evangelical minister, he delivered Sunday sermons outdoors in the stifling heat and worked construction to make ends meet.

Then in 2014, a 13-year-old girl in the neighborhood was kidnapped by gang members. Her parents owned a small corner store and had failed to pay their extortion demands. As retribution, they abducted the girl and took her to a private home, where they raped and tortured her for three days before killing her and burying her in the floor.

“People watched as they grabbed her from the street, yelling for help, and no one did anything,” recalled Mr. Pacheco, 40, known mostly as Pastor Danny. “They were all scared for their lives.”

Pastor Danny’s daughter was the same age as the girl. Overwhelmed, he visited the house after the police had cleared the scene. The shallow grave was still open, a small hole in the living room, scraped out of the clay floor. He filled it with his hands.

“I made a promise there,” he said. “I was going to do something.”

Four years on, he still kept the newspaper clippings of the murder, to remind him of that promise.

Most days, he shuttled around the gouged-out streets in his hatchback, a car recognized across gang lines. More than once, he had intervened when the police were beating gang members, or placed himself between rival gangs on the verge of killing one another.

He resented the government, the arbitrary brutality of the police and the relentless corruption that had driven so many Hondurans to leave in caravans to the United States. Though murders in his country were dropping, he often said, the underlying problems weren’t.

Now, with Fanny’s life on the line, it was personal. The pastor knew many of the Casa Blanca members and appreciated the quandary they faced. He didn’t want gangs to dominate the neighborhood, either.

But he was a realist — there was no way to keep them out. MS-13 had made its intentions clear. It was advancing across large swaths of San Pedro Sula, using its numbers, tight organization and ruthlessness to overwhelm smaller, less sophisticated groups.

The way he saw it, Casa Blanca was next. And the invasion was coming, one way or another.

Casa Blanca now had fewer than a dozen members in all. Some had been killed, others imprisoned. The remaining ones were the least experienced in gang warfare. A few were barely old enough to shave.

Bryan worked 12-hour shifts in a factory and began his day at 5:30 a.m. To avoid ambushes, he crept out of the neighborhood each morning, then back in at night. He hardly slept. A combination of fear and candy kept him awake on the job.

He arguably had the least to fight for, living alone in a one-bedroom apartment, estranged from his mother. He only heard from her every other week, when he got paid.

“She’s not like other mothers,” he tried to explain, embarrassed.

Franklin, 19, worked construction, when there was work. He had a steady girlfriend and wanted out of the violence because of the child on the way. But he had a brother who harbored no such fantasies. When the time came, he said, his brother would die fighting.

Reinaldo was the quietest. When others boasted of their exploits, he laughed softly but never joined in. He rarely raised his voice and was tender at times, wrapping Fanny’s youngest son in an embrace after she scolded him for collecting gun shells from the street and shaking them like dice.

Reinaldo wanted a way out, too, but refused to abandon his friends, or the neighborhood. He could scarcely imagine himself anywhere else. His expectations were as hemmed in as his movements.

If Casa Blanca had any leader left, it was Javi, in his early 20s, frighteningly skinny and the most violent by nature. A braided scar ran from his right cheek down to his throat, compliments of a gang that had kidnapped him a year earlier. Everyone called him the Macheted.

Members of the Casa Blanca, who tried to protect their neighborhood from invading gangs like MS-13, found themselves outgunned and outnumbered.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In November, Javi had taken off for Guatemala in search of a fresh start. Now, he was back.

“I can’t leave this place,” he explained. “It’s my home. I’m not going to run away.”

Like the legions of young men swept up in the region’s homicide epidemic, they felt trapped in a cycle they were powerless to break. Even in trying to escape the violence — by defecting from gangs altogether — they had only managed to summon more of it.

Pastor Danny considered it a good sign that MS-13 had not harmed Fanny. But the sudden escalation worried him. There would be more bullets, more casualties. He was sure of it. Bryan, Franklin and the others could not even spend a quiet afternoon in Fanny’s backyard anymore. It was marked now.

So the pastor made a plan, one that bordered on diplomatic lunacy.

He wanted to broker a meeting between Casa Blanca members and MS-13, the gang threatening their lives.

‘Life Was Good’

Anner stood shirtless on his porch, watching his daughter play tug-of-war with a small dog.

“This is going to be hard,” he warned the pastor. “These guys have lost too much to just give up.”

Anner, 26, was a workingman. He stocked produce at a grocery store, and felt proud of the small house and motorcycle it afforded him. He had grown up with everyone in Casa Blanca. He was not a member, but two of his brothers-in-law, including Franklin, were.

The pastor needed Anner to convince Casa Blanca that peace was the only way. They grabbed Franklin and went inside, where the air-conditioner ran full blast in a losing battle with the heat. Anner wanted the pastor to understand what he was up against — the feudal history of Casa Blanca.

In the early 2000s, he explained, the territory belonged to 18th Street, and the local members operated from a white house, or Casa Blanca.

In 2016, though, a police operation landed the leaders in jail, leaving the neighborhood up for grabs. A new gang stepped in and the locals, who still referred to themselves as Casa Blanca, joined.

But the new gang was brutal and petty. It killed residents for failing to hand over extortion payments, and robbed them even when they complied. The Casa Blanca members were ashamed — people they had grown up with were suffering at their hands.

They revolted, seeking the help of a faction of 18th Street. When they prevailed months later, they joined 18th Street once again.

But the threats, robberies and violence continued. They had lost people, and for what, Anner asked. Simply to swap out one gang’s abuse for another’s?

So they mutinied again and won, kicking out 18th Street after months of bloodshed.

“They converted into an anti-gang group,” Anner said. “Life was good. No more robberies, no more extortion and no more violence against people living in the neighborhood.”

“And then,” he said, “the police came.”

Through the summer of 2017, the police arrested half a dozen Casa Blanca members. Others fled. The ranks were decimated, leaving the lowest-profile members on the street.

“Now the young ones are left alone,” said Anner.

He listed the survivors, and how they would respond to an MS-13 takeover. Franklin’s older brother wouldn’t take it well, he said. He had shot at MS-13 in the past and refused even to sit down with the pastor.

Franklin nodded in agreement. “He says the only truce he needs is the one he carries in his waistband,” Franklin said, miming a gun with his hand.

Others might be game for a truce, Anner said, but the older members, when they got out of prison, could break whatever agreement was made.

Pastor Danny realized what he was wading into: Casa Blanca was leaderless and unpredictable, governed by young men whose instincts for self-preservation were in constant conflict with their bravado.

“If something doesn’t change, there’s going to be a massacre before the end of the year,” Pastor Danny snapped.

“End of the year?” Anner snorted. “I think more like end of the week.”

At that moment, a loud crash erupted, the sound of a rock hitting Anner’s roof. The group raced outside. Franklin signaled for them to be quiet.

“MS-13 is on the block,” he whispered, pointing up the road.

The street was long and narrow, running for more than 30 meters, like a firing range. The pastor, worried about MS-13 gunmen, called the police.

The block cleared out, except for a middle-aged woman walking slowly down the street, alone. After she passed, Anner sighed in relief.

She was the sister of one of MS-13’s leaders, and most likely a lookout, Anner explained.

“She’s a lookout?” Pastor Danny asked sharply, pointing down the block. “That woman was a lookout?”

He was furious at the missed opportunity. Had he known, he told Anner, he would have introduced himself, to ease the tension. As a religious leader, he would pose no threat, he argued.

Instead, they waited on Anner’s porch, praying the gangsters down the way would hold their fire. After half an hour, the pastor made a break for his car, flooring it on his way out.

As he cleared the neighborhood, the police arrived. The pastor rolled down his window to brief them, surprised they had even shown up.

But before he could say anything, the officers ordered him out of the car. The pastor thought it was a joke, until the officer’s voice grew stern.

“But I’m the one who called you guys,” Pastor Danny protested.

Police officers investigating an incident in San Pedro Sula. In 2017, the police decimated Casa Blanca’s ranks by putting many members in jail.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The police made a few calls before waving the pastor on. He twisted his hands over the steering wheel and muttered an expletive.

“And you wonder why we have to solve our own problems,” he said.

‘The Last Card I Have to Play’

The pastor slowed at the knot of unpaved streets separating MS-13 from Casa Blanca. He switched on his hazards and eased past a desolate cinder block structure, where the outlines of young men were visible in the glow of cigarette tips.

A man with tattoos covering his arms and neck appeared at Pastor Danny’s window.

“What do you want,” he asked, taking a long glance up and down the street.

“I want to see Samuel,” the pastor said. “We know each other.”

Just hours after leaving Anner’s house, the pastor had received an alarming call. Armed men on motorcycles were kicking families out of their homes in Casa Blanca’s area, taking the neighborhood by force. He couldn’t wait any longer.

So Pastor Danny fell back on his usual tactic — improvisation — and raced into MS-13 territory, hoping to place himself at the mercy of Samuel, the MS-13 leader in the area, before someone died.

“This is the last card I have to play,” he said.

Members of MS-13, a gang that has taken over swaths of San Pedro Sula and has a presence in the United States, near Casa Blanca’s territory in the Honduran city.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The pastor scanned the vacant lots and darkened buildings, taking heavy breaths to steady himself. He was used to taking risks, but this was different — Samuel was an important figure, not just a soldier with a quick temper. Even asking for him could arouse suspicion. And scared criminals were dangerous.

