In the second part of this two-part series on the history of southern California gangs in El Salvador, anthropologist Juan Jose Martinez looks at a conflict involving one prominent gang leader, Casper, and discusses how the presence of the Sureños gangs associated with Casper -- which, like its larger cousins MS13 and Barrio 18, are mostly made up of those deported from California in the 1990s -- are largely ignored by the state. For part one of this series, see here.
November 21, 2012, 1:55 p.m. Two young men enter La Gran Via in old Cuscatlan -- perhaps El Salvador's most exclusive shopping center. They are unarmed and they are looking for a pharmacy. They find one and while one enters to do his shopping, the other waits for him at the door. The pharmacy is one of the first businesses visible upon entering the mall, and it is just a few steps from the parking lot.
While this is happening, another man is examining the magazine of a .45 caliber pistol. This man is sitting in a gray car that slowly glides through La Gran Via's parking lot. The car stops as close to the pharmacy as it can. The driver doesn't shut off the motor. The man with the pistol opens the window and for a few seconds, they look fixedly at the man who is standing in the door of the pharmacy.
Chaos. The bullets start to fly. One hits the man they are aiming for, and knocks him down, but he gets back up and runs inside the mall. The bullets don't stop coming. The bullets directed at the man find their way into other victims. One is an Asian woman who was taking money out of a nearby ATM. She falls to the ground. Other bullets hit the ATMs, the walls, the glass store fronts. Others hit Mauricio, a bank employee who was on his way back from lunch. He also falls down. Meanwhile, the intended victim moves through the mall, sometimes running, sometimes staggering, and manages to get to the fast food court, where the security guards give him shelter. The gray car didn't kill him. It left with almost the same stealth with which it came.
The injured man was Mauricio Acuña, known as "Slick," from the Sureños gang "Lenox 13." He had been deported from the US just three months earlier and now was rolling around in his own blood, with a bullet from a .45 in his leg. The person who shot him was a gang member who had bragged his father was a member of the Mexican Mafia, La Eme, during a party, [and who had also been beaten up by Slick's partner "Casper."] Slick was still alive, and he had seen the shooter. Bad combination. It was just what the hit men had feared. Now Slick, just like last time, was going to look for help from the big Sureño. He would go to Casper. The hired killers knew this very well. Now they had an enemy who they feared.
Below, a Salvadoran news report on the victims of the mall shooting.
The Other Sureños
"El Zarco" gets on the minibus and grips the handrail with one hand. With the other, he holds a bag of "magic pens" -- which write in glowing, luminous ink. He looks at them and takes one out with difficulty. With his best Spanish, El Zarco tries without conviction to convince the bus passengers of the marvels of the magic pencils. He tells us that they are good; that in addition to drawing, they shimmer!
He abandons his speech halfway through and tells us that he hasn't sold anything and asks us to please help him. Nothing. He tells us that he has been deported from California and that he doesn't have a job or family. He says he has tried to get work, but nobody gives him anything. As he talks, he displays some rotting teeth, like those of a crack smoker. El Zarco keeps talking even though nothing happens. Nobody puts their hand in their pocket and nobody really even looks at him. So El Zarco gets quiet. He looks around and starts shouting: "Sons of bitches! Nobody gives a shit in this fucking shithole! Fucking shitty country, stupid assholes, nobody gives me anything, nobody gives me work, I don't have money! They only make me want to kill myself, to kill myself and everyone else!"
He gets off the bus, rants a little in the street and then leans his head against a wall. Then, after he's calmed down a bit, he gets on another bus to tell more people about the virtues of his "magic pens."
Eduardo drags himself with difficulty in his wheelchair to the window of a car, extends his hand without touching the glass and waits. Just a few seconds and then he continues on to the next car and repeats the procedure. By midday, he has repeated this move various times and the heat and his battered body are a bad combination; he has become drowsy in his wheelchair and barely has the strength to lift his hand when he feels a body nearby. Sometimes, Eduardo gets enough coins to be able to convince some local kids to go and buy him a bottle of cane liquor, which he guzzles down as fast as he can. On these occasions, Eduardo is able to drift into a light, happy sleep that allows him to be at peace for a few hours.
"El Negro" of the "Hollywood Crazys 13" gang walks alone. He is scared of returning to the Mariona prison. He was put in there for stealing a cell phone one day out of desperation in the streets of San Salvador. He did it in front of some police who beat him up afterwards and threw him in a cell. Later, a judge sentenced him to two years in the country's biggest jail. When El Negro was deported he went to live in Santa Ana with his uncles. But there were MS13 members in his neighborhood: they took him out of his house and forced him to work for them. One day there was a misunderstanding over some drugs and an MS13 guy shot him six times. He didn't die, but he spent several months in the Rosales hospital in San Salvador. Now he walks around scared, like a surly cat.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons
Not all of the Sureños have the opportunity to form gangs or to join up with other Sureños. A significant number just arrive in a place they don't understand, that doesn't understand them; and they wander around alone until the streets end up swallowing them up. Like the homie who wanders around with his chest burned by the iron that some traffickers forced upon him, to erase his gang tattoo. They apparently didn't realize that he wasn't MS13. They saw the 13 and acted out of force of habit.
El Salvador is a complicated country for these Sureños. Some, like Welner, are lucky enough to get a job at a call center and can start a life removed from gangs and killings. Others have families that support them, like Juan, whose mother bought him a pick-up so that he could travel and make a living, and a pistol so he could defend himself.
All of them -- El Zarco, El Negro, Juan, Welner, Eduardo and the homie -- spend their lives thinking back on other times. All of them want to return to southern California.
The State and the Sureños
In a cafe in Santa Elena, I met with two men in suits and ties. One was the director of the Transnational Anti-Gangs Center (CAT) and the other was a trusted agent of his. I explained to them what my research was about and naively brought up the Sureños, certain that we were speaking the same language.
"Director, generally speaking, what information do you have about the activities of the Sureños in El Salvador?"
Before asking that question, I had already interviewed a series of police officials that gave me strange looks when I asked them about the Sureños. One of them, seeing that his ignorance of the subject was evident, began a diatribe about the North American Civil War in which the north fought the south.
The last one I talked to before I sat down with the CAT director was Pedro Gonzalez, the person in charge of the anti-gang division of the Salvadoran police. This official, experienced at chasing adolescents through the fields of Salvadoran neighborhoods, responded to my first question about Sureños by turning around and taking out an enormous typed document with photos stuck on with glue. It's his book, he said, that explains the origin of the gangs and the deepest questions about them. It is an old text with photos of walls and handcuffed gang members. He wrote it himself and it contains a disorderly collection of interesting information about the gangs. In fact, I even got excited when I saw the word Sur on an old page. Nothing. Just a summary mention that alludes to the number 13. I thought that Mr. Gonzalez hadn't understood my question, so I asked it again differently:
"Mr. Gonzalez, what information do the police have about the Sureños gangs in the country?"
Nothing. Silence. He looked at me very seriously and crossed his arms.
"Look, Mr. Martinez, I think you are confused. In this country there are only two gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18. No others. Maybe in your country there are Sureños; here, there are just those two gangs."
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile
I am Salvadoran, but my question must have been so strange for Mr. Gonzalez that he immediately considered me foreign, almost from another world.
Much later on, the CAT director listened to me closely and occasionally gave a sidelong glance to his companion. He, unlike the long list of high- and mid-level police, knows who the Sureños are. He also knows that they were involved in the shootout in La Gran Via. However, that's all he knows about them.
"The US police sent us a list of deportees with criminal records. In Comalapa, when they get off the plane, they open their files, take photos of their tattoos, and then, if they don't have a record here in El Salvador, they let them go. They can't do anything else."
It seems that the CAT agents are basically satisfied with knowing that a group of deported men exists that is called the "Sureños." I can't avoid thinking that the authorities must have thought something similar when the MS13 and Barrio 18 deportees began returning to the country at the beginning of the 1990s.
Before finishing the interview, the official sitting next to the CAT director, who had not opened his mouth, asked me a question.
"Look, and do you meet with them? Do they speak to you?"
He looked at his boss with audacity and asked me:
"And could one of our agents accompany you? Undercover of course."
I nicely told him no. And then I left.
While I was interviewing Mr. Gonzalez, it occurred to me to inquire about the names of some Sureños so they could look in their database and see what information came up. Maybe one of them had been detained or perhaps there could be some kind of useful information in the police records. Mr. Gonzalez made a phone call and repeated one of the names I had given him. A moment later, he said aloud: "Aha! Armed robbery. Drug possession." I gave him another. And he made another call. Silence, and then he again repeated aloud what they had told him. "Aha! Reckless driving and narcotics possession. Aha! Irresponsible firearms possession."
I gave him the name of Javier Osiris Resendez, alias "Casper." The silence lasted nearly three minutes while he was on the line. Mr. Gonzalez's eyes widened into circles and he stared at me. He didn't repeat anything. I assumed that the interview was over.
Friday, July 4, 2:30 p.m. In a large, old house in the neighborhood of Centroamerica in San Salvador, four men sit down to eat hamburgers and drink beer. This is a more peaceful neighborhood, with few gangs. A car soon stops in front of the house and two men with ski masks enter. They don't have to break anything; the door is wide open, because someone had opened it minutes before. The two hit men are carrying M-16 rifles. They kill all but one of the four men.
All of the victims were Sureños, and one of them was noteworthy. He had been deported a few years earlier and was known as "Lips," probably because he had a tattoo in the form of a kiss on his neck. Another old Sureños tradition.
This man had been a personal friend of Casper's. In fact, he was one of the many that Casper took care of following his deportation to El Salvador. Casper took a liking to Lips, and on several occasions they drank and did cocaine together. However, after Casper broke the nose of a gang member in the San Fernando Valley known as Greems, everything started to fall apart.
