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In the New Gangland of El Salvador

Ron Haviv/VII
Suspected gang members being held by the police, San Salvador, August 2005

I’m back in El Salvador for the first time in thirty years, and I don’t recognize a thing. There are smooth highways from the airport up to San Salvador, the capital, and even at this late hour, along the stretch of dunes dividing the road from the Pacific Ocean, there are cheerful stands at which customers have parked to buy coconuts and típico foods. But I remember a pitted two-lane road, a merciless sun that picked out every detail on the taut skin of corpses, a hole in the sandy ground, the glaring news that four women from the United States, three of them nuns, had just been unearthed from that shallow pit.

Is there a monument or a sign marking where the four Americanas were killed during the war?” I ask the driver of the hotel van.

Yes, up in the university, the UCA, where they died.”

No, those were the six Jesuit priests, years later, in San Salvador. I mean the nuns, in 1980, here.”

Oh,” he replies. “I don’t remember.”

That event, the rape and murder of four religious workers on their way from the airport up to the city, was no doubt memorable to people like Robert White, the US ambassador in El Salvador during the last year of the Carter administration. He stood grimly at the funeral the next day, looking like another potential target of a putschist right-wing junta that had gone rogue. Already that year, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the fearless archbishop of San Salvador, had been assassinated—to loud rejoicing by a ruling class that used to call him “Beezelbub.” Weeks after his murder, orchestrated in the darkest back channels of the regime by the notorious ideologue Roberto D’Aubuisson, the Reagan administration cranked up its military involvement in El Salvador, and dedicated billions of dollars to the junta’s fight against an insurgent coalition of guerrillas—Marxist radicals grouped under the umbrella name of Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN).

The twelve-year-long war would leave as many as 70,000 people dead by its end, but it started before more than half of all Salvadorans alive today were even born, and ended nearly twenty years ago. Why should a young van driver remember? And yet, the El Salvador of today, riddled by worse violence than at any point since the early years of the war, linked inseparably to the United States by an immigrant stream that started during the conflict, haunted always by the memory of the assassin Roberto D’Aubuisson, who went on to found the party that ruled his country uninterruptedly until the most recent election in 2009, is inconceivable without the years of bloodshed.

Salvadorans like to say that if someone bothered to iron their country it would actually be large. But it is tiny, and wrinkled, the lava of long-exhausted volcanoes furrowing and bending the landscape this way and that. San Salvador sits in a valley at the foot of a volcano, and guessing wildly one could say that it now has as many shopping malls as, say, Fort Lauderdale, and plazas and traffic roundabouts too, and tranquil neighborhoods with security guards on every block. It is very green, and even the slums creeping up the hills on the outskirts of the city seem lush to those used to more urban kinds of poverty.

On the very flank of the San Salvador volcano sits the town of Mejicanos, famous for its combativeness during the war. A long narrow street climbs up from it and then winds down and around the sides of a narrow canyon. Following it as it plunges along, one can see that the leafy shadows are dotted thickly with makeshift houses and shacks. Here and there, a knot of skinny men huddle around what looks like a crack pipe, but otherwise the street is silent and empty.

The neighborhood and the road are both called Montreal, and they are notorious. Last year a Montreal public transport bus making the trip to the center of Mejicanos was set on fire as it reached the Mejicanos market. Seventeen people burned to death. The toll included an eighteen-month-old child, but at least a few of the dead are said to have been members of one of the warring maras, ferocious gangs that are El Salvador’s own contribution to the drug trade and the world of transnational crime in which it takes place. Children of the war and the United States in more ways than one, they are responsible for most of the harrowing violence of today. They first began to attract public notice some twenty years ago, when what used to be a furious open conflict gave way to an ever- growing, pervasive sense of menace.

Around that time, Marisa D’Aubuisson de Martínez, sister of Roberto D’Aubuisson, decided to create a project for market women and their youngest children in a neighborhood like Mejicanos. Marisa’s forceful personality and easy laugh are in contrast to the will-o’-the-wisp, mesmerizing quality of her brother, as are her politics: she is a lifelong Catholic activist, a follower of the fearless archbishop her brother murdered. Roberto, who was to die of throat cancer in 1992, moved into electoral politics in the 1980s. As the war wrapped up, Marisa, too, changed, moving away from world-changing utopian dreams in order to focus on more attainable projects. I talked to her one day in the sunny, plain office where she works.

At that time international aid went largely to macroprojects, but I started to write up something very small,” Marisa said. With international money, she founded an organization called Centros Infantiles de Desarrollo (CINDE) to provide day care for babies and toddlers, primarily for the children of women who make their living selling in the marketplace. Now there are three such centers, including one in Mejicanos, to which preschool and kindergarten facilities were eventually added.1 A few years ago CINDE created a program known as “school reinforcement,” in which older children can do their homework in safe surroundings and with adult guidance. One of them is in Montreal, and it is one of the few places in that neighborhood where outsiders can feel welcome and safe from the maras.