The tattooed man stepped back and surveyed the street a second time. Satisfied, he pointed to a peach-colored home. “Check there,” he said.

The pastor drove by a well-lit corner, where two women were smoking with a slender man in a collared shirt and jeans.

It was Samuel. The pastor slammed on the brakes and leapt out of the car, leaving it in the middle of the street with the door still open.

Samuel excused himself from the conversation with the women and stubbed out his cigarette. He looked to be in his 30s, with short hair and the calm bearing of someone used to being in control.

He walked over and embraced the older man. “Pastor Danny, how are you?” he asked.

“I’m not great, brother,” the pastor said. He often took his time when enlisting people’s help, spooling them up slowly. He was, at heart, something of a performer.

But now, nervous and somewhat stunned at finding Samuel, Pastor Danny got straight to the point.

“I have to ask you a personal favor,” he said.

Samuel raised his eyebrows and answered like a politician. “If I can do it, I will,” he said.

“I know your guys are looking to move into the territory of Casa Blanca,” Pastor Danny continued. “But I’m asking you, begging you, please don’t do it violently. Please don’t kill anyone.”

Samuel listened impassively, saying nothing.

“I’m not in favor of any gang,” the pastor went on, filling the silence with his standard refrain. “I just want to protect life. And I have a cousin who lives there and I’m worried she and others could be hurt.”

Samuel interrupted.

“We already own that territory,” he said. “It’s already ours.”

The pastor didn’t know whether he was speaking literally or figuratively. MS-13, while advancing fast, had not yet taken over. This much the pastor knew.

San Pedro Sula is one of the most dangerous cities in Honduras. Tens of thousands of people have fled gang violence in the country, many heading north toward the United States. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

“But there are people there now, kicking a family out of their home,” the pastor insisted. “I have people in the community who are witnessing it.”

Samuel leaned against the pastor’s car, then, seeing it was covered in a film of dirt, eased back off it.

“It can’t be us. We don’t have anyone there right now,” he countered. “What did they tell you?”

The pastor called Anner. “What exactly is happening right now?” he said into the phone.

Anner told the pastor that men on motorcycles had come in masks and kicked out a family half a block from Fanny’s house.

“We don’t have any motorcycles in that area,” Samuel said, shaking his head.

Anner corrected himself. The men had arrived on bicycles, he now said. But he was sure they were kicking people out of their homes.

The back and forth continued, with Samuel asking the pastor and, by extension, an unwitting Anner for more specifics. Anner grew suspicious. The pastor tried his best to explain the location to Samuel, based on the vague answers he could squeeze out of Anner.

“No that can’t be right,” Samuel said. “Where you are talking about is where the old woman sells firewood.”

Samuel sketched a map into the dirt covering the pastor’s back windshield. They took turns drawing streets and landmarks.

“I think where he is describing is here,” Samuel said, tapping his finger against the glass. “And that’s not in Casa Blanca territory.”

The pastor winced. Samuel was right. Whatever was happening, it was not in Casa Blanca territory.

It didn’t matter, though, Samuel said. Everyone knew that Casa Blanca was weak. He had already ordered his lieutenant — a man called Monster — to take over the neighborhood.

His men weren’t forcing families out of homes tonight, he said, but they would enter soon enough.

Samuel then asked the pastor to draw the exact location of Fanny’s house. “Do not worry about your loved ones, we won’t hurt them,” he promised.

And what about the Casa Blanca members, the pastor asked. Would they also get a pass?

“Like I said, the territory is already ours,” Samuel replied. “If we can avoid violence, we will. But that depends on them.”

Samuel relit his cigarette and walked into an abandoned building.

‘We Make Our Money Selling Drugs’

Monster led the pastor into a backyard, where more than a dozen MS-13 soldiers stood in a circle, cloaked in a cloud of marijuana smoke. A boy no older than 10 stood among them, his hat turned sideways, smoking a cigarette.

Pastor Danny introduced himself. Two days had passed since his encounter with Samuel. Now he was back in MS-13 territory, face to face with Casa Blanca’s enemies.

The gunman responsible for the shooting a few days earlier was there, wearing the same black baseball cap. The men who raided Fanny’s house were there, too, standing next to a giant mound of dirt. The pastor kept his gaze on Monster, the man ordered to take over the neighborhood.

When speaking to groups, Pastor Danny had a roundabout way of getting to the point. He flattered, shared bits of intelligence, or preached parables from the Bible, depending on his spot assessment of what would get through to the crowd.

Many of the neighborhoods fought over by gangs in San Pedro Sula are lined by unpaved roads and homes worn with age.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

“You guys are a structure, a disciplined group with organization and resources,” he told them, drawing genuine smiles from the gang members. “It will be hard for the members of Casa Blanca to fight back, and they know that.”

At 26, Monster had become one of Samuel’s top lieutenants. After struggling to make a living in construction, the gang offered him employment, and a community, he said.

It also taught him discipline, which was paramount: No lying to the gang; no drug use (marijuana was the exception); and murder had to be approved by the leadership, unless in self-defense.

“Killing someone isn’t what helps you climb the ladder,” Monster explained. “What matters is how you think, your intelligence,” he added, tapping his forefinger against his temple.

Monster spoke like a small-time official, spouting platitudes and promises with ease. Top-notch security. Respect for residents. No forced conscription. No extortion. It was a surprising speech for a member of a gang that terrorizes people from Central America to the United States.

“We make our money selling drugs,” Monster explained, “so we don’t rob from the people who live in our areas.”

“We need them,” he added.

It all sounded hopeful to the pastor, maybe too hopeful. There was no way to know if Monster was telling the truth. They were killers, after all, no matter what they said about peace.

Still, the pastor wanted to walk away with something concrete. The conversation went on for more than an hour before he finally pushed his plan.

“You know, it might help to meet one of them,” the pastor said casually, as if the idea had only just occurred to him. “I mean, if they’re willing and you’re willing.”

‘Paralyzed by Fear’

In the car, Fanny asked half-jokingly whether the pastor was taking her to be killed. She had dressed up for the occasion, wearing bright red lipstick.

“Don’t be stupid, Fanny,” he said. “I’m trying to save your life.”

They were driving to his brother’s house, outside of Casa Blanca territory, so he could explain his meetings with MS-13.

“Fanny doesn’t listen when she’s at home,” he explained. “She’s just paralyzed by fear.”

Pastor Danny wore the same clothes for the third day in a row. Bags had formed under his eyes. Between counseling Fanny and keeping Casa Blanca from falling apart, there was little time for anything else, even his own family.

His daughter had been hospitalized for a lung condition. When he wasn’t in the neighborhood, he was with his wife, checking on her. Bills were piling up, and finances were not his thing. He preferred being in the streets, his ministry of action.

And right now, Fanny’s safety was his first concern.

“Fanny, you need to think about you and your family,” the pastor said, sensing her doubts. “They told me they wouldn’t touch you.”

Fanny began to cry. After the events of the last few days — the shooting, the invasion of her home — the pastor thought she would be happy with the news. But his promise that she would be safe merely reminded her of all the others who wouldn’t be.

“How would you feel if I told you that I could save your life, but children you have known and loved since they were young might die?” she sobbed. “How would you feel if I told you I could only save you?”

The pastor was confused, hurt even, after all the sacrifices he had made, the chances he had taken. He often joked that there was no gratitude for the work he did, and for the most part, he didn’t expect much. Still, he didn’t want to be chastised for it.

He handed Fanny some tissue to wipe the mascara streaking down her face.

“If others in the neighborhood want to put up a fight and die, that’s their choice, I guess,” Pastor Danny said, shrugging. “I’m trying to save the lives of those who want to be saved.”

Two days later, when the pastor decided to tell Casa Blanca about his plan for a truce, Fanny didn’t join. He gathered everyone at Anner’s house, including a few parents, hoping they might force the young men into accepting it.

It was late evening. Bryan raced in after work, his hair still wet from a shower. Franklin sat on a sofa, legs outstretched.

“They say they will pardon everyone as long as they can enter peacefully,” the pastor said, explaining MS-13’s terms.

The pastor had a way of stretching the facts to their most optimistic lengths. MS-13 had said it did not want to kill. But it never promised to pardon everyone, not explicitly.

Bryan interjected, describing his most recent brush with MS-13 members.

“They didn’t whistle, or look at me in any sort of aggressive way,” he marveled, crediting the pastor’s efforts for the atypical behavior.

Whether the change was at all related, the meeting seemed to be going well. And in the end, the pastor’s true gospel was hope. If he could make Casa Blanca believe that peace was possible, maybe it could be.

By the end of the discussion, Anner agreed to sit down with Monster.

“This is inevitable,” Anner said. “I mean, look at the odds — it’s like 50,000 of them versus eight of us.”

‘We Don’t Want Any Problems’

Anner dressed in his work uniform, a polo shirt with the grocery store’s insignia stitched on the upper left pocket. His boss had given him a few hours off, and Anner was anxious to get going.

In the back seat of Pastor Danny’s car, Anner talked without pause, a nervous habit that could make it hard to get a word in. The pastor hoped he would settle down before they met Monster.

