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From migrants to refugees: the new plight of Central Americans

El Salvador, a country sown with death

A text by Maye Primera
Reading this text will take you around 50 minutes. You can also listen to it:
Narrated by Juliana Jiménez

1 Life alongside the well

The grandmother still lived next to her family’s abandoned house, some 15 meters from where her oldest grandson was allegedly killed and half a kilometer from the well where she suspects the neighbor dumped his body. She lives in the town of Santiago Nonualco, in the La Paz Department of El Salvador. Hers is a dirt road, surrounded by mango trees, corn fields and sugarcane fields. The only sounds are the song of the talapo, a local bird, and the hum of buzzards. When the dogs bark or gunshots ring out, the grandmother thinks it could be the neighbor, the Mara Salvatrucha gangs from La Galilea or the rural police of San Rafael Obrajuelo, who are close and coming for her.

It’s been a year since her daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren escaped from the neighborhood in a rush, carrying only the clothes on their backs. Since then, she hasn’t seen them, and doesn’t believe she’ll see them again, other than in photos on Facebook. The grandmother wants to send them a message via WhatsApp so she records this message for her son-in-law:

“So, what should I say to you? I ask God to take care of you and I pray for me, too. One thing I want to say: no matter what happens to me, don’t you come back here. Don’t even think about returning. You have to look after your children. Don’t worry about me anymore. It doesn’t matter if someone tells you something happened to me—don’t come back. That’s all I want to say.”

A grandmother cries in her home in rural El Salvador. Neither she nor her family members can leave the house to work. They live with constant fear of threats and death. “We’ve suffered everything. The only thing left for us is to die,” she sobs, “but I just hope it’s not viciously.” Almudena Toral / Univision.

The grandmother has lived in the country for 76 years, splitting wood, cutting cane, cleaning corn fields and raising chickens. The past 50 years, she lived on this street in Santiago Nonualco. She no longer works—she doesn’t have the strength—and her husband, who was the breadwinner, died four years ago. She survives anyway she can. She had two sons and two daughters. The sons live with her in the same neighborhood and she shares her house with the youngest one. The two daughters left with their families: one to the United States, pushed out by the poverty, and the other to Mexico, pushed out by violence.

The street was peaceful until a deportee returned between 2009 and 2010, the grandmother says. He was born in La Paz. His mother left him when he was young and moved to Los Angeles, sending for him when he turned 13. There, he joined a gang, and when he was 23, he was expelled from the country. He stayed in El Salvador for a time and is now returning to the United States.

“When that young man arrived, he started taking the kids. Not by force—at first, they went of their own will.”

She had known the neighborhood kids since they were little, or even from when they were in their mothers’ wombs. But now, many were coming from Miraflores, from Pedregal City, from Arco, all from the Mara Salvatrucha, to have shoot-outs with rifles. There was no use in alerting the police; some of them were involved, too. In August, an agent who’d been in the force for 20 years was detained, along with his wife, for cooperating with the Maras and for having extorted them. The couple lived in her neighborhood.

One of the woman’s sons was tortured during an assault in their home. “They hit them, they threw them to the floor, they shocked them with something electric,” she says. “They were wearing (police) uniforms. But gang members sometimes wear uniforms to make people open the door, and then they kill them.” Almudena Toral / Univision.

One of the grandmother’s sons reported that the neighbor had shot him—and it made things worse. The following night, they received a visit from the rural police of San Rafael Obrajuelo: they raided the son and grandmother’s house, broke down their fences, beat the sons and grandchildren, and robbed some lotions and $200 in cash that the grandmother had stashed away. The family thinks the rural police were the neighbor’s associates.

The grandmother’s neighbor is a coyote, who traffics people to the United States, people who are looking for something or fleeing something. He did his work with the help of the grandmother’s disappeared grandson.

At first, the neighbor called him to wash his car and in return he would give him presents, shoes, nice clothes. One day, the neighbor asked him to help count money.

“The bills are heavy,” the 17-year-old grandson said, who was accustomed to carrying sacks of corn as heavy as 200 pounds. “The neighbor had a sack of bills that I couldn’t even carry, it was that heavy.”

One day, the grandson came home drunk and happy because he had traveled to Mexico with the neighbor to make a delivery. Later, the trips became a habit. Two days after he returned from one of these trips, the boy came in crying, telling his family that they were going to kill him, but without saying who “they” were. Two days later, he disappeared. The night of July 24, 2015 there was a party and he didn’t come home, and the neighbor didn’t come by to ask for him again.

The woman shows part of the photograph of her disappeared grandson. Being recognized would put them in danger. She describes her grandson as a strong kid who liked sports, smiling and helping others. “Very good looking, wow! Very good looking!” Almudena Toral / Univision.

They made a report, put up his photo in all the delegations, and began searching the sugar cane fields. Bodies always pop up there in the harvest season; when the fields are combed over with the mower, bones, mountains of bones, appear, and the farmers and their bosses all stay quiet because if they report that a body was found, the Legal Medicine Department would order that “nobody touch the sugarcane”. The sugar mill would have to shut down and the harvest would be lost. No one says anything and the workers keep cutting the cane amidst the dead.

“All those sugar cane fields in El Salvador are cemeteries. My son-in-law would remove bodies in pieces, thinking it was his son. Bodies missing legs, missing hands, missing their head, each time with the illusion that this was it, this was his son, this is it, but nothing. We don’t know where they dumped his body. We suppose it might be in this gruesome well.”

Weeds and bees now invade the mouth of this well, which is covered with a cement lid, as the prosecutor’s office ordered two years ago. In the neighborhoods and along the dirt roads near the well, no one sees, no one hears. Or people don’t want to talk, even if they can see and hear. They just leave. Whole families leave, in silence.

The well where the family suspects the boy’s body was thrown. The well was sealed after neighbors reported it smell like dead bodies. Almudena Toral / Univision.

The grandmother’s youngest daughter, her son-in-law, and her four grandchildren fled their house on September 16, 2016. They left three at a time, carrying what they could in small plastic bags. One month earlier, the MSs in the nearby neighborhood of La Galilea had threatened to kill them if they didn’t turn over one of the kids, who was 13 years old. The family returned to the prosecutor’s office to file a report, but there, they were told that they couldn’t help them. They told them it would be better for them to get in touch with a human rights organization headquartered in San Salvador, the capital, so that the organization could help them escape.

El Salvador is a too small of a country if you want to hide. It is a little more than 20,000 square kilometers and the gangs and organized crime have control or influence over the entire territory. These gangs also have a presence in Mexico, Italy, the United States and in the other Northern Triangle countries, Honduras and Guatemala.

The family moved four times in El Salvador before leaving the country. They spent several months in the capital and afterward, were in two areas in the municipality of Oriente, where they ran into other gangs who threatened to investigate them to figure out where they came from, what organization they were affiliated with, and whom they were fleeing. In April, they managed to get to the town of Santa Elena, in Guatemala, with the help of several human rights organizations. That same month, they crossed the Guatemala-Mexico border, and asked for asylum in the state of Tabasco. In September, the Mexican Aid Commission for Refugees (COMAR, in Spanish), approved their request.

What a family who fled El Salvador because of the violence left behind
The father used to sleep on this bed, sitting outside the house they fled. He made his sons and daughters sleep inside the house, which was too small for everyone, in order to protect them. Being young in El Salvador means the threat of being recruited by a gang. They were never able to recover the 17-year-old son’s body. The father was then threatened with giving up his 13-old-son to the gang. You can see more of the father’s story in this animation. Almudena Toral / Univision
The grandmother put a lock on the family’s door after they were robbed. “I left my house with everything in it, they even took the pots,” says the father. “We left from one day to the next. Three of us walked first, three a bit later… with small plastic bags and a blanket to cover the small kid, that’s it.” Almudena Toral / Univision
The disappeared grandson’s soccer shoes. The family suspects he was murdered. Almudena Toral / Univision
The door of the abandoned house features drawings by the young girls in the family. “They had to flee, to save their lives and the lives of their sons and daughters. It’s hard to see your daughter and grandkids leave,” says the grandmother. Almudena Toral / Univision
Her son-in-law loved the music of Tigres del Norte, so the grandmother keeps his CDs. “Tigres del Norte always sing the truth,” the man says in Mexico, where the family has received asylum. Almudena Toral / Univision
The father’s work tools. The family made ends meet by picking fruit and selling it in local markets. Almudena Toral / Univision
The sons’ bicycles, left abandoned next to the house. Almudena Toral / Univision
A rope hangs from the door of the abandoned house. It’s been over a year since the family left. Almudena Toral / Univision
The grandmother lights a candle next to prints of Monseñor Romero and the Holy Trinity. Since her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren left, she’s received numerous threats from gang members to reveal the whereabouts of the family. “They’re far away but they’re alive,” says the grandma. She has no hope to see them again. Almudena Toral / Univision

Violence from gangs, crime, and the State, are pointed to increasingly as the main cause of forced migration among Salvadorans, both in and outside the country. This is also tru both among the deported and among returnees, mainly to and from the US and Mexico, as well as those who have sought protection in Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica during the past three years, after running out of possibilities to find refuge in their own country.

