In the suburbs of El Salvador, in neighborhoods stained by Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18 graffiti, there are hundreds of abandoned, decaying houses. These houses tell the drama of the families who silently lived through their own history of violence: those displaced by gangs.
There are houses that talk. They scream things, recount bits and pieces of larger stories. One house has four rooms, a small terrace and a patio. From the fixtures that survived (ceramic floor, red brick decorating the outside walls, a red metal gate), one would say
the family that lived here put plenty of love and care into this house. From the threats painted on the walls, one would also say that the family that lived here suffered displacement and flight, leaving everything behind.
[See El Faro's full report in Spanish, with video, here]
If Sabine Moreno's life could be explained in a timeline, a succession of events represented by coordinates, we could say the old life of Sabine Moreno ended when her family gathered what they could and fled the community with no direction in mind.
That was a tragic moment. Maybe not as much as the death of her grandfather (ambushed on the path, not very far from the neighborhood, pretty close to the taxi station; three bullets, no witnesses, blood pouring from his mouth), but still painful, all things considered.
A peak in the diagram: murder of the grandfather. Mauricio Moreno, may he rest in peace, 06/10/1960 – 18/11/2010.
Mauricio's murder finally activated the nerves that makes the brain order the feet to run. Those who presumably killed him had also taken the lives of another six members of Sabine's family that year. Back then, Sabine was still a 16-year-old student with plenty of dreams. You might ask: why didn't the family leave when the first victim died? And who would endure so much death before deciding to leave the area?
Among the women who now lead the family, there are a couple of explanations. Blanca, Sabine's mother, says at first they didn't believe these deaths had anything to do with them. Amelia, Sabine's grandmother on her father's side, says it was her husband's fault they didn't leave. The family always lived by Mauricio's decisions, and Mauricio was set against abandoning the piece of land among the orchards and coffee farms that had cost them all so dearly.
Mauricio was a committed evangelical who trusted that God would solve all of their problems simply by living where they lived. He said that if God wanted them to leave this world, there was no point in fighting it. But the grandfather was also a sinner. Or so says Amelia, his widow. He took refuge in the church in order to avoid drinking. In his internal battle between good and evil, the murders of his relatives slowly tipped the balance towards his greatest weakness.
During one of his many bouts of drunkenness, he lost control and revealed his grudges in front of some outsiders, who were infuriated when they heard him utter threats. One night, by the side of a road that cuts through the neighborhood, trembling and rapt, Mauricio forgot about God and said that he would take justice into his own hands. A few days after, he was ambushed and shot down. The family found his bloody corpse, with three bullets in the chest and one in the face. Those he offended did not like to be threatened.
A few times, they had been happy. The first clue is the landscape visible from behind a window without glass or bars. Like a painting hanging on the wall, the square gap shows the San Salvador volcano. It is a beautiful scene: the river below the summit, the road, the garden, and in the background the volcano, large and surrounded by clouds.
Those who lived here allowed many memories to ripen, like the mango and the mandarin trees, whose aroma invades the patio. Judging by their height -- the mandarin trees eight meters tall, the mango trees 15 meters -- the trees were bearing fruit for several years.
With the grandfather dead, there was no one left to oppose the exodus of the Moreno family. A short, resolved woman decided for all of them. Amelia, Sabine's grandmother, a widow overnight, threw herself into running the family, 20 members in all. The seventh death in the family caused them to break. The fear at last was real, and she ordered the feet of those 20 souls to flee in an open and urgent stampede. The following was said to Blanca, Sabine's mother, on December 11, 2010. Sabine overheard everything.
"They said that we were going to leave, but they didn't say when. For us, it was a big surprise the next day when they told us to get our things ready," Sabine says.
Running away, abandoning everything, shook Sabine to the core. It's not easy to abandon the family land, she thought. It's not easy to have the land stolen in the face of guns and death. She understood this when she was looking for her things to put inside a suitcase. She felt an emptiness in her chest. She thought that it would be difficult to leave behind an entire life, especially when three generations of her family had grown up there. She was 16. Her mother was 35. Her maternal grandmother was 50. Her paternal grandfather was 52. They were born there in El Guaje district, and after that night they never went back. They left everything behind. Alongside them, some 23 other families from that community left in waves throughout 2010.
