El Salvador’s conflict with gangs is beginning to look like a war

‘What we have now is a civil war’

In El Salvador, security forces are carrying out a growing number of the killings in the gang war

Published on October 28, 2016

— The Tiny Malditos used to own this village, strutting around with their rifles and 9mm pistols, their gang allegiances tattooed in crude gothic script across their slender teenage backs and chests.

These days, Santa Teresa doesn’t have much of a gang problem. One by one over the past year, the “sons of the community,” as the town’s Catholic priest calls them — or “terrorists,” as the government prefers — have been killed, arrested or driven out.

Above: Rudy Melendez is one of the last surviving members of the Tiny Malditos gang. The rest were killed or driven out of their town by police.

There was the young man shot by police behind the abandoned adobe house; three more gunned down by officers in the church courtyard; the girlfriend of a jailed gangster, found topless in a roadside ditch with two bullet holes in the back of her head.

The dismantling of the Tiny Malditos is part of a fierce government crackdown on gangs, whose battles had turned El Salvador into one of the world’s deadliest nations. The government boasts that its strategy is working, with a homicide rate running below last year’s. Nevertheless, there have been more than 4,000 killings this year in a country with approximately the population of Maryland — which had fewer than 400 homicides in 2014, the latest data available.

El Salvador’s hostilities appear to be taking on a dangerous new dimension. Once predominantly a street fight between rival gangs, the conflict has shifted to a war between the gangs and the state. Soldiers and police are being linked to human rights abuses and assassinations, an echo of the civil war between leftist guerrillas and the U.S.-backed government fought a quarter-century ago.

The conflict is prompting massive population flight. Since the start of 2014, nearly a quarter-million Salvadorans have been caught in transit by U.S. and Mexican immigration officials. This year, an average of 8,354 Salvadorans a month have been apprehended on their journey north, based on Mexican immigration and Border Patrol stats, more than at the height of the refugee crisis two years ago, when women and children swarmed the U.S. border.

In tiny Santa Teresa, the police have killed at least 10 gang members in the recent crackdown, while losing none of their own. Some residents applaud what they acknowledge are heavy-handed police tactics, saying that the authorities have restored calm. But the village burns with resentment, as the gangsters’ families and friends see the police as their most dangerous enemy.

As one police officer in the area put it, “What we have now is a civil war.”

A gang takes over

The Tiny Malditos — “Malditos” means “the Damned” — were a clique of about 20 teens and young men. Many were born and raised in Santa Teresa, a farming settlement shrouded in lush vegetation at the base of a volcano, in the central province of La Paz.

Experts estimate that 70,000 people in this country of 6 million belong to gangs, with a half-million more involved in economic activities related to the gangs. In the vast outlaw geography of El Salvador, the Tiny Malditos played a bit part, working for a much larger national gang known as the 18th Street Revolutionaries.

By the start of last year, the Tiny Malditos had taken over this town. They brandished guns, manned checkpoints on back roads and demanded payments from residents. Police rarely intervened.

“It was terrible,” one resident recalled, speaking the on condition of anonymity because of a fear of reprisal. “You started to hear gunfire inside the community. You couldn’t visit your neighbors. If you tried to go out in the evening and you weren’t registered with the gangs, they wouldn’t let you pass.”

One afternoon in the spring of 2015, an off-duty police sergeant was sitting on a concrete bench outside Santa Teresa Catholic Church, waiting for his car to be repaired, when two members of the Tiny Malditos walked up. Words were exchanged and one of the gangsters fired a gun. The sergeant took a bullet in the leg.

“The slaughter began after they shot that policeman,” said Jorge Bernal, 33, who lives a few houses down from the church.

Rev. Santos Martinez and parishioners from the Santa Teresa Catholic Church lead a Corpus Christi procession. Martinez says he doesn't approve of the gangsters' violence but also criticizes the authorities for their heavy-handed response.

‘We see the police as terrorists’

In the next few weeks, four young men 16 to 24 years old were fatally shot by police during two incidents. Police on both occasions reported an “enfrentamiento,” or confrontation, in which gangsters fired on them. Relatives of the dead said that the officers killed the young men unprovoked.

As with much of the violence here, getting to the truth is difficult. Investigations are often cursory. Some residents said they are too afraid of the police to provide testimony. What is clear is many residents’ deep resentment of the security forces.

“We see the police as terrorists,” said an aunt of one of the four victims, 16-year-old Bryan Rodrigo Santos Arevalo.