Then, suddenly, Anner grew quiet. He pressed his face to the tinted window and stared.

“I haven’t been on this street in seven years,” he said as they passed into MS-13 territory, struck by how such a small neighborhood could be so rigidly divided — and how isolated it left everyone.

They reached a building with a tin portico. Beneath it, Monster sat on a low-slung chair, smoking weed. He smiled slightly as his visitors looked for a seat. Anner found a splintered crate, the pastor an overturned bucket.

After a brief introduction, Anner began to talk, in his nervous way, for nearly the entire meeting — about his kids, his job, his life in the neighborhood. He even named a few MS-13 members he knew personally.

“I’m not involved in any of this, but I know all of these guys,” he explained.

Monster continued smoking. Inside the building, a pinball machine clanged to life, playing “Limbo Rock” while gang members took turns.

“We don’t want any problems with MS,” Anner said, scooting his crate a little too close to Monster.

“I don’t want to see violence,” he continued. “I work and have a family and I don’t want to lose my house.”

Monster, now very high, shook his head and uttered a soft “No.”

“What about the others?” Anner asked. “Some of these guys have shot at MS before,” he said. “Sometimes out of fear.”

Monster started to speak, but Anner cut him off.

“I just want to ask as a favor that if they don’t resist, if they don’t put up a fight, that you pardon them,” he said.

Monster looked at the pastor, then at Anner.

“Our goal is not to kill anyone,” he said. “If they don’t put up a fight, if they go with the program, we won’t need to.”

Anner slumped over slightly, his tension ebbing. “Thank you, brother, this is a big relief for me. We’ve all been so worried about what would happen, every day. It’s been like living in a war zone.”

Two cars rolled past and the drivers honked their horns to salute the gathered MS-13 members. Children played nearby, kicking a small rubber ball up and down the street.

“Look around,” Monster boasted. “People live more freely here than anywhere else.”

“This could be how it is in Casa Blanca,” he concluded.

Members of the 18th Street gang, which once counted members of Casa Blanca among them. The gang is now hunting its former comrades.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

‘They Don’t Care’

The bodies appeared one January morning, mutilated, wrapped in black trash bags and deposited on the border that divided Casa Blanca from the 18th Street gang.

The warning spoke for itself: 18th Street had learned of the burgeoning truce with MS-13 — and had no intention of accepting it.

A few weeks later, Reinaldo disappeared. He had been walking inside the boundaries of Casa Blanca territory when someone snatched him.

Bryan and Franklin circulated his photo, in case anyone had seen him. After a few days, the pastor learned that 18th Street had taken him. They never got the body back.

The pastor’s fragile peace began to crumble.

MS-13 never entered the neighborhood, as Samuel and Monster said it would. Though it stopped attacking Casa Blanca, as promised, 18th Street picked up where its rivals had left off.

The pastor tried to put the Casa Blanca members at ease, but he had nothing new to offer. For all his efforts — the one-man missions, the clandestine meetings — he had managed only to swap one enemy for another.

Even that didn’t last. Early this year, Samuel and Monster were promoted. After they moved on, there was no one to guarantee the peace. Monster’s replacement in MS-13, Puyudo, resumed the attacks on Casa Blanca — why, exactly, the pastor did not know.

Casa Blanca was still outgunned, still outnumbered, still trapped. In March, a young boy in its territory was wounded in a shootout. A few days later, MS-13 took shots at Anner after work.

A week later, a member shot at Fanny while she was walking her son home from school.

Pastor Danny’s mission became much more daunting. He began saying that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Trying to change the neighborhood, much less all of San Pedro Sula, or the rest of Honduras, seemed futile.

In his mind, the fact that everything fell on him — a solo peacekeeping campaign, with no help from the government — was a reflection of how dire the situation was.

“All of the things that end here on the streets, it all starts with government corruption,” he said. “I can’t keep fighting against this monster — the government, the country. It doesn’t matter to them. They don’t care.”

He told himself this would be his last intervention. However the Casa Blanca standoff ended — peacefully or not — he vowed to find a life where he wasn’t fighting the monster, as he called the state, and could take up a less demoralizing cause. Maybe he would even leave Honduras.

But that didn’t last, either. His cynicism gave way to hope, as it always did. A few weeks after MS-13 took shots at Fanny, the pastor managed to meet with Puyudo, the new leader in the area. Pastor Danny’s disillusionment fell away.

He gave Puyudo an abridged version of the speech that, by now, he had practiced a half-dozen times. He slipped right back into diplomacy mode.

“I think I can convince him to stop the shooting,” the pastor said. “We are supposed to meet again soon.”

Men searching for a body in San Pedro Sula. Since the turn of this century, more than 2.5 million people have been killed in the homicide crisis gripping
Latin America and the Caribbean.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Carta a monseñor Fabio Colindres: Profeta abandonado. De Paolo Luers

20 abril 2019 /MAS! y EL DIARIO DE HOY

Para esta Semana Santa,
decidí volver a publicar
mi carta del 1 de abril 2015)

Muy estimado Fabio:
Nuevamente, el país celebra Semana Santa. Siempre he percibido la Semana Santa por sus procesiones, por las palmas, las alfombras… O sea, más bien como evento folclórico. Nunca logré conectar con el contenido humano y ético de estas fiestas.

Hasta la Semana Santa de 2013, cuando usted me invitó a acompañarle a Mariona, donde iba a celebrar la misa del Jueves Santo y el rito del “lavatorio de pies”. Uno de los inmensos patios cercados lleno de cientos de reos, no solo de Mariona, sino de delegaciones de todas las cárceles del país. En medio un toldo con un altar improvisado y 12 sillas. En ellas tomaron asiento 12 convictos, uno de cada prisión, varios de ellos pandilleros de la MS y de la 18. A todos ellos usted les lavaría y besaría los pies, así como, según la Biblia, Jesús lo hizo con sus 12 apóstoles. Y así como, según usted me contó, el Papa Francisco lo haría, ese mismo día, en una cárcel de Roma.

Entendí el sentido humano de este rito católico, cuando usted comenzó a hablar a los reos, y muy en particular a los pandilleros y sus líderes. Cada palabra suya fue un reto -un reto muy fuerte y exigente- a reflexionar, a recapacitar, a dejar de hacer daño a la sociedad, y a reparar este daño apostando a la paz. Pero cada palabra suya también fue una oferta: Si ustedes abandonan la violencia y apuestan a la reinserción, las puertas de la Iglesia y de la sociedad estarán abiertas.

Su mensaje: Los más odiados de nuestra sociedad, los que más daño le han causado, siguen siendo hijos de Dios para la Iglesia y ciudadanos para la sociedad, si así lo deciden y lo muestren con sus hechos. Este mensaje hizo que el rito litúrgico de un obispo lavando y besando los pies de los condenados se convirtiera en el acto que simbolizaba, mejor que cualquier análisis o discurso político, la disyuntiva en que se encontraba el país en este momento del 2013: apostar audazmente a la construcción de la paz, aprovechando el insólito hecho que en esta Semana Santa del año 2013 completamos ya un año entero con tasas de homicidio reducidas a un histórico mínimo de 6 al día, o guiarnos por los miedos, rencores, y resentimientos y resistencias en la opinión pública, que rechazaba cualquier entendimiento con los pandilleros.

Ya sabemos qué pasó. En junio del mismo año 2013, el gobierno de Mauricio Funes optó por lo oportunista: no asumir el costo político-electoral que significaba apostar consecuentemente al proceso de diálogo como método de reducción de la violencia. Inmediatamente, el país comenzó a regresar a la conflictividad y a las tasas de homicidio crecientes.

En la Semana Santa del año siguiente, el 2014, ya no había condiciones para celebrar una misa parecida en una prisión salvadoreña. Pero usted no se rindió: invitó a una misa todavía más inusual, esta vez en una de las comunidades más conflictivas del país, la “13 de febrero” en Ilopango. Esta vez, las 12 sillas estaban ocupadas por 6 familiares víctimas de la violencia y 6 victimarios, pandilleros de esta comunidad.

Su discurso, Fabio, fue el mismo; pero aún más insistente. Los 150 pandilleros presentes tuvieron que aguantar palabras muy desafiantes: “Ustedes se comprometieron, ante este obispo, ante la Iglesia y ante la sociedad, a buscar el camino de la paz. Aunque el gobierno les ha fallado y no está invirtiendo en la transformación de sus barrios, y aunque está regresando a políticas de mano dura, ustedes no pueden abandonar el proceso de reducción de violencia.”

En este momento, abril 2014, el país ya había recaído en un número de 10 homicidios diarios. Usted, Fabio, ya me parecía un profeta solitario, abandonado incluso por su misma Iglesia. Las comunidades, e incluso los pandilleros, todavía lo escucharon, pero el gobierno ya no le prestó ninguna atención. El gobierno, tanto el saliente de Funes, como el nuevo de Sánchez Cerén, ya tenía otros planes, y en ellos no había lugar para usted.