Sabine remembers packing everything she could in four hours. She felt sad, she asked herself: can you put your life inside a suitcase? The answer is obvious. All they managed to take with them besides clothes was the TV. A police patrol car did come to accompany them. It followed the truck a friend lent to them. But that's all the authorities could do: enter and leave; take guard of their leaving. Everyone crammed into the back of the vehicle. They were fleeing. They were never coming back.
A coordinate: Sabine Moreno and her family flee from the Mara Salvatrucha 13.
A peak: Sabine is displaced from El Guaje district, Soyapango, El Salvador.
The abandoned house says more than the nervous neighbor, who stumbles over her words and gives rushed answers to Houston's questions. Houston is the police officer accompanying us on our visit. The neighbor doesn't remember the names of those who once rented the house.
"They left a long time ago. We didn't interact much," she says.
The house says that it was torn apart. There are no roof tiles or light bulbs or windows or electric cables. Nor are there taps in the sinks or flush handles on the toilet. The house cries from within.
The house also puts a name and surname to "the kids" who chased out those who once lived here. On one of the walls, there are two letters painted in black. One is "M" and the other "S." They are two capital letters, very large. They are the initials of the Mara Salvatrucha 13, one of the most dangerous gangs in the world. On another wall, these letters are separated by two painted hands, with long fingernails. The hands are making a sign. One is a claw, the other is a letter. Below are three more letters. They are the initials that name the clique that took over the house: Diabolic Criminals Salvatruchas (DCS).
[See InSight Crime's Mara Salvatrucha 13 Profile]
On the patio, below the mango tree there are chewed-up fruits, sucked seeds, cigarette butts, a plastic bottle that was once filled with hooch. In the bathroom there are dried feces. Houston said this is where "the boys" would meet. For them, the house is strategic, because it's at the top of the hill, and they can observe when the police enter or leave the neighborhood. Houston matter-of-factly says "the boys" meet here to "plan their trouble making."
"That's why they drove out the ones who lived here," he says.
We leave the neighborhood, and after crossing two roundabouts and three streets we're in another neighborhood. Houston shows us other alleyways with abandoned houses. But here the kids who chase people out use another name to identify themselves. "Fuck the police," someone wrote on one wall, signed "18." Here the gang in control is the Barrio 18, another one of the world's most dangerous gangs and the enemy of the Mara Salvatrucha. In a radius of some two kilometers squared, the gangs with the greatest strength, power, and territorial presence of El Salvador send messages through graffiti in abandoned houses.
There's another house that speaks. And another one: someone ripped out the bricks of this one and planted a small garden on the patio and back room. In another one, children once entered and played with paint. They stained their little hands and stamped them on the walls. In another house, someone declared their love for someone else. "Dagoberto and Seco. Love forever and ever," they wrote, next to a heart drawn with chalk on the wall, and a poster of Minnie and Mickey holding hands.
Along this street of 70 houses there are nearly 25 that are abandoned. What happened to the families? Why did they leave? What were they running from? Who buys or rents a house only to leave it abandoned? Why doesn't anyone come here to live? Why doesn't any neighbor explain where all the other neighbors went?
Nobody on this street dares to answer these questions. They shake their heads and are silent and, in their sideways glance, one can perceive something that could be fear. Fear of saying something they shouldn't say. Fear of being seen by the police. But Houston, 23 years as a cop, is bold and suspicious. He says that nobody wants to speak because they are relatives of "the boys." One doesn't know whether to believe him, or suspect that those who have stayed are simply afraid. It's difficult to tell.
Houston asks that we hurry up, after a pair of children on bicycles pass us for the third time.
"They're the ears for the gang. They want to know what we're doing," Houston says, once again, matter-of-factly.
You would think that at this time in the morning, the children should be in class, but maybe they have class in the afternoon. It's difficult to tell.
