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Are El Salvador's Murderous Gangs the Voice of the Oppressed? They Think So

El Salvador's civil war ended in 1992 and the former leftist guerrillas are now in government leading a crackdown against gangs. Some gang leaders claim that they now occupy the void those guerrillas left behind.
Photo by Roberto Escobar/EPA

Santiago is of a slight build, probably only 120 pounds and standing only a few inches over five feet. It is almost hard to take him seriously as a threat, but his back and chest are marked by large "18" tattoos and his eyes burn with fierce intensity when he speaks of the current gang war being fought in El Salvador's streets.

Santiago is a regional leader of Barrio 18. At only 32, he is already a senior figure, having been in the gang for 17 years. During most of that time his group has been battling the other main Salvadoran gang, the Mara Salvatrucha or M-13. Now both groups are also facing a major crackdown by the government known as the Super Super Mano Dura — the Super Super Iron Fist.


That crackdown is not driven by any well thought out anti-crime strategy, Santiago claims, but by political calculations.

"The social fabric was broken since before the civil war. It was broken during the civil war and it's still broken after the civil war," Santiago says of the country's 12-year conflict between left wing guerrillas and US-backed right wing governments that ended with peace accords in 1992.

"We haven't had a reconciliation of those involved in the war in order to bring the peace and tranquility needed to reconstruct the social fabric, harmony and a culture of peace," he adds. "So how are they going to blame me for breaking and rupturing something that I have no fault in having ruined?"

Exceedingly articulate, Santiago is quoted often in media reports and has a nuanced perspective that the gangs can put forth to enhance their new claims of having picked up the mantle left by the guerillas.

The gangs, says the gang leader, are the product of discrimination, lack of opportunities, and abuses committed by the government. They are also, he boasts, the only structure present in the country that can mobilize the poor and this is why the government fears them and is attacking them.

"The party in power used to represent the interests of the poor," he says of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, or FMLN, the guerrilla army that became a political party after peace was signed and has been in government since 2009. "Now, the poor have remained poor but the party that used to represent them is no longer there for them."


The current crackdown comes after the breakdown of a truce between the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha that had been accompanied by a fall off in murder rates in 2012 and 2013. Since then the violence has reached unprecedented levels.

Related: The Neverending War in El Salvador

Santiago insists that the gangs don't want the war with the government or with each other. He blames this year's skyrocketing murder rate on the government's decision to transfer imprisoned gang leaders to maximum-security prisons where their communications with the outside were cut, which left younger less experienced leaders to make their own decisions in an anarchic vacuum.

It is a common refrain we hear from gang members, even low level ones in rural areas. This isn't our fault. We don't want violence. Give us jobs. Give us opportunities. How come no one comes into our neighborhoods to help?

I meet Santiago just off a main road in a broken down shack. I am not sure who is getting rich off of the gang's activities, but it is definitely not him. "We want a clear objective and future for both us and for our communities", he says. "We want our communities to have all the benefits they should have and their human rights to be respected because our communities are still large, marginal and unequal and the gap between rich and poor people is getting wider and wider."

But such arguments, and the claims to carry the legacy of the old guerrillas of the 1980s, always run up against the terror the gangs represent for so many ordinary Salvadorans.


 "What would happen if each gang member killed one human being in this country per day? In how many days will the six million people living here be finished?"

Neither Santiago, nor any of the other gang members we meet, can really articulate a clear political project behind their actions that so obviously revolve around turf, money, and violence. And while the guerrillas had wide popular support in their struggle against the US-backed extreme right wing repressive governments of the 1980s, the current government's war against the gangs is widely believed to be at least partially a response to a popular cry for their eradication.

Even the smooth-talking Santiago also regularly slips out of the discourse of peace and into something more menacing.

The gangs don't want a full on war with the government, he says, because they would need money to buy more weapons, more members to fire those weapons, and more territory. And to get the money would require more kidnapping, extortion, theft and war taxes. But if the government really wants war, he also says, the gangs will give it to them.

Photo via screenshot from Living in Fear: Gangs of El Salvador (Part 2)

"They talk about 60,000 gang members in El Salvador," he says. "What would happen if each gang member killed one human being in this country per day? In how many days will the six million people living here be finished?"

And while the gangs complain that nothing is done for their neighborhoods, they don't mention how difficult it is to get into them.


Both times we try to enter a gang controlled barrio without police — once with an NGO and once with a church group — the restrictions are obvious and the fear palpable. Phone calls to prison leaders are needed. Walking a few more blocks requires consultations with gang members. No one will talk. One NGO tells us of the extraordinary efforts required to get gang permission to organize a soccer tournament for neighborhood children.

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

Forget new businesses and job creators. Businesses already operating in El Salvador are mercilessly extorted, and murders are common when disputes arrive.

One shop owner says paying the gangs is "like a tax." A market stall owner says she coughs up extortion fees, "like you pay the mayor's office." When we attempt to speak with another he points to a young teenager within sight. "We can't talk," he tells us, "They're always watching."

Some of the roots of El Salvador's gangs can certainly be traced to the failure of Salvadoran governments to bring reconciliation after the civil war or address the poverty that still pervades the country. The spiral of violence also feeds off the ease with which gang members impose their terror. It can sometime seem like a bunch of nihilistic teenagers in oversized t-shirts and basketball shorts who simply aren't afraid to pull the trigger — or to die.


