As part of a broader investigation detailing abuses by police in El Salvador, news outlet Factum describes how officers have used social media to coordinate and discuss extrajudicial killings and other mistreatment of suspected gang members.
A voice note is sent to the WhatsApp chat.
"Guys, I'm hearing over 911 that seven scumbags got taken out. Fantastic!"
Then replies come in. Approving emoticons, congratulations and expressions of joy.
The person who sent the message is a distinguished officer of the anti-gang unit of the Salvadoran police. Those replying are low-ranking police officers from various divisions, police investigators and civilian collaborators. The WhatsApp group chat is not officially linked to the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil - PNC). It is an informal chat between police officers and civilians united by a single thing: the conviction that gang members must be exterminated.
*This article originally appeared in Factum and has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission and republished with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original here.
Factum gained access to two of these chats through the phone of civilian referred to only as "Rastreador" ("Tracker"). Over nearly three months, this news organization monitored the daily messages and content shared on these WhatsApp groups, which have around 50 police and civilian members. Some of these people also created Facebook pages where information belonging to the police is shared, including homicide scenes, profiles of alleged gang members, personal details on these suspects' relatives and information on gang structures. As part of Rastreador's collaboration with the Special Reactionary Forces (Fuerzas Especializadas de Reacción El Salvador - FES), he created one of these pages. This organization was able to connect the phone numbers used by the police and collaborators in the WhatsApp groups to the numbers used to create Facebook pages.
Here is some of what we found.
June 2, 2017: A police officer sends the location of a wounded gang member to the WhatsApp group chat. He says that a clergyman is giving him protection in a church in the municipality of Sonsonate. The police are frustrated because the clergyman refused to hand the injured man over to them. They upload photographs and say that he is a gang leader who had been shot by the police and who had recently left prison. Others complain about the laws that forbid them from killing him immediately. "The law isn't worth shit." Another officer writes: "This is what you get for freeing that scum." Another replies: "I hope that son of a bitch dies."
In the end they arrive at a near-religious conclusion. One says, "What's God's is God's, because what good can a punk like that do? Scripture says: Every tree that doesn't bear good fruit must be cut down and thrown into the fire. What fruit is that scum going to give?"
A fellow gang member was not so fortunate. An FES team fired at him as he rode a motorcycle. The first photos of the corpse, which were uploaded to one of these chats, show a man on the floor in a pool of his own blood. His motorcycle lies between his legs and a pistol can be seen centimeters from his right hand. The police's official version of events is that the man was accelerating his motorcycle while shooting his weapon. With the same hand.
Then they send each other jokes and pornography, and move on to another subject.
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This chat is not only used to discuss the need to exterminate gang members.
In early 2017, a video was uploaded to the group. A man around 30 years old drags himself with difficulty across the patio of a police base. His body is covered with tattoos, including "Mara Salvatrucha 13." His legs are badly injured, his feet are swollen and cut and a stream of blood is coming out of his ear, congealing on his cheek. He drags himself with his hands while police officers around him mock his poor state.
"That's how sacks of garbage always drag themselves … Hey, is your ass stinging, jerk, is that why you're dragging yourself?" says one of the police officers surrounding him. The patio is long and the officers' taunts can be heard at the far end.
"He fell from the second floor, the old bat. He broke his legs," they say.
The back of the gang member is reddened by various bumps. The person filming the video pressures him to move fast. "Hurry up, you idiot!" The man drags himself over to a police car. Laughter can be heard in the background.
June 24, 2017: A police Tactical Operations Unit (Sección Táctico Operativa - STO) group reports having clashed with gang members in the Primavera, Quezaltepeque sector, La Libertad municipality. Police almost immediately uploaded photographs of the cadavers to their WhatsApp chat groups.
The first corpse is that of José Luis Polanco Escalante, 22 years of age. His eyes are open, very open, and his knees are flexed. Centimeters from his left arm is a black cap and less than half a meter away is his shirt, as if he had taken it off to die. Centimeters from his right hand is a black pistol. But the barrel is pointing backwards, as if José Luis had turned it towards himself during the alleged confrontation. His murderers took his pants down, leaving his penis exposed.
The police officers celebrate José Luis' death in one of the group chats, and his uncovered penis.
"Look, that's one for [redacted**]. He would have taken it," the officers say, mocking one of the agents in the group. But the agent defends himself.
"No. [Redacted] would've taken it," the agent replies.
The man he is referring to also responds with dark humor.
"Nah man, I like them bigger. A big ass motherfucker ha ha ha ha."
Near José Luis' corpse is that of Douglas Ramírez. Next to him are also his shirt and cap.
On its Twitter page, El Salvador's Attorney General's Office (Fiscalía General de la República - FGR) only reported the "double homicide in Primavera, Quezaltepeque sector. Exchange of fire between members of the 18 gang and the PNC."
In their chats, the police do not only celebrate the gang members' deaths. These platforms also form an organization that facilitates killings via an informal intelligence system. They also warn and guide each other when a homicide scene from a false confrontation is badly set up.
