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In the New Gangland of El Salvador

He came, he said, from a nice family; his father, an evangelical, “was always involved in matters of the church,” while his mother “for approximately fifteen years has been persevering in the things of God.” His brothers work in a carpentry shop. His father-in-law recently managed to smuggle Alexis’s wife out of the country, presumably in order to get her away from Alexis’s influence, and the couple lost custody of their two children—now aged five and nine—who are in the care of their grandparents.

He was still in school when he decided to join the maras. “I saw the tattoos [of the mareros in his neighborhood]. I saw the way they behaved toward each other,” he said. “In my neighborhood they didn’t steal from people; they took care of them. I liked all that.”

He had, I pointed out, a fairly dismal life. Didn’t he regret the decision to join?

When we took the option of being what we are,” he answered, “we knew there was no turning back.” I tried, unsuccessfully, to figure out if that ducking, swaying thing he did was an authentic remnant of what had once been a whole and gentle person, or an ingratiating trick that a thoughtless killer kept stored among his array of weapons.

José Eduardo Villalta, twenty-four, has the word “eighteen,” as in Barrio 18, tattooed in French and English on his arms and fingers, and in Latin numerals and various other codes wherever else a tattoo can fit. He has no charm, but in the course of our conversation it came out that he was originally from the countryside, and that his mother visits him regularly. I asked him to describe how one sets up a milpa, or corn field, and as he was going through the procedures—cutting down, burning, overturning, hoeing, planting—I had a momentary vision of a youth breathing free air. He has most of a fifty-year sentence still ahead of him, and I asked him if he didn’t find that depressing.

No,” he said firmly. “I feel at ease here. This is my home.”

October 12, 2011

Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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