Joshua Partlow, Mexico Bureau Chief, The Washington Post
Joshua Partlow y THE WASHINGTON POST, 3 abril 2016 /
SAN SALVADOR — One of the gangsters, a black bandanna over his mouth and two rosaries around his neck, tapped his clawlike fingernail on the table.
Next to him was a sworn enemy, a man with a black fisherman’s hat pulled down over rainbow-tinted sunglasses.
The two rivals, and their tens of thousands of followers in El Salvador’s dominant gangs, have called a halt, for the moment, to their street war with each other and the government. On March 25, Mara Salvatrucha and two factions of the 18th Street gang announced a cease-fire, a respite from the fighting that has made El Salvador one of the world’s deadliest countries.
Inmates stand next to a police vehicle while being transferred to the Quezaltepeque prison in El Salvador on March 29. (Fred Ramos/For The Washington Post)
“We’re not friends,” one of the gangsters, a spokesman for the 18th Street gang, said in a rare interview last week, alongside a Mara Salvatrucha representative. “But the three gangs are united in this effort to come together to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country.”
Many, though, expect the cease-fire will be temporary, a lull in an ever more chaotic battle, a moment that simply shows the enormous gap that separates these gangs from the government. El Salvador’s ferocious pace of violence, with more than 2,000 murders in the past three months, has exhausted all sides. Dozens of police and their relatives have been hunted down and killed by gangsters, provoking defections from the ranks. The gangsters complain about police running death squads, their friends being driven off in pickup trucks and disappearing.
But despite the enormous toll on both sides, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has remained defiant, vowing to tighten security at prisons and relentlessly pursue gang members.
“The government has said there’s no chance of dialogue with the gangs,” Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, the minister of security and justice, said in an interview.
The Salvadoran gangs are descendants of gangs formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by immigrants who fled this country’s civil war. Many of their leaders were eventually deported back to El Salvador. The country is now a patchwork of gang-controlled neighborhoods. Their members extort residents, kill, kidnap, rape and serve as sentries against rival cliques. The gangs and experts who study them estimate their active ranks at 70,000 people, not including the tens of thousands behind bars.
After Sánchez Cerén was elected in 2014, he criticized his predecessor’s decision to negotiate with the gangs, and vowed to punish them with the full force of the law. The conflict has steadily escalated.
“I think there is really a fatigue with the war,” said Juan Jose Martinez, an anthropologist who studies Salvadoran gangs.
“This is not like the violence we’ve always had,” he added. “This is a crisis of violence.”
But Sánchez Cerén, a former leftist guerrilla leader during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, has vowed to intensify the crackdown on the gangs. Following months of police raids, his government plans to transfer hundreds of jailed gang leaders to solitary confinement, and has proposed what it calls “extraordinary measures” to further disrupt gang communications. “With these cruel criminals, it is not possible to have an attitude of tolerance,” Sánchez Cerén said last week.
Ramírez Landaverde dismissed the possibility that the current pause could stretch into a more durable peace, saying the gang landscape is fragmented with hundreds of small cells and cliques.
“Often it turns out they [gang leaders] don’t have the backing of all the groups, or all of the members,” he said. “Many of them don’t participate, and you can see proof in the streets. They’re killing like nothing happened.”
‘This is kicking the hornet’s nest’
The streets, however, do seem to have calmed. Over the first six days of the gang cease-fire, initially set for 72 hours but now with no official endpoint, an average of 10 people were slain each day, less than half the rate of killing in the first two months this year.
The representatives from Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street agreed to an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss their self-imposed cease-fire. They met with a reporter in the top-floor office of a Lutheran church in an industrial part of San Salvador, where they have come repeatedly to see religious and community leaders in recent months.
They said they have agreed, for now, to respect each other’s territorial limits.
“They have their territory, we have ours,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said. “We are demonstrating to the Salvadoran people, the international community, that we are capable of coming here, stopping this whole wave of violence. We can stop everything.”
The gang members said, however, that they had lost faith in the possibility of negotiating directly with the government, and asked for the international community — the United Nations, the European Union, Pope Francis — to step in as a mediator.
Past attempts at ending the gang war have failed. A 2012 truce, negotiated by former guerrillas and religious leaders, with the support of former president Mauricio Funes, lasted for two years and then fell apart after the government imposed tighter conditions on jailed gang members. Critics say that the gangs used the time to rearm and grow stronger.
The current one-sided truce could quickly be followed by more violence, as the gangs seem determined to fight back if the police do not ease up.