Houston's partners – another seven police officers – retreat and make their way to the patrol car. A few minutes ago, two of them, bearing rifles, were guarding the entrance to the street of abandoned houses. Another two were guarding the other end of the street, and the rest had created a cordon around us. They kept their backs to us and watched in all directions, including the roofs of the single-story houses. Everybody is watching. They know that this is gang territory, and only gang territory.
We leave Lourdes, Colon, La Libertad -- one of the most violent municipalities in the country -- with just a vague idea of what is happening and keeps happening in El Salvador. The houses had told us something but not enough. Their residents had disappeared, and now it's practically a law that the displaced should continue that way: forgotten by everybody. Such a thing is preferable to getting into trouble with those who expelled them. Because of this, in order to understand the story which the houses cannot fully tell, we must follow these displaced ghosts, climb a hill on the outskirts of the city, head down, approach the shores of a river and enter a house with metal sheets for walls and an earthen floor. We will have to keep talking in the last refuge of Sabine Moreno.
More than 30 years ago, El Salvador entered through a narrow door into one of the darkest chapters of its history. Bullets thundered in the mountains, bombs exploded, Salvadorans died. In some parts of the country barbarities were committed against men, women, and children. Bombs, bullets, blood, the dead. Accused of belonging to one group or the other (the army or the guerrillas), many farmers decided to leave their tiny plots of land, descend from the mountains and hide where they could. They were displaced. They moved to cities, to riverbanks, or to tiny marginalized communities that grew over time and eventually became urban neighborhoods. Others weren't just displaced, they became migrants and managed to make it all the way to the US.
A peak for El Salvador: civil war, 1980-1992.
When the war ended 20 years ago, peace returned to El Salvador. But it's difficult to say how long that peace lasted, because the country began to experience another war: the gangs. There is nothing conclusive about the reasons why this new war began, and the force most likely driving the disagreements between the two gangs is hatred.
[See InSight Crime's El Salvador News and Profiles Page]
It all began when some youths, deported from the US, mixed with other younger youths in neighborhoods, plazas and parks. Those who returned from the north had a new style, not just for fashion but for understanding life. They wore floppy shorts, baggy pants, bandannas, hats.... Those from here were fascinated with the new style. That they mixed together wasn't a problem. The problem was that those from over here helped the gangs from over there grow larger. The hatreds continued. Two of the most dangerous gangs in the world found El Salvador to be a fertile battleground, and the state turned into a silent observer of these confrontations.
Nothing is clear, but if El Salvador's recent history was a timeline, in the past 20 years plenty of hiccups would be visible, represented by a series of peaks, which trace the evolution of the gangs and their fights, knife battles, bullets, and deaths. The gangs began dominating the territory where their members lived; they expanded and fought for more turf across the country. By 2005, they were dominating the neighborhoods of Lourdes, Colon, in La Libertad -- the same areas we explored alongside Houston and his colleagues. Five years later, the Mara Salvatrucha conquered Canton El Guaje, home to Sabine's family.
Security Minister David Munguia Payes has suggested the gangs are an army that include 70,000 direct members, as well as the support of their families. The minister is among those who believe that families have stopped being passive actors in the gang structures.
What is certain is that the world of the gangs is not a black and white one. It is a confused grey where sympathy, fear, obedience, abuse, extortion, and silence is mixed together. One thing that is clear within that confused grey is the use of violence in order to gain territorial control. Those who live in the areas dominated by gangs are exposed to laws which, while unwritten, are obeyed to the very last word. "See, hear, and shut up," is the main law, says Sabine Moreno.
There are others, several, too many....
Those who live in a MS community cannot travel to the neighboring 18 community, for the risk that either of the two gangs could conclude you are a spy....
Do not be seen talking with the police because you will automatically become a suspected snitch....
Do not give gang members bad looks, gestures, or speak to them with a raised tone of voice, because that offends them...
If you are a woman, you run the risk of having to hand over your body to one or several of the gang members that run the neighborhood...
When a Barrio 18 or Mara Salvatrucha clique enters a territory and takes over, they take over everything. It isn't clear what they're looking for, but the most likely explanation is the micro-trafficking trade, extortion, and the territorial expansion that allows the profits from these two sources of income to grow. There are other cases, like El Guaje, in Soyapango, when the gangs are mostly interested in the geography of a territory.
