In the first photo, there’s three of them: the first guy is fully dressed in military garb, with olive green camouflage, and hoists an M-16 with a practiced pose: the index finger just outside the trigger, the retractable stock pointing upwards, and the barrel pointing at the ground. The next one is wearing a dark police uniform, a bulletproof vest and, on top of the vest, harnesses in which he’s carrying two extra magazines for the M-16 rifle he’s pointing to the sky. The National Civil Police (PNC) emblem is prominent on his right sleeve. The third one looks like the youngest. He’s also wearing a dark police uniform. He’s holding a long-barreled rifle in one hand and making a Barrio 18 gang sign with the other. The three are gang members.
In the second photo, there are seven: three supposed police officers and four supposed soldiers. All of them except one have their faces covered in Navarone Hoods, similar to the ones used by authorities in anti-gang operations. This time, they pose with five M-16s, a rifle and what looks like a shotgun. The majority of them are making — or “tirando” — the Barrio 18 sign with their hands, gesturing as they lean against a black truck.
Although these appear to be photos of any joint patrol, if you look closely you can see some tell-tale signs that they are not security forces: the boots are different, some are wearing sneakers, others have silver buckles on their military belts and nearly all of them are making gang signs, which undermines their disguise altogether.
This is Part II of an article that originally appeared in El Faro’s Sala Negra and was translated and reprinted with permission. It recounts the battle amongst the Barrio 18 gang members in the city of Zacatecoluca. See Spanish original here. See Part I here.
The images were shown to me by a police detective, who claimed that he obtained them from the cell phone of a gang member who he had detained. He explained that those loyal to Chipilin — the alias of the leader of a Barrio 18 faction which had split from its command structure, known as the Revolutionaries — were training in war tactics. He said that when the territories were divided, Chipilin’s faction had gotten control of the hillside surrounding the Chichontepec volcano, and that they took advantage of this by setting up shooting ranges and military training camps. He had even heard that they contracted soldiers and former guerrillas as their trainers.
Our conversation took place in one sector of La Paz province. The detective had ordered me to follow him there so that he wouldn’t be seen talking to a journalist. We sat on the ground, next to a soccer field. Two other police kept one eye on the conversation and the other on the surroundings, just in case. Inside the police car there was a boy in a hood and handcuffs, who they wanted me to meet.
“Is it true that they’re training?” they asked the boy.
He was a gang member who had become an informant against his own gang.
“Yes,” said the boy.
“Soldiers and guerrillas train them, right?” said the policeman.
“No, I don’t know about the guerrillas,” he said, as he smoked a cigarette. “But I do know about the soldiers.”
“Have you been to a training?” I asked.
He took off the hat covering his face and tucked it back on his head. “No, I never went,” he said, as he enjoyed the air hitting his face and the flavor of the tobacco.
“For what I have done, I deserve to die three times over,” he added.
He refused to give more details about what happens on the hill, either because he didn’t want to, or because he didn’t have anything else to say.
“The police came to give us advice: if anyone enters this property, kill them and throw out the body.”
According to the police, one of the biggest problems with this area is the wide availability of weapons; when they tried to figure out who was responsible for the guns, the evidence pointed to the municipal barracks: Military Detachment Number 9 (DM-9).
The police investigators are convinced that Chipilin’s people — 10, to be exact — became soldiers in the Zacatecoluca barracks, the DM-9, so that they could receive military training. As part of the plan, investigators said, the 10 deserted on May 7 along with their weapons and all of their equipment, taking advantage of time off for Memorial Day. And that’s where the military-grade weapons and military uniforms came from.
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The issue of infiltration gained so much attention that in July the Defense Ministry published a report denying the rumor. The communique stated that these claims were “political attacks” against the military.
And the police uniforms? The government says the gangs can obtain them when they assault an undercover agent and steal his backpack. Or when they break into a police agent’s home and plunder his wardrobe.
While sitting at his desk, Colonel Elmer Martinez — the head of the DM-9 — said there were no desertions recorded in the barracks’ files, and that all of their arms and equipment were accounted for.
“The problem is that there are no limits on the sale of the type of cloth we use for our uniforms,” he said, claiming that the uniforms that the gang members used were fakes. “And the armament is old, left over from the war — the deterioration can be seen in the photos.”
The only case that appears in their registries is that of one sergeant that the police detained with a military uniform and a police uniform in his vehicle, who fled when he was discovered. But he wasn’t a deserter, Martinez clarified — he was expelled.
Another case is that of a soldier who asked to resign because the gang members in his village found he worked for the military and threatened to kill him and his family. The Salvadoran army granted him leave and helped him get his belongings out of his house, so he could leave safely.
Chipilin was arrested on July 21, while he was driving in a black truck. There was no spectacular police chase, or a shootout. He was stopped at a routine checkpoint in San Vicente. The police got lucky, and they celebrated by publicly announcing the arrest. Since then, Chipilin has been held in a police jail cell. But the war in Zacatecoluca still rages, and residents have had to learn the rules of the conflict in order to survive.