On June 29, 2017 at 5:59 PM, someone sent a photo to a group chat followed by numerous text messages. In the image is a naked young man lying in the middle of thick vegetation. His pants are rolled down to his feet and his shoes are still on. The photograph is followed by the message: "Report of an exchange of fire between the Quezaltepeque [Investigative Division (División de Investigaciones - DIN)] and 18R gang members … alias El Pedo Triste, a recognized local gang member, was killed. A firearm was left on the scene." (The term "18R" likely refers to a faction of the Barrio 18 gang known as the Revolucionarios.)
A message follows: "This guy already published this and he's naked not good for those involved in the process."
"But four of our colleagues are already detained that's what they're telling me."
"Guys we need to be careful with photos let's be ready to set up scenes so we don't get nailed after."
"Let's hope there won't be problems there."
This event was published on a number of Facebook pages that are supplied information by this WhatsApp group, including NES (Noticias El Salvador), administrated by a police agent, and Máximo Gladiador SV, administrated by an STO agent called Máximo.
Although the Attorney General's Office did not report the events on its Twitter account, as it usually does when there is a firefight between police and gang members, the Institute of Forensic Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal - IML) reported the removal of a body that day. The victim, according to IML data, was a 17-year-old male. The removal took place at 6:15 PM in a Quezaltepeque ranch.
Furthermore, when a gang member is discharged from prison, some police officers take photos of them and send them to their colleagues, along with the direction or bus route the person took after leaving jail.
On May 29, at 10 PM, a message was sent to one of the two chats accessed by Factum.
"Guys that scum is going to be leaving [Chalatenango] prison."
"He's from Colonia 10 de Octubre [in] San Marcos."
"Of the Octubres Locos clique."
"Name is [redacted]."
The member then sends six detailed photographs of a gang member's tattoos, in which his hands are on his head. Then another message is sent, simple and direct: "Gas urgently." (In El Salvador, "dar gas," or "to give gas" to someone is slang for "to kill someone.")
This network is also used to procure weapons. On at least three occasions, the police officers negotiated the purchase, sale and alteration of firearms. In one of the chats, members even discussed a workshop to modify weapons and make these "a la carte."
This informal network becomes more sophisticated when it moves from WhatsApp to Facebook. Here, some of the agents and collaborators indicated in this investigation created the pages Resumen El Salvador, Diario Leo SV, Héroe Azul Verdadero, and Máximo Gladiador SV.
All their administrators actively participate in the WhatsApp groups, from which almost all the information on the Facebook pages originate.
Máximo, the administrator of the Facebook page Máximo Gladiador SV, agreed to speak to Factum. This page has uploaded dozens of images of dead supposed gang members with the message "rata eliminada," meaning "scumbag eliminated." As well as photographs of people it claims are gang members' relatives, with the clear intention of exposing them.
"The publications on your website clearly defend the extermination of gang members. Why?" Factum asked Máximo.
"It's not a defense. Just that, normally, when there's a confrontation we publish how it's legal, right? Let's say that if two gang members died in the clash, that's how it is. Now maybe a word is used like 'rata,' but it's normal, right, to refer to antisocial people in that way. But it's not like we want to talk of … that is to say … of any death squad at any point, right," Máximo said.
These Facebook pages also have a very important mission for the killers. It allows them to receive reports and intelligence from communities. And another thing. Money.
In early January 2017, Rastreador created his own Facebook page: Grupo de Exterminio de Pandilleros El Salvador (Death Squad Against Gangs El Salvador). As Rastreador explains, this was used to publish police information on the activities of an FES group commanded by officers who participated in the WhatsApp chats. As it gained followers, it would be able to receive information from citizens that would help them locate gang members.
Shortly after being created, the page administrated by Rastreador received reports from people providing information on gang members, while others asked for help, and others still were looking to hire hit men. On one occasion, a woman wrote with an offer.
"I looked for the page Death Squad Against Gangs El Salvador, I told them that I could collaborate with them so they could clean up the area my family lives in. They answered, they told me that they appreciated it a lot, that the police were going through a rough time and that they had very low salaries. So I started sending them money. But it wasn't much, about $50 dollars once, about $100 the following time, and like that. So that they could eat something."
The woman talking has lived in the United States for over five years and, for several months, she sent money to the death squad exterminating gang members in the northern sector of San Salvador. Factum spoke to her.
She believes that by supporting death squads she is helping make El Salvador, and more specifically the municipality in which her family lives, safer.
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile
The videos on these pages are abundant and explicit: a young man dragging himself, half naked, down a dirt path while a police officer obliges him to sing; a young girl forced to do squats while carrying a huge rock on her head; two young men on their knees at a police base getting bitten by a dog and electrocuted by officers; four young men forced to lie down in an ant hill; a suspected gang member getting kicked in the stomach and ribs by a police officer while handcuffed on the ground; an elite police officer torturing a handcuffed alleged gang member with a knife, and a long list of brutal displays. It is not difficult to find this kind of material. One can simply search Google for "policía salvadoreña torturando pandilleros" ("Salvadoran police torturing gang members").
These publicized cases of gang members' extermination and torture have been successful in obtaining both information and resources, and this has been possible thanks to the immense support of the Salvadoran population. The Facebook page Héroe Azul alone has over 50,000 followers. El Salvador supports extermination, at least online.
** InSight Crime has redacted the names of some individuals for reasons of privacy and security.