The aunt, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of authorities, said that a witness who escaped told her that police had executed the teenager. The right side of Santos Arevalo’s face was blown off, morgue photos show.

If police were using lethal force, so were the gangs. On July 3, 2015, four local police officers were returning from a call when “they attacked us from both sides,” recalled a police supervisor who was present, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Gang members positioned on earthen mounds overlooking the road sprayed gunfire at the officers’ truck, he said. The police sped off, firing frantically, but the driver was hit in his left side. The supervisor was shot in the right knee.

“It’s a miracle that I am alive to tell this story,” the supervisor said.

Three days later, local police along with members of a San Salvador-based SWAT team shot and killed two members of the Tiny Malditos outside a farmhouse in Santa Teresa. The police reported taking gunfire on arrival. Morena Leiva de Silva, the mother of one of the dead, said a farmworker who was present told her that the officers shot the two gang members as they fled.

“They ran from the police because they were terrified,” she said. “They panicked.”

A truce ends

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén was a Marxist guerrilla in the 1980s. Now he is the one defending the state.

“Although some say we are at war, there is no other road,” Sánchez Cerén said in March.

The government of Sánchez Cerén’s predecessor, Mauricio Funes, had engineered a truce between major gangs, transferring their leaders into more lax prisons where they could coordinate with their followers. The homicide rate fell, although critics argued that the respite allowed the gangs to grow stronger.

On taking office in June 2014, Sánchez Cerén brought a swift end to the truce. His government transferred the leaders back to maximum-security lockups, banned visits and cut off cellphone access. He called up military reservists to join the fight against the gangs. The director of the national police announced that officers should feel free to use their weapons to protect themselves. New legislation made it harder to investigate police when they alleged self-defense.

Homicides shot up. Last year, police were responsible for an estimated 1,000 of the country’s 6,600 killings, a steep increase, experts say.

The gangs began targeting police, soldiers, prosecutors and their families in a way unseen. Gang members killed more than 60 police officers last year, nearly doubling the total the year before. Police have confiscated an increasing number of military-style assault rifles from gang members. The attorney general’s office recently accused one of the biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, of planning to assemble a 500-man unit of trained gang members to attack security forces. Last fall, a car rigged with explosives detonated outside the Finance Ministry.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned in June that allegations of assassinations by El Salvador’s security forces are “intolerable and are likely to fuel even greater violence.”

The national human rights prosecutor’s office, an independent agency, has compiled a registry of nearly 100 cases of alleged assassinations by security forces or shadowy “extermination groups,” which often include off-duty police, since mid-2013. But the agency acknowledges that there may be many more.

Walter Gerardo Alegria, a deputy head of the office, said it wasn’t clear whether such killings were ordered by authorities. “However, from the quantity of cases that we have, one can assume that this is a systematic practice,” he said.

The director of the national police, Howard Cotto, said he couldn’t rule out that some officers may have taken part in summary executions, but he denied that such behavior was permitted.

“We are not willing to tolerate that under the guise of solving security problems we cover up for people who commit crimes or summary executions,” he said.

The campaign against gangs has been popular among many Salvadorans. But it may come at a terrible cost to this young democracy, said Hector Silva Avalos, who has written a book on the Salvadoran police.

“If between death squads, citizen squads, rough police officers, they kill enough gang members to actually diminish the territorial control of the gangs — then who’s going to be in charge?” he asked. “Police commanders with no respect for human rights?”

Bodies pile up

By early this year, the Tiny Malditos were on the run. They moved through the jungle near Santa Teresa, sleeping in hammocks or in a cave tucked beneath banana trees.

Emerson Jhonatan Rivas, 27, was hiding at his girlfriend’s hair salon in Santa Teresa when police found him. The girlfriend, Fatima Lopez, and her mother, Veronica, said they watched as police arrived, captured Rivas and marched him, barefoot, out of their place of business. He was found dead 160 yards down the road, behind an abandoned adobe house, lying face down next to a sugar cane field.

The police explanation had a familiar ring: a shootout with terrorists.

Fatima Lopez shows a picture of where her boyfriend, Emerson Jhonatan Rivas, was killed. She says he was slain by police after they detained him; police say there was a shootout.

“It was not like they said, a confrontation,” recalled one of the neighbors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal from the police. “They took him from the house.”

Police ordered Santa Teresa’s inhabitants to not give food to the outlaws, residents said. Jose Miguel Angel Martinez Diaz, a 29-year-old farmworker, said he was beaten on two occasions by police as they demanded information about the gangs.