Poco después la Conferencia Episcopal le pidió apartarse del tema. La Iglesia siguió hablando del “diálogo”, pero un diálogo tibio, estéril, excluyente, bajo tutela directa del gobierno. La Iglesia nombró otros obispos para integrarse al Consejo Nacional de Seguridad y Convivencia Ciudadana del gobierno. Los resultados: una marcha blanca encabezada por el presidente y un obispo, y una nueva escalada de violencia, que ahora incluye enfrentamientos armados entre policía y pandilleros, ejecuciones extrajudiciales, operaciones policiales de aniquilamiento y atentados de pandilleros contra policías.

Sus palabras, don Fabio, llenas de retos para gobernantes y poderosos, para los pandilleros y para la sociedad, hacen una terrible falta. Hago un llamado a los obispos de la Iglesia Católica: Pidan a Fabio Colindres que vuelva a tomar la iniciativa y la mediación. El país lo necesita. Hasta el gobierno, aunque no lo quiere reconocer, lo necesita. No se trata de treguas, ni de pactos, ni de negociaciones con delincuentes. Se trata de volver a construir un diálogo que nos encamine nuevamente en la ruta de la paz. Así como vamos, nos encaminamos a una guerra.


¿Quién tiene el control? De Erika Saldaña

Erika Saldaña, colaboradora de la Sala de lo Constitucional

21 enero 2019 / EL DIARIO DE HOY

“Ametrallan a patrulla en San Miguel”, “muere otro agente de la Policía Nacional Civil”, “disparan contra la sede de la Subdirección de Tránsito Terrestre de la Policía”. Estas fueron algunas de las noticias con las que nos dormimos el viernes recién pasado. Viernes negro. Muchas muertes violentas de miembros de la PNC, sumados a los civiles que engrosan las estadísticas; todo en un solo día. El país se desangra y el presidente de la República está ausente.

Ese día, el viernes 18 de enero, también se reunieron en Casa Presidencial el director de la PNC, el Fiscal General, el ministro de Seguridad Pública y Justicia, el ministro de Defensa y el director de Centros Penales para tratar e informar sobre la alerta por el alza en los homicidios de policías y civiles que azota al país. Y el presidente, quien hace varios meses aseguró que estaría al frente de la seguridad pública, ni siquiera se asomó.

Según datos de la PNC, en el año 2016 El Salvador sufrió 5,278 muertes violentas; en 2017 fueron 3,954 y en 2018 se dieron 3,340 homicidios. De estos, en 2016 fueron 47 policías fallecidos, en 2017 se registraron 46, mientras que en 2018 murieron 31. Con este panorama tan sombrío y repetitivo, el gobierno ya debería tener un plan coordinado de seguridad entre las distintas instituciones, pero parece que, un año más, andamos a la deriva. Mientras tanto, surge en el ambiente un nuevo fantasma de pacto con las pandillas para fines electorales. Es vergonzoso y repugnante.

Apenas nos empezábamos a alegrar por varias semanas o meses con una reducción significativa en los homicidios, y las pandillas nos vuelven a demostrar que siguen dominando a su antojo los números de la violencia. Cuando quieren, ponen en alerta al Estado y en pánico a la población. ¿Cómo es posible que se maneje con cierta resignación el alza de estos ataques en época electoral? Pareciera que hasta lo normalizamos. Somos un país que constantemente está en elecciones y a la fecha las autoridades no han sido capaces de ejecutar un plan que controle esta problemática que se repite.

Hay temas o situaciones que nos deberían unir a todos, sin importar ideología o simpatías políticas. Este es el momento para que el gobierno, los partidos políticos y sus líderes, y hasta los candidatos presidenciales dejen a un lado sus diferencias; deben trabajar en conjunto, junto a las diversas instituciones pertenecientes al sector justicia, para tratar de erradicar y solventar el problema. Mejorar la seguridad pública es un tema que nos interesa a todos y sobre el cual los antes mencionados tienen que ponerse de acuerdo sobre la manera adecuada e integral de tratarlo. Hoy se deben borrar los colores políticos, pues se trata de vidas humanas que a diario se apagan.

Cada uno debe asumir su responsabilidad. Al presidente de la República: usted está al mando de este país hasta el 1 de junio de 2019. Aunque sea en los últimos meses de su mandato es necesario que se ponga al frente de la seguridad pública de manera firme, con acciones concretas, y busque la manera de controlar la crisis social por la que estamos pasando.

A los candidatos a la presidencia: queremos planteamientos precisos y realistas sobre la manera en que abordarán el grave problema de seguridad en que permanentemente vivimos; el cómo pretenden hacer las cosas es importante, no queremos más declaraciones de lo que ya sabemos. Ya no podemos seguir lamentándonos la falta de liderazgo en materia de seguridad pública.

Carta a los periodistas viajeros que nos juzgan: Sean más profesionales. De Paolo Luers

4 diciembre 2018 / MAS! y EL DIARIO DE HOY

Hace unos días salió publicado en DER SPIEGEL, el más influyente magazín de noticias y política de Alemania, un “reportaje” sobre la violencia y las pandillas en El Salvador.

Su juicio: El Salvador es un “país que ha perdido su moral”. Lo más grave: Este juicio no aparece como conclusión, sustentado en hechos, argumentos y análisis, sino como premisa, al principio del artículo. Puse “reportaje” entre comillas, porque esta nota no cumple con los requisitos de una investigación periodística. Extraño: Como estudiante, luego como joven periodista vi al SPIEGEL como ejemplo del periodismo investigativo.

¿Cómo un reportero, que llega por unos días a un país desconocido con una historia y un presente complejo y se atreve a publicar semejante juicio: un país sin moral? Según el periodista, su nota y sus conclusiones se basan en información de “insiders”.

Estos son personas con información privilegiada, debido a su involucramiento en el fenómeno a describir. Pero las únicas 2 fuentes de la nota son un oficial de la PNC y un pandillero convertido en “testigo criteriado”. Lo que es muy inusual: Fiscalía y PNC nunca antes han exhibido a sus “criteriados” a la prensa. Para romper esta norma deben haber tenido un especial interés en este “reportaje”. También para poner a uno de sus policías estrella de la unidad anti extorsión a plena disposición.

Así que los “insiders” y únicas fuentes del reportero fueron proporcionados por las autoridades. No es el mejor ejemplo de ejercicio de periodismo investigativo.

El “insider” policial llevó al periodista a Apopa. “Valle del Sol, es uno de los barrios mas peligrosos en las afueras de San Salvador, que es la ciudad más peligrosa del mundo”, nos cuenta el periodista, porque así se lo contó el policía. El policía agrega: “Si aquí me topo con miembros de la pandilla, ellos abrirán fuego.” Y se retiran… Falso. Alguien debería haberle explicado al corresponsal viajero que lo llevaron a la colonia menos peligrosa de Apopa. En Valle del Sol la pandilla local suele hacer lo posible para evitar enfrentamientos con la policía, resultado de su acuerdo con los liderazgos comunales de no poner en peligro a los habitantes y la relativa paz social alcanzada en esta colonia que hacer 6 años tuvo altos números de homicidios y extorsiones, pero desde el 2012 los ha logrado bajar drásticamente. Por esto a la PNC le gusta llevar a ahí a los reporteros, precisamente porque saben que pueden exhibir la agresividad de sus patrullajes – pero sin correr los riesgos que correrían en las colonias vecinas.

El reportero también trata de explicar el surgimiento de las pandillas en El Salvador: “Juntos con ex guerrilleros y ex soldados, unos 4 mil miembros deportados de ‘gangs’ de Estados Unidos formaron las pandillas en El Salvador.”

Otra vez, más mito que verdad. Muy pocos de los fundadores de las maras eran participantes de la guerra civil salvadoreña. Las maras son un fenómenos de la generación siguiente, no marcados por la guerra, sino por los errores políticos de la postguerra.

Y así sigue: Afirmaciones no fundamentadas sobre el involucramiento de las pandillas en el narcotráfico; sobre “70 mil asesinos” que andan sueltos en El Salvador. Siempre mitos que no resisten una investigación seria. Mucho aporta el “criteriado” que la PNC le proporciona al reportero para que pueda entrevistar a un pandillero de verdad. De esta plática salen sus concusiones: “Se trata de violencia por la violencia”; “La muerte es en Salvador como la comida diaria.”

¿Para qué sirve una investigación periodística que, basada en solo dos fuentes (un policía y su agente encubierto, un ex pandillero con 60 asesinatos encima), llega a conclusiones como esta (que tenemos 70 mil asesinos que ejercen la más cruel violencia solamente por deporte, y que todos vivimos con una pata en el cementerio)? ¿No es nuestra responsabilidad como reporteros explorar las causas; explicar el circulo vicioso entre marginación, delincuencia y represión; describir las cadenas de venganza?

No somos un país que ha perdido la moral, ni tampoco todos vivimos al borde de ser asesinados. Somos un país que lucha por superar la violencia, empezando por entender y atender sus raíces.
Bienvenido el periodismo que nos ayude.


Como el artículo aquí citado no es accesible a quienes no tienen una suscripción a DER SPIEGEL, lo reproducimos aquí en el original alemán. 

