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As El Salvador’s Police and Gangs Wage War, Mexico Blocks Escape of Fleeing Migrants

While El Salvador is on pace to supplant Honduras as the deadliest country that isn’t officially a war zone, Mexico has bowed to US pressure and tightened security on its southern border.
Photo by Esteban Felix/AP

The video starts with a few haunting seconds of silence and the lingering silhouette of a man wearing a baseball cap. The screen tints from blue to blinding white as the webcam comes into focus. The faceless man wears glasses and a uniform with the insignia of El Salvador's Policía Nacional Civil clearly visible on the sleeve.

"Attention," he says in Spanish through a voice distorter. "This is a call to the friends of the police and armed forces. Here, we defend ourselves and don't allow ourselves to be intimidated by cowardly gang members. Let's give them the green light: For every police officer or member of the military that they kill, we will kill 10 of theirs. It is time take justice into our own hands — eye for eye, and tooth for tooth."


He asks El Salvador's civilians to "stand up and not allow yourselves to be intimidated or pushed out of your homes — kill those cowards," invoking the vigilante "self-defense" forces established by some communities in rural Mexico to fight against drug cartels. The man flashes a pistol before concluding, "It is time to triumph or to die."

Posted April 6, the video has been viewed more than 74,000 times. El Salvadoran authorities have vowed to investigate its origins, but there is no doubt that the country's security situation has taken a dark turn in recent months. At least 20 police officers have been killed already this year, with four deaths in the first weeks of April. Reports in local media have linked the attacks to an assassination campaign waged by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), one of two powerful gangs that operate in the country, in retaliation for the deaths of gang members.

Related: Immigrant America: Murder and migration in Honduras

The police killings are the symptom of an ongoing gang war that has worsened since the collapse last year of a government-brokered "truce" between the MS-13 and their chief rivals, the Barrio 18. According to official police figures cited by the Associated Press, 73 people were killed in the first week of April, and more than 481 were murdered nationwide in March, an average of 15 deaths per day that puts El Salvador on pace to supplant Honduras as the deadliest country that isn't officially a war zone.


El Salvadorans continue to flee the gangs and the government that cannot protect them, traveling north along with Hondurans and Guatemalans to the United States. But these days they're lucky to even make it as far as the Rio Grande. Mexico is now turning away twice as many Central Americans as it did before — deporting more than 25,000 in the first two months of 2015, including nearly 3,300 children, according to official data released by the Mexican government.

Related: Escaping into prison: The battle over immigrant mothers and children detained by the US

Maureen Meyer, director of the Mexico program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which promotes human rights in Latin America, told VICE News that on a visit to Mexico's southern border last year, she saw 10 security checkpoints — a gauntlet of Mexico's state and federal police, military, and immigration agents — in a 125-mile stretch of road in Chiapas between the cities of Tapachula and Arriaga, two key points on the migrant trail.

"These people are fleeing because they have no other option," Meyer said. "It's not to see family members or because they want money. It's because they have nowhere else to go."

Mexico's southern border is still relatively porous, but its recent turn toward militarization is largely the result of pressure from the United States, with the administration of President Barack Obama seeking to avoid a repeat of the crisis the US faced last summer when thousands of Central American families came to the US seeking relief. According to US Department of Homeland Security data, 28,579 minors were caught crossing alone in 2014, and 19,830 "family units" were apprehended. Last year was the first time in history that more non-Mexicans than Mexicans were caught crossing illegally into the US.


To stanch the flow, part of the US plan included urging Mexico to act as a buffer and stop migrants before they ever make it north. According to Meyer, who has extensively documented humanitarian concerns in southern Mexico, migrants are now being forced to travel far off the beaten path, leaving them even more exposed than before to criminal groups that rob, rape, and occasionally massacre them.

"The crackdown clearly seems to be the result of more political pressure on Mexico from the US, saying you need to work with us on this issue and, in a sense, take this pressure off our hands," Meyer said. "To have their apprehensions double, it's clear the Mexican government has assumed this new role of border enforcer in part due to US pressure and encouragement."

Related: Mexico is implementing new measures to curb the influx of US-bound Central American migrants 

So far, the tactic seems to be having its desired effect. Border Patrol figures show that apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and "family units" are down 45 and 30 percent, respectively, in the 2015 fiscal year. But March was also the bloodiest month so far this century for El Salvador, foreboding another exodus of kids and fearful parents in the coming months.

'If the gangs are on the street someone might get hurt, but if the police are out, somebody would for sure leave in a body bag.'

Carlos Martinez, an investigative reporter at Sala Negra, the organized crime section of the respected El Salvadoran news site El Faro, told VICE News the gang war began in the 1980s when the MS-13 and Barrio 18 first began fighting each other over territory. The rival maras are controlled by leaders in El Salvador's prisons who, with the help of mediators — including a Catholic bishop — negotiated a truce in 2012. In exchange, the government moved the top leaders out of maximum security lockups and into less restrictive facilities.


In a way, the detente worked: Homicides fell nationwide by more than half. But extortion and other crimes continued seemingly unabated, and a year later, in 2013, a new security minister, Ricardo Perdomo, dismantled the truce. The murders resumed almost immediately, but Martinez said many voters still support President Salvador Sánchez Cerén's mano dura, or iron-fisted, approach to crime.

