What goes through the mind of a soldier who earns $220 per month to patrol the streets of El Salvador, the world’s most dangerous country? How do they deal with the demands of the state, the lack of resources, and the everyday paranoia? The soldiers know how to fulfill policing roles, but they complain that they are paid less -- and treated worse -- than police officers.
On August 5, 2015, television journalist Kriscia Recinos chatted with a group of soldiers as they worked a bus checkpoint in an area of San Salvador where gangs had burned two vehicles a few days prior. The soldiers were there to offer security to the buses that were taking the risk of operating on a normal schedule. They talked about the weather, about the security situation, but the conversation turned silent when Recinos asked about their working conditions. The journalist noticed the question had made the soldiers uncomfortable so she decided to leave, but before she could go, one of the soldiers pulled her aside.
This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.
“A soldier told to me to wait around for two minutes, the guy coming up from behind will help you out,” she recounted. A few minutes later, a soldier who didn’t want to identify himself handed her a hand-written note and said to her, “help us please.” The note said, “Please, help us tell the Minister of Defense to give us the $600 bonus and a raise, because our salary isn’t enough.” Below the message for Minister Payes, the soldiers had left another note: “Please, we’d like to talk to you about this, give us your number.” For the journalist, the scene was almost unreal, and the shadowy tactics of the soldiers, in Recinos’ opinion, had to do with “all the fear they had of authority, of their bosses.” The journalist decided not to follow up while on the highway because she didn’t think television cameras would help the soldiers tell their story, given their level of fear of speaking out. Instead, the journalist passed me the message from the anonymous soldiers.
Something is happening to the soldiers that El Salvador has patrolling the streets on public security missions, for them to secretly turn to a television reporter and give her anonymous messages to communicate to their boss, the Minister of Defense.
Seated in a parking lot in downtown San Salvador, posted behind a couple of cars, the soldier who had written the anonymous message agreed to meet with me. There are six soldiers in total, although some of their colleagues arrive, just to leave again when they hear what we are talking about. Others stay and share their stories, or rather, their complaints about how the military treats them. The soldiers lower their voices when people pass by on the street, and they pay attention to the people parking nearby.
One of the soldiers is a young man, around 24 years old, who tells me that he enlisted in the military when he discovered he was going to be a father. He signed up in 2012 with the idea that he would be able to support his girlfriend. Both were pursuing bachelor’s degrees at the time. This young soldier complains that his life in the military wears him down, especially during this time of war with the gangs. “I never imagined that I’d be a soldier," he said. "We work 15 days straight and we can’t even murmur a complaint or they will accuse us of sedition. You should see the broken cots we sleep on.”
Soldiers guard a truck carrying civilians
Another one of the soldiers, who was recently on leave after 12 days of service, agreed about the bad working conditions. “The bosses just give orders," he complained. "It doesn’t matter to them if I’ve eaten or if I have anything to drink. I worked for eight days with hemorrhagic dengue because here they don’t care about sickness or incapacities."
The meeting turned cathartic, like a type of collective group therapy to talk about what they are legally not supposed to talk about. Article 120 of the Military Career Law sanctions and considers it a grave matter if a soldier manifests “in his conversations a rejection or apathy towards obeying the laws and legal orders of his superiors.” Each story told by the soldiers in this piece constitutes an individual act of rebellion.
The soldiers are afraid, and with good reason. On July 24, 2015, a group of soldiers were accused of sedition for complaining about working conditions in a protest that was shut down by the Ministry of Defense. Ten soldiers met near the Clock of Flowers on the outskirts of San Salvador and intended to march to the Legislative Assembly to demand a bonus of $600, just like the one their partners in war, the police, had received four days before.
The protesters were originally only a group of 10, but the high command of the Armed Forces decided that it had to be 14 to send a message. An act like this could not be tolerated, now that ordinary soldiers had joined them in being accused of sedition: a commander, a second lieutenant, a lieutenant, and a captain -- in hierarchical order -- were in charge of the small band of soldiers. The crime of the officers, in theory, was to have permitted the soldiers to abandon their duties, even though during their military tribunals all of them were accused of plotting a protest. While the case, according to defense attorneys, won’t proceed any further and while all of the soldiers are now cleared of charges, in that moment, the case served as a lesson for the rest of the Salvadoran military: complaining is prohibited during this war.
There is no way to get around this case when talking with the soldiers. In one of the conversations I had with a soldier that was patrolling the municipality of Soyapango, the soldier raised his gun and looked both ways across the street before telling me: “It is unjust because we have rights. We’re human beings just like the police. The soldier needs to reclaim his rights. Sure the military isn’t a deliberative body, but it’s not stupid. Munguia [Payes] is well paid, well fed, and well rested,” he told me.
“Do you think the general could do what you all do here?” I asked.