The Salvadoran government doesn’t officially recognize forced displacement. The only instance in which the State has acknowledged the issue was through the office of the Attorney General for the Defense of Human Rights (PDDH, in Spanish), which signaled in its 2014-15 annual report that threats to life, extortion and the pressure exerted upon adolescents to join gangs has provoked the flight of entire families.

El Salvador doesn’t maintain official statistics about how many of its citizens have been forced to abandon their homes and their towns. Nevertheless, the Norwegian Refugee Council estimated that more than 280,000 people found themselves displaced within the country in 2014, citing data provided by NGOs that form El Salvador’s Civil Society Roundtable against Forced Displacement. It’s a human avalanche similar to that which provoked the bloody civil war that devastated the country between 1980 and 1992 and left more than 75,000 dead.

Now, the countries in the region extend refugee status to the Salvadorans they receive, conscious of what they’re fleeing. But the Salvadoran government doesn’t recognize this, because to do so would imply an admission that it has lost control of most of its territory.

2 Life inside the well

In December of 2015, the neighbors began reporting that the well reeked, and the prosecutor’s office ordered Israel Ticas to investigate. Ticas sent a camera to the bottom of the well, and in the photos that came back, he saw there were human remains inside the well. But the well was very old. It was risky to rappel into it because it could collapse and they didn’t have the right equipment yet to explore it any other way. He was only able to reach the bottom once, recovering whatever he could reach, before giving the order that the well be sealed so that it didn’t continue to be used as a place to hide bodies.

“The only thing I managed to recover was a foot. The rest is still inside,” Ticas said in San Salvador in August 2017.

Israel Ticas is a criminologist. He has worked for the General Prosecutor’s Office of El Salvador for 20 years. He and his assistant are the only forensic investigators in the entire country who do exhumations. In his office, Ticas has a gigantic map full of colored dots. Each dot represents a burial site. The majority, 50 dots, are concentrated on San Salvador and several dozen that extend toward La Libertad, Santa Ana y Sonsonate. None of the 14 departments is free of dots. The purple ones are wells and the green ones are clandestine cemeteries that Ticas has already excavated. The blue and red dots are wells and clandestine cemeteries that haven’t been explored yet, where there should be one or more bodies. The yellow dots are mass graves from the civil war that have been excavated—there are fewer of these, 15 or so, but around 55 people were found there. The orange dots—10 or so—mark places where he knows there are more victims to be recovered.

“We started in 2005 with two or three clandestine graves and now we’re the country with the most clandestine graves in the world,” the criminologist says.

The well where the grandmother suspects killers threw her dead grandson. The criminalist Israel Ticas went to investigate after neighbors reported a foul smell. He confirmed there were human remains inside. Almudena Toral / Univision.

Ticas joined the police force in 1989, in the midst of the war, and specialized in processing crime scenes where the insurgency had launched an attack. After the peace accords were signed in 1992, he transferred to the Technical-Scientific Division of the National Civil Police. He exhumed his first grave in 2004, dressed in a suit and tie; the victim had been kidnapped, an atypical scene that became common from that year on.

Since then, he’s recovered more than 500 victims from clandestine cemeteries, wells, septic tanks, and caves. Since 2004, Ticas has maintained a notebook for every procedure he’s performed, and his journals become thicker with each year: 2008, 2012, 2015.

He and his assistant never get a break. Right now, they have three reports pending from five graves they excavated in the past few months. Processing a homicide scene with a buried body can take from two days to a week or more, depending on the degree of difficulty.

Serial killers, organized or not, leave their mark on every scene. Those who kill in San Vicente, in the middle of the country, dig circular graves. Those in the west, rectangular graves. In La Libertad, San Salvador and San Miguel, they’ve found oval-shaped graves. Some of the victims are naked, or put face down, or are marked with a stake and bottles, with wire tourniquets twisted around their necks. Some have been buried alive—you can tell from their body language. Others dismember their victims, putting their pieces in order: the thorax, the head, the arms, the legs, and cover them with lime. A simple glance at the extent of the barbarity, and you can infer whether the victim was from a competing gang or whether the people had no relationship with the gang or organized crime. The majority of the buried are young people.