"The truce does not give you votes or the political support of the people," Martinez said. "This government destroyed all the bridges, even the small ones, even the small places to communicate with the gangs, and they presented the destruction of the deal as a good thing, as a way to be brave. Politically, it's really, really, really difficult now to restore the truce. And then the gangs have no reason to make a deal now."

Martinez said the dynamics of the gang war have shifted recently. Where the gangs once battled each other almost exclusively, they are now on the verge considering the government a common enemy. Martinez compared the security situation to Mexico, where the police and military have been accused of lining up and shooting cartel members rather than arresting and imprisoning them.

"The government decided to allow the police to use violence against gangs without supervision," Martinez said. "The police decided — and this is my opinion — but every single scene of a crime looks more like a Mexican execution than a battle or crossfire."


In El Salvador, where paramilitary death squads sowed terror during more than a decade of civil war in the 1980s and early '90s, the escalating conflict between the gangs and the police is dredging up painful memories. Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, a foundation that researches organized crime in Latin America, told VICE News that "there is no silver bullet" to end the security crisis, but the government's current approach is making matters worse.

"The roots of the mara recruitment and links to local communities are social issues," McDermott said. "What we can say is that the mano dura has not worked. The mano dura has exacerbated what perhaps started as as social problem and is now a national security and citizen security issue."

McDermott said "an opportunity was missed" by the government to continue a dialogue with the gangs, but that "it would be hard to deny that the two principal mara groups haven't left strengthened from the truce period."

"For the naysayers, in a way their position has been justified," he said. "They said the gangs were cynically using the truce for their own ends, principally to delineate territory between rivals and increase revenue raising. I think there's a fairly indisputable body of evidence that suggests extortion did go up during this period."

Related: These Honduran migrants mutilated by 'The Beast' want to talk to President Obama 

Writing in January for the New York Times, Vice President Joe Biden proposed "A Plan for Central America," saying the Obama administration would request $1 billion from Congress to help the region's leaders "make the difficult reforms and investments required to address the region's interlocking security, governance and economic challenges." That request has stalled, however, and, with Obama's days in office dwindling and Mexico helping keep the migrant problem out of sight and mind for the American public, there are reasons to doubt the aid will ever materialize.


Many El Salvadorans can't afford to wait for help from the US, and those that attempt to flee and end up being deported face a grim future. Elizabeth Kennedy, a former Fulbright scholar in El Salvador from October 2013 to December 2014, interviewed more than 700 children and families deported back to the country from Mexico. She told VICE News that nearly 60 percent cited fear of gangs as their reason for leaving. The number is likely higher, she explained, because the interviews were conducted in public in La Chacra, a gang-infested neighborhood in San Salvador where deportees arrive at a bus terminal less than 100 meters away from the local police station. She said two people were murdered nearby during the course of her research.

"A number of people have told me if the gangs are on the street someone might get hurt, but if the police are out, somebody would for sure leave in a body bag," Kennedy said. "They either don't trust [the police] or they think they're incompetent and it's not worth going to them."

Kennedy said she knows of at least one deportee who was killed by gang members after being forced to return home. The man, she recalled, spent seven years in the US with his family, which made him a target for extortion because anyone with ties to America is presumed to have money. Unable to pay, the man and his family tried heading north again only to be turned back by Mexican authorities. Two weeks later, the man was gunned down in public on a soccer field. His wife and teenage son have since gone into hiding.


"People do come back afraid, it's visible on their faces," Kennedy said. "For them, the only solution they have is to try to migrate again. The migrant route is dangerous, they know it's dangerous, but they feel like they're waiting for death if they stay."

There is no reliable data available on the number of Central American deportees who end up dead when forced back to their home countries, but the sheer number of people being sent back is troubling. According to Mexican government data, the country deported 4,335 El Salvadorans, 12,146 Guatemalans, and 8,333 Hondurans in January and February.

'Every single scene of a crime looks more like a Mexican execution than a battle or crossfire.'

Officially, Mexico is one of the world's most welcoming countries for refugees and asylum seekers. Under a law enacted in 2011, individuals who cite a fear of persecution in their homeland should be guaranteed access to health services, education, permission to work, and a host of other protections. But Meyer said WOLA has found that "a lot of migrants from Central America aren't even asked, 'Are you afraid to go home?' This is sort of basic screening and it's not happening."

The issue has the attention of the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), which has already documented the dangers faced by deported Hondurans.

"To the extent that the conditions that people have fled in the first place have not significantly changed — and in some circumstances have maybe gotten worse — we are concerned about the wellbeing of people who have been returned," Lindsay Jenkins, a protection officer at the UNHCR's regional office for the US and Caribbean, told VICE News.

While the vast majority of Central Americans flee north to the US, Jenkins said there was a 712 percent increase from 2008 to 2013 in the number of people from Northern Triangle countries who sought asylum in Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. But there's no formal monitoring of whether migrant asylum claims are properly processed in Mexico or elsewhere, and, with many families fearful or unaware of using the official channels, Jenkins conceded that "we don't know the full extent of the refugee situation."

Meanwhile, El Salvador's gang war is on the verge of spiraling even further out of control. Martinez said the escalating violence, fear of the police, and lack of economic opportunities are factors that make recruitment easier for the maras, and that "for each one gang member right now in El Salvador, there are 10 kids deciding to be in the gang."

"When the chain of vengeance is activated," Martinez added, "it's really, really difficult to stop it."

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton