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In the New Gangland of El Salvador

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Mauro Arias/El Faro
Suspects awaiting trial in a National Civil Police jail, Lourdes, El Salvador, 2011

He was very focused: at age twenty-nine he had already served seven years of his homicide sentence and had fifteen left to go, and he wanted to get out on time and alive. “I am a rehabilitable prisoner,” he informed me. He keeps his temper. At night, I heard, he retired early (I assumed he had larger headquarters than most) and slept soundly. After our conversation I was told that under the do-rag, or bandana, that imprisoned gang members wear he did, in fact, have tattoos—two eyes on the back of his head that allow him, he was not the only one to believe, to see his enemies at all times. He had been interviewed, he boasted, by French, Dutch, German, American journalists, you name it, and now he was trying to catch me with his rhetoric—we are victims of society, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer—but nothing he had to say was arresting as his physical presence, or the information whispered by the guard, but widely known outside the prison, that beatings and executions by knifing or beating were a fact of life in the penitentiary of Quezaltepeque.

Unlike the market women in Mejicanos, the guard had no particular reason not to talk: everyone knows that the prison system is bankrupt, and that it is impossible to control a detention system in which prisoners—nearly half of them accused or convicted killers—are stuffed into cells like industrial livestock. In El Salvador there are sixty-five homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, which is more than triple the current rate in Mexico, and significantly higher than the yearly death toll in the second half of the war. In a total prison population of 25,000, a third have never been sentenced. Overcrowding is so extreme that the prison system this year refused to take in more inmates. New detainees are being kept in police holding pens, but given the crime rate and the number of arrests the pens quickly become just as crowded.4

There have been riots and also peaceful strikes by prisoners demanding better conditions, but the men are not high on anyone’s list of priorities. It’s just one of the many catastrophes in El Salvador, where, twenty years after the war that was supposed to save the country—from capitalism or from communism, depending on which side you were on—there are half a million single parents, mostly women, trying to bring up their children safely. The government is bankrupt, the poverty rate is 38 percent, and the economy, which rose slightly from a negative growth rate of–2 percent in 2008 thanks only to an increase in the price of coffee, seems paralyzed.

It would be easy to lay the blame for this social and economic disaster exclusively at the feet of the party founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson—the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, by its Spanish initials—which governed the country with evident if not single-minded interest in the well-being of the wealthy for twenty years after the peace accords were signed in 1992. (In 2009, Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the party founded by the former guerrillas, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, won the presidency.) But there is also the enormous fact of the war itself: the demolished roads and other infrastructure, the collapse of rural society, the rise of urban slums peopled by campesinos fleeing those remote areas of the country that were the war’s principal staging ground, the systematic practice of ruthlessness, the drastic increase in single-parent families, the loss of an educated elite, the huge stockpile of leftover weapons no one kept track of. None of this, however, adds up to a complete or satisfactory explanation for the proliferation of the maras, currently estimated to number some 25,000 members at large, with another 9,000 in prison.

The phenomenon started in Los Angeles, where the children of immigrants who had fled the war had parents no one looked up to and were bombarded with ads for consumer goods they couldn’t have. They grew up in bad neighborhoods and inherited someone else’s enemies and turf wars. Among the second-generation Salvadorans in Los Angeles a significant number ended up creating their own groups to confront the Mexican and Afro-American gangs in whose neighborhoods their parents had settled. Of the two groups currently taking over just about every poor neighborhood in El Salvador, the Barrio 18 gang take their name from the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles, whose members number in the thousands. As for the Mara Salvatrucha, who started it all, the only part of their name everyone agrees on is that “Salva” must stand for Salvadoran.

As US immigration policy has focused on deporting the greatest possible number of undocumented migrants, no matter what their situation, a great many Salvadoran deportees, some of whom grew up in the United States and hardly speak Spanish, have found themselves back in their country of birth. A number of these unwilling returnees are mareros, who either join the local branch of their organization or try to flee back home (that is, to the United States), joining a migrant trail across Mexico used by hundreds of thousands of would-be US immigrants every year. Along the way, the mareros are often recruited by Mexican drug traffickers, who have developed highly lucrative sidelines in white slavery, child prostitution, and migrant extortion. Assault, robbery, and rape are now an expected part of the migrant journey through Mexico.