The after-school center is just an open-air hangar attached to two makeshift rooms that are rarely used, because they get oven-hot. On the breezy afternoon when I arrived the children were outside, enjoying an uproarious play break, but when the teacher in charge blew a whistle they returned at once to the open-air work tables and applied themselves to their homework almost voraciously. Everyone there, from the teachers to the volunteer monitors, seemed nearly feverish in their involvement. I interrupted the schoolwork of the older girls—who had ambitious English names like Jennifer and Natalie—to ask one if she came here to learn or to have fun, and she replied instantly and seriously, “I learn and I have fun.” Her grades had improved, up from Cs and Ds the previous year to a steady B average, but she was struggling, she said, with her least favorite subject, math.

Perhaps the general enthusiasm was due to the last-chance quality of the center itself. During a play break I watched a beautiful young girl kick a soccer ball around with her playmates as if she were still a child, but she was tall for her age and already nubile, and I felt almost sick with fear for her, having heard over and over that mareros—gang members—routinely force young girls in their territory into sexual service, a duty that often begins with collective rape.2 Or, on visita íntima day, which throughout Latin America is nominally the day when wives are allowed privacy with their jailed husbands or established partners, older girls may be sent as “wives” to the prisons where gang members are serving sentences. No one knows exactly how often the visita íntima may take place in Salvadoran prisons. As one friend pointed out, anyone who is admitted to some of the more notorious jails has access to the visita íntima rooms. Parents desperate to keep their daughters away from any sort of contact with the maras send them to the countryside to be raised by relatives, but not everyone has rural cousins or parents, and the barrio of Montreal and its dangers were this girl’s unavoidable circumstance.

As it is for the boys. “We have a boy who comes here all the time who is incredibly bright, really special,” one of the teachers told me in a low voice. “But he’s just a step away from joining the maras. He’s so little! Just a muchachito. We’ve talked to him about it, we try not to gloss over reality here, but he’s ready to go. We won’t be able to keep him away.”

I discovered some of the more immediate rewards available to boys who join the maras in the Mejicanos market, downhill again from Montreal. There, the market women, who have no problem at all with math, explained their lives to me in numbers: they pay the municipality thirty-five cents daily rent per each 1.5 linear meters their stands occupy.3 They spend fifty cents in bus fare to get to and from home, multiplied by the number of school-age children. Four dollars worth of produce purchased wholesale plus three dollars to ferry the merchandise back to their stands. The day’s earnings minus four dollars for the next day’s purchases, minus bus fares and taxis, leaves three, on a good day four, dollars to buy food for the family.

Then there is la renta, the daily extortion fee charged by mareros, but no one would do that math for me. Whether the renta around the market is charged by members of the Mara Salvatrucha—also known as the MS-13—gang or by the increasingly powerful rival group, the Barrio 18, was also left unclear. Several minors who belonged to the Barrio 18 were tried and sentenced for setting fire to the bus, but still no one I met, not even the teachers at the CINDE preschool center, was willing to talk about the incident.

I was chatting one afternoon with a particularly lively woman—let’s call her María—who started to tell me how CINDE and the microloan program it manages had changed her life, because she now had a cart in which to trundle her wares back and forth, when two boys who looked to be around fifteen years old arrived at her stand. She cut the conversation short as the kids selected some of her wares and left without any money changing hands. Maria’s eyes flickered with terror when I asked her if she was being renteada, or extorted, by the mareros. “Not really, not really,” she whispered, looking at me pleadingly. “They don’t ask me for money. Not yet. Just…little gifts.”

We don’t rentear,” José Cruz declaimed loudly, as if for the world. “That is an invention of the press.” He has a great speaking voice, Chinese eyes above high cheekbones, none of the mareros‘ trademark face tattoos, a lithe body, and a fantastically authoritative manner. “How are you doing?” he boomed as he walked into the prison visitors’ room, extending a wrist-cuffed hand, and never stopped lecturing from that point on. After our conversation a prison guard came up and, while one of his mates looked on, whispered that as a leader of the Barrio 18 gang Cruz was the de facto head of the penitentiary. It was Cruz, the guard said, who decided who gives press interviews (he did); which prison guards are allowed into the cell area where forty-five to fifty prisoners are confined every night in cells six by six meters large; and who gets punished.

  1. 1

    The day care centers were canceled this year for lack of funds, leaving only the kindergarten and preschool programs. 

  2. 2

    A chilling account of one such rape was published in July by the remarkable Salvadoran online daily El Faro : see Roberto Valencia, “Yo Violada,” available at www.salanegra.elfaro.net/es/201107/cronicas/4922/. 

  3. 3

    El Salvador’s official currency is the US dollar. 

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