HomeNewsAnalysisDriving Across the Borders of El Salvador's Gang Territory

Driving Across the Borders of El Salvador's Gang Territory


Gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador are rigid about enforcing the boundaries of their territory. This has dramatic repercussions for both the bus drivers who drive and the students who walk across these borders. 

"This street is the limit -- look. The frontline of the war is right here. Here there are gunshots every so often. Down there are MS13. Up there are Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. It is an L. And we are in the middle."

So says a middle-aged man. He is the extortion negotiator for a bus and minibus route. That is his job. In a country where even Coca Cola or Tigo pay extortion, in El Salvador there are architects, street vendors, shoemakers, teachers, and extortion negotiators. The country's reality creates jobs.

The man is responsible for negotiating extortion payments via telephone with gang members. The bus terminal where he works is right on the corner between the respective domains of the two gangs. It's a bus route that has the bad luck of running through an area where neither gang has been able to annihilate the other. Thus, the bus terminal must pay both gangs. It's not simply a matter of paying the gangs a fee for moving through the sector of the bus route that's in gang territory. If the bus route involves going through the territory of another gang, there's typically a fee for crossing that border and circulating through the area. 

This is the second part of an article which originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Read the first part of InSight Crime's translation here.

Before meeting the extortion negotiator, I met with three bus owners. One of them assured me there are routes that pay more than four "war taxes," because they cross the zones of three gangs, and in the case of the MS13, of two different cliques, both of which charge for crossing into their territory. It makes sense. To give an example: it does little good for the Centrales Locos Salvatrucha clique (based in central San Salvador) if the Criminal Gangster Salvatrucha clique in Mejicanos extorts bus routes in its territory but does not share proceeds.

16-01-07-ElSalvador-BusStrikeMembers of El Salvador's military guard a truck used to transport civilians in San Salvador.


Both the extortion negotiator and the bus owners ask for their names to be omitted from this article, as well as the route numbers and municipality. When writing about gangs, one writes what one can. The first rule is not to write something that can get someone killed; the gangs outline and limit things beyond just territory. The deal is that I can say the bus route is in the San Salvador metropolitan area.

Together with the negotiator, we travel the bus routes by car.

"The negotiation with the MS13 was over four years ago. It stayed at $550 per month. The Barrio 18 asked $800, $900, whatever they wanted. They asked up to $1,200 monthly. Did you see the bullets in the office door? That was them, because the company didn't want to pay the amount they were asking. I began to negotiate, and they said they were satisfied with $700. They're criminals, but the Barrio 18 here are just kids. I told them $200. It stayed at $300 per month."

We pass through the territory of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. It is a rural place in the middle of the city. The principal street is paved, but the side roads are dirt.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

"Look," says the negotiator, "here is the border. All this is MS13 territory. Here's how the MS13 gets paid: I tell them what bus is carrying the extortion fee. I give them the license plate, the color, and the driver's telephone number. Somewhere along this strip, some two kilometers, they'll come out. But they will not tell you where they are. The Barrio 18 sends someone to fetch it. We can either hand it over to a gang look-out, or I'll throw a bag up there, and a kid will come to collect it. Look, over here is where they attack, this is where common thieves come out at night to steal the cash box from the driver."

Paying extortion is mandatory for the buses. Clearly. Given how the gangs have split El Salvador, it is impossible for authorities to protect the drivers of a bus route who decide not to pay. They are an easy target, making the same trip every day. If they don't pay, sooner or later, someone will be assassinated. In 2015, according to the police, 93 bus and mini-bus drivers were murdered. The bus owners unionized into two strong associations, and they often use the insecurity situation to negotiate with politicians. The unions say that in 2015 they paid the gangs $26 million in extortion.

16-01-07-ElSalvador-VictimEmilio Méndez, a transportation worker on Route 16, became the seventh person killed during a recent gang-enforced bus strike. Here, on July 29, a family member collapses after seeing his body.

The situation being as deadly as it is, paying extortion does offer some advantages.

"Here they attack? The MS13 have told me that no matter what, if someone goes around messing with or assaulting buses, they will protect me. I tell [a gang member]: look, the drivers just told me that two teenagers are walking around, one with white shorts, a hat like this? He responds, right away. He finds them and tells them: if you come back, we're going to kill you. It's more effective than the police. It's immediate."

For some, a relationship with the police is unnecessary in these areas. Or, if it is necessary, it is for paradoxical reasons. Some extortion negotiators will share gang phone numbers with police. The negotiators will ask police to record the phone calls, but they don't want to report any extortion. It's so that if they do end up being recorded by the police, they are are not confused with extortionists. When negotiating with a gang member, the negotiators speak as if speaking to a friend: what's up, dog; what's going on, bro; I'm sending you a good time, take it easy. Sometimes, the only thing a negotiator who gives his phone to the police wants is to not end up imprisoned for doing his job.

Each time a gang member is killed, the bus terminal has to send a bus to transport people to the cemetery. The bus owner incurs the cost of the fuel and driver. The same thing happens around Christmas, Holy Week, or the first week of August, when the gang members go on vacation.

The negotiator does not know the real nickname of any gang members with whom he speaks. There are eight phone numbers that he uses for communication. A gangster who one day calls himself Chino will call himself Seco in the next conversation. But the negotiator is skilled at identifying voices, and he knows how to keep track of which voices resolve which problems. 

A few months ago, two gang members boarded several buses far from the terminal. They claimed to be members of an MS13 clique, gave two nicknames, two phone numbers, and an order to the drivers: we want one dollar per bus daily. It doesn't sound like much, but in this case it would have been over $600 per month. The negotiator called the phone numbers given to the drivers and asked a favor: come to an understanding with the MS13 gang member to whom I already pay the extortion fee. He gave them the phone number of the voice he considered to be the problem solver. The negotiator connected his problem-solver with the other two gang members, and the issue was resolved. 

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

"Well, here we leave the MS13 zone and return into the Barrio 18 zone. Did you see that look-out? There goes the bus. They have us well watched. Do you see that house? That is where you have to send the bus when there is a death."

Having a bus stop within gang territory means siding with the gang if there is a death -- or when gang members are looking to amuse themselves. The negotiator is pointing out the house where ceremonies are held for dead gang members. Each time a gang member is killed, the bus terminal has to send a bus to transport people to the cemetery. The bus owner incurs the cost of the fuel and driver. The same thing happens around Christmas, Holy Week, or the first week of August, when the gang members go on vacation.

"Sometimes they ask to go to El Sunzal beach," said the negotiator, "El Majahual. Last time they asked to go to El Cuco. No, I told them, don't mess around, closer. Bus and gasoline. I negotiated with them: look, the buses are in bad shape, they are going to break down. 'Don't worry,' they said, 'we'll call a tow truck if they break down, and we're going to bring a mechanic.'"

The negotiator negotiates. If he already made two trips for death or pleasure in a month, he tries to work out a favor. He asks the gangs to look for another route, and they ask him for his buses.

We return to the bus terminal. Five drivers greet the negotiator. They are waiting their turn to drive the route. The drivers cross the war fronts daily. Thanks to extortion, they have permission to circulate in different zones. Still, sometimes not even extortion grants them free movement.

"Here there is no Transportation Ministry or traffic police. I obey the gangs, period."

"If they realize that a driver is tattooed, or drives around with someone from a rival gang or who is from a neighborhood closely identified with another gang, they take him out quickly. They call and tell us: don't come to this side any more. Sometimes they directly tell us that they don't want to see him working on the route. We had people that had to get new ID cards in order to be able to work without the gangs members messing with them."

Some people need documents with false information to travel through parts of their own country. False documents just to move around, the kind some Central American migrants buy to cross Mexico or enter the United States. In El Salvador some people have such documents just to move from one neighborhood into another.

The negotiator says it is usual for drivers to make informal stops at the entrances of neighborhoods ruled by gangs. They stop, he says, so people who cannot enter these areas can get off the bus.

I asked one of the bus owners I spoke with what they do in such cases. He replied that they fired the driver, who understood the reason why. If he works, he dies. The same employer eventually said something that prompted a momentary silence in the room: "If the gang tells me this driver cannot work, he does not work. If they tell me not to go down that street, I don't. If they tell me to change a stop, I change it. If they say to me on a certain day that no buses will go out, the buses do not leave. Here there is no Transportation Ministry or traffic police. I obey the gangs, period." The sentence carries added weight, given the man who uttered it had once been a member of Congress.

The last week of July 2015, as a means of pressuring the government, which had increased repression against the gangs and the communities they govern, the three gangs ordered a general transport strike that was almost entirely obeyed. Some did not comply. Just this week, seven transportation workers were killed on the job.

The negotiator gets out of the car and says goodbye through the window. I ask my last question:

"Did they pay a Christmas bonus?"

"Yeah, $300 extra to the Barrio 18, and $550 to the MS13."

A Small Neutral Zone

"Before there were two groups on either side. They wanted to mark the difference, as they had divided the court into two parts."

Says the director of a school in Apopa municipality, sitting next to a basketball court. She is over 40, and is in charge of a school located in a neutral zone. On one side are the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. On the other, the Mara Salvatrucha. The school isn't just near the frontier, it is the frontier. It is surrounded by two Barrio 18 neighborhoods and five belonging to the Mara Salvatrucha. In fact, two local leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18  are studying within the school. For the principal, the whole situation is fortunate.

"We're on the border. It isn't clear who will take control of the school. We're in limbo. That is a point in our favor. While they work it out, our school is perhaps one of the few in Apopa they don't try to extort."

The money paid to gangs comes out of the pockets of the teachers. They pay in order to teach. 

Usually, as confirmed by this director and two more teachers that I spoke with, gang members send a message to teachers or janitors: we want this much money monthly. This money comes out of the pockets of the teachers. They pay in order to teach.

One of the great advantages of having borders between rival gangs is imposing taxes. Everyone pays: companies that install cable television, the women that sell in the central markets, taxi drivers, Agua Cristal trucks, sailors that returns from months at sea. There are neighborhoods where the gangs require a monthly fee from every person who owns a vehicle, a tax on the privileged.

