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The 18th Street Gang Just Set Out to Prove It Runs El Salvador’s Transport System

Four people including a bus driver were killed on Wednesday in the latest attack against El Salvador's bus system after a country-wide stoppage ordered by the 18th Street gang.
Imagen por Saul Martinez/VICE News

Gunmen boarded a bus near the Salvadoran capital and opened fire on its driver and passengers on Wednesday, killing four people including the driver, and wounding four others a week after a string of attacks brought bus service in the country to a halt.

Nine drivers on commuter bus routes in El Salvador have now been killed in a bus "strike" enforced by a faction of the powerful 18th Street gang and which has resulted in an estimated $60 million in losses for the country's economy.


Salvadoran buses were finally returning to normal after the start of last week's crippling strike, which left tens of thousands of commuters stranded for days and exposed the major weaknesses of the government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren against the country's gangs.

Wednesday's fresh attack heightened tensions for terrified Salvadoran commuters.

Word began spreading on the weekend of July 25 that the 18th Street gang was forcibly shutting down bus operations country-wide. Bus drivers were ordered to "strike," and any driver who went to work risked being killed.

The strike order came — like all high-level directives — from leaders of the Revolucionarios faction of the gang who are housed in El Salvador's maximum security prisons. The gang, also known as Barrio 18, split in two major factions in 2005, the Revolucionarios and the Mara 18.

El Salvador's other major transnational gang is Mara Salvatrucha. Both criminal forces formed on the streets of Los Angeles, California, and grew in strength after a campaign of deportations of gang members from US prisons.

Related: El Salvador's Gang Truce Is Getting Fragile

The forced bus "paro," or stoppage, is the gang's latest power play in a country where day-to-day operations are increasingly run by organized crime. In a further sign of El Salvador's weakened institutions, the president left the country on July 29 amid the chaos the bus stoppage caused all over the country.


Before today's attack, bus activity was returning back to normal, but it had remained unclear if the paro was called off.

The federal prosecutor's office said on Wednesday the driver, the fare collector, and two passengers were slain in the attack in Cuscatlan department, about 13 miles northeast of San Salvador. Few other details were available.

By the end of day, five drivers were dead, a terrifying statement of power made by the gang.

Several empty buses were torched during the stoppage, leading to the closure of dozens of bus routes. For days, tens of thousands of Salvadorans had no way to get to work or home to their families.

Commuters crammed into truck transports, private taxis and into trunks of cars, but gangs sought retribution against alternative transportation, too. Last Thursday, the Salvadoran newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported that gang members opened fire on a pickup carrying passengers in the town of Zacatecoluca, injuring several people.

People ride on the back of a pick up truck during a suspension of public transport services in San Salvador July 27, 2015. (Photo by Saul Martinez/VICE News)

The government urged bus companies not to back down, promising ramped up security along routes throughout El Salvador to protect bus workers and commuters.

"Getting to work has been almost impossible," a nonprofit worker who declined to be named said on Thursday. "The buses are packed, and you can't help but be afraid of what might happen."

The government mobilized tens of thousands of police and military officers, stationed along major highways, at central bus stops, and on the buses themselves. Many of them wore balaclavas to hide their identity from the gangs.


But first thing on Monday morning, July 27, Day 1 of the strike, a bus driver was gunned down by a Barrio 18 gang member on route 301, between San Miguel and San Salvador.

As news of this assassination spread, more and more drivers refused to show up for work. Bus companies shut down dozens of routes, particularly those crossing through entrenched Barrio 18 territory, such as Zacatecoluca, parts of La Libertad, and the capital city, San Salvador.

By the end of that day, five bus drivers had been killed, a terrifying statement of power made by the gang. Nine drivers have been killed overall as of Wednesday.

Related: El Salvador Just Had Its Most Violent Month Since the End of the Civil War

An 18th Street gang member during a 2012 press conference. (Photo by Luis Romero/AP)

El Salvador's rates of homicide and violent crime have been steadily increasing since 2014, after a failed 2012 gang truce between rival gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

Although murder rates dropped significantly for two years after the truce, the numbers of disappearances dramatically increased, and, according to the head of San Salvador's Instituto Medicina Legal, the morgue continues to conduct autopsies of mass graves from the era of the supposed cease-fire.

In June, an average of 22 people a day were murdered — a number that does not include the disappeared. The past year's homicide rates have now crowned El Salvador as one of the deadliest countries in the world.

Last Tuesday evening, Salvador President Salvador Sanchez Ceren told the country in a national address that the government would under no circumstances negotiate with the gangs. He promised additional security forces to protect bus drivers and civilians.


The next day, however, he left for Cuba for a scheduled medical check-up. His original itinerary had him returning on August 11.

 'The gangs do bad things so that other people can see how powerful they are.'

Beyond leveraging power and fighting against the government's crackdown on organized crime, what exactly the gangs want to negotiate remains unclear.

According to El Diario de Hoy, transit companies lost $750,000 each day of the bus halt, and that a total of $60 million had been lost country-wide as of last Thursday, from individual fruit vendors all the way up to the largest national companies.

Many businesses were forced to temporarily close due to the impossible commutes, and universities and high schools suspended classes because their students couldn't get to school or didn't want to risk trying.

Tourism in El Salvador also suffered as a result of the strike.

Last Wednesday evening, the US embassy sent out a security message to US citizens traveling in El Salvador. "The US Embassy is aware that criminal elements in El Salvador have threatened to escalate the level of violence by attacking hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and other public venues," the message read, although the embassy received no news of threats specifically targeting US citizens.

The desired outcome of the strike may be unclear, but, as a stranded 12-year-old boy in Santa Ana explained to VICE News last week, "The gangs do bad things so that other people can see how powerful they are."

In that sense, the forced bus strike of El Salvador could be a called a success.

Related: We're Still Not Practicing What He Preached': El Salvador Celebrates Oscar Romero's Beatification as Gangs Wage War

Follow Lauren Markham on Twitter: @LaurenMarkham_

The Associated Press contributed to this report.