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The Neverending War in El Salvador

As El Salvador's gang war reaches it's deadliest heights, the government has decided to meet violence with violence.

by Danny Gold
Nov 23 2015, 3:45pm

Imagen por Manu Brabo/AP

María was excited about leaving El Salvador and heading for the United States. She was to travel with her mother, and the two had always been inseparable. They had worked together for 10 years cleaning houses for wealthier families in their southeastern region of Usulután. Thanks to the generosity of a friend already in the US, they thought they would soon have enough money to pay a people smuggler to help them through the notoriously dangerous journey.

One late August day, mother and daughter called a cab driver they knew on their way back from work and headed to a meeting with the smuggler. Neither made it home. The last time they were seen, they were being bundled into the car of a gang member.

Their disappearance may have been related to María (her name, as well as the names of her relatives, have been changed to shield them from retaliation) dating a member of the Mara Salvatrucha, her cousin Juan said a few weeks later in the family home. Also known as the MS-13, the group is one of the two gangs currently waging war in El Salvador. The meeting was in the territory of the other main gang, Barrio 18.

"We want to find them and bury them properly, that's it," Juan said, making it clear that he knows it foolish to hope of ever finding his relatives alive for the same reasons why he prefers that neither his nor his cousin's real names are used in print. "We don't want any trouble with these kind of people."

El Salvador is bleeding out, hemorrhaging human beings at an unparalleled rate for a country not at war. With around 101 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants so far this year, the tiny nation has now eclipsed neighboring Honduras as the most murderous peacetime country in the world.

To put the numbers in perspective, New York City, a city of 8.5 million people, is expected to see a little over 300 murders during 2015. According to deputy police chief Howard Coto from January through November 11 there were 5,755 murders in El Salvador, which has a population of less than 6.5 million. That's an increase of well over 2,000 murders compared to the same period last year. And then there are the disappeared, like María and her mother.

 "Everyone is talking about repression and the stronger the better, because that fits with people's conviction that the solution lies in the use of force."

The recent rise in homicides has its roots in the breakdown of a government-sponsored truce between the gangs.

The truce began in March 2012 and followed a period of crackdowns that had failed to contain the violence. Murder rates fell considerably, though, according to the police, disappearances increased. Some said it could be a new way forward, that the cycle of violence in response to violence could be broken. Others say that the truce empowered the gangs, that it conferred legitimacy on them and gave them time to recruit and build up their forces and expand.

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

One thing is clear though; before the truce and during the truce, there was never a situation where the murder rate was as high as it is now, and where so many citizens of the country lived in abject fear.

The truce began to fall apart in May 2013, when a new minister of justice did not acknowledge the previous efforts to pacify the gangs. It degenerated during 2014 with its coffin nailed shut in early 2015 when the authorities began transferring top gang leaders to maximum-security prison, cutting off their contact with the outside world. Since then, El Salvador has set a new homicide record for the country month after month.

Now, as the country's gang war is reaching its deadliest heights, the authorities have decided to meet violence with violence.

Crackdowns have been tried before. The first Mano Dura, or Iron Fist policy, began in 2003. Super Mano Dura started in 2005. The current policy — dubbed Super Super Mano Dura by some — boils down to a declaration of war against the gangs.

The government has given police and military permission to shoot first, and ask questions later. It also now has a powerful new legal tool after the country's supreme court ruled on August 24 that gangs should be defined as terrorist organizations, and gang members can face terrorism charges. As if on cue, the ruling was followed by several small car bombs exploded outside government offices.

Given the failure of previous crackdowns, some question whether increased repression will bring the gangs to their knees. Some say it will probably fuel the violence.

"It's been more than proved that using the Iron First does not solve the problem," says Raul Mijango, one of the two chief mediators of the gang truce. "For 17 years it's been shown that taking repressive action just doesn't work. The opposite has happened, it makes it much worse. The only success we have had was the process we developed from March 2012 to May 2013, which was called a truce."

Related: El Salvador's Gang Truce Is Getting Fragile

Mijango has been accused of being too sympathetic to the gangs, of giving them too much power, and of receiving large sums of state money as payment. He is currently under investigation for his alleged ties that he denounces as retaliation for his frequent criticism of the government's current methods.

The methods were on display during a recent raid in Soyapango — a shantytown on the outskirts of the country's capital San Salvador — in which dozens of officers spread out across the neighborhood during the night rounding up suspected gang members.

Elite police officers holding assault rifles and clad in balaclavas stopped in front of one aluminum gate. Readying themselves for a potential firefight, one banged on the gate repeatedly with his rifle. When it wasn't opened, a police officer climbed over. Moments later a man with a giant "18" tattoo on his back was handcuffed and on his knees.

The officers entered his one room dirt floor shack and started to question his girlfriend. Three small boys looked on. A framed photograph of the man with others all bearing "18" tattoos stood on the dresser. An officer sat down in his home and started filling out the requisite paperwork.