A night bearing witness to the violence of El Salvador

“When I began to work with the dead, I also began to form my own shield so that I wouldn’t crack emotionally. While cleaning them my shield was science, as I looked for microevidence on their bodies. I listened to music. I sang. I’ve worked on bodies of children and that hurts, four-year-olds, six-year-old girls. It hurts to find them in the ground, to see their little eyes wide open, their red little lips. That breaks you. That’s when I had to put on my shield so those feelings couldn’t reach me. I looked at it through a scientific lens, as a crime scene I had to reconstruct. And I started to talk to them, to tell them, “Now, now, I’m going to bring you back to your mother.”

In El Salvador, there are thousands of mothers looking for their children, and many of them will die without finding them. They gather around the yellow crime scene tape when Ticas arrives to excavate a grave and he asks them, “Have you already made a violation of freedom report?” Half of the group says yes, the other half says no, that they don’t report out of fear or because of threats. It’s for this reason, Ticas says, that nobody can know the real number of people who have disappeared in the country during the wave of violence that followed the war. But according to his calculations, in the last decade and a half, more Salvadorans have disappeared than during the conflict itself.

“If someone disappears in El Salvador and doesn’t come back in five days, it’s because they’ve been thrown into a river, in a well, in a septic tank, or in a cave,” the criminologist says.

Ticas believes in miracles because he has found some bodies he wasn’t looking for. When that happens, he puts out an alert on social media, publishing the news on his three Facebook pages about where he has found unidentified bodies, noting their characteristics. The mothers then go to Legal Medicine or to the prosecutor’s office to submit DNA samples and request that these be compared to the remains that have been recovered; in some cases, there have been successful matches. The authorities often find clandestine cemeteries when a farmer or his dogs find human remains, or because of the stench from decomposition, or when a rainstorm causes erosion, revealing bones. They also discover the sites through eyewitnesses, who provide information to the police in exchange for some procedural benefit. And there have been many cases where the witness says, “Well, we buried them here, but there’s a house here now.”

“Throughout the country, they’re building communities on top of the sugar cane and coffee fields where there are clandestine cemeteries, and at this pace, in two years a lot of people are going to get lost who we’ll never find. How are we going to throw people out of their home to search for a body? To say that they’ll be found during construction work is a lie because the bodies are buried more than two meters deep. And they’re going to stay there, beneath the houses.”

The criminologist is always looking for ways to get to those bodies, coming up with ideas, asking for borrowed equipment. In recent years, he’s developed a technique to not destroy homes, septic tanks, or wells where the bodies are hidden: he digs parallel without touching the cement structure, building a vault of sorts that allows him to get to the crime scene from the front. He’s also been testing out the idea of making a capsule or some type of mechanical robotic arm to send down into high-risk wells, like the one in Las Conchas, to recover human remains at the bottom. Because if there is no body, there is no crime, and if there’ is no scientific evidence of that body, it will be more difficult to find justice, he says.

His son is the only one who knows his techniques. When his assistant isn’t available, Ticas takes his son with him to do excavations on weekends or when he doesn’t have school. At first, he would dig up soil with a shovel, fetch tools for his father, and accompany him to the classes his father gave about facial reconstruction.

When he turned 10 years old, his father locked him inside a morgue full of bodies in the science department at the Alberto Masferrer University and turned off the lights. Then he said, “Now, turn on the light.” When he did, the boy screamed and beat the door: “Dad, get me out of here! Open the door!”. But later, he ended up taking photos in the section reserved for the mummies. Later, when he worked with decaying bodies, the father put gloves on the boy, picked up a larva, and said, “Give me your hand, open it. These aren’t regular worms. The size of this worm is going to tell you how long the victim has been dead. This is science; don’t look at it any other way.”

Then, he dressed the boy in biohazard equipment and had him touch bodies in different states of decomposition: grab the adipocere, the fat that forms when muscles and organs fuse after being buried in humid soil. And that’s how they went along, until the boy’s fear went away, until the student surpassed the teacher. The following November, Ticas’s son will graduate with a criminal science degree from a university in Mexico.

Skulls collected during burials in El Salvador have been painted, and sit in Israel Ticas’ office. Almudena Toral / Univision.

“And I don’t want him to come back to this country. As a father, I don’t want it. His future is in some laboratory there or in the United States. But not here—here, we all live under threat. In El Salvador, nobody is safe. Any one of us could end up buried, and not found ever again.”

He would rather see his son go far away before their own land eats him alive.