The municipality of Soyapango in San Salvador was considered for years to be the great sleeping city of the country. In the 60's and 70's, working class families drove a real estate boom that turned the long-gone coffee farms and the sugar cane fields into immense labyrinths of small concrete houses with two rooms (three if lucky) and a patio. Soyapango is one of the most densely populated cities in the country. It is a city created by working families of the capital. And in that concrete stain, there are only a few green islands which survived. El Guaje district is one of them.
When the Mara Salvatrucha took over the community of El Guaje, and set up a branch there that took the name of the community where Sabine Moreno grew up (the "Guajes Locos Salvatrucha" clique) it was because they were interested in the geography of the place. They were interested in using the isolated territory to organize meetings there with the strongest cliques in Soyapango, and, according to the police, make plans about who to strike next.
Unfortunately for families like Sabine's, knowing that they were conquered meant violence, intimidation, and death.
If the displaced previously fled from bombs and forced recruitment -- mostly by the army, but also by the guerrillas -- they are now fleeing for practically the same reasons. They run because they don't want their children to become gang members; so that their daughters are not raped or abused; because the bullets pass by too closely; because they are accused of working for the police or a rival gang. This happened to Sabine's family. The rumors accused them of feeding information to the police and helping the rival gang.
Sabine's grandmother Amelia remembers: El Guaje was a calm place where you could live. It was an old farm, which squatters and their descendants settled over fifty years ago. Now a decayed oasis squashed between two neighborhoods with bad reputations, in El Guaje tiny gardens and patches of coffee still survive. Surrounding this rural community is Santa Lucia and Sierra Morena. Seven years ago, these neighborhoods made headlines when the press reported that the gangs here were imposing curfews.
2005 was the year of the gang curfews. They were fighting over territory, and the gangs threatened residents in these neighborhoods against leaving their homes past 7 p.m., so as to not confuse them with the enemy. So said the police. This happened right next to El Guaje, which then was still a peaceful community.
The Mara Salvatrucha came to El Guaje when the road connecting Soyapango with the municipality of San Marcos was finally paved. Before, those who entered El Guaje were only those who had something to do there. But circa 2008, a group of youths, strangers, traveled down that road and liked what they found there.
Sabine remembers: they were five youths. They arrived at the neighborhood football field. They made friends with the local kids. They smoked cigarettes and "talked shit to the girls."
From up close, the fact that these five youths were trying to control a small community in the middle of nowhere may not mean very much. They were a neighborhood gang, a small gang. But if we expand our coordinates, these five youths aren't just a small gang, but emissaries from a much larger organization, with connections all over the country, with laws enforced across the land -- laws that didn't take long to have effect in El Guaje.
When these five youths that Sabine remembers first arrived to El Guaje, Remberto Morales was 12-years-old. According to Sabine, Remberto was "a good kid, dressed good, nice, who played with us." But Remberto decided to fall in line and follow the rules of the Mara. He made friends with the youths and no longer spent time with Sabine. Remberto Morales, recruited by the Guajes Locos Salvatrucha clique, became El Panadol.
Sabine remembers: after that happened, he became nasty, he walked around with a furrowed brow and those who looked at him sideways got death threats.
It wouldn't take long before Sabine and her family were threatened after the massacre that killed El Panadol.
El Salvador is a country with 6.2 million residents. There was an average of 12 murders a day in 2011. After the gangs became a familiar headline in 2002, after the first launch of the Mano Dura, or "Iron Fist," security strategy -- a repressive plan that consisted of jailing suspected gang members accused of "illicit associations" -- many communities, settlements, and neighborhoods were stigmatized.
What nobody questioned was the state's incapacity to regain control of these territories. The police would raid the neighborhoods dominated by gangs but this never guaranteed that the state would recuperate control of these zones. This explains why, for 2012, alongside that high daily homicide rate, a list was created of the 25 most dangerous municipalities in the country. Among these is Soyapango and Lourdes, Colon. In the midst of this tide of statistics and death, the drama of the families fleeing the violence, moving from one side to another like nomads, was never taken into account.
There is no statistic for those displaced by the violence in El Salvador simply because the phenomenon could never be measured. It isn't a number that exists because it isn't a number that can be reported or calculated, and the cases are so complex, the escapes so silent, that only the ones who are affected really know what is going on. The police allow some security for those who are fleeing, and then make conjectures about the reasons that lead a family to abandon their home, their belongings, their lives. From the families' side, the unwritten law is that nobody reports anything for fear of reprisal, because what they want most is to disappear, but alive, not buried underground.
Perhaps the statistic that best describes that magnitude of the problem is a list of abandoned houses kept by the Social Housing Fund (FSV), an institution in charge of facilitating loans so low-income families can buy houses of their own. For the seven neighborhoods dominated by the gangs, located in the departments of San Salvador and La Libertad, the number of "dismantled" houses has reached 613. If the average number of people per family in El Salvador is five, according to the 2007 population census, that means some 3,000 people abandoned their houses, without any clear reason.
One could think that the residents of these houses left because they couldn't keep paying the rent, the official explanation given by the Housing Fund. "What unites all of these cases is that for some reason they had to default, and that led to a process in which these homes were recuperated," says Luis Barahona, the credit manager of the institution.
But one could also suspect that there is something stronger behind the number of houses abandoned in these neighborhoods, given the overlap between the abandoned houses and the strong gang presence in these areas.
"Can we make a simple connection between the uninhabited Fund houses and the neighborhoods where they are located? Could you say, for example, that those who left Colonia Las Campaneras, controlled by Barrio 18, were escaping gang violence?," he asked.
"We don't think that's the main reason, but we can't deny that in some cases we've been told that they are leaving because they are affected by crime in the area. The problem is that we don't have solid statistics, to be able to say: this is true for five percent of all cases, 10 percent. We would be making it up."
The Social Housing Fund serves the poorest, a vulnerable portion of the population, and helps them access basic housing. It is not the institution capable of making a list of cases, but it at least recognizes that in some areas where they have authority, they are competing with the authority of the gangs. For those who only have these neighborhoods as a housing option, the FSV calls them: "The vulnerable sector."
It is a vicious circle. Amid the assistance that the FSV offers those fleeing the violence -- if a police report is offered as proof -- is the chance to live in a different neighborhood with similar characteristics. The final housing deal, by default, and without the institution being able to do anything, includes the presence of at least one of the two gangs.
Coordinates: it's July 31, 2010. Night time. In the district of Cuapa, which borders El Guaje, a group of youths are organizing a dance. If anything can best explain why the violence in El Guaje became as bad as it did, why 23 families fled the area, it's because of what happened after that dance. Five friends of Sabine Moreno attended the dance. One of them was the boy who dressed well and ended up, at age 14, transformed into the gang member known as "Panadol." Also attending was a 19-year-old who'd recently become a father. His name was Dagoberto. He had fathered a tiny baby, a year and a half old in mid-2010, with a diminutive, dark-skinned girl called Lucia, Sabine's sister. Dagoberto, a restless type, without clear ideas about what to do with his life, was friends with Panadol and Panadol's homies.
In gang territory, the frontier that divides friendship, the attachment and kindness between gang members, their families, and their neighbors is sometimes so diffuse, so unclear, that it fails to provide any kind of certainty. That lack of certainty can lead to tragic ends, thanks to the quick judgments that people make. For Sabine's family, these quick judgments destroyed them. The only death that didn't have anything to do with these judgments was that which initiated the tragedy of the Morenos.
A peak for Sabine's family: Ernesto Quintanilla, a former gang member deported from the US, is killed February 14, 2010.
Ernesto was a tattooed deportee. In Los Angeles he was a member of the Mara Salvatrucha, and neither Sabine or her mother could specify which clique he belonged to. What's clear is that in 2000, Ernesto arrived to El Guaje, because one of his only family ties was found here.
