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…

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