El Salvador: Insiderreport über den Bandenkrieg
“Wir prüfen, wie jemand getötet werden soll”

Mit entsetzlicher Brutalität kämpfen Banden wie MS 13 oder Barrio 18 Sureños um Drogen und Macht auf den Straßen von El Salvador. Hier berichten Insider, welche Regeln dort herrschen. Von Fritz Schaap und Christian Werner (Fotos)

Fritz Schaap, reportero del SPIEGEL

23 noviembre 2018 / DER SPIEGEL

Um über die vielen Menschen hinwegzukommen, die sterben, deren Leichen vermodern, unentdeckt, in Brunnen, in Massengräbern, verscharrt unter Feldern, sammelt er. Er sammelt Schlümpfe, Modellschiffe, Spielzeughelikopter, Dinosaurierfiguren, Münzen.

Je mehr Tote Johnny Flores sieht, desto mehr muss er anhäufen, in seinem garagengroßen Haus in den Ausläufern San Salvadors, der Hauptstadt El Salvadors.

Der 51-Jährige läuft in Unterwäsche zwischen den Stapeln und Anrichten voller Nippes umher. Ein gedrungener Mann, kräftig, das Haar schütter. Die Wände sind tapeziert mit Urkunden von religiösen Seminaren, Schulungen und Auszeichnungen, die alle seinen Namen tragen, als müsse er sich täglich daran erinnern, wer er ist, damit er nicht zerfällt in diesem Land, das seine Moral verloren hat.

Er nimmt eine Bibel vom Bett. Schlägt sie auf. Neues Testament, Brief des Paulus an die Römer, achtes Kapitel. Darüber wird er heute reden, denkt er sich. Über die Rettung der Glaubenden. Dann holt er seine Beretta 92 unter dem Kopfkissen hervor, legt die Pistole neben das gebügelte Hemd und zieht eine schwarze Hose an. Er lächelt. Sein Silberzahn funkelt.

Sonntage sind gute Tage für Johnny Flores, der sonst eine Spezialeinheit der Polizei leitet. Sonntags ist Johnny Flores Pastor.

Er greift Bibel und Beretta und fährt zu seiner evangelikalen Kirche. Sonntags, bei seiner Gemeinde, bei seinem Gott, hat Johnny Flores Ruhe. Niemand werde ihn hier töten, nicht in der Kirche, glaubt er. Dann steigt er hinauf auf die kleine Bühne, vor die Gemeinde.

“Denn das Gesetz des Geistes, der lebendig macht in Christus Jesus, hat dich frei gemacht von dem Gesetz der Sünde und des Todes”, zitiert er am Ende der Predigt aus dem Paulus-Brief.

Das Gesetz der Sünde und des Todes aber ist das mit der größten Gültigkeit auf den Straßen des Landes an der zentralamerikanischen Pazifikküste. Gerade einmal 6,4 Millionen Menschen leben hier, aber trotzdem werden jedes Jahr Tausende ermordet. 3952 waren es voriges Jahr offiziell. Bis Ende September dieses Jahres 2560. Das sind 9,4 Morde jeden Tag. Im vergangenen Jahr wurden zudem 1850 Vergewaltigungen angezeigt, nicht angezeigt werden viel mehr. In einem Land, so groß wie Hessen. Deshalb riskieren Tausende die Flucht nach Norden, in Richtung USA.

70 000 Gangmitglieder gibt es Schätzungen zufolge in El Salvador, die für den Großteil der Gewaltverbrechen verantwortlich sind. Organisiert sind sie in drei großen Gangs, den sogenannten Maras: MS 13, Barrio 18 Sureños und Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. 70 000 Mörder. Denn wer einer Gang beitreten will, muss töten. Der Tod ist in El Salvador, so sagen sie hier, wie das tägliche Essen, wie das Schlafengehen. So wie man sagt: Morgen werde ich meine Familie sehen, so denkt man hier: Morgen könnte ich sterben.

Polizist und Pastor Flores: "Es gibt so viele Leichen, die in Brunnen geworfen werden, die verschwinden"
Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL Polizist und Pastor Flores: “Es gibt so viele Leichen, die in Brunnen geworfen werden, die verschwinden”

Am nächsten Mittag, nur 25 Autominuten von seiner Gemeinde entfernt, auf vom Regen der vergangenen Nacht noch immer rutschigen Wegen, stürmt Johnny Flores, gefolgt von fünf schwer bewaffneten Polizisten, ins Viertel Valle del Sol. Schweiß rinnt ihm von der Stirn, über die Wangen das Kinn hinunter, und tropft auf den Asphalt. Es ist zu ruhig.

Angst überkommt ihn, Angst wie eine leichte Übelkeit der Seele. Er atmet ruhig, wie ein Psychiater ihm das empfohlen hat. Die Wege sind leer, hinter den Gittern der Fenster schauen vereinzelt Frauen hervor. Regungslos. Valle del Sol ist eines der gefährlichsten Viertel in der Umgebung San Salvadors, einer der gefährlichsten Städte der Welt. “Wenn ich hier eine Gruppe Gangmitglieder treffe, dann schießen sie”, sagt Flores. Er bleibt kurz stehen, zieht die Beretta aus dem Holster.

Sergeant Johnny Flores führt die Anti-Schutzgeld-Einheit in Apopa, nördlich der Hauptstadt San Salvador. Seit 1986 ist er Polizist, als die Nationalpolizei noch der Armee unterstand und im Bürgerkrieg hauptsächlich für den Häuserkampf eingesetzt wurde. 1994 gründete er eine Ermittlungseinheit der neuen Nationalen Zivilpolizei. Zwei Jahre nach Ende des Bürgerkriegs, der zwölf Jahre gedauert und 75 000 Menschenleben gekostet hatte.

In gewissem Sinn aber hat der Krieg, in dem linke Guerilleros einen Aufstand gegen die von den USA gestützte Diktatur angeführt hatten, nie aufgehört. Denn kaum war ein Friedensabkommen unterzeichnet, schickten die USA Tausende Kriegsflüchtlinge zurück nach El Salvador. Zum Thema Visual Story über den Bandenkrieg in El Salvador “Ich wollte töten” In El Salvador herrscht ein brutaler Bandenkrieg. Unsere Reporter waren dort. Sehen Sie hier ihre Visual Story. Fritz Schaap und Christian Werner

Darunter Männer, die zuvor in US-Städten gelebt hatten, in denen Gangs die armen Viertel beherrschten. Die sich zusammengeschlossen hatten, um sich zu verteidigen. In Los Angeles hatten sie zwei Gruppen gebildet und sich die Namen gegeben, die die Salvadorianer heute ihrer Angst geben: Barrio 18 und Mara Salvatrucha 13.

Zusammen mit Ex-Guerilleros und Ex-Soldaten formten ungefähr 4000 abgeschobene Bandenmitglieder in El Salvador ihre eigenen Gangs, die Maras, nach dem Vorbild der Gangs von Los Angeles. Sie rekrutierten junge Männer, oft noch Kinder, und führten ihren in den USA begonnenen Krieg gegeneinander fort. Weiteten ihn aus gegen den Staat, gegen die Bürger.

Diesen Staat versucht Flores zusammenzuhalten. Flores, der auf Rat seines Psychiaters Boote, Flugzeuge und Autos aus Holzstäben baut, um sich selbst zusammenzuhalten, der Pastor geworden ist, um weiter Polizist sein zu können, und deswegen denkt, dass diese Gesellschaft nach Jahrzehnten der Gewalt so tief verletzt sei, dass es weit mehr brauche, um sie zu heilen, als Menschenhand zu tun vermag.

Flores läuft ein paar Treppen hinunter. Die Häuser sind einstöckig, rohe, übermalte Klinker, Wellblechdächer, Bananen wachsen zwischen den Häusern. Er sucht eine Gruppe junger Männer, die für Schutzgelderpressungen im Viertel verantwortlich sind. Er läuft an das Ende der Siedlung, dorthin, wo sie an eine Schlucht grenzt, in der ein Zufluss des Acelhuate rauscht. Wie eine Hängebrücke verläuft ein Rohr auf die gegenüberliegende Seite. “Hier sind sie geflüchtet”, sagt Flores. Auf der anderen Seite sind schemenhaft zwei Männer zwischen den Bäumen zu erkennen.

Neben dem Drogenverkauf sind Schutzgelderpressungen die Haupteinnahmequelle der Gangs. Ob Straßenhändler oder Unternehmer, jeder muss zahlen. Von fünf Dollar im Monat bis zu 50 000 Dollar. Wer nicht zahlt, stirbt.

Mordopfer in Sitio del Niño: Manchmal reißen sie ihnen das Herz aus der Brust
Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL Mordopfer in Sitio del Niño: Manchmal reißen sie ihnen das Herz aus der Brust

Brutalität ist kein exklusiv salvadorianisches Problem. Im gesamten sogenannten Nördlichen Dreieck der Staaten El Salvador, Honduras und Guatemala gibt es Tötungsraten, die an Kriegsgebiete erinnern. Mexiko befindet sich de facto im Krieg gegen seine Drogenkartelle, und die befinden sich im Krieg untereinander.

Doch die Brutalität in El Salvador ist eine andere. Es geht hier nicht um Millionen Dollar. Die Drogen, die aus Südamerika kommen, werden nicht auf dem Landweg durch El Salvador in die USA gebracht. Es gibt hier keine lokalen Kartelle. Es geht nicht um ein größeres Stück vom Kuchen. Es geht um ein paar Krümel. Es geht um Gewalt um der Gewalt willen, um ein paar Hundert Dollar Schutzgeld, um Häuserblocks, an deren Ecken man Kokain und Meth verkaufen kann. Es geht um Macht, aber vor allem geht es um Anerkennung. Und Anerkennung wird bei den Gangs von El Salvador in Morden gemessen.

