On the deadliest day of the century in the world’s most homicidal country, a gang leader and convicted murderer sits quietly in a vegetable farm ruing what he calls a disappearing opportunity for peace.
Marvin is a senior figure in the Mara Salvatrucha, one of El Salvador’s two biggest gangs. They have been at war with each other for two decades and now find themselves under attack by the state amid a bloody escalation of violence.
Last Sunday was, briefly, the bloodiest day yet with 40 murders. But the record was beaten on Monday with 42 deaths, and surpassed again on Tuesday with 43. Even Iraq – with its civil war, suicide bombings, mortar attacks and US drone strikes – could not match such a lethal start to the week.
For the 31-year-old gangster, such statistics are further cause for pessimism that his country is being sucked deeper into a culture of death – one that he has been part of for most of his life.
Marvin, the name he wishes to be known by, joined the gang when he was 14. Four years later, he was jailed for shooting and killing a member of the rival gang Barrio 18 because, he says, “You are crazy when you are young. You want to be important in the gang. You want to be noticed.”
After 10 years in prison, he claims he was determined to overcome the cycle of revenge attacks, territorial battles and police repression that made his country a byword for violence.
“When I came out, I saw that nothing had changed. My story was repeating itself in others that I saw with weapons, drugs and not having enough to eat,” he says.
In 2012, he was part of a 15-month truce involving the gangs, the government, police and army that cut homicide rates by about half and even led to a handful of days with no murders at all. The vegetable and chicken farm in Ilopango is part of an outreach project that aims to take gang members off the streets.
But the tranquil setting is at sharp odds with the carnage on the streets now that the national truce is long past and a new police offensive is under way to try to stem crime that has long been out of control.
‘This country is bleeding’
It started innocuously enough in February with the relocation of jailed gang leaders to high-security prisons with fewer visiting rights and reduced privileges. Since then, the conflict has escalated rapidly.
The statistics are awful.
More than 3,830 people have been murdered in El Salvador this year. With one killing on average every hour, August is on course to be the deadliest month since the 1992 peace accord. On current trends, the homicide rate will pass 90 per 100,000 people in 2015, overtaking that of Honduras as the highest in the world (not including battlegrounds like Syria). This would make El Salvador almost 20 times deadlier than the US and 90 times deadlier than the UK.
“This country is bleeding and it urgently needs a tourniquet,” says Raul Mijango, a former Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla, who was a key mediator in the truce. “Now we have a war between the state and the gangs.”
But this is no failed state, no dictatorship struggling with an insurgency, no rubble-strewn target of suicide bombers.
At first glance, downtown San Salvador feels more like Miami with its traffic, shopping malls and American fast-food chains. The leafy suburbs appear quiet and more likely to showcase the work of local topiary artists than to provide a stage for gang wars. Further into the countryside, the main roads are decent, the whitewash on the churches often freshly painted and democracy seemingly alive and well in the banners and flags of the FMLN and Arena parties.
But look more closely and you notice schools are protected by barbed wire and often patrolled by soldiers; private security guards carrying shotguns man the entrance to major businesses and police, armed with rifles, conduct random checks on the highways. Even in the morning rush hour, it is not uncommon to see soldiers in balaclavas riding on the back of flat-bed trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Few people pay them a second glance.
To some extent, violence has been normalised. For much of its history, this small country has suffered levels of murder unimaginable almost anywhere else outside of wartime, primarily due to turf battles and revenge killings by the Mara Salvatrucha (better known as MS-13), and Barrio 18, which is split into two factions.
These “mara” have their origins in the gangs of Los Angeles. When El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, the US deported thousands of illegal migrants back to their home country. Many brought back the violent street culture and mutual hatred that had shaped their existence in California. Over the past two decades, they have grown, evolved and wreaked more carnage in El Salvador due to the weak government, dire inequality and a historical national tendency towards violence both in institutions and households.
In financial and political terms, El Salvador’s gangs are disorganised small fry compared to the mafia, the Yakuza or the narco-cartels of Colombia and Mexico.
They largely miss out on the lucrative drug-trafficking business, even though most of the world’s cocaine passes through this country on its way to the US. Instead, they are left with low-value distribution of marijuana and cocaine in the local market. The rest of their income comes from robbery and extortion – often in their own low-income communities. When rival gangsters kill one another, it is almost always a case of the poor killing the poor.
Fighting between rival mara has resulted in a high baseline of homicide, which went down to about five killings a day during the government-backed truce in 2012-13 and has spiked dramatically this year as a result of the government crackdown that has made an already horrendous situation worse.
Nobody is immune. Even before the latest surge, fear permeated daily life, particularly in poor communities where the gangs stake out most of their territories. Residents who cross the invisible line between them – usually an innocuous-looking bridge, road or park – risk beatings or even death. Taxi drivers dread wrong turns that can lead to robbery or kidnap. Shopping trips, lovers’ trysts and football matches are all circumscribed by safety concerns. Even staying at home is no guarantee of safety.
Shopkeepers, hairdressers and restaurant owners are frequently assailed by extortionists, who typically threaten arson attacks or to cut off the ears or fingers of spouses or children. Parents watch with rising alarm as their sons and daughters approach pubescence – and the inevitable pressures that follow to join the local gang. There is often no one to turn to for support: teachers are intimidated by students and police are afraid to enter many communities.
“Our son doesn’t dare go out because gang members threatened us. He hasn’t been to school for three months” said Bianca Sanchez, whose name has been changed, a hairdresser in the Aguilares region. “In our neighbourhood, people are killed all the time.”
