Dr. José Miguel Fortín Magaña, the former head of El Salvador’s Institute of Forensic Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal – IML), acknowledges that some of the statistics used to justify ending the government’s gang truce were not, necessarily, “scientific.” His last few months as the head of the IML also led him to another intuition: there is a pattern in the assassination of gang members, which makes him think the police and armed forces are committing extrajudicial killings.
Fortín Magaña has spoken so much and so critically of the gang truce that he deserves to be considered one of the greatest opponents of the policy. However, once the truce ended, he spoke even more critically of what followed — the “war” that the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén declared against the gangs in January 2015, and the abuses that the state is committing and covering up.
El Faro: Would you say the truce is what most marked your five years at the head of the IML?
Fortín Magaña: The truce was… my statements on the truce were one of the reasons behind my ejection from the government of Mauricio Funes, which is unfortunate, because although it doesn’t look like it, I don’t like to fight. I had to say a series of things the government wasn’t interested in saying, and which I’ve had to continue to say throughout all this time.
Beyond your relationship with the Funes administration, do you think the truce will go down in history as a transcendent event for the country?
The truce will be remembered — or else it won’t be — as the government’s attempt to cover up a reality. It was you [El Faro] who revealed that the truce existed, and that the government had participated in that process. I think what was really important in those five years, what really marked my time as head of the IML, was the violence in general.
The violence and the truce are related. Has your personal position on the process changed, after the truce ended?
Well, the reality is dynamic. In that sense, I modified my position according to what reality presented. Nevertheless, I was pretty intent on sending out warnings, and I’m afraid that time has proved me right — the truce wasn’t going to be the solution, because all it was was an agreement between [the gangs] to not kill each other, and that the government wouldn’t attack them. If there was no change in the thinking of the gangs, then by the time the speeches have ended, the perks and the gifts, then what was going to happen happened: the war came back, because this is a type of war. And it didn’t just come back, it came back stronger, because [the gangs] had time to strengthen themselves and recruit more members.
Photo by Fred Ramos for El Faro. Republished with permission.
Your position of being openly opposed to the truce, was that inspired by an ideological position?
So we should take it that all of your statements on the truce were scientific statements?
Of course! And the best proof of that is everything I said would happen, happened. I said that the truce wouldn’t last, that the gangs would come out of it stronger, and that it was all political pantomime.
Yes, the truce failed, but could it be that your prediction was like someone waiting for a table to collapse, then gives it a kick, and says, ‘Look, it collapsed?’
That I gave it a kick?
One of many, at the very least.
No. The analogy should be: someone sees that a table could collapse, and yells, “Hey! This table has a busted leg, fix it, because it’s about to fall down.” That’s all that I could do.
In early August 2012, you called a press conference to say that the truce was falling apart, based on a slight increase [in homicides] during a week of holidays. And August ended up being the most peaceful month of that year.
If you have a busted-down vehicle that you try to fix with super-glue instead of welding, maybe it’s not going to make noise for awhile, but you know that solution isn’t going to last very long.
But to continue with your analogy, on that occasion you organized a press conference to say that the tires were flat when they were brand new.
Then I need to respond by putting the responsibility on El Faro, because you reported that there was a truce and that it was backed by the government. By publishing that, that was the basis for making a criminal prognosis.
“Everything I said would happen, happened. I said that the truce wouldn’t last, that the gangs would come out of it stronger, and that it was all political pantomime.”
In 2012, the IML received fewer reports of disappeared people, and you fed the idea that there would be more. And clandestine cemeteries existed well before the truce. You sold the idea to the public that the decrease in homicides were fictitious. Don’t you think you fed an erroneous perception of the gang truce?
Do you think if I had stayed quiet, and hadn’t warned of the fragility of a totally fictitious truce… do you think if I hadn’t said anything, today we’d be living in peace and without gangs?
No, but with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that you didn’t have a scientific basis: you said that the truce was falling apart when it was at its best moment, and this helped feed the erroneous idea that homicides were dropping because gang members were burying the bodies. The statistics from the IML contradict this. Your words were opinions, not scientific facts.
It was intuition, and intuition isn’t scientific but it’s valid. I judged that the truce wasn’t going to last, and it started to fall apart.
There are some Salvadorans who say that homicides went up in 2015 because more gang members are dying, and they celebrate. Would you say someone who thinks that is correct?
No, I wouldn’t, because no one knows that. There is no clear base for figuring that out, and there have been media reports saying that dead gang members represent 30 percent of the total. Some university said something similar. And one week the government stopped saying that 80 percent of the deaths involved gang members, and started saying that 30 percent involved gang members.
What can be proved is that people are being killed more viciously.
In 2015 there were many bodies riddled with bullets.
How many is “many?” Is there a pattern?
A pattern, yes. And let’s go back to the same: why say that I’m the one who wants the table to collapse? No, I’m the one who’s warning that something is going on. Doesn’t it make you wonder where all these 9mm bullets are coming from? It’s an incredible amount of bullets that are being fired in every homicide! During the Civil War, both sides had countries that fed them arms. So who’s arming the gangs today? Where are they getting all these bullets from? Every death involves something like a box of bullets, to put it more visually.
Based on the bodies arriving to the IML, would you dare estimate how many are gang members and how many are civilians?
No one can make any scientific conclusions about it. Then there’s the issue of what people will simply spout off and say, which you can’t ignore. I’ll give you an example. My secretary — and you can ask her about this on your way out — came in one day crying, because someone in her family had been killed, and she told me they were good people. And I believe her. But then they’ve come out and said that they were gang members… and they weren’t gang members!
“So who’s arming the gangs today? Where are they getting all these bullets from? Every death involves something like a box of bullets…”
It’s exactly the same thing that happens with the death squads. The death squads, which you yourselves have investigated, do exist, because the IML has received bodies with pronounced gunpowder marks at the bullet entry point, which means those bullets were fired at a very short distance. And the direction of the bullet suggests that the victims were kneeling or sitting down.
It’s not just the San Blas massacre. There are various cases…
No, it’s not just one case. That’s what’s interesting!
Isn’t there anything else the IML can do when there are anomalies — when you suspect that the official version of what happened is false? In legal terms, for example?
Nothing. Very little. The laws in this country are… this is a very protectionist state, in terms of its laws, and the IML can’t do anything else.
What about press conferences or speaking before the international community?
Isn’t that what I’ve been doing the whole past year? Don’t you think that me saying this or that had anything to do with my ejection from the IML? Denouncing is the only thing we can do, and I know that it bothers them, and that’s why I’m sure that the next IML director isn’t going to be as “stupid” as me. I’m sure of that.
Within the state, who’s in charge of covering up cases like the San Blas massacre?
Well… evidently… it’s those who investigate the crimes, isn’t it?
The Attorney General?
Yes, the problem is that there’s an absence of investigations into crimes. The problem isn’t that there’s bad investigations — there are cases that simply aren’t investigated.
Let’s go back to a key topic: do you believe there is reason to suspect that the National Civil Police and the Armed Forces are committing extrajudicial killings, based on what can be inferred from the autopsies?
I fear that this is something one must consider. I don’t have absolute certainty, but everything indicates to us that they are committing extrajudicial assassinations. At the same time, it is also evident that the general population is indifferent.
More than indifference… the public is applauding.
Indifference and applause. What are the comments when [El Faro] conducts an investigation that involves the government? They say you sold out, that you are in the pocket of [opposition political party] ARENA, that you support the gangs, and I don’t know what else… we are on the brink of hell.
What are your thoughts?
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