Flores bricht die Suche ab. Die Gang hier hat seit Kurzem M16-Sturmgewehre. Es ist ihm zu riskant. Die Polizisten fahren zurück nach Apopa. Das Leben auf den Straßen wirkt normal. Ganz San Salvador wirkt normal: amerikanische Fast-Food-Ketten, Staus, Märkte, Shoppingmalls. Es ist ein bizarres Merkmal dieses Bandenkriegs, dass extreme Brutalität inmitten des normalen Alltags stattfindet.

Natürlich sei es gut, sagt Flores im Auto, dass die Mordzahlen sinken, weil seit 2016 Polizei und Militär wieder härter gegen die Gangs vorgehen. Seit versucht wird, die Kommunikation mit den Bossen in den notorisch überfüllten Gefängnissen zu kappen. 2016 waren es noch 5280 Morde. 1328 mehr als im vergangenen Jahr.

Immer wieder gibt es Absprachen zwischen Politikern und Gangs, gerade vor Wahlen, wenn niedrige Mordraten gebraucht werden. Im Februar wählt El Salvador einen neuen Präsidenten.

“Aber es gibt so viele geheime Friedhöfe, Leichen, die in Brunnen geworfen werden, die verschwinden”, sagt Flores. “Morde, für die es keine Zeugen gibt, von denen wir nie erfahren.” Am Abend sitzt Johnny Flores hinter seinem Schreibtisch im Revier in Apopa. Er schaut die Nachrichten. Gestern gab es nur sechs Morde im ganzen Land. Dann rollt ein Pick-up-Truck mit verdunkelten Scheiben auf das Gelände. Der “Criteriado”, Flores’ Kronzeuge. El Sparky, wie der Mann sich derzeit nennt. Ein Massenmörder, der 69 andere Mörder verrät und dessen Aussagen zu 515 neuen Verfahren geführt haben. El Sparky, der süchtig ist nach Töten, der die Sinnlosigkeit in all dem nicht zu sehen vermag, weil die Gang, das Töten, für ihn das einzig Sinnvolle ist.

“Die Criteriados verraten ihre Gang. Liefern uns alle aus, die sie kennen. Legen uns die Hierarchien der einzelnen ‘Clicas’ dar, die Strukturen, die Morde, die sie begangen haben, wo, mit welchen Waffen, wo die Leichen liegen. Wenn sich das alles als wahr herausstellt, sind sie frei”, sagt Flores, als er in den schwülen Abend hinaustritt. Am Horizont türmen sich Gewitterwolken auf.

“El Sparky war ein Anführer, ein ‘Palabrero’. Er kannte die Strukturen der gesamten Gang.” Er ist, so ungern Flores das zugibt, einer seiner wichtigsten Männer. Ein Mann, der mehr als hundert Menschen abgeschlachtet hat. Flores schaut auf den Pick-up, aus dem ein bulliger, aufgedunsener Mann aussteigt, die Arme und Schultern voller Tätowierungen.

El Sparky und Johnny Flores gehen hinein. Johnny sieht müde aus. Manchmal greift er reflexartig ans Holster. Wie um zu prüfen, ob die Beretta noch da ist. Sie reden über die Männer im Valle del Sol.

Später sitzt El Sparky auf dem Hof und raucht. Die Augen klein, das Vokabular schwer vom Slang und vom Crack.

El Sparky war ein Palabrero der Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. Er hat sich hochgearbeitet, Mord um Mord. Er ist stolz darauf.

2003, mit 15, tritt er der Gang bei. Er verkauft Snacks auf der Straße, Wasser, Chips, kleine Dinge, mit denen er wenig Geld verdient. Aber er verkauft diese Sachen ein paar Straßen entfernt vom Haus seiner Eltern – im MS-13-Territorium. Gangmitglieder rauben ihn aus, schlagen ihn, immer wieder. Sie versuchen, ihn umzubringen, weil dort, wo er herkommt, die gegnerische Gang Barrio 18 herrscht. “Ich trat dann Barrio 18 bei, damit ich mich rächen kann, damit ich die Jungs von MS-13 umbringen kann”, sagt er. “Und damit die Leute Respekt vor mir haben.”

An einem Donnerstag um drei Uhr nachmittags muss dann in einem vollen Bus in San Salvador ein Junge sterben, damit El Sparky der Gang beitreten kann. Das Opfer ist Mitglied der MS 13 und hat El Sparky ausgeraubt. Es ist vielleicht so alt wie er.

Wenn El Sparkys Erzählung stimmt, dann nimmt er nun ein Messer mit 15 Zentimeter langer Klinge und wartet an einer Straßenecke. Er weiß, wo sein Opfer wohnt. Er wartet, bis der Junge in einen Bus steigt. El Sparky geht hinterher. Dann zückt er das Messer und sticht ihm in den Bauch. Sechsmal. Danach steigt er aus und geht in das Haus des Ganganführers.

Vier Männer gehen mit ihm in den Hof, sie schlagen ihn zusammen. Es ist der Initiationsritus. 18 Sekunden dauert er bei Barrio 18. 13 Sekunden bei MS 13. Manchmal stirbt jemand dabei. Nach 18 Sekunden umarmen die Männer El Sparky. Er ist jetzt einer von ihnen. “Ich fühlte mich großartig”, sagt er. Von Anfang an war El Sparky ein “Sicario”, ein Auftragskiller: “Ich fing als Mörder an, weil ich deswegen der Gang beigetreten war: Ich wollte töten.”

Töten, sagt er, sei nicht schwer, wenn man es wirklich wolle. “Es wird zu einer Sucht, wie Saufen. Wenn du trinkst und merkst, du magst es, trinkst du weiter. Manche töten nicht gern, die probieren es aus, und dann machen sie es nicht noch mal.” Die Art und Weise, wie getötet wird, werde angepasst.

“Wir prüfen, wie jemand getötet werden soll. Wenn es ernst ist, schlachten wir ihn ab. Ist es ein leichteres Vergehen, jagen wir ihm eine Kugel in den Kopf.”

Kronzeuge El Sparky: "Nur die mit den dicksten Eiern setzen sich durch"
Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL Kronzeuge El Sparky: “Nur die mit den dicksten Eiern setzen sich durch”

Wenn es ernst war, wie Sparky das nennt, entfernte er lebenden Männern die Augen, schnitt ihnen Finger, Zunge und Ohren ab, dann Arme und Beine, und wenn sie noch lebten, schnitt er ihnen den Bauch auf. Wenn nicht, dann trotzdem.

Manchmal legte er anschließend die Flasche hinein, die er bei der Arbeit geleert hatte, manchmal schob er sie auch dem noch lebenden Opfer in eine Körperöffnung. Dann verscharrte er die Leichen oder warf sie in Brunnen. Oder er ließ sie liegen. Je nachdem, welche Nachricht damit überbracht werden sollte.

So ist ein Wettbewerb entstanden. Die Gangs wollen sich in Grausamkeit überbieten. Denn Grausamkeit sorgt für Respekt. Häutungen, Frauen, denen in die Vagina geschossen wird, Zerstückelungen, Vergewaltigungen während der Hinrichtung: Normalität hier. Manchmal reißen sie ihren Opfern das Herz aus der Brust.

“Jede Gang”, sagt El Sparky, “will ganz Salvador kontrollieren. Aber nur die Irresten mit den dicksten Eiern werden sich durchsetzen.” Und hier, wo es wenig Perspektiven gibt, werden dicke Eier zur Währung. Denn Geld machen nur die wenigen Gangmitglieder, die in den Waffen- oder Drogenhandel eingestiegen sind. Eine Gang ist eine Gruppe von Freunden, eine Ersatzfamilie. Viele Gangmitglieder sind bitterarm. Es geht darum, den anderen etwas zu beweisen.

“Man tritt bei, um seine Nachbarschaft zu verteidigen. Man erwartet kein Geld. Wenn du nützlich bist, bekommst du etwas vom Geld der Gang, wenn nicht …”, er formt die Hand zu einer Pistole und lächelt. “Es heißt: entweder töten oder getötet werden. Als Gangmitglied hast du nicht viele Optionen”, sagt er.

Es ist schwer zu verstehen, was hier passiert. Man kann versuchen, den politischen Kontext zu erklären. Die Zusammenbrüche der Militärregimes und der Guerillaarmeen in Zentralamerika hinterließen Lagerhallen voller Waffen sowie Soldaten, die keinen Sold mehr bekamen. Die entstehenden Demokratien waren schwach, ihre Politiker korrupt. Die internationale Gemeinschaft forcierte die Schaffung von freien Märkten, sie schaute auf Wahlen, aber übersah, wie instabil die Rechtssysteme waren und dass die Kluft zwischen Arm und Reich immer größer wurde.

“Das alles würde nur aufhören, wenn alle Gangmitglieder umgebracht würden. Aber, ehrlich gesagt, du kannst die Gangs nicht auslöschen”, sagt El Sparky. “Du bringst heute drei oder vier um, aber morgen treten wieder zehn bei.”