The origin and growth of the gangs also draws on a number of misguided US policy decisions.

During the 1980's, the US flooded El Salvador's civil war with 6 billion dollars in support of the government and accepted a wave of refugees. Many flocked to Los Angeles, where they were preyed upon by various gangs and formed their own as protection.

After peace was signed US immigration policy changed and thousands of hardened gang members were deported back to El Salvador. They flourished in the post-conflict country where weak state institutions were unable to cope.

Now, there's an estimated 60-70,000 gang members in El Salvador with 500,000 people depending on them for survival. That's one out of every 12 people in the country.

"They will always return. They will always come back. There will always be tens of thousands of gang members."

"Gangs are deep rooted in society. It's impossible to remove such an important part of society so any result in which it appears the gangs are retreating is temporary," says José Luis Sanz, the director of the online news site El Faro. "They will always return. They will always come back. There will always be tens of thousands of gang members."

According to Insight Crime, a website that focuses on crime in Latin America that has extensively documented El Salvador's gang war, though the top leaders in prison can issue big orders, each territorial area or neighborhood controlled by Barrio 18 has a leader known as a "cancha" who operates somewhat autonomously. Echoing what Santiago told us, the website says that since the truce ended things have grown less bureaucratic and the leaders outside prison have grown younger and less indebted to the hierarchal structure of the gangs.


Yet while the gangs appear to be much more decentralized than the Mexican or Colombian drug cartels, some say they are heavily coordinated, particularly when it comes to surveillance. They can seem like veritable stasi states. Everything is heard. Everything is seen. The slightest transgression, even visiting a neighborhood controlled by MS-13 when you live in a neighborhood ruled by Barrio 18, can get you killed. El Salvador has become a nation of informers, except people talk to the young men and women who kill, instead of whispering to the state.

One rainy night in mid-September, we embed with Los Halcones, or The Hawks, one of the premier rapid response units in El Salvador. It is their job to engage with the gangs, and the newest crackdown has given them additional leeway to do just that.

The day we head out with them, 25 people have been killed already and it is not even 8pm, and one of their units took fire earlier that day.

Despite being one of the fiercest units around, the men all don face masks. Police officers have frequently been targeted by the gangs with 54 killed by the end of October. There are rumours that certain gangs have ordered that at least two police officers be killed in every territory.

We drive around in a small convoy along San Salvador's strip malls of chain restaurants and American fast food and past car dealerships and gas stations and nightclubs. We pull off the main roads abruptly down sloping hills into narrow streets, some cobble and some dirt.


The lights are turned on in the car, the windows rolled down, an officer placed in the back of the pickup truck has his gun leveled to the streets below. The men tense up and point their guns out the windows. Large graffiti bearing an 18 or a 13 is everywhere, some only a block or two from each other.

Photo by Zachary Rockwood

For most of the evening, the men offer the usual government and police talking points. The time for negotiation is over, they say. The only thing left to do with the gangs is eradicate them.

The officers say the truce was nothing more than a pause in the war that gave the gangs time to consolidate their power, recruit and expand. They deny the accusations of excessive force and extrajudicial killings, saying it is only gang members and their relatives who make those accusations.

Things turn a bit more interesting when we discuss a new ruling by El Salvador's supreme court that means arrested gang members can be charged with terrorism. Both men question me on how the United States classifies who a terrorist is. I tell them it can seem a bit arbitrary at times, and many people are very critical of the way an event like a mass shooting in a school is presented as a problem of individual mental health when the gunman is a white. The men nod along. El Salvador's gangs are definitely terrorists, they say. They point to the recent spate of car bombs, the targeting of police, the terror they inflict on the population.


"Justice in this country is like a serpent. It only bites those who are barefoot."

Towards the end of the night the conversation takes a different direction when asked what they think causes the violence. Both officers agree with the gang members that it's lack of opportunities that leads to crime. They say that maybe fighting isn't the answer. They seem to concur with critics of the crackdown that it is nothing more than a political ploy.

"We are like their puppets. The politicians make us do whatever they want, so that they can get a good image politically in front of society and we are killing each other," says one of the officers. "Because, you see, the gang members that get killed are poor people that don't have any opportunities, and it's the same for us. The ones that die are the regular cops…we are getting used and that's the problem."

His partner nods along in agreement. An hour earlier, we had seen both men hop out of the car in one of the more dangerous gang controlled neighborhoods in the city to run down two alleged members. Both had expressed their desire to eradicate the gangs, but despite their vocal support for the policy, both have mixed feelings about the role they are playing.

"I don't think it'll be a solution to have a direct battle with them. So many of them come from the same neighborhood so it's basically a war of poor people against poor people," the monologue continues. "Most policeman coexist with gang members, even our family members are in the gangs sometimes. So that's what I mean, poor people are the ones dying, the ones spilling blood and so the other [the government] just uses us, we are just puppets that they use politically."

The officer pauses for a second and invokes the name of Archbishop Romero, El Salvador's Catholic saint who talked about social justice and whose assassination by a right wing sniper is talked about by some as the trigger that started the civil war. It is another demonstration of how scrambled the old ideologies of left and right have become.

"Our Archbishop Romero had a saying during the war, that justice in this country is like a serpent," he says. "It only bites those who are barefoot."

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

Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS