HomeNewsAnalysisLiving Within the Boundaries of El Salvador's Gang 'War'

Living Within the Boundaries of El Salvador's Gang 'War'


Every day, thousands of Salvadorans travel through areas governed by the Mara Salvatrucha into areas governed by one of the Barrio 18's two factions. Many lives depend on these invisible boundaries. And while it has been this way for years, the rules have become stricter with time.

"You won't believe it, you never get used to it. I leave my house afraid. I come home afraid. I've thought about getting several IDs that say I was born in different parts of the country in order to avoid problems."

So says a young twenty-something resident of Bosques del Rio, a neighborhood in the municipality of Soyapango. We are traveling by car down La Fuente, a two-lane street that connects Bosques del Rio with a shopping mall, Unicentro. A 10-minute drive in light traffic. Along this street, with some small detours, one passes through eight different neighborhoods. Rarely does the definition of working class or lower middle-class better apply than to the people living in these areas. Secretaries, workers, business managers, schoolteachers. Little houses with two rooms and a living-dining room-kitchen. Minimum housing, they call the homes, which are government subsidized. Bosques del Rio is about two kilometers down La Fuente. Those traveling by bus will cross, in just a matter of minutes, more than five war borders. No euphemisms: armed conflict, death.

This is the first part of an article which originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

El Salvador's armed forces estimate an average of 16 Salvadorans were killed every day during the 12-year civil war. In 2015 the national average was over 18, meaning we were more deadly than during our war. The year ended with 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. One of every 1,000 Salvadorans was murdered.

16-01-06-ElSalvador-GraffitiA man walks by a MS13 "placazo" in the department of San Miguel.

On either side of La Fuente in Soyapango, there are eight colonies dominated by the MS13 and Sureños faction of the Barrio 18. Some of the colonies are among the most iconic ones taken by gangs throughout the metropolitan area of San Salvador. The colony of the quoted youth -- who for obvious reasons asked his name and other details of his life be omitted – is Bosques del Rio. It is governed by the Barrio 18 Sureños, one of two factions of the gang that was born in California.

The young man is not a gang member. He is a worker, who has worked since he was young in the garment industry, stores, and malls. He is not a gang member. Nonetheless, every time he got a job he has had to undress before personnel bosses so they could check if he had gang tattoos. For his last job they even made him take a polygraph test. The first question was: Do you belong to a gang? The young man does not. But he is from Bosques del Rio, and in the most violent country in the world the name of your neighborhood is like a second last name.

"My main problem is Monteblanco," he says in the car.


The motto of the MS13 captures the spirit of the gang effect: see, hear, and be silent.

The Mara Salvatrucha govern Monteblanco, and seek to prevent people from Bosques del Rio from entering its territory. This includes preventing Bosque del Rio youths from studying at the Agustin Linares school. The quoted youth should have studied at this school, it being a 15-minute walk from his home. But as the borders are the borders, he chose to travel over an hour every day to study in the capital, far from where he was known. Many parents in Bosques del Rio opt for scrapping together money to pay for their children to remain within the colony's borders, sending them to study at the private school Liceo Cristiano Reverendo Juan Bueno.

It's not that the Monteblanco MS13 behave uniquely. Such are the border rules of this war. It doesn't matter of someone is a gang member or not. If you live on one side of a border, that's your side, whether you've chosen it or not. For most of these people, such as our youngster, the gang demarcation is more important than the official demarcation: one can forget their voting district and the consequences will not be anywhere near as severe as if they forget the colony their walking through belongs to an opposing gang. Governments come and go, but gangs have been present for the past two decades.

Inside many of these colonies are police stations that receive almost no complaints from people living in the neighborhood. The motto of the MS13 captures the spirit of the gang effect: see, hear, and be silent. Its longer version has a higher degree of cynicism: see, hear, and be silent if you want to enjoy life.

The gangs have demarcated much of the country. According to police data from 2013, there are cliques from both gangs in El Salvador's 14 departments. The department with the fewest cliques, according to official statistics, is Morazan, with 18. Gang demarcation is strict in poor neighborhoods. Even the exclusive Zona Rosa of San Salvador can be considered territory of the Barrio 18's Revolucionarios faction from Las Palmas -- in March 2014 they shot up an Argentine restaurant that refused to pay extortion fees. Yet gang members in this area are not asking to see the IDs of bus passengers, such as they do in the colonies of Soyapango.

"The 41B bus passes through Bosques del Rio. The problem is that the route enters Monteblanco to pick up people. The trip takes about three minutes, five if the bus is full. But I cannot enter that colony. So I do two things. Sometimes I get off at the entrance to Monteblanco and hope the bus comes back out. But sometimes the more aware riders do not let me get on because there are MS13 members on board, and I have to wait for another."

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

This same strategy, each morning. Every morning. Being young and living in a gang community is to live as a marked person.

"Or I pass through Los Angeles, to go out the entrance of the San Jose colony. There, there is not much problem, because it is the same gang as my neighborhood. On the way out, I grab a 41B or A bus. But there is still at risk because of the following areas… It's rather complicated: El Limón, MS13; La Guayacán, MS13; La Kiwani, MS13. There they stand on a wall to see who is on the bus. I try and sit next to a woman and hide next to her. They whistle to see who reacts. You have to go with your head down."

Beginning in the early morning, hundreds of Salvadorans walk with their head down.

The strategy of this youth is not his alone. Men, women, and young people all have similar methods of avoiding Monteblanco if they live in Bosques del Rio. In early December 2015, the Monteblanco MS13 circulated a paper in the 41B and A buses. It forbade people from Bosques del Rio who weren't members of the Barrio 18 Sureños faction from getting off at the entrance of the colony, along the border. The young man said almost no one has ignored the order. The survival instinct has developed over years among the inhabitants of this network of communities, which are immersed in this war being disputed by a government estimated 60,000 gang members. This war affects the daily life of millions of Salvadorans.

People from Bosques del Rio may not know the phone number of the nearest police station, but they definitely know what gang member is the palabrero (shot caller) of their neighborhood.

"When I return from work, at night, the bus stops at the entrance to La Kiwani. I get off before and quickly cross the street, going via San Jose to arrive in Los Angeles, and from there I enter Bosques del Rio."

We continue on in the car. After one colony comes another. The boy has not finished saying, "here dominate the Sureños," before we move into MS13 territory. The placazos signal each territory. An M and an S of more than two meters in Montes. A hand making the MS13 signal decorates the entire wall of a house. Further ahead, a small painting on a concrete wall, as if it were a road sign, reads, "Here begins the domain of 18." Before Monteblanco, where the youth gets off the bus every morning, two boys talk on a phone. "They are posts," says the young man, without emphasis, with the normalcy someone uses to say it's raining. Posts, or gang lookouts, are normal in this country, just part of the landscape millions of Salvadorans see everyday. People from Bosques del Rio may not know the phone number of the nearest police station, but they definitely know what gang member is the palabrero (shot caller) of their neighborhood. To survive one must understand who is boss.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

"Here is what I told you about the Guayacan," says the young man when we pass the entrance to the colony. He is referring to last week, when a neighbor shouted from home to not go to work. The neighbor had received a call from a relative who said the MS13 gang members in Guayacán were waiting, pistol in hand, for buses, and were reviewing any young people. They were looking for tattoos. For enemy gang members. The problem is that, for our youth, this is not an excuse for missing work. So the son of the neighbor woman and the young man decided to venture together and chance their luck on a strategy.

"We got off a few blocks away, opposite the gas station, before Monteblanco and Guayacán. We walked along the San Jose to the soccer field, and we grabbed a 41A bus. It was true; the gangs were reviewing people that day."

These colonies are just like dozens of other colonies. Normalcy in El Salvador looks more like this than a place where this does not happen. The funny thing is that the country's political life is deceiving. Mark the day when the everyday life of Salvadoran youth sets the tone for a legislative plenary in the country. If anyone painted borders between one gang and the next, from above they would see a puzzle of small pieces. A ring of colonies demarcated by invisible boundaries surrounded by another ring of similar colonies. There is Montes de San Bartolo III, MS13; Los Conacastes, Barrio 18; Bosques de Prusia, MS13; El Pepeto, MS13 and Barrio 18; El Limón, MS13: El Arenal, MS13; Las Margaritas, MS13; Las Campaneras, Barrio 18.

16-01-06-ElSalvador-Football Gang graffiti is prevalent in El Salvador's poor communities. This Barrio 18 "placazo" is on a wall surrounding the soccer field at the Santa Eduviges urban school in Soyapango (San Salvador).

We arrive at Unicentro. The agreement with the youth to make this short journey was to not enter Bosques del Rio, because someone might think he was giving information to a police detective.

I ask again if he's gotten used to it. He repeats.

"You never get used to it."

The idea that people get used to living within gang boundaries, or that farmers like to get up at three in the morning, or that domestic workers manage to cover their expenses on miserable salaries, are ideas born from the comfort and cowardice of those who are not these people. People in areas where gangs do not dominate say many things about people living where gangs do dominate. Rarely do they ask these people their perspective. It seems, if you look at the news, that they only visit these people when they have a corpse, and they almost always ask if the person, in life, was a gang member.


The idea that people get used to living within gang boundaries ... are ideas born from the comfort and cowardice of those who are not these people.

All the tension that accompanies the day from start to finish, just to get to and from work, may even be the least of the problems arising from these gang boundaries. A father told me he couldn't visit his son at home, and vice versa. He and his son live 10 meters apart, but the street that separates them in the Popotlán II colony, located in the municipality of Apopa, is not a street but a border. On the son's side the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios govern. On the father's side, the Barrio 18 Sureños. When this father and son want to see each other, they must meet in another municipality or in a mall. In December, a woman from the municipality of El Carmen, in the department of Cuscatlán, could not go to the funeral of her aunt, who was killed by gangsters. The funeral was in another territory, governed by a different gang.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

The official discourse tends to suggest that the majority of victims are gang members, that this war only kills fighters. Nevertheless, tens of thousands people living on the margins may die for a simple mistake. If the father crosses the street to say hello to his son. If the woman goes to her aunt's funeral. If the youth falls asleep and does not get off the bus at the entrance to Monteblanco.

I ask the youth how he managed to learn this framework of the colonies if he is unable to visit them. He says he visited some before the war intensified and the borders became inviolable. He remembers having played in the soccer tournament of the Los Ángeles colony with a Bosques del Río team, until one day, at noon, there was a shoot out between teams. He even remembers that the El Pepeto soccer field is made of artificial grass, "well carpeted," but this sector was in the MS13 side and he has not played there in years, nor in Monteblanco. It is a slow, constant learning process. A shoot out there, a dead youth in front of El Limón, a gang sign on some soccer field, a gang roadblock at the entrance to Guayacán...

The youth explains in the best way he can how he learned the map of his life.

"Because it is a person's daily fear. One has to know where to walk and where not to. Because one has lived all their life here."

*This is the first part of an article which originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

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