SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador--
Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang member Demonio hangs
his hands through the bars of his jail cell and wonders what might happen
to him. People have been sent to Mariona, El Salvador's worst prison, for
lesser offenses. "I'm a total disaster," he said. "I feel like a total
The police are always looking for an excuse to
lock someone like him up. Fortunately he avoided the fate of fellow MS13
gang member ozzy, who was beaten to death within minutes of entering the
prison. his crime was throwing rocks, and Demonio helped carry his coffin
to the grave.
El Salvador, recovering from a bloody 12-year
civil war, is facing a crime wave of unprecedented proportions. Bank robberies,
shootouts and trafficking of drugs, weapons and stolen vehicles, as well
as petty crimes, are overtaking the Central American nation. Ironicly,
since the rebels and army stopped shooting at each other in 1992, most
Salvadorans say they are more afraid now than at any time during the war.
At least the sides were defined then, they say.
Recent Figures released by the Attorney General's
office show that the homicide rate had FALLEN in 1995 to 7,877 murders,
or about 21 per day, from the 1994 total of 9,135, about 25 per
figures exceed the 6,250 average yearly deaths, or about 17 per day, during
"Gangs and criminals are increasingly bloody and
dangerous," said Jorge Figeac, head of the prosecuting department of the
Attorney General's office. "They act out of rage on their victims. Now,
not only do they rob, they murder to avoid charges and possible capture.
But attention is overwhelmingly focused on gangs,
which have proliferated since the end of the war, when some one million
refugees who left for the U.S. during (and before) the war began returning.
They bring with them customs and values, good and bad, learned there. Gang
Grafitti is everywhere, and after Coca-Cola, gangs appear to be the most
visible import from the United States.
The estimated 10,000 gang members here, although
no angels, make a convenient, imported scapegoat from the ills of the nation.
It is easy to blame everything on the gangs. After all, they ARE criminals.
But "the government doesn't want to face the fact that they are the ones
making the country go to hell," said one member. "They think that it is
all imported. It's not. Kids have always been rebellious." Gang members
say the rich, not them, are the ones controlling major traffic of drugs,
weapons and stolen vehicles. Most likely, gangs play a part in th
picture, as hired stand-ins to do the dirty work.
"The mafia organizations that steal cars, move
narcotics and traffic in children are using the gangs for these activities
now," said Rodrigo Avila, Chief of the National Civil Police (PNC), a creation
of the peace accords. "They are paid to be the muscle for operations, they
are organized, and we have no structure to combat them. They kill each
other without even blinking, and because most of them are underage, we
can't hold the ones we catch for more than six hours."
The police certainly have their hands full. Combating
escalating crime while respecting human rights, the basis of their creation,
seems like an impossible task. Pressure from government and business leaders
and internal corruption only makes the situation more critical.
In one case of January 1996, a group of criminals
was tipped off to an operation designed to capture them. When dozens police
made their move, including the elite ninja-like Police Reaction Group (GRP),
only two criminals were found. The head of the operation suspect that a
local judge tipped them off. PNC Deputy director of operations, Ronaldo
Garcia said that their plan is to increase troop strength and educate the
public to participate in crime solving.
As far as an
yone knows, no major arsenals of weapons
belonging to gangs has ever been found. They have weapons, but not arsenals.
Major weapons discoveries have been made though, but not in San Salvador's
impoverished working class suburbs, where gangs thrive.
Last year police found dozens of M-16 and AK-47
assault rifles, Uzi submachine guns, anti-tank rockets, grenades, bulletproof
vests and more during a raid on the Benedicto Band house in the posh Escalon
neighborhood. Another is the Walter Auerbach case. Auerbach headed "probably
the best organized criminal group in the country" according to police officials.
They say he basicly ran a dealership for stolen cars and has links to international
car theft rings. He was caught driving a car stolen in Guatemala with false
papers which, for some unknown reason was not detected at the border. His
home, also in Escalon neighborhood, was also seized.
Francisco Valladares, AKA "demonio," 22, has been
in the Mara Salvatrucha 13, a gang started in Los Angeles in the 1970's
by Salvadoran immigrants, since he was 12. That is where his parents took
him when he was five and later began stealing cars. Joining a gang in LA
was not difficult since he had two uncles in other gangs. "They were pushing
me to get into their neighborhood [gang], but I didn't. I got into MS."
Since then, he estimates he ha
s spent a total of eight years in proson
or juvenile detention. For his last sentence in the U.S., "I did a little
burglary and car theft. That's when i got caught." Later authorities found
out he shot a man. "He was talking shit to me. I took out a gun and said
if you don't leave I'm gonna shoot you." He didn't leave. "So I shot him
twice," in the legs. When parole came up, although a legal U.S. resident,
he was deported to El Salvador, a country he hardly knew.