Ernesto lived peacefully, not getting involved with anyone, hidden in this rural area surrounded by concrete housing projects, until an MS clique began visiting the neighborhood. The clique found him and asked him to run some errands for them, but Ernesto turned them down. That was why they killed him: it's tough for a retired gang member to live peacefully without running errands in the barrio.
Sabine's mother remembers that her sister was very sad. Nobody thought that that would be the first of many deaths, because they always believed that what happened to Ernesto didn't have anything to do with them.
The problem is that one family member had a lot to do with it.
A peak in the life of the Moreno family: Jose Mena disappears April 2010.
Jose Mena was a wooden furniture salesman who grew up in El Guaje and ended up marrying Beatriz Cruz, a cheerful woman who made a living washing knick-knacks and cooking soups in the market. Beatriz Cruz was Sabine Moreno's aunt.
Jose Mena and Beatriz Cruz spent a lot of time at Ernesto Quintanilla's house, the ex-gang member deported from LA. Jose and Ernesto, with time, had become good friends. The pain provoked by Ernesto's death made Jose lose some of his composure. In the neighborhood store, Jose said that he knew that "the boys" from the gang had something to do with Ernesto's murder. Just a few days after Jose voiced these accusations, he was swallowed by the earth. He disappeared without a trace. Sabine Moreno's mother heard a rumor that young Panadol and the rest of the members of the Guajes Locos Salvatruchos clique had trapped Jose in the coffee field and had forced him to dig his own grave before killing him. But Blanca was smart. She heard the rumor and she shut up.
The little cafeteria where Jose Mena had accused the gang members of killing his friend Ernesto Quintanilla was owned by Fidelina and Yesenia Morena, cousin and niece to Mauricio, Sabine's grandfather. It was a modest cafeteria, where they sold lunches and cooked pupusas. It was the kind of place where everybody spent time: neighbors, friends, gang members, and police. But the police who visited, far from bringing security, only brought another disgrace upon the Moreno family. As rumors can be a kind of random truth for those who choose to believe them, Fidelina and Yesenia were visited by police, and told them about what the gang members of El Guaje were up to.
A peak in the lives of Sabine's family: the morning of June 16, 2010, Fidelina and her daughter Yesenia were murdered.
They were gunned down in the middle of the road, while they were setting up their stand to sell pupusas. After these assassinations, Mauricio Moreno, Sabine's grandfather, took up drinking again.
The dance wasn't so much a dance as much as it was an ambush. That was how the MS took over El Guaje and recruited members there. Barrio 18 did the same thing in the neighboring district, Cuapa. The five kids who were organizing the dance understood this too late.
At 11 p.m. that Saturday, July 31, the door of Jose Mena's widow was shaken by a hail of knocking and shouting.
"Open the door! Open the door!" the kids shouted.
At the head of the terrified group, Beatriz was surprised to see Dagoberto, the husband of Lucia, her niece. Beatriz let them in, and very little time passed before another hail of knocking shook the door once again.
When Beatriz opened the door again, she was shoved aside, and only managed to see a couple of unknown shadows who beat the youths one by one.
Sabine's mother Blanca remembers it well: Beatriz, her sister, nervous and scared, knocked on the door of Blanca's house and told her what happened. She said they'd pushed her and that they'd taken her away with her hands tied up with shoelaces. When Beatriz made it back home, she locked up the doors and went to find Blanca, growing more agitated by the minute.
Sabine remembers too: she was sleeping and a couple of shots woke her up. After a while Beatriz arrived, screaming, "They killed them, Blanca! I heard shouting in the cornfield!" The shouting in the cornfield was followed by several shots, the ones that had woken up Sabine Moreno.
The next morning, the massacre of El Guaje was national news. Dagoberto, Sabine's brother-in-law, father of a newly born baby girl; Remberto, Sabine's other friend turned into the gang member, Panadol, were killed. Of the five, only Dagoberto, who wasn't a gang member but a friend of the gang members, was left with his head intact.
Sabine remembers it too well: the others had their heads cut off and their private parts cut off.
Afterwards their private parts were placed in their mouths.
A correction by Amelia: only one of them had his private parts cut off and placed in his mouth.