“He didn’t do it,” the soldier answered, later giving a hint of sarcastic smile.
Barring a miracle, El Salvador will earn the title of the most violent country in the world in 2015, based on the number of registered homicides this year. Just halfway through September, the country averaged 24 homicides a day, although in August that figure reached 30 murders per day. The government says with a straight face that this historic increase in violence was anticipated as part of a security strategy that they want to sustain, without any alterations, at least until the end of 2016.
The government's logic is simple: attack the gangs to take back the territories they currently control. Based on this logic, the role the soldiers in must play is clear. But the militarization of the country's security strategy is not a new phenomenon. The administration of former President Mauricio Funes also promoted militarization beginning on September 28, 2009, with an executive decree that assigned 5,515 members of the armed forces to public security roles. In 2012, that initial quantity had risen to 6,300, and in 2013, Funes had 7,602 soldiers patrolling the streets.
The government's logic is simple: attack the gangs to take back the territories they currently control. Based on this logic, the role the soldiers must play is clear.
Under the administration of current President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the increase in military personnel taking on public security roles has reached its peak. Currently, there are 7,900 armed forces in these roles. According to Defense Minister Payes, this is the largest number of soldiers deployed to the streets since the country's civil war ended with the Peace Accords in 1992.
“The Armed Forces are an institution permanently at the service of the Nation. It is obedient, professional, apolitical, and non-deliberative,” says article 211 of the Constitution. 25 years ago, the FMLN guerrilla group wanted to dismantle the Armed Forces, claiming human rights violations. The solution they argued for was to eliminate the word “permanent” from that article of the constitution. The military’s strategy in opposition to the reforms was to stall negotiations until the FMLN withdrew. Ironically, the FMLN government now uses the same military that it once wanted to dissolve in an unprecedented confrontation with the gangs.
Heading out to the street to perform the duties of a cop generates frustration among the soldiers. Between 2010 and 2011, for example, when they assigned soldiers to control the entrances of prisons where gang members were being held, the soldiers became targets for the gangs. In 2015, the year that has broken homicide records as a result of the war between gangs and the state, the soldiers once again have become targets. Through September of this year, 13 soldiers have been killed in 2015. The soldiers, from their position on the streets, ask if the work they do, and what the state offers them in return for risking their life, is worth it.
A soldier on patrol near the Cojutepeque prison
The soldier who enlisted when he found out he was going to be a father wears a helmet, but the protective interior foam only covers half of the helmet’s shell. He wears shoes with Velcro snaps that no longer work. “Look at this rubbish we walk around with. Does this look like adequate equipment?” he asked rhetorically. Another member of his patrol interrupted us to ask if purchasing new equipment is more important than a possible salary raise.
Soldiers of second-class rank earn $250 and soldiers of first-class rank earn $310, both before tax. The soldiers who work in public security roles are left with $220 a month. In this back-and-forth conversation between the soldiers, they have arrived at a dilemma: continue risking their lives for $220 a month, but with a new helmet; or risk their lives using sub-standard equipment, but for higher monthly wages.
The government doesn’t think too much about these problems. On July 10, 2015, the Legislative Assembly approved a budget reorientation of $28 million -- part of a $100 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration -- that provided a $600 bonus for police officers, who, by law, are legally obligated to provide for public security.
Perhaps there won’t be widespread clamor for their cause, but many of the Salvadoran troops believe they could get a better salary -- one that corresponds to the conditions of fighting the war against gangs -- with a bonus similar to the one police officers received. Nevertheless, a message from the armed forces on July 27 reiterated what President Sanchez Ceren had said when he requested the budget reorientation: that the funds would be used to “ensure the salary and necessary equipment for military personnel that find themselves working in public security roles or for the constant improvement of military infrastructure in the country.” Salaries and equipment were all that Sanchez Ceren mentioned, nothing about bonuses.
In the last 23 years, 7,415 Salvadorans applied to enter the Captain General Gerardo Barrio Military School (EMCGGB by its Spanish initials). The EMCGGB graduates career military officials, the future leaders of the armed forces. Below these leaders are the general troops that don’t have to go through any specific schooling other than drilling and quarters formation. To know how many young men, like the ones who handed the television journalist the anonymous message, enroll annually in the ranks of the military to become ordinary soldiers is perhaps a secret. El Faro asked, via an official Information Access Request, for the number of high-ranked Salvadoran military personnel but the Ministry of Defense declared the information classified for reasons of national security.
The figures the armed forces did turn over indicate that the number of people who have applied to military schools (including the Aeronautics and Military Education Center and the Naval Education and Instruction Center) has increased at the same rate that the militarization of public security functions has increased. In 2011, 560 applied to enter the military school, the largest number of applicants since the end of the civil war in 1992. Before 2011, the number of applications had never exceeded 500. After 2011, the number hasn’t been lower than 527.
