HomeNewsAnalysisEl Salvador: More Weapons, More Recruits, More Chaos

El Salvador: More Weapons, More Recruits, More Chaos


The demand for illicit weapons in El Salvador has surged to such an extent that it has impacted the black market in neighboring Guatemala. Raul Mijango, perhaps the last supporter of a dialogue between the government and gangs as a tool for stopping the rising violence in El Salvador, has stepped aside. Meanwhile, the government is apparently convinced that its bet on Super Mano Dura (“Super Iron Fist”) is the correct path, which it considers to be a lesser evil compared to the country's highest homicide rate since the turn of the 21st century. These are some of the ingredients for the explosive cauldron that is El Salvador.

Raul Mijango's office is nearly empty. Mijango -- the chief mediator of El Salvador's 2012 gang truce -- has already packed his books, documents, archives and the metal shelves that held them, making the office look desolate. 

In the last year and a half -- during which time the truce became a pariah, and those who supported it were considered little less than traitors -- Mijango has been one of the only voices that has defended the experiment. Indeed, Mijango has continued to propose whenever he gets the opportunity that the truce is the only solution to the violence in El Salvador. But today, Mijango is thinking about how he will pack up the metal shelves and the map full of colorful dots that are left in his office.

This story was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission from El Faro. See the Spanish original here

At the end of 2012, the Humanitarian Foundation was created, presided over by the businessman Antonio Cabrales, who for years had led the powerful Salvadoran Foundation for Development (FUSADES), the think tank of the private sector.

The purpose of the foundation was to get Salvadoran businesses to support and help finance the truce. It was intended to be a mechanism that allowed businesses to contribute without having to rub shoulders with the leftist government of former President Mauricio Funes. But it didn't work; the idea of financing “gang members” was not a compelling option for the businessmen and, save a few diplomatic cocktail meetings, the initiative failed to live up to its expectations.

The office that Mijango is now vacating is located in the same space that served as the headquarters for the Humanitarian Foundation, which received funds from the European Union. This property could easily have been called “the truce office,” and was the site for many of the most important meetings between the former mediator and gang leaders, diplomats, and journalists. But those days are gone, and now the solitude in the office only produces an echo.



Raul Mijango, chief mediator of El Salvador's 2012 gang truce. Photo: Marvin Recinos (AFP)


Mijango says that he still believes that the escalation of violence could be stopped, if the government were to open talks again with the gangs, and vice versa. However, he feels that he is the only high-level figure that continues to hold on to this belief.

“The space for a civilized solution is closed for now, because that requires the will of at least one of the sides (the government or the gangs), and right now, no one is showing that will,” he says resignedly.

He says that, for the time being, he will focus his energies “in another direction.”

The statistics back up Mijango. It's not necessary to wait until the end of year to know that El Salvador will be more violent than Honduras, a country that has occupied the title as the world's most violent for the last four years. In March, when 484 Salvadorans were murdered, it was baptized as El Salvador's most violent month of the century. Then came May, which registered 643 homicides, and then June, with 677. Finally, August far outstripped the previous records for violence, with 911 murder victims picked up off the street by members of El Salvador's forensic unit, Medicina Legal. During 2015, four months have been classified as “the most violent of the century.

Mijango had always stated publicly that the gangs -- or at least their leaders -- maintained some willingness to reopen negotiations with the government. This is the first time he has announced in public that he no longer has reason to believe this is the case. 

More Weapons, More Recuits

There are now few reasons for El Salvador's street gangs to speak with the press: their top leaders are now locked up, in isolated cells in the maximum security prison Zacatecoluca, where their communication with the outside world is weak and slow. The gangs feel they are being constantly harassed by police, who shoot before asking questions. But above all, the gangs feel that they have little left to say, deciding against sending out communiques to “the Salvadoran people and people from all around the world,” as they once did. Almost all the gang members who became official spokespersons for the gangs are now incarcerated in the terrible Sector 6 of Zacatecoluca prison.