El Sparky weiß, dass es auch für ihn nie aufhören wird. Nach einem Streit setzten seine eigenen Bosse vier Killer auf ihn an. Sie lauerten ihm auf der Straße auf. El Sparky hatte sein amerikanisches Sturmgewehr dabei. Mit vier Magazinen. Einen der Killer erschoss er, dann floh er, tauchte unter. Schließlich ging er zur Polizei. Mehr aus Rache als aus Hoffnung auf ein langes Leben. Er hätte zwar gern ein friedliches Leben und einen Job. Aber er weiß auch, dass sie ihn umbringen werden, bei der ersten Chance, die sie bekommen. Und er weiß nicht genau, wie das funktioniert – ein friedliches Leben.

Anführer einer Barrio-18-Gang: "Töten oder getötet werden, du hast nicht viele Optionen"
Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL Anführer einer Barrio-18-Gang: “Töten oder getötet werden, du hast nicht viele Optionen”

Niemand kann eine Gang lebend verlassen. Der einzige Weg in eine Art Ruhestand ist, einer Kirche beizutreten und derart überzeugend ein gläubiges Leben zu führen, dass die anderen Gangmitglieder den Wandel ernst nehmen. Das geht manchmal gut, in letzter Zeit aber immer seltener. “Viele Männer haben das als einfachen Ausweg genutzt. Deswegen haben wir angefangen, sie umzubringen”, sagt El Sparky. “Wenn du drin bist, dann heißt es: bis dass der Tod uns scheidet!” Dann fahren zwei Polizisten ihren Kronzeugen El Sparky zurück in ein gesichertes Versteck.

Es gibt viele wie El Sparky. Und das Schlimmste ist: Sparky sticht noch nicht einmal heraus. Der Polizist und Priester Flores weiß das. Es ist einer der Gründe, warum Flores Gott braucht. Warum er mehr braucht als einen Psychiater. Weil es so viele sind, weil es nie aufhört.

“Wir leben in einem irregulären Krieg”, sagt Flores. Es ist eine neue Form des Krieges, noch nicht ganz Bürgerkrieg, aber doch weit mehr als reguläre Gewalt. Die Grenzen verwischen hier: Auch Polizisten formen mittlerweile Todesschwadronen. Nach Dienstschluss ziehen sie durch Ganggebiete und töten. Damit werden sie selbst zu so etwas wie einer Gang. Johnny Flores aber will das Gesetz nicht aufgeben.

“Die Kirche und mein anderes Ich, der Pastor, helfen mir, im Umgang mit den Gangs auch die Menschen zu sehen, ihre Rechte. Die Menschen zu sehen, die Familie haben und Fehler machen.” Johnny geht wieder hinein. Leichter Regen trommelt auf das Wellblechdach. “Viele Polizisten tun das nicht mehr.” Viele Polizisten, so sagen sie auf den Revieren der Hauptstadt, verlassen das Land, weil ihre Familie bedroht wird, weil sie selbst bedroht werden.

Johnny Flores zieht die Uniform aus und legt sie in seinen Spind. Die Uniform lässt er immer im Revier. Die Gangs in seinem Viertel wissen nicht, dass er Polizist ist. Nach Dienstschluss trägt Flores wieder den Anzug des Pastors. Er spielt Gitarre, wenige Straßen von seinem Haus entfernt auf dem Geburtstag eines Mädchens. Ein paar Kinder sitzen einige Häuser weiter. Sogenannte Antenas, Spitzel der Gangs.

Ein Mann kommt aus dem Haus, in dem die Kinder feiern. Setzt sich. Schaut hinüber zu den Antenas. “Für die, die nicht reich sind, sind die Gangs immer da”, sagt er. “Mit viel Glück klopfen sie nie an deine Tür. Aber man muss immer mit ihnen rechnen.”

Die Polizei mache ihren Job, sagt der Mann. Die Fahnder kämen, wenn sie gerufen würden. “Sie brechen Türen auf, sie stürmen Häuser. Dann verschwinden sie wieder. Aber wir müssen hierbleiben.” Die Antenas schauen herüber, rauchen.

“Das ist das Problem”, sagt ein anderer Mann, “denn Gangs verschwinden nicht. Sie sind Teil der Viertel. Sie sind Söhne und Töchter von Frauen aus der Nachbarschaft. Die Gangs sind Teile El Salvadors. Sie sind Teile der Straßen wie der Bordstein dort.” Johnny Flores nickt.

“Oscuro”, el comic decomisado por la PNC. Entrega 4

Presentamos el capítulo 4 del comic “Oscuro”, diseñado y distribuido en el marco de programas de prevención de la violencia. Miles de ejemplares de estos folletos fueron decomisados por la PNC, y el ministro de Seguridad Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde sostuvo que se trata de contenidos que ‘promueven a violencia’. Para que los lectores se puedan formar su propia opinión, Segunda Vuelta decidió publicar los 6 capítulos. Y también porque consideramos que la policía no tienen facultad de decidir lo que podemos o no podemos leer.

Segunda Vuelta

Si no ha visto las primeras entregas de “Oscuro”, léalas aquí:
Lea la carta de Paolo Luers sobre “Oscuro” y  la PNC

29 noviembre 2018 / SEGUNDA VUELTA

Lea también:

Policía decomisa cómic sobre violencia sin orden judicial

Así es el cómic sobre violencia decomisado por la PNC




‘Circo y Pan’ puede ser una estrategia, pero circo sin pan jamás. De Paolo Luers

“Como Bálsamo de Fierabrás” es una recopilación de ensayos sobre cultura en situaciones de conflicto. Los autores tratan de explorar cuales son los aportes que a cultura puede dar para encontrar salidas a conflictos sociales y violentos en nuestras sociedades. Aquí reproducimos el ensayo de Paolo Luers. El libro completo está disponible en este sitio WEB.

Segunda Vuelta

27 noviembre 2018 /

Para ver los pies de foto, toque la imagen con su cursor:

Carta a los diputados: No se dejen chantajear por la falta de voluntad y capacidad del gobierno. De Paolo Luers

31 julio 2018 / MAS! y EL DIARIO DE HOY

Ahora todos -ustedes en la Asamblea y la ciudadanía- están enfocados en la elección de los magistrados de la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Es la prioridad número 1, indudablemente.

Pero inmediatamente despuées tienen que atender otro problema, que causaría grave daño si no logran encontrar una solución racional, eficiente y pegada a la Constitución. Desde hace varias semanas, ustedes tienen en sus manos la iniciativa del gobierno de reformar la Ley Penitenciaria. Viene, como siempre, con urgencia y mucha presión. Más bien chantaje.

La urgencia del gobierno es esta: Han basado toda su política de Seguridad Pública sobre la muleta de las medidas extraordinarias. Desde ya más de dos años las aplican en el sistema penitenciario. Medidas extraordinarias, que no son otra cosa que un Estado de Excepción parcial, tienen por definición un carácter temporal. La única manera que ustedes, los legisladores, pueden autorizar un Estado de Excepción temporal es bajo el imperativo que el gobierno aproveche el plazo concedido para resolver la emergencia y hacer innecesarias la aplicación de medidas extraordinarias, temporales y restrictivas de derechos constitucionales.

Esta regla constitucional ya ha sido violada por el Ejecutivo al buscar dos veces la prolongación de las medidas extraordinarias. La última vez, la Asamblea se negó a dar otra prorroga de 1 años y dijo al Ejecutivo: Le damos 6 meses para resolver, pero es la última vez. Resuelvan.

Ahora, ante su incapacidad de desarrollar políticas que resuelven la emergencia de inseguridad, el gobierno presentó una reforma de la Ley Penitenciaria que simplemente pretende convertir las medidas extraordinarias en legislación permanente, incluyendo todas sus restricciones a derechos garantizados por la Constitución y por las leyes. Esto no se vale. Es una ofensa tanto a la Sala sobre que sentenció que es inaceptable elestado del sistema penitenciario, como a la Asamblea Legislativa que les negó la prórroga por un año más.

La incapacidad -o la falta de voluntad- del gabinete de Seguridad de resolver la emergencia no puede ser razón para la Asamblea de permitir que el Estado de Excepción se convierta en legislación permanente. Sería una derrota del Estado de Derecho.

Así lo han calificado las instancias internacionales encargadas de vigilar y garantizar los Derechos Humanos. Ustedes tienen en sus manos los informes respectivos.

Convertir las medidas extraordinarias en legislación permanente sería permitir que el ejecutivo actual y el que venga sigan construyendo sus políticas de Seguridad Pública sobre la libertad de continuar violando derechos humanos y constitucionales.

Tienen en sus manos la oportunidad de obligar al gobierno a reorientar sus políticas y presentar y cumplir planes de seguridad integrales apegados a la Constitución. Estamos acercándonos a las elecciones presidenciales y la transición a un nuevo gobierno. La Asamblea no debe cerrar la puerta a que los candidatos y sus partidos desarrollen propuestas nuevas en el área de Seguridad y que no sean amarrados a una legislación que surge de la incapacidad de los últimos gobiernos.

Hagan su trabajo. No son el órgano auxiliar del gobierno.