The most unlucky travelers are kidnapped in Mexico and held for ransom, usually between five hundred and two thousand dollars. If relatives back home cannot come up with the money quickly enough, the kidnap victims are killed. According to Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, 11,000 migrants were kidnapped in the first six months of 2010. There are no statistics on the total number of dead, but we know that in August last year seventy-two migrants were kidnapped and killed in a single incident. Six months later another 195 bodies were unearthed in the same municipal district. Mareros were probably among the assassins.

Howard Cotto, subdirector of investigations for the National Civil Police, has been learning about the maras for years. He is the trim, articulate product of the peace accords signed between the ARENA wartime government and the FMLN guerrillas, which included a UN-mandated restructuring of the various murderous police corps into a single force that integrated and trained members of both parties to the war. Another police commander, Jaime Granados, laughingly described the resulting National Civilian Police to me as the homely child no one wants, largely due to its efforts at neutrality. “We’re good police, very good,” he said. “But nobody is on our side.” The police are underfinanced and underequipped (there is one forensic expert for the whole country) and corruption is spreading, but they have managed to retain pockets of efficiency and professionalism, and the international diplomas and certificates that line the wall of Howard Cotto’s office—one is from the FBI—are signs of the commander’s prestige.

Cotto estimates that the gang’s support community in the barrios numbers perhaps eighty or ninety thousand, which together with the number of active and imprisoned mareros add up to about 1.5 percent of El Salvador’s population. Although the maras are on the retail end of the illegal drug trade in El Salvador, he does not attribute their growth to the drug-trafficking bonanza in Central America, now that the region has become the principal corridor for moving South American drugs to North America. “The gangs are clearly a part of organized crime, as are the traffickers of drugs and arms and stolen cars and so forth,” Cotto told me one morning in his sparsely furnished office. “But traffickers build hierarchical organizations around specific interests—white slavery, smuggling, drugs—and the traders lure people in on the basis of that [business]. The gangs do the opposite: they recruit from the bottom up.”

The gangs distribute drugs in the barrio while casting themselves as its defenders, Cotto said.

But in reality, they don’t defend the barrio; they terrorize it. The barrio is the territory where they extort, distribute drugs, kill, and make money. But they don’t live with a lot of luxury; they’re not narcos. Their origins are in the community, and what they fear more than death itself is losing their authority there, because the moment they do that, they’re dead. But it’s an excellent way of living comfortably and giving money to a lot of people; their strength lies in not breaking that chain of money distribution. That’s how they can say [to their underlings], “fight for me.”

Cotto chatted easily under a wintry blast of air conditioning. “[A marero’s] life is very short,” he continued.

They get sentenced to thirty years in no time. But in this country, as they see it, they have two choices: you can be a loser and keep on studying, and let’s see if you can find a job once you’ve graduated, or you can be a powerful man by the time you’re fourteen or seventeen. You can give orders, be in charge of distributing drugs in the neighborhood. You won’t have to give your elders any respect, you’ll be the one who can say to a neighbor, “You’re going to leave this barrio this minute,” and then take over his house. You’ll be able to say to that girl you like and who doesn’t like you, “You know what, whether you like it or not you’re going to be mine, or whoever else’s I decide.”

Cotto has seen a lot of corpses by now: beheaded, dismembered, set on fire. (It is said that the first thing a new marero must do, no matter how young, is arbitrarily kill someone. After that, they’re ready for reprogramming.) But the most upsetting murder scene he ever arrived at was in a mara stronghold, in one of the collective homes the kids call casa destroyer. “I was nonplussed,” he says. “We walked into the house and all the kids were there, in a circle. And there was the dead person. He’d been dead a few hours already, but they hadn’t [disposed of him]. They were just sitting around the corpse, chatting and taking it easy.”

Alexis Ramírez, who joined the maras when he was fifteen, doesn’t look like he could kill people thoughtlessly, although he is serving fifty years for homicide and has forty-eight left to go. He has dark skin, full lips that look sculpted, big black eyes, and looks much younger than his twenty-nine years. I asked him if, when he was free, it hadn’t been dangerous for him to walk down the street covered in tattoos, and he gave a sideways smile. “If you know how to walk it’s not. From corner to corner…that’s how I’ve been all over El Salvador.” And he made a ducking, aw-shucks movement that made me see how he could, in fact, slip and smile his way around many obstacles.

  1. 4

    Not long after my visit, the head of the penitentiary system dismissed and replaced all the Quezaltepeque prison’s custodians. 

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