The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Salvadoran gangsters walk into a church

The spokesmen for the 18th Street gang Revolucionarios and MS-13 sit side by side making gang signs but discussing their truce. (Fred Ramos for The Washington Post)

SAN SALVADOR — For such a small country, just 6 million people, and one not in openly declared war, the number of killings El Salvador endures is hard to fathom. So far this year, there have been more than 2,000 murders (the D.C. metro region, with roughly the same population, has had 52). Many consider El Salvador's homicide rate to be the highest in the hemisphere or the world.

That's why the recent cease-fire declared by the country's most powerful gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Revolutionaries, was so important, even if it ends up being temporary. In the first days of the cease-fire, homicides have dropped by more than half. But such truces have fallen apart before.

El Salvador’s gangs call a cease-fire, but many doubt it will hold

Spokesmen for two of the gangs agreed to meet with The Washington Post to talk about their cease-fire inside an office in a Lutheran church in San Salvador. The 18th Street spokesman showed up first. He was telling us a bit about his life, how he'd joined up as a kid because he thought it was cool — "I never wanted to be president or an airplane pilot" — and how, he claimed, police had recently slammed the left side of his face into the pavement, when a spokesman from his enemy gang walked into the church office.

The two had met during the temporary truce a couple of years ago. They agreed to talk as long as they weren't identified. Before they went on camera, they wrapped black bandannas and towels around their faces and pulled hats down low over their eyes.

The Washington Post: Could you explain why this cease-fire started on Friday, and why you’re here now?

18th Street Revolutionaries gang spokesman: We’ve arrived at a moment of reflection to see how we can control all of this. We’re seeing too much suffering, not just among my men and the other gang’s men, but also in the civilian population. It’s too much. It’s not just at our hands — people say we’re responsible for the majority of crimes in this country, and we know that’s not true. There’s also another class of delinquents. We call them political delinquents. They’re not going to sit down with us here. They’re not here, they operate in another way. And they don’t call themselves delinquents, they call themselves “representatives.”

Let’s not talk about truces. This isn’t a truce. This is a peace agreement, a reflection on everything that has happened recently, all of the injustice. It's the people who are dying. They've had enough. And still, even after we declared peace, the deaths are still filling the news. It's not us. Now it's clear that we’re the victims of this injustice.

WP: So are the three gangs [Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street Revolutionaries and the 18th Street Sureños] now united? Are you now friends?

Mara Salvatrucha gang spokesman: No, we’re not friends. But the three gangs are united in this effort to come together to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country, so the Salvadoran people can see that it’s not just gangs that kill. There’s another group of people that’s killing: the police, the army, and the whole world knows it. But in our country right now, human-rights advocates aren’t doing their work. They’re not supporting the people in the way they should be. They’ve been threatened so they’re staying quiet. They don’t investigate what’s happening in our country.

The rich people are living peacefully in gated communities, they go everywhere in their cars. It’s the poor people that risk their lives to travel in buses, work and go to school in violent communities.

The police arrive in a community and grab everyone in sight. In a neighborhood dominated by the Barrio 18 gang, or the Mara Salvatrucha, they show up, push the kids against the wall, beat them, put them in the cop car and drive them to a rival territory, where they know they’ll be killed. We have proof of this. It’s why we’re saying that our people are victims of abuses of the army and the police. It’s abuse of authority.

And people face discrimination for living in communities dominated by gangs. If they go to a bank and ask for a loan, they’ll be refused. If they apply for a job, they'll get rejected. Employers ask, where do you live? In such-and-such town. If it’s a town dominated by gangs, the person will be turned down.

So, what opportunities exist for people? None. There are no opportunities for people.

WP: What is your opinion of the emergency measures the government announced?

18th Street: The governments have invented these kinds of measures before, and what I have to say about it is this: Repression doesn’t reduce violence, it just brings more repression. Because if someone’s attacking my family, I’m going to attack them. We’re demonstrating to the Salvadoran people and to the international community that we are capable of stopping all violence. We have stopped it all. We did the same thing last time. For 72 hours, we promised that there would be no homicides, and we kept our promise. Now we’re shifting the responsibility to the government, to the Minister of Security and Justice.

Why El Salvador became the hemisphere’s murder capital

WP: So this effort is intended to show that the government is committing violence, too?

MS-13: Correct.

18th Street: El Salvador is so obsessed with the gangs, it forgets about the rest of the population, about health care, about everything. We believe that the country as a whole has to advance, and the gangs are sucking up all the resources — the schools, the hospitals.

WP: There was a truce two years ago. The homicide rate declined but then rose again. Some critics say it’s because the gangs used the time to re-arm and become stronger. Is that what's happening now?

MS-13: Everyone criticizes the truce. But during the truce, there were days with zero homicides. The average dropped from 23 homicides to 15 homicides, and there were many days with four, or three. And those homicides weren't committed by the gangs, they were committed by others. But remember, Salvadoran politics is dirty and corrupt. There are congressmen who own funeral parlors, congressmen who own private security firms. The violence benefits them.

WP: One of the principal complaints against the gangs is rampant extortion.

MS-13: With respect to extortion, it’s something that not only the gangs do. The gangs always get blamed for everything. We’re used as the towel for the whole world to wipe itself on. If you read the news, you’ll see the police is extorting, too. Other people who aren’t from the gangs — criminal bands — are extorting. People in the government. The whole world is extorting. But who gets blamed? The gangs.

WP: How do you see the future of the gangs, in the long term? Do you want to become a political party?

MS-13: We’re never going to become politicians. We are always going to be the gangs. They’re the politicians, we’re the gangs, and the only thing we ask for are reinsertion programs — for the population, for the communities, for the prisons. If you go to a prison, all you’re going to find is a storage space. You’re going to find sick prisoners. There are no doctors that prisoners can go to for treatment when they’re sick. If you go to Zacatecoluca, the maximum-security prison, they’re killing the prisoners there. This government is killing them psychologically. They’ve put sheet metal above them so the cells heat up. They can’t withstand the heat. The prisoners suffer from colon sickness, from ulcers, from terminal illnesses. But no one sees it. People are dying inside the prison, and nobody sees it.

WP: During the cease-fire, are the gangs going to keep killing the police?

MS-13: The gangs have never declared war on the police. The police and the government have declared war on the gangs. But the gangs on the police? On the government? No. If the gangs declared war on the police or on the government, there would be a ton of deaths every day.

WP: More than there already are?

MS-13: More than there already are. You know why? Because in the communities where the gang members live, there are also police officers and government workers. If we declared war on them, every day there would be 40 police officers dead.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.