Questioned about the charge the suspected gang member will face, the office gave a terse response, "Belonging to a terrorist organization."

What could have motivated the government to back away from the truce and embrace a strategy that has repeatedly failed? The easy answer is because aggressively targeting gang members, even killing them, is actually quite popular. Many in El Salvador are so sick of being terrorized by the gangs they see no other way out.

"It's an electoral calculation," says former truce mediator Mijango. The government, he adds, is seeking "to exploit the people's resentment of the violence that is generated by the gangs and convert the resentment into votes."

Photo by Luis Romero/AP

Some also link the popularity of the government's war on the gangs directly to the legacy of El Salvador's civil war in which 75,000 people died as the US-backed right wing government held off an insurrection by the Farabundi Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. The war ended with a peace treaty in 1992, and the FMLN became a political party.

"That's how our culture works. Traditionally, Salvadorans have solved their problems violently," says Mario Vega, a prominent evangelical pastor who works with gang members and their relatives. "So people are asking en masse that correctional measures are taken, and that's what the government is giving them."

It was the FMLN administration headed by Mauricio Funes that took office in 2009, which originally sponsored the truce. The movement's second administration, led by current president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has offered no other solution than the crackdown. 

"No one is, for example, proposing the prevention of violence," says Vega. "Everyone is talking about repression and the stronger the better, because that fits with people's conviction that the solution lies in the use of force."

According to Vega, the FMLN is seeking to distract attention from its failure to alleviate El Salvador's economic disparities, jobs deficit, poverty, healthcare issues, and other acute social problems. Others go further, like José Luis Sanz, the editor of the online news site El Faro, who says the atmosphere being created by the government's crackdown seeks to simply erase human rights for gang members.

"It's a mistake not to recognize that this phenomenon that we now have has the same structural characteristics as the guerrillas had. This is not a criminal problem, it's a social problem."

A few months back, El Faro exposed an alleged massacre in which it said police executed a number of gang members when they raided a farm, as well as an ordinary civilian who had the misfortune of being there at the same time. Sanz also points out that with this new aggressive push, any young person from a poor neighborhood is at risk of being accused of gang membership.

"This environment in which anyone who questions the authorities is suspected of being on the side of the gangs puts any critical voice in danger, and the government is feeding this," he says.

Critics also fear the terrorism charges will provide the police and the military, whose reputations are already stained by allegations of human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings, with an excuse to keep overstepping the limits, perhaps even more often.

Related: El Salvador Journalists Fear for Their Lives After Accusing Police of a Massacre

There is a particular irony in the accusation that the FMLN — the party that rose up in the name of those who were suffering the brutal repression of the state — is now spearheading a new round of brutality directed at the poor.

Mijano, himself a former member of the FMLN, even suggests that the gangs are the new expression of the poor fighting for their rights, and calls on the government to recognize this.

"The FMLN once upon a time were regarded as criminals and terrorists, because they killed, they kidnapped, they had control over a territory in the country and because they had a structured organization to fight against the Salvadoran army," he says. "It's a mistake not to recognize that this phenomenon that we now have has the same structural characteristics as the guerrillas had. This is not a criminal problem, it's a social problem, and we have to find a solution from a global perspective that goes beyond repression."

"I don't want to have to kill people like I did during the war. I don't want to go back to that life. For my family, though, I can do it." 

As the debate goes on Juan, María's cousin, said that the only solution for his family lies in flight. He hinted if this proves impossible, he could be tempted to join a whole new bloody front in El Salvador's gang war.

As he talks, Juan periodically returns to the civil conflict of the 1980s and his feeling that the situation is even worse now.

"In those those times, we knew who we were fighting against. Now we don't. A ten or eleven-year-old kid can be the one shooting you in the back," he says. "Who can imagine a ten, eleven-year-old boy can have a gun to shoot the soldiers, or the police. That's the kind of hard things happening in the country right now...they kill kids, pregnant women."

Everyone, he says, is trying to leave the country, as María and her mother were planning to do and as tens of thousands have already attempted. Most head towards the United States through Guatemala and then Mexico, although a crackdown on Central American migrants there means more are now also reportedly heading south.

Juan says he would like to get the rest of his family out.

"It would be great if there's a way to help them to leave so they can stop living like this," he says. "Because I've already suffered the war. I don't want to…." His voice trails off and his expression grows more intense.

During the conversation Juan had mentioned he was trained by US Special Forces. We hear rumors he was a member of a paramilitary death squad during the civil war. El Salvador is already awash with talk of new death squads forming to take on the gangs. Some say they already exist.

"My body is torn to pieces from the bullets," Juan finally says, listing the many places he has injuries from the civil conflict. "I don't want to have to kill people like I did during the war. I don't want to go back to that life. For my family, though, I can do it." 

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

Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS