PANCHIMALCO, El Salvador—Under a blanket of stars on a forested hillside overlooking a series of deep ravines, four policemen hop off the back of a pickup truck and rendezvous with colleagues—another policeman and three soldiers—guarding a school in this gang-ridden suburb of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.
A day earlier, responding to reports of gunfire, police arrived in the neighborhood to encounter a group of armed members of Barrio 18, one of El Salvador’s two largest gangs. After an exchange of fire, police said, three of the young men lay dead.
“They were trying to flee and this is where we encountered them,” says the commander from the Sección Táctica Operativa (STO) of El Salvador’s Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) as his men, toting U.S.-made M16s, set up a perimeter.
“The more we apply pressure, the more the gangsters are forced to flee,” said the commander, going on to explain the region’s complex topography. “Here, this whole area belongs to Barrio 18, but over there, beyond that hill, is MS-13 territory.”
For the last 25 years, the state in El Salvador has fought a roiling war against two gangs, Barrio 18 and MS-13 (also known as Mara Salvatrucha), both with their rough-hewn roots on the streets of Los Angeles, California, where thousands of Salvadorans sought refuge during the country’s 1980 to 1992 civil war.
Eventually, the guns fell silent after peace accords were signed and the combatants of the right wing and left wing decided to resolve their differences via electoral politics rather than military means as the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) and Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), respectively.
The two main gangs, however, continued to thrive as many of their founding members were deported from the United States to El Salvador, a country many barely knew.
From street corner toughs, Barrio 18 (in recent years, further factionalized into two groupings, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and Barrio 18 Sureños) and MS-13 have developed into international criminal enterprises and an alluring target for the rhetorical flourishes of self-proclaimed law-and-order politicians in both El Salvador and the United States, including Donald Trump.
The impact they have had here, not just in the urban core of the cities but in areas like Panchimalco, a semi-forested working class suburb on the city’s southern fringes, has been profound.
Many in this part of the capital are descendants of the Pipil indigenous inhabitants who populated the area when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s. These verdant hills were once famed not for violence but for natural beauty spots, while the towns were known for colonial architecture, such as the Iglesia de la Santa Cruz de Roma cathedral in Panchimalco’s central square, and handicrafts.
Today, the police commissariat here is in charge of patrolling the area covered by five separate municipalities, with a total population of around 161,000 people. For the 520 policemen tasked with enforcing the law here (assisted by about 150 soldiers of El Salvador’s army), there are, according to police estimates, nearly 3,000 gang members: 1,746 from MS-13, 671 from Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and 379 from Barrio 18 Sureños. Nearly 900 of the gangsters are believed to be based within Panchimalco itself. Last year, the area saw at least 23 homicides, but the habit of the gangs (referred to in Spanish as pandillas) of dismembering and disappearing their victims make exact numbers hard to come by.
The four police guarding the school in Panchimalco—all of whom look barely out of their teens—seem to see this situation as ordinary.
“This is normal for us,” says one police officer, a fringe of mustache on his upper lip. “This is simply our job.”
Although the forces of the state heavily outgun the gangs—the response of the pandillas when the police move in on their turf is to hide rather than confront—the situation in Panchimalco suggests a shift in way crime in El Salvador organizes itself.
“In 2000, the normal pattern was to have the gangs and criminality in general in urban zones, but in recent years, especially the last three years or so, these phenomena are more or less at the same level in both urban and rural zones,” says Howard Cotto, the PNC’s director general. “The zones within the urban districts, but close to rural parts of the country, are where the gangs have proliferated the most. They have the opportunity to be in contact with a large population, but in situations where, when the police arrive, they can flee to a rural zone.”
This is not a battle for the faint of heart. Last year, El Salvador, a country of around 6.5 million people saw 3,947 homicides, a shocking number that averages out to about 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, though it actually represented a steep drop from the 2016 rate of 81.2 per 100,000. Increasingly, uninvolved civilians find themselves caught up in the mix.
In 2016, a clique of Barrio 18 Sureños filmed themselves slaughtering three day laborers and eight workers of an electric company in the town of Opico, northeast of the capital. More than 40 of those killed last year were police officers. Nor do the police themselves have a spotless record. In recent years, police were linked to extrajudicial killings in at least two departments: La Libertad, were eight people were slain on a farm in San Blas de San José Villanueva, and in Panchimalco itself, were five people were slain in the Los Pajales district.
“Initially, many of the gangs had a similar concept of defending their barrios and communities against other gangs while being against the system at the same time,” says Cotto. “Now they’ve realized the economic value of drug trafficking, extortion, robbery, and they place an economic value on the control of their territory. This is a vision of organized crime.”
Some argue for a holistic approach.
“I don’t like gangs at all, but you have to remember something,” says San Salvador’s outgoing mayor, Nayib Bukele, who took office as part of the ruling FMLN in 2015 but has since been expelled from the party and become a fierce critic of both it and ARENA. “If you see, out of 70,000 or so gang members, there’s not one that comes from a high-income family, why? If it’s a crime problem, wouldn’t all members of society be involved? You can find drug dealers in low-, middle- and high-income families, the same with murderers… It’s not whether you have money or not that defines you as a criminal. So why does being a gang member involve being poor? It’s obviously a social problem. So you have to fix that in order to fix the problem.”
During his mayorship as the capital’s mayor, Bukele reached out to heretofore marginalized young Salvadorans—graffiti artists, hiphop emcees, skateboarders and others—as a way to lure them away from the call of the gangs. He invited them, among other initiatives, to participate in painting enormous murals on the side of the Mercado Cuscatlán, a recently opened market in the city’s urban core, and in a special football program with La Liga, the top professional association men’s division of the Spanish football system.
“Do you think those kids are going to join a gang? Or these kids who paint graffiti murals and now have thousands of followers on Instagram?” asks Bukele. “If you open the world to them, they wouldn’t join a gang. Infrastructure is important, but we try to include all of these people. You should have opportunities in life without joining a gang. Here, the only way for a lot of kids to be someone—in a bad way—is to join a gang.”
The city, however, remains a patchwork of neighborhoods under control of one or the other of the country’s main criminal factions. In Colonia Modelo, where a museum housed on the grounds of a former army base pays tribute to such sanguinary figures from El Salvador’s civil war as Domingo Monterrosa (the driving force behind the 1981 massacre in the village of El Mozote), the zone’s eponymous main thoroughfare divides Barrio 18 on the north side from MS-13 on the south side. Even the tony Colonia San Benito, which hosts the city’s Zona Rosa nightlife and hotel district, boasts an active Barrio 18 faction wedged in between its bars and restaurants.
In the capital’s Colonia Dina, a group of former Barrio 18 members, most of them recently released from prison, labor in a bakery under the watchful eye of Pastor Nelson Moz of the Iglesia Bautista Misionera Ebenezer.
“I was born in Usulután, but came to the capital with my family when I was 8 or 9 years old because of the civil war,” says Saúl, a 37-year-old former Barrio 18 member. “I was living in Apopa. For 10 years, my life was in the street, with the pandilla. Then at 19 years old, I went to prison, and I was there for 15 years and I just got out six months ago. In 2010, my mom, who used to visit me in jail, died. And then God was the only one there for me… I have a year and eight months of being a Christian now and have left the gang and I only want to serve God. A lot of us here don’t have anywhere to go. Thank God the pastor opened these doors to us.”
The pastor views his work among the gangs as central to the type of evangelical Christianity that he practices.
“Historically, this is a community with a strong presence of the gangs,’ says 55-year-old Moz, whose church runs the bakery. “We needed to open our doors and provide an option other than delinquency. A lot of these guys have nothing. A lot of people think they are monsters, or machines of destruction, but they’re human beings, they have souls, they’ve made grave mistakes in their lives, but they need this opportunity.”