"Those assholes never would have been able to be a solid group. Everyone wanted to be a leader and it is absolutely impossible to have a gang with various leaders," a former Sureño told me about that time period. The fact is that all of the active Sureños in San Salvador began to take sides. Lips chose to distance himself from his boss, and made the mistake of bringing one of Casper's women along with him -- Casper's favorite one. It wasn't the first time. Some years before, when Lips started his own business selling cocaine and methamphetamines, he had stolen one of Casper's jewels. A dark-skinned, beautiful women, of a good upbringing, who had studied her whole life with nuns and then began brightening up the homies' meetings with her charisma. That time, Casper said nothing. She wasn't his only girl. The second time, he wasn't willing to forgive. Casper and Lips threatened each other and the friendship was broken forever. And so the two sides in the gang war was established.
After Casper was attacked in Santa Tecla, at the beginning of 2013, his enemies in the San Fernando Valley took the lead. However, things later started to even out. A few days before the massacre, a close collaborator of Lips, known as "New York," disappeared in Santa Tecla. The police found him with his head cut off a couple of days before Lips and his group were killed.
On the night of Friday, July 4, the house where Lips and his friends lay dead emitted a cloying odor of blood. The prosecutors were examining the bodies and a small group of women had gathered behind the yellow tape. Two of them were crying and holding each other's hand. A neighbor gave them hot tea and a pair of chairs to sit down in. The women whispered to each other, and one, who was more optimistic than the other, said: "It's not him, I don't think it's him because he always carried his ID and they already would have identified him. If they haven't identified him it's because it really isn't him."
After the attack on Lips, the group opposing Casper disbanded. Some went to Guatemala, others tried to return to southern California, and other stayed behind, but kept the lowest possible profile as they waited for the violence to pass. One of them, known as "Pacas" because he was from the San Fernando Valley gang Pacoimas 13 -- who was also one of the people suspected of attacking Slick in La Gran Via mall, according to the police -- was arrested in October that year.
This is how he was captured: an elderly security guard had been hit by a car and while the old man was rolling around in pain, Pacas saw an opportunity and had thrown himself on the guard's revolver. Pacas grabbed it out of the old man's hands and shot twice at his head, but he was so drunk that the bullets didn't land where he was aiming. So Pacas hit him over the head with the butt of the gun until the old man passed out. After that, Pacas used his new gun to steal two cell phones from some pedestrians. The police launched an operation and arrested him on Gabriella Mistral Street in San Salvador. He barely put up a fight. The police, failing to follow formal protocol, took his shirt off and stuck him in a pick-up, where the media photographed him as they generally do with gang members. His whole stomach displayed a large tattoo that said "PACAS13." That was the last time I saw him and the last time I heard about the Pacoimas 13.
Back in the Centroamerica neighborhood, an investigator left the scene of the crime and said something funny to his partner. He was carrying a huge camera and had already thrown out the ski mask. The heat was unbearable that time of year. The women begged the police to tell them something and they refused. However, the officer with the camera felt sorry for them and came over.
"If you saw him in the photos, would you recognize him?"
The women said yes and he turned on the camera and showed them, one by one, the photos of the dead men strewn on the ground. The first was Lips -- he was lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom. Nothing. The women didn't know him. The second was in the living room and was wearing a white shirt. Nothing, the women shook their heads no. The third… the women hugged each other and burst into tears.
"I told you mom, I told you! I told him to stay there upstairs, why the hell did he have to come here?"
The younger woman shouted at her mother as she staggered around crying.
October 26, 2014. Casper has died. His enemies didn't kill him, and he didn't die in a confrontation with the police. He suffered complications from a stroke, and he died peacefully in a hospital as this article was being written on my computer.
I never knew him. I never spoke with him in person. But I talked to his friends. And to his enemies. I knew several of his girlfriends and I became close with his victims. I drank beer at a table next to him in a bar in his territory and I was able to get inside his world. Now I know that on the weekends he liked to make pasta with shrimp, and hamburgers, that his mother had counted his tattoos and made a fuss every time he got a new one. He had a weakness for tattoos with Mayan symbols, Sureños icons for excellence; he was born on February 15; he didn't like the homies that hit women; and he identified with the young and crazy gang members because he saw himself in them. Seeing them reminded him of his crazy times in Califas [California].
The only time that Casper and I exchanged words was via Facebook. I asked him for an interview to complement my ethnographic work about the Sureños gang members. I explained to him that I was an anthropologist and that I was interested in getting his point of view regarding the Sureños situation in general. Casper responded:
"Dear Mr. Martinez, I appreciate your message. However, I am not interested at all in being included in your research. I am not the only deportee. I would like to know: Why me, exactly? Who gave you my contact? Good night. I wish you luck in your study.
Casper was buried in El Salvador. The country where he was born. Meanwhile, at least 10 Sureños are arriving in our country each day, handcuffed and dejected, from the prisons of southern California. The Babel of our times.