While the rich hide behind high fences, often manned by armed security guards, they too fear kidnapping, carjacking, robbery and extortion. Few are willing to accept phone calls from strangers for fear of death threats and cash demands. Many young people prefer to take their chances on the perilous journey through Mexico and across the US border because illegal migration poses fewer risks than staying in El Salvador.
Constant anxiety and the prevalence of crime have generated widespread hatred of the gangs and demands for the government to take tougher countermeasures. This has almost always proved counterproductive. Past crackdowns – “Iron Fist” and “Super Iron Fist” – tended to increase violence rather than improve security. But the public appears to prefer this to dialogue with the gangs.
‘There is no safe place’
In the San Salvador cathedral last Sunday, monsignor Hector Figueroa called on the congregation of about 800 to pray for peace, but as the faithful filed out of the mass afterwards, few seemed in a forgiving mood.
The gangs are trying to scare civilians. They’d use a truce to get organised, to grow stronger
Howard Cotto, deputy police chief
Sebastian Sanchez, a 53-year-old security guard, said he wanted the government to take even tougher measures. “The hard-hand is too soft. The violence is getting worse. Human rights are helping the gangs,” he said.
Others simply despaired. “There is no safe place in this country. I know hundreds of people who have been extorted. Some of my neighbours have been murdered. No town is free from violence,” lamented Claudia Henrique, who sells T-shirts by the cathedral gate.
Under the president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the FMLN government, which once vowed to rein in the excesses of state repression, is now ramping up attacks on gang territory with armed police bolstered by more than 7,000 troops. They operate with relative impunity as a result of a recent legal revision that ensures no officer will be investigated for any shooting done in “self-defence”.
This has opened up a new and increasingly bloody front. While the old battle between the gangs continues to account for most of the homicides, the number of killings by police has surged to more than 300 this year.
El Faro journalists have uncovered evidence that supposed exchanges of fire were actually extrajudicial executions. Death squads formed by cells within the police and army are also suspected in several massacres of gang members.
Jeannette Aguilar, director of the Institute of Public Opinion in the Centroamericano University, said the police are now the primary aggressor, yet they have been made unaccountable.
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A letter sent by gang members in June to the government calls for a reinstatement of the truce and an end to the crackdown by authorities. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian
“This is very dangerous because it legitimises the actions of the police department. It normalises the abuse of rights,” she warned. “This motivates gangs to fight and become part of an insurgent movement. We are waking a big monster.”
Imprisoned gang leaders signed a joint letter in June calling for a return to the truce. But young radicals in their ranks want action. More than 50 police or soldiers have been murdered this year. Earlier this month, gangsters started targeting bus drivers, killing seven in four days. Commuters were warned not to use public transport. In response to this apparent attack on the economy, the government said it would charge the perpetrators as “terrorists”.
“This is being done to generate fear. The criminal gangs are trying to scare civilians,” Howard Cotto, the deputy chief of police, told the Guardian. He dismissed calls for a cessation of hostilities. “It’s a pax mafioso. The gangs would use it to get organised, to grow stronger. I don’t agree with a truce.”
But the prospects of a victory seem remote. The gangs are estimated to have about 50,000 members aged 12-55, including more than 10,000 in jail. With the addition of several hundred thousand wives, children, parents and collaborators, it is estimated that nearly one in 10 Salvadoreans depend on the gangs.
“You can’t kill them all. That would be genocide,” Mijango says. “It’s like a snake that you can’t kill. You can only remove the fangs.”
‘Dialogue is the only way out’
Some are still attempting to do that peacefully. In Ilopango – a suburb of San Salvador – the mayor, Salvador Ruano, continues to fund outreach programmes and to promote dialogue between the gangs and the authorities.
A charismatic, unorthodox figure, Ruano says murders in his municipality have fallen steadily from 117 in 2011 to a mere 14 last year. “It’s necessary to build a new politics to solve the problem that is destroying our country and bringing only death,” he says after a prayer meeting with local residents. “It can’t be perfect. There will be errors. No one knows how to build peace. But, at least we give people hope.”
But he fears the government’s recent moves will reverse that progress. A bakery project, which aims to take gang members off the streets, had to be closed when police arrested several of the youths who worked there. A vegetable farm, set up with the same aim, was also visited by police. Ruano has been warned that he could also be arrested.
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Policemen guard the crime scene where five men were murdered at a soccer field in Cuscatancingo in August. Photograph: Reuters
He is not alone. In a country where 95% of crimes go unpunished, it is now the peacemakers who are under investigation. Last week, the state prosecutor announced an inquiry into the activities of several prominent supporters of the truce, including Mijango and former security minister Munguia Payes.
Senior gang members claim the government is using violence to prevent the mara from becoming a political force. “There are some powers who don’t want peace and they push us back to where we were before and now we have 24 deaths a day,” a leader of Barrio 18, who goes only by the name Santiago, told the Guardian. “The FMLN no longer represents the poor. They fear that is a space that only gangs can now fill. But we don’t have candidates and we have never considered entering politics.”
He said his gang was not interested in a war in which the price would be ultimately paid by El Salvador’s people. “We maintain our position that dialogue is the only way out.”
It is a sentiment echoed by sworn enemies in the MS-13. “We know violence leads to more violence. This country doesn’t need more weapons. It needs solutions,” says Marvin. He knows how much the gangs are hated and distrusted and admits they are unlikely to stop criminal activity because cultivating vegetables and raising chickens will never be as easy as extortion. But he says he will continue to look for alternatives.
After decades of gang-led violence and crime, few in El Salvador are likely to take him at his word, but nobody here would disagree with his analysis of who will be worst affected if the situation continues to deteriorate: “In a war it is always the civilians who suffer the worst consequences.”
El Salvador gang violence pushes murder rate to postwar record.