3 The prodigal son returns home

Wilfredo Gómez is 40 years old and he’s been in prison for two-thirds of his life, between the United States and El Salvador. Between the ages of 16 and 30, he was moved around various detention centers and correctional facilities in South Central Los Angeles, California, for drug and illegal weapons possession charges. When he was 30, he was deported to El Salvador, where he was jailed three months later for armed robbery. They sentenced him to 10 years, which would be served among various penitentiaries: Apanteos, Izalco, Quezaltepeque, Cojutepeque, San Francisco Gotera.

While serving time, he had an encounter with God, he says, and embraced the evangelical faith. Six months ago, he was released, a new man.

“I thought my own gang was going to kill me in there. God saved me; it’s through faith that I’ve changed, and neither the devil nor a gang can undo that,” he says.

Wilfredo Gómez talks on the phone at his pastor’s office in the Eben Ezer church in San Salvador. He’s coordinating the delivery of ingredients for the bakery where he works at the church. After being freed from prison a few months ago, Wilfredo spends most of his time here. Almudena Toral / Univision.

Wilfredo’s parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, in the midst of the civil war, and they left him in El Salvador, in his grandmother’s care. They returned for him when he turned 10, taking him to live with them at the intersection of 18th Street and Union Street in Los Angeles, the cradle of Barrio 18. Wilfredo didn’t speak English, they called him wetback, they beat him in school and also at home. But the gang members on his street offered him protection: they waited for him to come out of class, escorting him home as the girls looked on. What Wilfredo wanted more than anything at the age of 14 was to carry the gang’s symbol, the number 18. First, he had it tattooed on an arm, then on his neck. When he started getting tattoos himself, his mother kicked him out of the house. From then on, he kept covering his body with flying cars, exotic flowers, indigenous goddesses, and pictures that he copied from the Chicano magazine, Teen Angels.

The majority of young Central Americans who joined the gang with him in the 1990s died fighting territory battles in Los Angeles in their neighborhood’s name. For Wilfredo, who came from war, death was an everyday event, something routine.

“Coming to the United States and seeing a body wasn’t a big deal. In Los Angeles, in my time, it was rare to live beyond 20. Everyone died a teenager. It was something to feel proud of: to die for your ‘hood’.”

That was Wilfredo’s idea of fate: to die by gunshot in the streets or to live in the prisons of Los Angeles. That was until 2006, when he received a prison visit from Immigration agents who were bearing an order to deport him. He tried to trick them, telling them he was born in California, but they showed him a copy of the Salvadoran Passport he used to enter the United States when he was 10 years old. Wilfredo didn’t want to return because he’d seen the History Channel documentaries showing how terrifying life was in that strange country. But he didn’t have any options; he had a long rap sheet, and he signed his deportation order voluntarily. Three days later, they put him on a flight back to El Salvador.

Wilfredo Gómez shows a tattoo on his neck with the number 18, which marks him as a member of the Barrio 18 gang. He got the tattoo when he became a member of the gang in Los Angeles. Almudena Toral / Univision.

“My mother thought I was going to die here, that they were going to kill me. And she wasn’t mistaken: the first day, they wanted to kill me.”

Nobody was waiting for him at the airport. Another Salvadoran who was on the plane took him to Colonia 22 de Abril de Soyapango, San Salvador, where the Mara Salvatrucha operated. Since Wilfredo was an 18 member, they were going to kill him that same day. Wilfredo was still wearing the sweater that he’d been given in the detention center and he was sweating buckets, but he didn’t want to take it off and show his tattoos. The Maras asked him where he was coming from, overdressed in so much heat. He managed to escape the gang members by giving them $10.

At dawn, he managed to catch a ride out of there and he started looking for a hotel downtown. Days later, he got drunk in a cantina located in a neutral area in the southern part of the city, dressed in a t-shirt that showed off all his ink. The bartender, who knew the 18s, called to have the newcomer checked out. They were there in minutes, armed with pistols. The men didn’t have tattoos, but the representative who was tasked with checking Wilfredo out and finding out where he came from did have an 18 inked on his face. It was then that he began to feel at home.

“I understood that I had to earn their respect and that’s how I ended up in prison. I stole a weapon, an UZI, they caught me, and gave me 10 years.”

In the prisons, he once again started looking for his own people. Being deported guaranteed him a certain rank, despite the fact that he was a recent arrival. But he says that it wasn’t the same to be from a barrio in Los Angeles and to be from San Salvador. He didn’t understand why they killed people who weren’t gang members, why they assassinated kids, why they raped women.

“In L.A., your enemies are the other gangs, not the neighborhood itself. The ones who die are part of gangs. Here in El Salvador, things are really different; the violence is in society itself, not just in the gangs.”

A sexual slave who escaped from the MS-13 tells her story

Wilfredo became sick with tuberculosis in prison, and ended up dropping to 132 pounds. He says he was in a death trance, thinking about all the opportunities he had to be a different person and that he had rejected: his mother’s complaints, the fleeting courtship with the daughter of an ex-gang member turned pastor in Los Angeles, whom he left because of religious fanaticism. In one of those fevers, a group of Christians came to his cell to preach, invited him to church, and began to speak of the miracle of his salvation.

A few years later, Wilfredo Gómez had become a pastor himself, leading a flock of hundreds of ex-18s who had left the gang to go with God.

In theory, the promise of loyalty to the barrio lasts a lifetime. But there are exceptions under which the gang allows a member to “calm down” and distance himself from criminal activity. One of the most popular exceptions is for religious experience. The Revolutionaries of Barrio 18 faction has lost the most soldiers to God inside these prisons. Wilfredo estimates that, since 2015, more than 500 of them have been transferred to the cell blocks reserved for the Ovejas, or sheep, the name given to ex-gang members who have converted to Christianity, in the Izalco and San Francisco Gotera penitentiaries, who are responding to the call of the Church of the Last Trumpet. The schism was unprecedented, until now.

A former gang member gives a speech at the Eben Ezer church in a Barrio 18 colony in San Salvador. The church has deemed it a day to give thanks, and several gang members who are members of the church come up to the stage to share experiences. They ask for forgiveness and give thanks to their families and for having been freed from prison. Almudena Toral / Univision.

In March 2017, the University of Florida published a survey conducted with 1,200 active and former Salvadoran gang members to evaluate the possibilities that a gang member could abandon his crew without suffering reprisals and being killed as a traitor. The study involved men and women who belonged or had belonged to El Salvador-linked gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha, the 18 South, the 18 Revolutionaries, the Mirada Locos, the Mara Maquina, the Mao-Mao.

More than half of the group (50.6%) said that the only way that they would abandon the gang would be by dedicating themselves to God, showing the gang a real commitment to the pious life, foregoing the temptations and punishments that the organization could mete out. An even greater number (97.1%) thought that religion could be a more effective means of achieving rehabilitation among gang members than even work or education. But it is always the gang itself that measures the members’ faith.

“The gang can tell when you’ve truly changed, based upon your testimony, the way you carry yourself,” Wilfredo says.

Since he has been free, he worshipes God at least twice a week in the Eben Ezer Church, deep in 18 territory, in San Salvador’s iconic Dina neighborhood. On Tuesdays, he attends a worship service centered on giving thanks, and on Sundays, general worship. The rest of the week, he works in a bakery that operates out of the back of the church.

It’s just a few blocks from the place where, in 2003, President Francisco Flores launched the “Iron Fist Plan” (“Plan Mano Dura” in Spanish) against the gangs: a security plan based on fighting fire with fire, and capturing everyone who was suspected of gang activity. Within a year, the strategy proved to have been a failure in terms of reducing violence. Homicides increased and gangs consolidated their territorial control with increasingly well-structured organizations. But as with many campaign promises that aren’t fulfilled, the idea of ending violence with bullets was widely supported among voters. As a result, Francisco Flores’s presidential successors maintained and strengthened Plan Mano Dura for six more years. In 2009, the first leftist government since the signing of the peace accords was sworn into office, headed up by the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, or FMLN, in Spanish). That same year, El Salvador was recognized as the country with the highest murder rate in the world, and the new government decided to radically change its strategy. In March 2012, the administration of president Mauricio Funes negotiated an armistice with the gangs, which had immediate consequences. The new strategy, baptized The Truce, managed to cut the national homicide rate almost in half. But the idea that the State would soften its stance toward gangs was deeply unpopular and after three years, the government decided to abandon the process. It was then that El Salvador broke all records: in 2015, there were more than 6,650 homicides, more assassinations than in the previous 20 years. The wheel of death hasn’t stopped turning since, and Wilfredo doesn’t believe that everything is the gangs’ fault.

A crime scene in the municipality of San Martín. A family was shot with machine-guns because the local gang members didn’t recognize the car. Almudena Toral / Univision.

“You don’t need to be a gang member in El Salvador to take someone’s life, that, I guarantee you. Even the authorities take justice into their own hands. They don’t understand that one day you were a gang member and now you’re Christian. For them, you’ll always be the same: a person who deserves to die as soon as possible, because they consider you a cancer on society.”

