Life Under Gang Rule in El Salvador
Nearly 20,000 Salvadorans were killed from 2014 to 2017. That’s more violent deaths than in several countries that were at war during those years, such as Libya, Somalia and Ukraine. The murder rate – an astonishing 103 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 – is still sky-high at 60 per 100,000 in 2017. The culprit in most of these murders is the maras, the country’s powerful, pervasive criminal gangs.
The maras, including the infamous MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, are active in 94 per cent of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities. In many of these “red zones”, gangs are not just a standing danger to public safety but also a de facto authority that exerts tremendous control over residents’ daily lives.
In neighbourhoods throughout the capital, San Salvador, residents heading to work or school pass through an informal checkpoint where a bandera – the term the gangs use for their young lookouts and errand runners – asks everyone for a dollar. At many of the roadblocks, the bandera is barely eight years old. But most people fork over the money. Anyone who doesn’t pay up might come to regret it later.
Extortion at places of business is the bigger problem. At least once a week, older gang members, or mareros, come by every shop and vendor’s stall in the neighbourhood market to collect the renta, or protection money, from merchants who can’t afford their own security guards. Again, most shopkeepers pay. To defy the gangs is to court death.
The largest maras in El Salvador are MS-13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 (the 18th Street gang), the Revolutionaries and the Southerners. Together, these three organisations count around 65,000 members, according to police records. But many more people – some 500,000 all told – depend on the gangs for their livelihood.
The hatred between rival gangs runs deep. MS-13 members will not utter the number “18”. If asked their age, for instance, they reply, “I’m 17 + 1”. The borders of the competing gangs’ turf are invisible but well known and seldom crossed. A youth who lives in MS-13 territory but whose grandmother lives in Barrio 18-R territory will meet her only on ”neutral ground” or at a place where no one knows their names and faces.
Gang-related murder is a topic of everyday conversation among families at home, children at school and patrons in bars. Every Salvadoran knows someone who was shot dead by gang members or someone who pulled the trigger.
Many Salvadorans stay away from public places and even avoid walking down the street. The affluent generally stay inside gated compounds. After sunset, many streets in San Salvador are deserted. The night is for the maras, which do most of their killing then. And it’s for the army and police, who wait until after dark to conduct their house-by-house searches for criminal suspects. Police officers always wear a gorro navarone, or face-covering balaclava, scared that gang members will come after them and their families.
The climate of fear is such that thousands of families have abandoned their homes and headed north toward the U.S. border.
Reina*, 30, left her small community in central El Salvador with her sister and three children after the gangs moved in. A marero had thrown a homemade bomb into her neighbour’s house, killing four people. Another had shot her brother, who was a former government soldier and thus an enemy in the gang’s eyes. The gang warned the rest of the family to depart.
Gangs routinely confiscate houses in locations they see as “strategic” and turn them into casas locas (literally, “crazy houses”). If a family refuses to leave, they threaten all its members. The casas locas are hangouts where gang members smoke, drink and perform ritual initiation of new recruits. They may also take neighbourhood women and girls there to be sexually abused.
One reason why gangs could sink such deep roots in El Salvador is that they provide a sense of pride and belonging to their members, many from poor, broken families. “The mar...