Security forces take a dimmer view of the 13 former gang members—many of them heavily tattooed with gang insignias—who live here, and several told a visiting journalist that the bakery is regularly harassed by police who enter it without a warrant to question and otherwise disturb those seeking refuge.
The depth of the pastor’s commitment to his new charges is attested to by the fact that the world between the gangs and the organizations seeking to help them can be a complicated one, and the consequences for those seen by the state as falling on the wrong side are severe.
After his release from prison in 2006, Dany Balmore Romero García, a former MS-13 member known to most by his previous moniker, Danny Boy, became deeply involved in a non-governmental organization—Optimismo, Paz, Esperanza, Renovación y Armonía (Optimism, Peace, Hope, Renewal and Harmony or OPERA)—that sought to provides a creative outlet and counseling to gang members. But in 2016 Romero García was arrested on terrorism charges after the government accused him of using the organization as a front for gang activities. He is now held incommunicado in a maximum security prison.
In Soyapango, a gritty suburb on the city’s eastern fringe, neighborhoods serve as bastions for three main criminal organizations: MS-13, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and a new group referring to itself as Mao Mao.
“There is a very large presence of the gangs here,” says Soyapango’s police chief, Romeo Lazo. “When people—not police but civilians—not local to a neighborhood enter, they are immediately intercepted, interrogated and sometimes robbed. There are a number of abandoned houses here, too.”
Noting that MS-13 is the strongest and “most bloody” faction in the zone, Lazo goes on to explain that, as in Panchimalco “we have a permanent presence of police in schools during class hours and patrols on the routes students take to and from school. We are trying to approach this from both a repression and prevention perspective, with recreational activities and other things for the youth, as well.”
Away from the police station, in Soyapango’s 22 de Abril neighborhood district, graffiti from MS-13 can still be seen daubed onto the walls on squat cement homes clinging to a hillside as a contingent of STO officers rumbles slowly through in search of a suspect. They quiz one young man because of his very stylish and very new sneakers. They check his identification for outstanding warrants. It turns out he lived for years in Virginia, and speaks passable English.
“There are a lot of guys deported from the United States in this zone,” says the STO team’s leader. “One of the gang’s objectives is always to extend their territory, and as a result there are a lot of the battles between them.”
Many Salvadorans are exhausted by the grinding violence and perplexed by the government’s often schizophrenic approach to it.
Under the government of President Mauricio Funes (the first FMLN candidate to win the post, in 2009), a murky 2012 truce was hammered out between the gangs and endorsed by the Catholic Church and the Organization of American States. The killing diminished but the gang’s other criminal activities, such as extortion, continued unabated and a steady stream of reports depicted a lavish lifestyle for gang leaders in prison.
Funes’ successor as president, the FMLN’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander, took office in June 2012 and threw the truce out, and many of those who negotiated it were put on trial for conspiring with the gangs (all were acquitted). Funes fled to Nicaragua in 2016 and has subsequently been convicted of illicit enrichment.
Accusations of links of politicians to the gangs continue. During the campaign for the mayorship of San Salvador earlier this year, the FMLN’s candidate, Jackeline Rivera, suspended her campaign after what were said to be threats emanating from MS-13.
An MS-13 leader later claimed, in testimony presented to the public prosecutor’s office, that the group had supported the ARENA candidate for the post, Ernesto Muyshondt, who had given them “tens of thousands” of dollars in previous years which they then used to buy cocaine. Muyshondt denies this.
At the Iglesia Bautista Misionera Eben-ezer, though, those who are trying to extract themselves from the cycle of violence and rejoin the straight and narrow path that leads to something like a normal life continue to persevere despite their long odds.
“I lost my family, I lost my son, I lost my woman, I lost everything,” says Saúl, the former member of Barrio 18. “I have friends who have gone back to the pandillas, but in reality nothing good will come of that. I hope they will open their eyes.”