4 Someone call the police

Late at night, it’s just the two of them, all the cells are full, and they’re covering the midnight shift at a precinct of the National Civil Police in San Salvador. Officer Isaías watches the cells while his partner is in charge of the door, the log book and the radio. She’s dressed in combat fatigues and a black shirt that reads on the back, “Don’t run, because if you run you’ll die tired,” next to the silhouette of a police officer pointing a rifle, with one knee on the ground.

In the small territory of El Salvador, three police officers have been killed in the past 24 hours and the officers fear that they’ll soon be informed about another. They’ve just been informed via radio that central command still doesn’t know anything about the officer who was kidnapped this afternoon in Soyapango.

“It’s most likely they’ll find him, but dead already,” she says.

He sighs and replies, “Police life is for crazy people. You say to yourself, ‘Damnit, what am I doing here?’. Putting my own life on the line.”

The police station is in the territory of the Sureños, a faction of the Barrio 18 gang. Less than a block away, there’s a placazo, a graffiti associated with the gangs, with a message “See, Listen, Be Quiet,” written with an elementary school teacher’s handwritting. The patrol car assigned to the station has gun shots on the right-side door that have been covered with a rust-repellent. Almost a month ago, the gang members left the body of a young person riddled with seven gunshot wounds on the corner: it was a boy who went to school in the neighborhood. They killed him because he lived in a neighborhood dominated by a rival gang. Even so, Officer Isaías feels safer here than in his own home.

“At home, I don’t sleep well; I sleep well at work. At home, if I don’t have my gun under my pillow, I don’t feel at ease. I have to be almost touching it to be able to sleep, and soon enough, you wake up, frightened by the sound of dogs barking in the alley.”

Por la situación que se vive, optamos por cubrirnos el rostro”, dice el agente. A la mayoría de policías que han asesinado últimamente los mataron en sus días libres, sin uniforme. Muchos intentan que sus vecinos no sepan que son policías. Almudena Toral / Univision.

Isaías lives in Olocuilta, in the department of La Paz, 50 minutes by motorcycle from the San Salvador police station where he works. He is the only police officer who regularly steps foot in his neighborhood. The nearest police station doesn’t have enough staff to patrol that area, and the few police officers who work there focus on making the rounds downtown. But his neighborhood is safe, he says, and it’s going to stay that way. The gangs have wanted to come in, but haven’t been able to do so. If someone comes from another area, they ask where they’re from, if they have family in the neighborhood, and then the community decides whether they can stay or whether they have to leave. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Isaías is a police officer—he doesn’t hide—but if he does look for a way to live a quiet life: he never goes anywhere, except work.

Up to this night, August 28th, 2018, 23 police officers have been killed throughout the entire country. Nearly all of them were killed during their days off, when they weren’t in uniform. In many cases, they were killed when they were resting in their homes, traveling by bus, or taking their kids to school. Just between yesterday afternoon and tonight, three more have been killed. The first was Officer Andrés de Paúl Domínguez, renowned in San Juan Nonualco. Six alleged gang members waited for him in his home, crouched in his bedroom, slitting his throat with a curved machete at three in the afternoon. On Monday, at 7:30 in the morning, they shot Officer José Roberto Pérez Chacón in his garage, when he was about to start his truck and head to the highway that connects San Salvador to Sensuntepeque. Police chatter attributed the crime to a gang member from a clique of the Francis Locos Salvatruchos nicknamed Hell (El Infierno). Later, at 6:18 pm, Officer Wilfredo Molina Calderón went down when he was leaving the El Cielo de Santa Tecla Funeral Home: he was shot by two men on a motorcycle.

The safety of police in El Salvador has worsened since 2014. That year, the number of officers who were killed tripled compared to the year before: there were 13 police homicides in 2013, in 2014, there were 39. By next year, 2015, the rate increased to 63 killings. In 2016, it was 46, and so far this year, the rate continues a frenzied pace (by the time this article was published, in mid-October 2017, 38 officers had been killed).

Officer Isaías blames the State for not knowing how to deal with the problem of the gangs, nor how to defend its own police. The solution he begins to sketch out to neutralize crime, though, looks a lot like the Mano Dura plans implemented by the government between 2006 and 2012, unsuccessfully. His million-dollar idea consists of rounding them all up, find a talker, and from there, capture the gunman, the look-outs, and all the soldiers who are active members. He suggests that things would then have to be taken to a whole new level if true justice is to be served:

“There’ll be justice if every tattooed gang member is given the death penalty, because they inconvenience the public at large. It’s a burden to be taking care of gang members in prison. The best thing would be the death penalty for these delinquents who have no mercy for Salvadorans.”