The common soldier is the jack-of-all-trades for the state.
In contrast to the general troops, officials who graduate at high ranks don’t face the resource shortages that their subordinates suffer. A rank and file soldier, like the ones currently patrolling El Salvador, can be asked to accompany police, or they can be assigned to guard state facilities like prisons, schools, or the stations of the Metropolitan San Salvador Integrated Transportation System, a private entity that circulates via the public rail system. In addition to this, if it rains, if it floods, or if there is a landslide anywhere in the country, they can be sent to support the response effort to national emergencies. The common soldier is the jack-of-all-trades for the state.
Common soldiers can even have their designated sleeping time interrupted. If they are lucky enough to get to protect the scene of a murder overnight or if they are called to participate in a capture operation in the early hours of the morning, that directly affects their off time. “In military life there is almost no rest. Day and night, whatever emergency, we are mentally prepared and ready to go,” says the soldier I got to know who patrols the municipality in Soyapango. The common soldiers are usually given time off after 12 days working. They regroup at headquarters and from there are sent home unarmed. In contrast, police officers are authorized to bring their firearms home. A soldier on leave is unarmed. Tours of service can sometimes last 2, or 3, or 5 days more than they are supposed to. Usually, soldiers work 12 days continuously and then are sent on leave for 5 days. That is to say, that in a 30-day month they have time to go home only once.
The food of the rank and file soldiers is another problem for the troops, mostly because they sometimes have to work entire shifts without having eaten anything, since the food schedule varies. The food is usually rice with beans, and many times it arrives cold. The soldiers that work in municipalities removed from the capital have to add cooking duties to their list of tasks because there are no hired cooks. The military only provides these soldiers with basic grains or flour. One soldier on patrol in the municipality of Rosario de Mora, San Salvador told me that sometimes they have to put on “sad faces for people” so they’ll do them the favor of cooking for them.
The common soldiers are people who live in poverty. Out of habit, but more than anything out of survival, they knock on the doors of headquarters to enlist. A soldier who left his work as a maize farmer to join the military told me, “I like it because my father was in the military. The pattern in the family was to become a soldier. Besides, economic need obligates one to do it, that’s why one bears it. Working in the fields is insecure and you earn less than $110, more or less. Tell me what you would do, earning a monthly salary like this?” he asks. A patrol soldier makes double what one can make working the fields: swap a miserable salary for a less miserable salary.
On September 10, around noon at the Clock of Flowers Station, I report to the employee of SUBES -- the business that runs the public transportation system in San Salvador -- and I explain to them that I am doing a report. I ask to speak with the four soldiers that are there. One of them acts as a spokesperson for the rest when I explain my intentions.
“We are not like the other institutions where they whisper.”
“Just answer me this: Has your work mindset changed after the murder of your colleagues? “
“Yes, it has changed.”
And this is all that the soldier said to me. He insisted that they don’t speak to the press “because they can be damaging to us.” I just wanted to understand what is going through the heads of the soldiers that know that in this war, they can be targets of an attacker trying to put a bullet in their head, just like what happened on July 21, 2015. That Sunday, two common soldiers were murdered near the metro transportation station near the Clock of the Flowers. One of the attackers disguised himself as homeless to get sufficiently near one of the soldiers. They shot him at point blank range. The suspects escaped using a car they abandoned a few blocks away.
In El Salvador in 2015, not even an Independence Day parade with tanks can take place without the protection of armed soldiers.
Twenty minutes after the murder of 21-year-old Jose Jaime Henriquez Ayala and 26-year-old Jose Otoniel Perlera, an investigation started to take shape near the scene of the crime. Around one o'clock in the afternoon, soldiers, members of the elite Police Reaction Group (GRP by its Spanish initials), and members of the Unit for Public Order (UMO by its Spanish initials) questioned people, fired their weapons, ran across roofs, pounded on doors, and searched suspicious houses in the Quiñonez, La Charca, and El Coro neighborhoods, adjacent to the area where the soldiers were murdered. A helicopter protected the search effort, the police were shouting, and it wasn’t a good day to be wearing a striped shirt: security camera footage from the scene showed that one of the suspects was wearing a shirt with horizontal stripes, which turned virtually every man wearing a similarly striped shirt into a suspect.
I walked a few meters to the metro stop, resigned to the fact that the soldiers wouldn’t say anything more to me, but then one of them called after me. Now it wasn’t me asking the questions.
“Who are you?”
“A journalist that is doing a report on the working conditions of solders.”
The soldier asked to see my press credentials and I gave them to him.
“Show me your identification card too.”
He asked for a pen from the first soldier that had told me they wouldn’t talk to me. I offered him mine. He asked for a piece of paper and took down my name and address. He asked me where I was from, my age, the year I was born. He asked again because he didn’t believe me.