A month after the massacre, quick judgments once again plunged Sabine's family into mourning. According to the rumor, Beatriz Cruz had "sold" the four members of the Guajes Locos Salvatruchos clique to the rival gang. The rumors said that those who arrived to drag them out of the house weren't police, but Barrio 18 gang members, disguised as police, and summoned by Beatriz. For Sabine's mother, these rumors guided a stranger to the market where her sister worked.
A peak for Sabine's family: at noon, August 28, 2010, Beatriz Cruz was killed in front of a ceramics stall.
Two days later, the threat raced through all of El Guaje. Those who didn't have family members in the gangs had to leave the community, otherwise they would be exterminated. The message had a special dedication for Sabine's family. They say that the pamphlet said: "Starting first of all with the family of Mauricio Moreno..."
Mauricio Moreno was a man who had no fear of serpents. So says his woman, Amelia. So says three photos conserved in a family photo album. The photos, each taken at a different occasion, Mauricio is raising three different boa constrictors, snakes that can grow up to two meters long. Mauricio is smiling in the photos. He looks content.
After the death of Beatriz, three months went by in which very little happened in El Guaje. Mauricio Moreno thought that they had settled the problem by telling the police how exposed his family was, after so many murders and threats. The police patrolled the area a few times a week but in November they stopped. And Mauricio, who during this whole time kept drinking, and on more than one occasion spewing threats, said that he would take justice into his own hands, a challenge to the Maras.
Less than a week had passed before he was also killed.
The first refuge was a hell.
Sabine remembers: it drizzled. The truck left them on a street in front of a grotto, on the shores of a river. She didn't even know what the place was called, but she sensed that it was nothing compared to the place where they'd lived, because the cold on that mountainside entered her very bones. They'd arrived at the grotto at the suggestions of another neighbor who'd also fled from El Guaje, three months before them.
The next morning, this friend and former neighbor offered them shelter when she found out that Sabine's family had arrived. She cooked them sausages with eggs and tomato. Sabine remembers that the sadness, the rage, the anger, kept her from feeling hungry. She wanted to get out of there, and that was when she knew that she had nowhere else to go.
How many displaced families are in El Salvador? The answer to that question could remain unknown forever. What is certain is that the more it is asked, mixed among the stories of friends and acquaintances, there are always more cases that appear. Too many.
Case one: In mid-2011, Jaime, a Soyapango police officer, now assigned to another unit, left the neighborhood where he'd bought his house because he discovered his neighbors were Barrio 18 gang members. At first they obeyed a gentleman's pact, but despite the convenience of the imaginary frontier between them, it was like a gunpowder keg waiting to explode as a result of all the differences between them. Jaime preferred to leave. He had already threatened them with a gun, and he didn't want to take it out for the second time. He was scared that they would kill him, or that he would end up in jail from the simple act of trying to defend himself from what he considered a threat.
Jaime remembers: one night in mid-2011, he was drinking with a neighbor in the local store, when his gang member neighbors, also tipsy, showed up to ask him if he was one of the cops that killed "homies." Jaime, sitting down, sat up and took out his gun. He sat back down and balanced the gun on his right leg. "If you want, let's find out," he told them.
The next day he received an anonymous threat under the door of his house: "Leave, or you, your woman and your two kids die."
Jaime left everything. He still intends to sell the house, right now he is renting one in another state.
Case two: Carolina was born and raised in a community dominated by the Mara Salvatrucha. That grey frontier that obliges people to live alongside gang members, share with them, respect them, ended up defining the love that Carolina developed for a gang member. Carolina became his woman and gave birth to his son. When the child was two years old, his father was imprisoned.
Carolina remembers: her husband forced her to visit the Ciudad Barrios prison, in the western part of the country, every week, and during every visit he forced her to smuggle drugs and cell phones in her vagina. In mid-2009, one of the guards discovered her carrying a packet of marijuana in her vagina. It fell out after the guards forced her to do 100 squats. She was jailed for six months in the women's prison, in the Ilopango municipality. When she got out, the neighborhood gang came looking for her at her house. They said she had to continue her missions. Caroline refused, and they beat her in front of her son. They left her badly wounded.