This is why the two gang members who decided to have a conversation for this article agreed under the condition that their real names, their gang aliases or their “cliques” would not be revealed. One is a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the other is a member of the Revolutionaries faction of the Barrio 18. Both are active members and could be considered veterans within their structures, which they entered when they were just boys. Both of them have killed and know the taste of lead on flesh. Neither has ever been an enthusiast of the truce and neither had any role during the process. They agreed to talk separately and kept it a secret from their respective gangs.

It would be erroneous to try to create a complete panorama of the gangs through the perspective of just one of their members, but there were also some things that the two enemies agreed on: both said that they had never been in the presence of so many weapons, particularly assault rifles.

“Today, almost all the homeboys walk around with a large rifle, but they cut the butts so that they can fit in small bags,” says the MS13 member, drawing an imaginary weapon in the air.

The surge in black market weapons has been so strong that Guatemalan authorities have taken note. A source from the Interior Ministry of Guatemala stated that Guatemalan authorities have detected a strong reduction in the black market for weapons in that country, which they attribute to the tangible increase in the demand for illicit weapons in El Salvador. According to Guatemalan authorities, the voracity of the Salvadoran market is most felt is in the western part of Guatemala, particularly the border states of Chiquimula and Jutiapa.

“This has the biggest impact on small-time drug traffickers or criminal groups involved in the illicit arms trade,” the Guatemalan official said. “In that area nowadays, there are no more rifles.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

The Salvadoran Armed Forces have also noted this trend in both the number of weapons confiscated and the amount of violent interaction registered between them and the gangs: during all of 2014, the army engaged in 89 shootouts with criminals, while in just the first eight months of 2015 that number reached 180; last year the army seized 234 firearms of various calibers, and so far this year, they have confiscated 771.

Jose Timoteo Mendoza, alias “Chory,” the leader of the Sureños faction of the Barrio 18, has also taken note of this dynamic. In February 2014, Chory had a conversation with one of his deputies, who told him about the opportunity of buying a rifle that could shoot 45 bullets at once. The buyer complained that the seller refused to lower the price. Chory signed off on the purchase anyway and told his homeboy that prices were going up more than normal: “They are expensive because the good feelings around the truce are about to end, and without that shit there is going to be lead everywhere, you got it?”

The phone conversation was intercepted by the Attorney General's Office as part of an investigation.

The two gang members who decided to speak with El Faro agreed on another point: the only general gang order that appears to be in force is that of massive recruitment. Both said that, since the end of the truce, 11-, 12-, and 14-year-olds have become active members of their respective structures in massive numbers -- armed and keen to make blood run. Both said that their homeboys are increasingly younger, and that they are not afraid of the jails they have never entered or of the bullets they have never taken.

The member of the Revolutionaries said that his gang's policy is that each “cancha,” or leader of territorial divisions, is responsible for making his own decisions, while the “palabreros en la libre,” or high-level leaders outside of prison -- who are increasingly younger -- decide with almost total independence the level of aggression the gangs will use against police and soldiers. They also decide when to kill and when not to kill without needing to consult the incarcerated gang leaders as they did prior to the government's implementation of repressive policies. 

The MS13, normally very bureaucratic in their decision-making, has permitted almost complete autonomy of their cells as well. To illustrate this, the MS13 gang member told this story: In a gang-controlled community there was a soccer tournament, and the gang had “given the green light” (sentenced to death) one member due to suspicion of treason. The individual was a good soccer player, and he was on one of the teams that reached the final match of the tournament. On the day of the final, the soccer pitch was completely full; it was the weekend and the event was coming to a close. The street vendors placed bets in the stands, and parents brought their children to watch the match. Among them were the children of the gang member singled out as a traitor. The gang's killers waited until the referee blew the whistle to start the match, and even waited for the first few minutes to play out before murdering the alleged informant in front of everyone. With their faces uncovered they shot him once, which left him badly injured, and then chased him across the pitch in order to kill him, without remorse.