“What do you need my address for?” I ask. He ignores me and continues to ask if what he has taken down is correct. I insist he answer my question.
“Just a precaution. This will stay between us,” he tells me.
I try to take advantage of the situation and I ask if he’ll answer my questions. The soldier stays silent. I insist:
“You work more than the police right? Shouldn’t you earn more?”
“I’m not saying yes or no.”
I try an easier question, to try to break the ice:
“How many years have you been in the military?”
“Is it hard to work here after the attack?”
“You have to be alert and looking around you 360 degrees. Only God knows what they’ll try.”
“Thanks for showing your documents.” They give me my papers back. They leave. I leave in one of the metro buses and get off near the government district. I approach another soldier.
“Hello, look, I want to ask you some questions…”
“First, don’t talk to me like that, I’m an authority.”
“I am doing a story," is all I can get out before he turns away without letting me finish.
Three days later, on Independence Day, September 15, six soldiers patrol in front of the Gerardo Barrios Plaza. I approach four of them to ask if they’ll speak with me. They refuse. Two of them give me their numbers. They promise to talk, but over the next few days, they don’t answer my calls. In the metro station, in front of the Surgeons Hospital, a soldier doesn’t even have time to let me finish my question before assuring me that he won’t answer.
The armed forces of El Salvador report strange stories about soldiers that have been killed. According to the military, only 8 soldiers have been murdered since 2009. The military only includes soldiers killed while on active duty in this figure. That is to say, they ignore the soldiers who have been killed while on leave. Just in the last trimester of 2010 and the first trimester of 2012, a dozen soldiers were killed by gang members, according to reports from when the incidents happened. The official statistics also ignore what happened in 2014, when 14 soldiers were murdered, according to figures from the country's forensic authority, Medicina Legal. This year has already surpassed the figures for 2014.
Soldiers carry the tomb of a fellow soldier who was killed while on leave
Poorly paid, poorly fed, mistreated, persecuted, and murdered. How does an armed soldier react against his enemies? On April 18 of this year, 4 soldiers killed 9 suspected gang members in Zacatecoluca, La Paz. The government classified the incident as a confrontation in which no soldiers were killed or wounded. More recently, on August 16 of this year, 5 gang members died in a shootout with soldiers in Panchimalco. Regarding this incident, Defense Minister Payes said that, “our actions and those of the police adhered to standard rules of engagement.” The soldiers have confronted gang members, but in those confrontations there is no evidence that lead one to doubt their use of force, as there has been in confrontations between police and gang members.
On my walk with the patrol soldier in Soyapango, I asked him what he thought about what the people call for these days, that they kill, massacre, and burn the gang members.
“This is where I have to stop, I can’t give you any more comments,” he told me, and that was where our walk ended. I asked the same question to the soldiers who wrote the anonymous message that started this whole story. One of them, short with his face obscured by a cap pulled low, was the first to respond. “This is a really touchy subject," he said. " You don’t want to give them the okay to kill us.”
On September 15, the soldiers march, different sections at different rhythms. In the street there are tanks and the children watching the parade are taking photos. Above the Magico Gonzalez stadium there are helicopters and combat planes flying. “The ground shakes below the enemy when the soldier advances to complete his mission,” says the announcer in the stadium. But in the streets, it’s a different reality. Next to the soldiers of the different units that are part of the parade are other soldiers who are there to guard them. In El Salvador in 2015, not even an Independence Day parade with tanks can take place without the protection of armed soldiers.
Inside the stadium, someone asks the Minister of Defense about the importance of soldiers to the Independence Day celebrations. An improvised press conference forms around the Minister. Before Payes answers the question he realizes that there are television cameras in front of him, so he turns to Captain Zepeda, his chief press officer:
“Is my hair okay?” he asks, while he tries to straighten his hair.
“Yes, my general,” answers Zepeda. Only then does the Minister offer a response and say that the support of the population raises the morale of the soldiers, who are part of a “sacred institution.”
I listen to the general and remember the complaints of one the soldiers I met with in the parking lot a few weeks back: “Sometimes you just have to throw down a towel, there aren’t any cots or mats. We sleep in the parking lots. There are sentinels who stand guard at night.”
“Minister, how would you describe the working conditions of soldiers, especially those that are carrying out public security duties?” I ask.
“Well, normal. I have also lived in that situation, and sometimes, I will visit a unit and I’ll stay the night. I can stay and sleep in the quarters where they are sleeping. The armed forces is an institution that works 24 hours a day in whatever weather, time, or circumstance. To us, fulfilling our work duties, our mission, sometimes means sleeping on the ground, in a storm. This is how we do it. We are accustomed to doing it.”
“That is interesting. When was the last time you went to sleep soldiers?”
“Well, uh, in the era, during the times of the war…”
*This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.