Carolina decided to leave her house, abandon her family, and take her son, who is now five. She rented a house in Santa Ana state in the west, but the gang followed her there as well. Someone had reported her as disappeared, and in August 2011, her image was aired on Channel 4 news, one of the programs with the highest ratings. The next day, while she was buying a pre-paid phone card, the cell phone vendor asked her why she had fled her home.
Carolina remembers well what happened next: keeping an eye out, she started home with her son. She was crossing the center of the city and walking through the market when she felt that someone was following her. The next day she realized that the cell phone vendor hadn't kept her secret, and had also given out her cell phone number. She knew because someone rang her phone, and before the voice had finished saying, "Finally we found you, you...", she threw the phone into the central park garbage bin. Carolina moved to another state, in the north, and from there she crossed illegally into Guatemala. She doesn't think she'll come back.
Case three: Juan has just received a death threat. It came from his nephews, who are hanging with the Mara Salvatrucha. Juan lives in a community in the country's east, and isn't sure what to with his life. Fleeing isn't one of his options because, he says, wherever he goes the same thing will end happen.
"The gangs are everywhere. I have two palces where I could go, but in those two places there are also gangs. It would just be the same thing," Juan says.
"So what do you think you'll do?"
"That's the question. I don't want to lose everything I have here, so it's better I just defend myself in my own way. Who's going to help a poor guy like me?"
The second refuge was just annoying. Sabine's family moved to the edge of the river, because 20 people can't live on a road, interrupting traffic, for more than two days. That was why on the second day, the men raised a few huts with aluminum roofs against some enormous rocks. They didn't have water to drink or to wash clothes with, and the river was no help because it was, and still is, polluted. They couldn't cook because all the utensils were left in the house in El Guaje. They didn't have anywhere to go to the bathroom, other than a smelly hole between the rocks along the river.
"We spent two weeks trying to calm down... Look: suffering like that, I wouldn't wish on anyone," Sabine says.
The third refuge is a hut protected behind a long, tall metal gate. This piece of earth isn't theirs, and never will be. It was the parking lot of another family who gave them shelter.
In the living room is a long bench, two plastic chairs, and the same TV that Sabine managed to rescue when they fled from El Guaje. The bench, the plastic chairs, the prints, the dining room table, are things bought after the kind of sacrifice that Sabine and her mother had never imagined. Here there is no work for anybody, and they have to survive selling potato cakes and plantain empanadas to their neighbors, including three other refugee families from El Guaje. Sabine's niece, Dagoberto's daughter, the young man killed alongside four gang members just two years ago, turns on the TV. Spongebob Squarepants is on.
"Do you want to go back?" we ask.
Sabine answers: me, I'd like to be in my home again, but it's impossible to go back. Our houses are occupied by people from the gangs. They took over the place.
In March 2012, El Salvador experienced unprecedented success. The government made a pact with Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha 13 that consisted of reduced homicides in exchange for the transfer of gang leaders from maximum security prisons to those with less restrictions.
The transfer of the 30 gang leaders coincided with a significant drop in homicides. A month after the truce and the transfer, homicides dropped some 59 percent, from 13.6 a day to 5.6 a day. As of August 2012, the reduction is holding steady. If the trend continues, El Salvador will have come a long way from the homicide rate of 2011 (76.3 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants), placing the country as the second most violent in the world, surpassed only by Honduras with its 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
President Mauricio Funes' administration at first denied the existence of the pact, but since then has enjoyed contradicting itself and arguing that they are committed to obtaining support from political parties, private businesses and society to end gang violence once and for all.
Officially, what has happened in El Salvador is a truce between Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha backed with logistical support from the government.
A peak for El Salvador: after years of violence, today there is a gang truce.
"The truce doesn't motivate you go home?" we ask.
A comment from Sabine: that truce is a lie and doesn't mean anything for us. Nothing will bring back my dead family members, and nothing will guarantee that we can go back, and be safe and sound, to the place where we come from.
*Reporter for El Faro; Oscar Cabezas contributed to the reporting. See full El Faro report in Spanish, including video, here. Images courtesy of El Faro.