This director's school, however, is in the neutral zone. No group has been able to impose themselves.

"The day the lines become drawn, we are going lose all the students from opposing areas, and we will be at the disposal of the gang that rules."

The day a gang expands its boundaries, the school will be theirs and they will not accept outsiders.

For other teachers, this school's situation would be catastrophic. Instead of neutral territory, the school might end up in a war zone. A teacher in the department of La Libertad described his school to me as a "peaceful" place because "we thankfully only have students that live in MS13 territory." However, that depends on the disposition of every director, and this one in Apopa has been able to control the situation by making some concessions.

They try not to expel or defer students, and do their best to help them pass. Sometimes, they even permit the school to become a shelter from gang wars.

"The school is a safe zone for them. A student was in a class that had skipped exams because the teacher was ill. We sent everyone home. But this student arrived. I know he is one of the leaders of Barrio 18. He said to me, 'Ma'am, please let me inside. I can clean. On my way home the police followed me, and I'm afraid.' 'Afraid of what?' I asked. 'Don't ask ma'am, just let me stay here.'"

While most police operations are directed against specific gang targets, in 2015, the most violent year in over a century in El Salvador, complaints against irregular police operations, such as massacres against unarmed civilians, have been recurring. The Attorney General for the Defense of Human Rights has said this has become one of their priorities. The institution has opened files for cases like the San Blas massacre, where police killed eight people. This included two people who weren't gang members but were unarmed and had surrendered. They died from gunshots to the head and mouth on a coffee farm.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The director says some students have made attempts to add fuel to the fire, but have not succeeded in this neutral zone. There is no shortage of shouts of "Barrio" in the classroom when any addition or subtraction gives 18 as an answer, or applause when the result is 13. They've found markings of MS13 and Barrio 18 in classrooms. But after talking with the students, and assuring them their parents will be called, it is "the same leaders who sit down to resolve the problem, and the next day the gang markings are gone." The director, immersed in her complex day-to-day life, describes the signs of peace in a very particular way.

"Here it is peaceful. For example, a teacher has never told me that they are going to turn up in a bag."

They solved the problem of recess after the director gave a talk to the students. "Here there are no young people of one side or the other, only students," she said. And she managed to erase the border on the basketball court. But only that border.

"From the school gate and beyond, everything is already mapped out. Some go to one side, some go to the other. Some wait a few hours to leave. They spread out. On each side walk members of each gang. The problem is for those who live in the MS13 neighborhood, which is on the other side of the street, not in the same neighborhood as the school."

These students need to walk the entire main street of the Barrio 18 neighborhood to cross into their MS13 zone.

"It has been negotiated for a pickup truck to take them, including the older students; there are students older than 20 in the school. The pickup only goes along the main street, it doesn't enter any side streets."

A type of amnesty, a safe passage, a temporary permission to cross the forbidden border, and only at certain times of the day and only for those in school uniforms.

The amnesty isn't an all-encompassing one. It is only for this pickup truck that transports these children. This year, a Barrio 18 student crossed the MS13 border and was shot dead.


16-01-07-ElSalvador-PoliceGraffiti A police officer erases MS13 graffiti in Zacatecoluca. In El Salvador, erasing gang graffiti is taken as a sign of disrespect, and can cost someone their life.


The school director says the number of real gang members that attend the school are limited. She asserts that two gang leaders are 14 and 15 years old, and are studying in eighth and ninth grade. Children submerged in a war that has left them only able to visit pieces of the country. The rest are students who don't belong to any gang, but who live in gang-dominated areas. Yet they identify with their neighborhood, obviously. What adolescent doesn't defend their classroom? Who was not part of an innocent gang in their neighborhood, the kind that were used to winning wars of whistling on Christmas or puncturing tires or ringing bells? These students are doing the same thing, but in the midst of a situation that isn't funny. They are children responding to their environment. Bloodthirsty gangs control their neighborhoods. And even if not a part of the gang, they identify with its letters, its numbers, and they imitate its leaders, walk like them and beat up children from other neighborhoods who also aren't gang members. Do they do it because they're killers? Because they carry the death gene? Because they're worse than other children? No, because they are children that act normally, they acclimate to the situation around them, and that situation is abnormal, sick, and destructive.

The gangs borders limit not only a basketball court or a classroom. Sometimes, they also limit learning.

"Once, a student told us: 'I have to defer this year'. I don't know why. He was among the students that were about to graduate into the next grade. He said: 'this year they've asked me to defer,' and he wasn't referring to his parents."

Some people will say the school director in Apopa concedes to and rewards the gangs. They are the people who will never understand the complexity of this war. This war, which occurs everyday in the neighborhoods where millions of Salvadorans live, has changed the social fabric, every bit of it. A school's recess, the walk to work, the tests for employment, the places where soccer is played, and the hour a school is dismissed.

"Essentially, we maintain a year-long truce inside of here. My question is: What is there outside of the school? What does it offer?"


*This is the second part of an article which originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Read the first part of InSight Crime's translation here.

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