In the U.S., the justice system is swamped with
cases like his. That, included with an anti-immigrant sentiment, only seems
to legitimize the the policy of deporting social undesirables which the
U.S. government itself helped create by intervening in El Salvador's civil
war. So Demonio and hundred like him bring the gang culture of crime, drugs
and tattoos to El Salvador and teach it to eager adolescents who look up
to them in awe.
His first days back were hard, he remembers. People
laughed at the way he spoke and he felt lonely. He has no immediate family
here, and gang life is different than in LA. Here, he says, gang members
are less united don't help each other out as much. For example, when he
was released from jail after his car accident, other members told him they
had thought of taking a collection to pay his bail, but decided against
it. reasoning they sh
ould buy tamales instead for his funeral.
The U.S. government's quasi-colonial relationship
with counties like El Salvador in which repressive governments werre once
supported and where now neoliberal economics promoted has created the conditions
which make people like demonio join a gang. His family left because there
was no opportunity to improve their lot in life. The civil war was simply
another reason for thousands of others to leave or for demonio's family
to stay away.
The county's trial with democracy, which allows
more tolerance of ideas than under authoritarian regimes of the past has
also contributed to the rise of the gangs. The FMLN, once a guerilla army,
is now a leagal political party. Former enemies now battle it out on the
floor of the National Assembly. Not too long ago, to think that mortal
enemies of the salvadoran front of the Cold War would be part o
f the same
government was as absurd as the thought of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The fragile seed of democracy planted at the end
of the war IS giving fruit, although slowly, of new ideas and customs.
it is almost inevitable that gangs proliferate here. The job future is
bleak for youths growing up in El Salvador's impoverished areas, where
parents, too busy in the daily struggle to make ends meet, have little
or their children. Gangs take the place of family.
Brothers Pollo, 15, and Gizmo, 17, were certainly
impressed. "I went to the first meeting and there were quite a few "vatos"
from Los Angeles. It was scary to go to one of those first meetings. It
was the first time i had seen a bunch of tattoos and all. Wow," said Pollo.
They way they swagger when they walk, their defiant slouch, they way they
use english slang and their droopy dress are all too cool to resist. Especially
when life has little else to offer.
Gangs offer what family and social institutions
cannot: a family, pride, role models and most of all, something to do.
"Los Naranjos [neighborhood] has been real original," said Gizmo. "when
I go there, it's like my home. I feel that environment, that warmth." Pollo
and Gizmo, who joined the MS last year, haven't seen their father for three
years. he left with their mother to work in the U.S. eleven years ago.
She has since come back, but plans on going again to make money to send
back to them so they can go to school again. "There is no opportunity here,"
she said. "I plan on helping them alot. going away I can do it. If i don't
go i cannot do it. Here i cannot."
She says the two joined the gang because of peer
pressure and for "adventure." "Their buddies put ideas into their heads
They dont even know what they were doing. They were just kids. When they
finally realized it, they were sunken in disgrace. Tatooing yourself is
a disgrace because now who is going to give them a job? Now they are something
on the edge of society."
"Children need to feel love," said one member.
"Humans are social animals. If they dont get it at home, the look somewhere
else." Psycologist William Ivan Lopez says the Salvadoran common criminal
is between 18 and 35 years old, comes from broken home and uses drugs or
alcohol. "Because of the war, some people became used to living in a conflictive
situation in every move they make. And learning from violence was a way
to survive and live together in those 12 years. The result is that violence
moves into the post-war and becomes a way of survival for some people."
"This means that the war was most costly to young people. They suffered
the biggest impact because both sides fed off them. they were the most
traumatized," he said.
Demonio, at 22, is old for a gang member and wonders
about his future. He would like to shape up, but for someone who has spent
most of his life in crime or prison, it is hard to change. Social norms
work against gang members too. In El Salvador most people are simply scared
to death of anyone with a tattoo.
uffering sever blows to his head during
a fight with a member of a rival gang, Demonio spent several days of excrucuating
pain on a bed in the public hospital. He had a blood clot in his head and
was delerious. Words came out in a jumble and he could not remember the
simplest detail. but because of his tatoos, he haid to wait for attention.
Care at the hospital is already poor, and for someone with tattoos, even
"They like to see [attend to] everybody but for
people like us they are wimps," he said later. "I fucked up with all these
tags [tattoos]...nobody gives you a job. They don't give you shit," complained
Demonio, who says he may have the visible ones, on his face and neck, removed.
He even went to a clinic for an estimate. But getting rid of tattoos does
not mean leaving the gang. "It means i want a life of my own."
"We get to a point and we know we are getting
old. It doesn't look good." said one member. "when you are young you don't
care. A lot of homeboys [gang members] kill themselves for that.
They all want to go out in glory, but what happens when they dont kill
Douglas Engle produced this story while working for the Associated
Press In El Salvador.
to Douglas Engle's Latin American Photo Page
douglas engle 1996