A detainee is handcuffed in his home during a police raid in August of 2017. Almudena Toral / Univision.

He admits that several of his colleagues have already applied this type of personal justice, and he justifies it:

“There have been several cases in which a colleague has had no other option but to kill the person threatening him. Because if you don’t kill him first, he’s going to kill you.”

It’s been exactly one week since the Salvadoran magazine Factum revealed the existence of death squads within the National Civil Police of El Salvador. On August 22, the magazine published a feature offering detailed descriptions of the operations of four police officers from the Special Reaction Force (Fuerza Especial de Reacción, or FES, in Spanish), who have been involved in at least two executions, two sexual abuse cases against minors, various robberies, and aggravated extortion, in which they demanded money in exchange for letting someone detained in an operation live. Journalists had access to conversations on social media with at least 40 police officers—among them, officers and special agents, collaborators, and plain clothes police— through a source that worked as a police informant.

A group of policemen searches a home during a police raid. Almudena Toral / Univision.

Isaías participated in some of those chats on Facebook and WhatsApp and it was through them that he received this message (unpunctuated) via a user identified as Hechos Informativos SV:

“Starting August 29 from 00:00 hours forward, a zero-tolerance stance is declared at a national level and it’s not an apology or an extermination it’s the law there will be no tolerance given that hard-working people are dying like PNC officers. This got out of control after the magazine Factum and El Faro published that the PNC has extermination groups. This has unleashed the ire of criminal groups who are attacking members of the police force.”

Nighttime came with the promise to avenge the dead officers, but in this precinct, promises aren’t kept.

Sometimes, Officer Isaías thinks it’s not worth it to lose your life for a salary that doesn’t even pay the bills. The basic salary of a low-ranking Salvadoran police officer is $424 a month, 100 dollars more than a factory or sugar mill worker’s minimum salary. If the agent dies, their family receives a pension of $192 a month.

“The ones who work for the police do it because there aren’t any jobs. Many entering the academy are just 18 or 19 years old. Sometimes, they’re very immature, but the need for work brings them there,” Isaías says.

In the National Police Academy in El Salvador, cadets receive 13 months of training and between 300 and 350 officers graduate in every class. Fewer than 10% of them are women.

A policeman files police reports in a house where a big police raid is taking place. Almudena Toral / Univision.

Security agents like Isaías are tasked with patrolling the streets in teams of two, or four, if they’re involved in a special operation. They use long weapons, but there are few of those, and Isaías complains they lack ammunition.

“If I don’t carry my long weapon, I don’t feel right. With a big gun, it’s difficult for a gang member to get away. If the butt of the rifle is supported well, it’s not easy for him to get away. With the pistol, on the other hand, it’s different. And there’s the psychological impact, too, right? The idea that we’re all armed up, alert, ready to go.”

As he scrolls through photos on his phone of trainings, funerals of colleagues, and gang graffiti, Isaías comes across a message from an officer who fled the country several years ago, requesting refuge in the US. Now, he lives in New York and recounts how different life is, how his life changed, and how he wouldn’t return no matter what. Isaías thinks about it, too.

His life is marked with three letters: PNC, National Civil Police of El Salvador, which are as hard to erase as a tattoo. Even if he left the force, gang members would still consider him an officer, a target, and his only chance to free himself of that would be to leave the country.

“Leave? Yes, I’ve thought of leaving the country. Where would I go? I don’t know. But I’d go far away, as far as I could, where I could keep my family alive.”


PRODUCED BY: Univision Noticias, El Faro



DESIGN: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora

MOUNTING: Juanje Gómez, Daniel Reyes

ILLUSTRATIONS: Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons

VIDEO: Almudena Toral, Maye Primera, Andrea Patiño Contreras, Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons, Ricardo Weibezahn, Nacho Corbella

PHOTOS: Almudena Toral

MAP: Luis Melgar

EDITING: Ricardo Vaquerano, José Fernando López

SOCIAL MEDIA: María Carolina Hurtado

DIGITAL PRODUCTION: Andrés Barajas, Paola Duque

DIGITAL CODING: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora, Fabián Padilla, Cristhian Mora

TRANSLATION: Julie Schwieter

ENGLISH LANGUAGE EDITING: Juliana Jiménez, Jessica Weiss