What was the lesson of that story? The gang member explained it to me as if he were talking to a fool: "That the community is worth nothing to them; you tell me if that did or did not intimidate the members of the community!"

Govt Response: Repression, Confusion

The authorities in El Salvador have been unable to come to a consensus on who is driving the rise in violence. Each time that he mentions the topic, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren states that the majority of murder victims are gang members or those who are associated with the gangs. However, the only time that the president has offered concrete statistics was when he bragged that security forces were responsible for 30 percent of the murders in March, as a result of confrontations with the gangs.

El Salvador's Minister of Public Security, Benito Lara, said in August that “the vast majority of those who have been killed in recent days were gang members.”

But homicide statistics from the National Civil Police (PNC) contradict the minister: preliminary reports by the PNC, published in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy, show that of the 911 murder victims in August, 59 percent were neither gang members nor had any association with gangs. Nevertheless, the methodology used by the president, the security minister, and the PNC to make these assertions remains unclear. 

What the executive branch is certain of is that no one should expect a significant reduction in the homicides during the Sanchez Ceren administration.

“A confrontation with crime is going to generate what is happening now: a lot of victims," said the president's spokesman, Eugenio Chicas. "We regret that, but we believe that this is the only way, and this is our strategy[...] The firmness with which we are confronting crime means we are capturing and pursuing [criminals] without quarter, and it was expected that this would produce a lot of deaths, and that is why I say that [the number of homicides] is not going to diminish at this time.”



Police officers on patrol in El Salvador. Photo: Marvin Recinos (AFP)


Chicas attributes the rise in homicides to three factors: the large number of confrontations between authorities and the gangs, the decision by the MS13 to dispute Barrio 18-held territories, and the decision by the Revolutionaries faction to purge suspected traitors from within their ranks. However, almost since their creation in Los Angeles, California, the MS13 has disputed Barrio 18 territories and vice versa, and the gangs have always carried out internal purges of suspected informants. But Chicas states that the government has detected a new variable, which also coincides with what the gang member who agreed to talk said: “The novelty is that the MS13 is free to annihilate any expression of the Barrio 18 without consulting [their leadership]. It is an extraordinary, open attack."

Chicas says that another key aspect of the government's bet is on Mano Dura is what he calls “direct confrontation.” The spokesman repeats that it is inevitable that this strategy will result in a lot of cadavers, but insists that the majority of those killed are criminals.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

However, El Faro has documented that on the morning of March 26, police officers executed eight individuals in San Blas, a coffee-growing farm in San Jose Villanueva, La Libertad. On that occasion, members of the Reaction Police Group killed six gang members, the girlfriend (who was a minor) of one of the gang members, and the clerk of the estate, who was not part of any criminal structure. According to the journalistic investigation, which has been backed by the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights Office, none of those massacred resisted, and were killed while unarmed and in submissive positions.

Chicas admits that the security forces commit abuses and says that this worries the government: “In a phenomenon such as this, no institution is without excesses. They can occur, which is why one objective must be to strengthen the focus on human rights, so that we are not lured into committing barbarities.”

At the beginning of August, the director of the PNC stated that all the police officers who participated in the massacre at San Blas are still on duty.

The panorama of violence in El Salvador is increasingly tense and also full of labyrinths: on August 29, a couple of individuals left a package on a bus at a very busy bus stop in Soyapango. For several hours traffic was stopped due to the bomb threat, which turned out to be a brick wrapped in duct tape. The previous day a vehicle containing the plastic explosive C4 was abandoned in front of the Ministry for Public Security, but it did not explode. On the morning of September 10, a vehicle did explode in front of the Housing Ministry, without causing any injuries. On that occasion Lara said that it was not clear if it had been a car bomb.

“I cannot determine it it was a car bomb or a bomb within the car; what it is was an explosive artifact,” he said.

The authorities immediately placed the responsibility for all of these criminal acts on the gangs.

*This story was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission from El Faro. See the Spanish original here

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