“I had bruises all over my arms and body,” he said. The local police supervisor denied the charge.

Along Santa Teresa’s main road is the Catholic church, with a grassy, enclosed yard. The Rev. Santos Martinez said he disapproved of the gangsters’ crimes and intimidation, but he also recognized the young men as part of the local fabric. Their relatives sat in his pews; he had attended their family weddings, baptized their younger siblings.

“People here don’t accept the authorities,” he said in an interview. “I believe that it is the authorities’ duty, their obligation, to be present, providing security, but they do these [violent] things and only they know why.”

One of the most chilling deaths involved the girlfriend of a gangster jailed for extortion. Nuri Isela Castillo, 31, worked at a snack shop at the village school.

About 1 a.m. on April 28, someone banged on the door of Castillo’s one-story yellow house, down a dirt road in a grove of mango trees. The police had searched the house eight days earlier, according to her family and a neighbor. Nuri’s sister, Flor de Maria Castillo, 25, opened the door.

Masked policemen entered the tile-floored dining room, put white plastic flex-cuffs on Nuri’s wrists and loaded her into a truck, Flor de Maria and her mother recalled. Nuri’s topless body was found in a ditch five hours later.

Police deny that they arrested Nuri Castillo that night and blame the killing on a gang feuding with her boyfriend’s group. But in addition to Nuri’s family, a local resident has told the human rights prosecutor’s office that police were involved.

When Flor de Maria went to identify the corpse, a policeman told her that if she made a formal complaint, “I would end up like my sister,” she recalled.

Flor de Maria Castillo says police threatened her when she went to identify the corpse of her sister, Nuri Isela Castillo. Nuri, pictured at right, was dating a gang member. She was found dead in a ditch five hours after police detained her, according to her relatives; police blame the killing on a rival gang.

Concerns about a ‘culture of death’

One of the last surviving Tiny Malditos, Rudy Melendez, lived as if his days were numbered. A stem-thin 15-year-old with wary, darting eyes, Melendez met with a reporter in a house in Santa Teresa recently, the butt of a pistol visible in the pocket of his pants, his 7-year-old brother standing outside as a lookout. At one point, when a police patrol passed, Melendez sprinted into a bamboo thicket to hide.

“They’re coming to kill,” he said after he crept back inside. “They have a great hatred.”

He described how three of his fellow gang members had been slain by the police. It happened one night in February, after Melendez and the three other young men had scaled the wall of the Catholic church and bedded down outside the chapel while the priest was sleeping in his chambers. Before dawn, police burst into the courtyard. Melendez claimed that the officers shot the three young men and then planted weapons alongside them as he hid under a pile of leaves and trash, watching.

Government investigators have not been able to confirm such police malfeasance. Investigators found gunshot residue on the gang members’ hands, indicating they may have fired the guns — but it wasn’t clear whether they had shot first. The police, who suffered no injuries, said they had engaged in a shootout with the gang members. The priest said he didn’t see anything.

Regardless, the deaths carved a new wound in the community. Hundreds of people turned out for the funeral, marching down the main street behind the coffins.

“Whoever they catch here, they kill,” Melendez said in the interview. “The ones in this village get killed.”

But he would face another fate. Melendez fled to a town along the Guatemalan border. This month he was arrested by Salvadoran police and is being held in a juvenile jail about 50 miles north of his home.

At a candlelit Sunday morning Mass recently, Martinez told the congregation that the country was penned in by a “culture of death.”

Parishioners of the Santa Teresa Catholic Church are divided over the government's crackdown on gangs. Many of the slain gangsters are buried in the local cemetery.

“We want there to be no more death, that our youth stop being beleaguered by gangs and by the authorities, who we know sometimes come here to beat and to kill,” he said.

Hanging on the chapel wall were framed photos of four American nuns murdered by security forces in 1980 during the civil war. At that time, most Santa Teresa residents supported the army. Government death squads regularly dumped bodies, including the nuns’, in the area.

Many worry that a war mentality has again taken hold.

After the service, Martinez chatted in the courtyard with Eriberto Reyes, a former youth leader for the church.

Reyes, for one, did not mourn the dead gangsters.

“If the law were just, then yes, it would have been better to detain them,” he said. But he added that gang members could easily bribe judges to free them from prison.

“It’s a better option to exterminate them.”

Sarah Esther Maslin in San Salvador, Fred Ramos in Santa Teresa and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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