One of the municipality’s priests brought us in his truck up the slope of Chichontepec via a virtually impassable road, to an area where the view gave way to the volcano’s greenery.
“All of this was corn and pepper fields,” he said. “Now the people can’t farm here and the land has been abandoned,” he continued, as we looked at the farms from above, from the last relatively safe landmark.
When the gang divided in two, so did the volcano. The residents of one village must now deal with the war and the new gang members who are leading it. The majority of the farmers live in between, which is controlled by Chipilin’s rivals in the Revolutionaries, and the bulk of the lands that they rented to cultivate are on the volcano, which is now property of Chipilin’s insurgents. Where I see a beautiful hillside, they see a minefield. And from the land has sprung a wild and useless forest.
The farmers now fight for the more central croplands. The rents have increased there because of the demand. Upon seeing the waste surrounding the volcano, one man who had worked there sighed and gave us his stark assessment of the situation: “There is no apparent solution to this mess.”
One man moves into the middle of the road, and another stands behind a chain link fence and pulls out a gun. He orders us to stop, and of course we do. In any case, we are on a narrow dirt road, and there is nowhere to run.
“Who were you looking for?” asks the man, with all the friendliness that a man who knows you didn’t stop of your own volition can muster.
“We are journalists,” we answer, in the most casual tone possible.
“Do you have identification?”
We hand him our press cards, and he reviews them carefully. The other, pistol in hand, is still standing by the fence, but now he is talking on the phone.
We came to the truck parking lot to see how everything was after the problem that occurred, we explain.
“That already happened, there’s nothing to talk about now. That is to say, it’s over,” he responds.
I don’t believe him.
We are at the entrance to the Rio Blanco village, one of the places from which the Chichontepec volcano can be accessed. It is September, and we are trying to follow up on a story that began in July: several days before the arrest of Chipilin, members of his gang tried to attack a property that was being used to park trucks owned by a local family. The gang members were armed with an M-16 rifle, 9mm pistols and an Uzi machine gun, and they were not expecting resistance. But they calculated wrong.
There was just one guard on the property, who had enough supplies on hand to shoot at them with a 12 gauge shotgun and send them scattering. According to the police, a bullet may have hit one of the attackers, because they found traces of blood along the escape route. The frustrated gang members then murdered two cousins, 17 and 19 years old, who worked at a nearby construction site. They killed them for failing to warn them. And then they disappeared the bodies into the volcano’s wilderness.
In his final day of life he had on blue jeans and a torn white short, when some strangers found him crawling, nearly dead, along the side of a road.
The parking lot and the trucks were family property. A patriarch bought the first truck, which he, and in time his kids, drove. Later they took out a loan to buy another and another, and then they took out another loan to buy the land where they parked the trucks. Now, the patriarch’s children and grandchildren are in charge of the business. They maintain the trucks, get the contracts to transport goods through Central America, and take turns caring for the property.
“And where the hell am I going to go?” the head of the family said to me in July.
He was satisfied that the shootout had left just one tire deflated and had not broken any motors.
“Do you think that the bank is going to forgive my debts? Do you think that someone is going to want to buy my land now?”
I didn’t say anything, but at that moment I thought that his problem had no solution — that a death sentence awaited him.
We returned a month later, in August, and on that occasion one of his nephews met us. He was a Zacatecolucan version of Rambo, who instead of abdominal muscles had the stomach of a male gorilla and who, when he saw us appear, crouched in a stand, wearing a belt full of rifle cartridges across his chest, and cocked his rifle.
After we managed to convince him that we were harmless, he explained the decision they had made.
“Look, this has cost us. We don’t have problems with them, but if they come back the only thing they are going to take away with them is this,” he said, touching his cartridges. “They say that the last time one of them took a bullet in the belly. Well, if they want the rest [of those bullets], I’ve got them here.”
And the police?
“Oh God,” he said. “They’re scared of them.”
And if the police demand you hand over your weapons?
“No! Look, we don’t have problems with them either, but we are not giving up these guns,” he said.
And you’re not scared of being alone?
“Who was born not to die? Plus, I’m not alone. It looks like I’m alone, but all those houses you see there…” He pointed at all the houses in the village. “We are family. Ever since you came here, they’ve been watching you, and all of those people are loaded with weapons. So we’ve already made our decision here: if you don’t mess with us, nothing will happen, but if you screw with us, we’re not going to let you.”
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This time — during the September visit — we had come looking for the parking lot owners in the hopes that someone from the family would clarify whether the decision to create a kind of self-defense force was a momentary retaliation, or the start of a more permanent neighborhood organization. When we didn’t find anyone on the property, we decided to leave the village and come back another day. However, I think that the man who stopped us and carefully reviewed our documents, and his friend with the pistol, cleared any doubts we might have had that this was just temporary.