“This is kicking the hornet’s nest,” Raul Mijango, a politician and former guerrilla who helped negotiate the previous gang truce, said of the government’s current approach. “These iron-fisted actions — today it’s total war declared against the gangs — have not been effective against these types of problems. On the contrary, what they’ve always done is increase them.”
Some of the gang members’ statements had a political flavor: They described the government as corrupt and exploitative and labeled members of the administration as hypocrites, former guerrillas who betrayed the poor people of El Salvador once they got into power. The gang members cast themselves as benefactors, offering survival in a poor job market.
“If there isn’t work, how are you going to survive? You can’t eat air,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said.
They also said they were frustrated that the government has not invested more in programs to reintegrate gang members into society, or provide jobs for them. They seemed particularly outraged about the conditions inside prisons, where they said gang members are sick and dying and receive insufficient medical care. In their neighborhoods, they complained, there were indiscriminate arrests and killings.
“The police arrive in a community and grab everyone in sight,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said. “They show up, push the kids against the wall, beat them, put them in the cop car, and drive them to a rival territory, where they know they’ll be killed.”
But the gangs have also murdered police at an ever-increasing rate — at least 12 this year, plus dozens of their relatives. The growing danger has devastated police morale. Over the past year, a movement has surged within police ranks, led by lower-ranking officers who complain about poor pay, insufficient equipment and the risk of dying. Hundreds have quit, police said, many of them heading north to try to cross illegally into the United States.
In response to the rising gang violence, authorities have cut off family visits to inmates and deployed soldiers to guard prisons. The legislature approved Sánchez Cerén’s request for more power to transfer inmates to higher-security facilities, where they would have less access to phones, visitors and weapons. His government has already moved some 300 mid-level gang leaders to more secure facilities in an attempt to block imprisoned leaders from running their gangs. The president has also called for building three jails for people awaiting trial in an effort to ease the crowded conditions.
Some doubt that the government’s defiance is as strong as it seems. Throughout the conflict, governments have often denounced the gangs publicly while reaching out to them privately. The existence of the 2012 truce, revealed by the El Faro newspaper, was never supposed to have been public knowledge. Some experts suspect a new covert deal is already in the works between the gangs and the government. Religious leaders are among the only people openly working toward that outcome now.
“The whole world is opposed to dialogue,” said Rafael Menjivar Saavedra, a Lutheran pastor who has met with the gang members. “My response to them is, ‘So what’s your alternative?’ ”
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Two Salvadoran gangsters walk into a church
The spokesmen for the 18th Street gang Revolucionarios and MS-13 sit side by side making gang signs but discussing their truce. (Fred Ramos for The Washington Post)
Joshua Partlow, 3 abril 2016 / THE WASHINGTON POST
SAN SALVADOR — For such a small country, just 6 million people, and one not in openly declared war, the number of killings El Salvador endures is hard to fathom. So far this year, there have been more than 2,000 murders (the D.C. metro region, with roughly the same population, has had 52). Many consider El Salvador’s homicide rate to be the highest in the hemisphere or the world.
That’s why the recent cease-fire declared by the country’s most powerful gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Revolutionaries, was so important, even if it ends up being temporary. In the first days of the cease-fire, homicides have dropped by more than half. But such truces have fallen apart before.
[El Salvador’s gangs call a cease-fire, but many doubt it will hold]
Spokesmen for two of the gangs agreed to meet with The Washington Post to talk about their cease-fire inside an office in a Lutheran church in San Salvador. The 18th Street spokesman showed up first. He was telling us a bit about his life, how he’d joined up as a kid because he thought it was cool — “I never wanted to be president or an airplane pilot” — and how, he claimed, police had recently slammed the left side of his face into the pavement, when a spokesman from his enemy gang walked into the church office.
The two had met during the temporary truce a couple of years ago. They agreed to talk as long as they weren’t identified. Before they went on camera, they wrapped black bandannas and towels around their faces and pulled hats down low over their eyes.
The Washington Post: Could you explain why this cease-fire started on Friday, and why you’re here now?
18th Street Revolutionaries gang spokesman: We’ve arrived at a moment of reflection to see how we can control all of this. We’re seeing too much suffering, not just among my men and the other gang’s men, but also in the civilian population. It’s too much. It’s not just at our hands — people say we’re responsible for the majority of crimes in this country, and we know that’s not true. There’s also another class of delinquents. We call them political delinquents. They’re not going to sit down with us here. They’re not here, they operate in another way. And they don’t call themselves delinquents, they call themselves “representatives.”