¿Por qué las ‘medidas extraordinarias’ no resuelven el problema? De Paolo Luers

paolo3Paolo Luers, 2 marzo 2018 / EDH-Observador

La respuesta es muy simple: Las medidas extraordinarias afectan exclusivamente en los penales, cuando la violencia tiene lugar afuera, en los barrios, en los cantones, en las calles. Así de simple.

Las medidas extraordinarias, que no son otra cosa que un Estado de Emergencia aplicado en los 6 penales donde están detenidos pandilleros, con suspensión ‘temporal’ de derechos garantizados en la Constitución, en convenios internacionales y en la Ley Penitenciaria, surgen de una suposición equivocada: que las actividades de las pandillas, su violencia, y sus extorsiones, tienen su origen en los penales. Partiendo de esta tesis, parece lógico intervenir los penales. Parece. Pero la verdad es que el origen de la actividad de las pandillas está en la calle, en los barrios marginados y las comunidades precarias. Ahí nace y se reproduce. Y la guerra declarada contra las pandillas, sobre todo cuando afecta directamente a las comunidades y su población, echa leña a este fuego.

observadorAunque es cierto que durante años las actividades de las pandillas han sido conducidas desde los penales, porque ahí se encuentran sus cabecillas (nacionales, regionales y locales), esta verdad no permite sacar la conclusión que cortando la comunicación entre los pandilleros en los penales y los de la calle se logra descabezar y desmontar las pandillas y, por tanto, disminuir la violencia y las extorsiones que ejercen. Precisamente esta conclusión simplista es lo que ha llevado al gabinete de seguridad a apostar todo a la implementación de las medidas extraordinarias, y a insistir en su prolongación e incluso en convertirlas en permanentes.

Aislar a sus cabecillas presos, como lo hacen las medidas extraordinarias con cierta eficiencia, solo descabeza a las pandillas temporalmente, porque rápidamente le nacen otras cabezas. Con el aislamiento total de los cabecillas en el penal de máxima Seguridad Zacatecoluca, y con las medidas extraordinarias aplicadas en los penales de Ciudad Barrios, Izalco, Quezaltepeque, Gotera y Chalatenango, lo único que lograron fue que el mando de las pandillas pasó de los penales a la calle. Era ilógico esperar que por esto iban a bajar los homicidios o las extorsiones.

No nos olvidemos: Cuando el gobierno comenzó esta estrategia, a principios del 2015, con el traslado a todo el liderazgo nacional de las pandillas de regreso a Zacatraz, y luego con las medidas extraordinarias, comenzó el período más violento de nuestra historia reciente, con 6,657 homicidios en el 2015 y con 5,278 en el año 2016. El gobierno celebró como éxito haber logrado neutralizar y aislar al liderazgo de las pandillas, cortando su cadena de mando. Pero cortar la cadena de mando también significó un proceso de descentralización y atomización de las pandillas – y un relieve generacional. De repente cada clica y región, aisladas de su acostumbrada conducción centralizada desde los penales, estaba en manos de pandilleros mucho más jóvenes – y mucho más radicales y violentos. Muchos de estos cabecillas que de repente tomaron el control no habían participado de los procesos de discusión durante los años de la tregua. Muchos de ellos dijeron: “Ya no me hablen de diálogo y treguas, mucho menos de reducción de violencia – ya ven como les fue a aquellos que nos predicaban esto, los metieron a Zacatraz y botaron la llave…”

El gobierno del FMLN vende a la ciudadanía -y actualmente al electorado- las medidas extraordinarias como el plan maestro para derrotar a las pandillas. Pero esto no es cierto. La operatividad de la PNC y Fuerza Armada en los territorios no tiene nada que ver con estas medidas, que exclusivamente se enfocan en controlar los penales. Las medidas extraordinarias no ayudan en nada a los policías desplegados en barrios, comunidades y cantones, y mucho menos a mejorar la capacidad de investigación e inteligencia de la PNC. Es ahí donde se encuentran los verdaderos puntos débiles de la PNC.

El Estado de Excepción en los penales, aunque el gobierno logre conseguir que la Asamblea, con los votos del FMLN y sus aliados, prolongarlo un año más, no va a resolver nada en los terrenos, donde el Estado ha pedido presencia, control, simpatía y credibilidad, y donde es que se cometen las extorsiones y se genera la violencia.

Mientras el gobierno no tenga un plan integral, ni tampoco una estrategia operativa para cambiar la situación en los barrios y cantones donde ejercen control y se reproducen las pandillas, las medidas extraordinaria no van a resultar en más control, más seguridad y menos violencia. Mucho menos cuando la represión policial y militar de las pandillas sigue teniendo tanto daño colateral, afectando a cientos de miles de pobladores, sobre todos a los jóvenes, de los barrios y cantones que se convierten en teatro de guerra.

Las medidas extraordinarias, mientras sustituyen una política integral de seguridad, son un engaño. Con mucha publicidad y propaganda alrededor de las medidas extraordinarias, el gobierno quiere dar la impresión de control. Claro, controlar unos penales es más fácil que controlar los territorios. Penales se pueden controlar a pura represión, los territorios no.

El cambio en el corazón. De Manuel Hinds

Manuel Hinds-05Manuel Hinds, 23 febrero 2018 / El Diario de Hoy

Hay un tema que se repite continuamente en todo tipo de narrativas, desde los mitos ancestrales que se han convertido en las bases de todas las culturas hasta los cuentos, las novelas y las obras de teatro que dan forma específica a estas culturas. El tema es la disyuntiva entre crecimiento y fracaso que las sociedades y las personas tienen que confrontar continuamente a lo largo de sus vidas. Las sociedades crecen y se desarrollan cuando enfrentan dificultades y las vencen. Así, pues, el proceso del desarrollo está siempre asociado con una narrativa de luchas, fracasos y triunfos. Esta narrativa es la que forma los mitos, los cuentos y las novelas… y la historia.

EDH logTípicamente, en estas narrativas, las personas (o las sociedades) enfrentan un reto que amenaza su capacidad de crecer y hasta su existencia. La sociedad genera una respuesta, que puede ser exitosa o perdedora. Los protagonistas siempre tienen oportunidades de redimirse después de haber tomado una ruta perdedora, pero el costo para la sociedad se vuelve peor mientras más tiempo se mantiene esta ruta negativa. En los mitos y las narrativas épicas, y en las ficciones exitosas, los protagonistas tardan tiempo en darse cuenta de que han tomado un camino equivocado, y cuando se dan cuenta y tratan de enderezarlo, se encuentran con que rectificar el rumbo requiere reconocer errores profundos y realizar transformaciones internas también profundas. Esto es muy difícil de hacer.

En el caso de El Salvador, es claro que hemos caído por el lado equivocado, y desde hace mucho tiempo. Un país que tenía un rumbo definido de progreso, reconocido internacionalmente, tomó de pronto un mal rumbo que nos ha llevado a la triste situación actual. ¿Qué fue lo qué pasó y cuándo?

Los errores que descarrilan países nunca son materiales, no se deben a la selección de alguna tecnología inapropiada o a haber hecho un proyecto innecesario, problemas que pueden resolverse fácilmente. Los errores fatales como los de El Salvador tienen que ver con el comportamiento ético de las personas. Resolverlos requiere lo que en el idioma inglés se expresa tan claramente como cambios en el corazón de ellas.

El error fatal que nos tiró por la ruta equivocada fue el haber escogido el camino del odio de clases. El error fue fatal desde todo punto de vista. El odio fue promovido como una solución a problemas materiales pero sus efectos materiales fueron catastróficos. El desarrollo no se da automáticamente, necesita de unidad de propósito en la sociedad, y el odio de clases no solo destruye esta unidad de propósito sino que disloca a la sociedad en millones de odios personales. Estos odios llevaron a guerra con sus ochenta mi muertos y luego al estancamiento porque un porcentaje minoritario pero sustancial de la población considera que la satisfacción de los odios debe tener prioridad sobre el desarrollo del país.

Los que promovieron el odio también pretendieron justificarlo en términos espirituales, tratando de convertir en religión de odio a la religión que revolucionó el mundo hace veinte siglos por estar basada en el amor. Los resultados en esta dimensión espiritual han sido también catastróficos. El odio, cuando se siembra, brota en todas las direcciones, y nadie puede negar que el que se manifiesta todos los días en los crímenes de las maras está íntimamente relacionada con el que se sembró para matar a los ricos y a los que no creían en el odio mismo.

Ningún argumento filosófico puede negar que en el fondo de ambas violencias hay un principio común: la idea de que hay personas que merecen ser asesinadas por pertenecer a ciertos grupos, clases sociales o maras. Lo único que varía entre los crímenes cometidos por el odio de clases y los cometidos por el odio entre maras, o por el desprecio a los que no son de ninguna mara, es el motivo que supuestamente legitima el crimen. Esto va contra el cristianismo, contra el desarrollo social, económico político, y contra todo lo que es civilizado.

Esto es lo que hay que abandonar, lo qué hay que reconocer que fue un error y revertir con toda la energía que la sociedad pueda reunir. Los que llaman al odio pueden predicar lo que quieran, pero el pueblo debe dejarlos hablar solos. Ya han hecho demasiado daño.

Una segunda columna de Manuel Hinds sobre el tema:
El odio de clases y las maras

Una columna de Paolo Luers sobre el tema:
El gueto genera odio y violencia