They tell us that Felipe died, that in Zacatecoluca they didn’t know how to get all the bullets out of him, and that he died while an ambulance was taking him to the Rosales Hospital, in San Salvador. We know he had a long criminal record and had been arrested various times for illicit association [a Salvadoran statute designed to prosecute gang members en masse]. He had four children, he was good at making almost any kind of lasagna, he didn’t want to die and in his final day of life he had on blue jeans and a torn white short, when some strangers found him crawling, nearly dead, along the side of a road.
They were both famous masters of the hook, or to put it another way: they were both feared assassins with machetes. The two had machetes made to their liking, with protective bars on the handle, like a sword — which made it clear that neither of them used that weapon as an agricultural tool. They were enemies, and they had sworn to kill each other.
One day they met up on a dusty road and everyone stepped aside and waited for the outcome of the two men’s oath to end it once and for all. It was 9:30 a.m. when the sparks started flying from their machetes, and they continued their combat until midday, when neither one could lift their arm to land another blow. The fight had been so ferocious that the protective bars had molded to their fists, and neither one could release his machete. More tired than injured, they left to recover until their next duel.
Tomas told me this story in order to explain how the people in Zacatecoluca are, and how the people here have always been.
Tomas, who like all of the main characters in this story asked us not to use his real name, swore to me that the battle occurred in times of yore, in his father’s time, and that even though it may not have really happened, everyone tells that story to their kids as though they had seen it themselves.
I came to see him because the priest from a Zacatecoluca parish recommended that if I wanted to find out more about the self-defense movements, I should look for ranchers from the San Francisco de los Reyes village.
Tomas’ family owns more than 100 hectares of land and many heads of cattle. His 10 siblings are ranchers, and it is more common, he said, for them to go out on the streets without their shoes than without their pistol — a habit they learned from his father and their uncles.
He knows each cow by name: Carebuey, Maraca, Gringa, Catrina…And when he calls one, just that one stops eating and looks him in the eyes.
His father was a day-laborer on a faraway farm and one day his mother sold a sow in order to buy a hairy calf that didn’t seem like much. That calf is now the matriarch of the cattle empire that Tomas’ family owns in San Francisco de los Reyes.
As we walked through his family’s property, which possessed a fierce and wild beauty, he told us how hard they had worked in order to “be somebody,” and how unwilling they were to lose that. Along the way we crossed paths with his brother, who happily posed for us with his revolver.
In San Francisco de los Reyes, the gang hasn’t managed to lay down roots, but all of the surrounding villages live under the control of the Barrio 18’s Revolutionaries faction. They are surrounded, and Tomas knows it is a matter of time before the war hits them.
“The police came to give us advice: if anyone enters this property, kill them and throw out the body, but kill them with an unregistered weapon. We have returned to the old days when everyone defended their own town,” he said, with a hardened face.
He thinks that there is no option but to organize in order to “do what has to be done,” and he is willing to lead the movement. He is not worried about having to kill. Just one thing concerns him: “What are we going to do later, when things go up in flames?”
They killed the policeman Jose Alfaro in his house on October 4. Gang members disguised as police and prosecutors entered his house and killed him in front of his wife and children. Now he is in a casket covered with the Salvadoran flag, and two female police are mounting the honor guard.
The police who are coordinating security for the funeral tell me what they feel when they see their dead comrade: fear.
“I’ve asked the chiefs to move me to my own village, and they tell me no, because the gang members there already know me, and they’re going to kill me. But I take the bus every day in order to come to Zacatecoluca. I prefer that they kill me in my house and not on the bus,” he explains, as if there were no other option.
When Fred, the photojournalist accompanying me, points his camera to snap a photo of the coffin, the honor guard flees. The agents who are honoring their colleague step aside in fear, and the coffin stands alone in the middle of the near-empty funeral, covered in the Salvadoran flag.
We are having coffee in a San Salvador cafe with Felipe’s father. His youngest daughter told him that a crazy man had called to say that Felipe was seriously injured in Zacatecoluca. When he found out his son had died, he wanted to know who the people were that had hear his oldest son’s last words. The father’s name is Dolores.
Dolores doesn’t know about his son’s criminal record, and until now he thought he only had one grandchild. Felipe, he says, got along well with the “boys,” but he doesn’t believe he was a gang member. He raised his son in Apopa, in an area controlled by the Barrio 18 Revolutionaries. He doesn’t have any idea why Felipe appeared, full of bullets, in Zacatecoluca, and he doesn’t want to know. He tells us that this is the last time he will speak of the matter, and that he will never do so for the police or prosecutors.
We were trying to piece together the puzzle of the municipality’s violence, in which too many bulls had entered the ring and Zacatecoluca was not spared anything: soon, gang members, police, soldiers and furious ranchers appeared. While I write this story, the police are accusing the local police agents of fighting with the Revolutionaries, against the remains of Chipilin’s group, which refuses to die. In the house of one of these agents, they found more M-16 rifles, more pistols, more bullets … Zacatecoluca has not been spared anything: as we spoke of vultures, they showed us how a man dies and how his death is just one more dead end.
“And did Felipe say anything about me? Didn’t he have any words for me?” asks Dolores. “No,” I tell him.
I am still regretting that I didn’t know how to lie to him.