Let’s not talk about truces. This isn’t a truce. This is a peace agreement, a reflection on everything that has happened recently, all of the injustice. It’s the people who are dying. They’ve had enough. And still, even after we declared peace, the deaths are still filling the news. It’s not us. Now it’s clear that we’re the victims of this injustice.
WP: So are the three gangs [Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street Revolutionaries and the 18th Street Sureños] now united? Are you now friends?
Mara Salvatrucha gang spokesman: No, we’re not friends. But the three gangs are united in this effort to come together to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country, so the Salvadoran people can see that it’s not just gangs that kill. There’s another group of people that’s killing: the police, the army, and the whole world knows it. But in our country right now, human-rights advocates aren’t doing their work. They’re not supporting the people in the way they should be. They’ve been threatened so they’re staying quiet. They don’t investigate what’s happening in our country.
The rich people are living peacefully in gated communities, they go everywhere in their cars. It’s the poor people that risk their lives to travel in buses, work and go to school in violent communities.
The police arrive in a community and grab everyone in sight. In a neighborhood dominated by the Barrio 18 gang, or the Mara Salvatrucha, they show up, push the kids against the wall, beat them, put them in the cop car and drive them to a rival territory, where they know they’ll be killed. We have proof of this. It’s why we’re saying that our people are victims of abuses of the army and the police. It’s abuse of authority.
And people face discrimination for living in communities dominated by gangs. If they go to a bank and ask for a loan, they’ll be refused. If they apply for a job, they’ll get rejected. Employers ask, where do you live? In such-and-such town. If it’s a town dominated by gangs, the person will be turned down.
So, what opportunities exist for people? None. There are no opportunities for people.
WP: What is your opinion of the emergency measures the government announced?
18th Street: The governments have invented these kinds of measures before, and what I have to say about it is this: Repression doesn’t reduce violence, it just brings more repression. Because if someone’s attacking my family, I’m going to attack them. We’re demonstrating to the Salvadoran people and to the international community that we are capable of stopping all violence. We have stopped it all. We did the same thing last time. For 72 hours, we promised that there would be no homicides, and we kept our promise. Now we’re shifting the responsibility to the government, to the Minister of Security and Justice.
[Why El Salvador became the hemisphere’s murder capital]
WP: So this effort is intended to show that the government is committing violence, too?
18th Street: El Salvador is so obsessed with the gangs, it forgets about the rest of the population, about health care, about everything. We believe that the country as a whole has to advance, and the gangs are sucking up all the resources — the schools, the hospitals.
WP: There was a truce two years ago. The homicide rate declined but then rose again. Some critics say it’s because the gangs used the time to re-arm and become stronger. Is that what’s happening now?
MS-13: Everyone criticizes the truce. But during the truce, there were days with zero homicides. The average dropped from 23 homicides to 15 homicides, and there were many days with four, or three. And those homicides weren’t committed by the gangs, they were committed by others. But remember, Salvadoran politics is dirty and corrupt. There are congressmen who own funeral parlors, congressmen who own private security firms. The violence benefits them.
WP: One of the principal complaints against the gangs is rampant extortion.
MS-13: With respect to extortion, it’s something that not only the gangs do. The gangs always get blamed for everything. We’re used as the towel for the whole world to wipe itself on. If you read the news, you’ll see the police is extorting, too. Other people who aren’t from the gangs — criminal bands — are extorting. People in the government. The whole world is extorting. But who gets blamed? The gangs.
WP: How do you see the future of the gangs, in the long term? Do you want to become a political party?
MS-13: We’re never going to become politicians. We are always going to be the gangs. They’re the politicians, we’re the gangs, and the only thing we ask for are reinsertion programs — for the population, for the communities, for the prisons. If you go to a prison, all you’re going to find is a storage space. You’re going to find sick prisoners. There are no doctors that prisoners can go to for treatment when they’re sick. If you go to Zacatecoluca, the maximum-security prison, they’re killing the prisoners there. This government is killing them psychologically. They’ve put sheet metal above them so the cells heat up. They can’t withstand the heat. The prisoners suffer from colon sickness, from ulcers, from terminal illnesses. But no one sees it. People are dying inside the prison, and nobody sees it.
WP: During the cease-fire, are the gangs going to keep killing the police?
MS-13: The gangs have never declared war on the police. The police and the government have declared war on the gangs. But the gangs on the police? On the government? No. If the gangs declared war on the police or on the government, there would be a ton of deaths every day.
WP: More than there already are?
MS-13: More than there already are. You know why? Because in the communities where the gang members live, there are also police officers and government workers. If we declared war on them, every day there would be 40 police officers dead.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.