Miguel Angel Tobar was a protected witness for the government of El Salvador who admittedly killed over 50 people but also helped put more than 30 gang members in prison. He was killed while hiding out in one of the most peaceful parts of the country. This is the second of a two-part series. See part one here.
During the trial against the two policemen who had allegedly participated in the 2009 murder of a fellow gang member, Miguel Angel Tobar, alias "El Niño" -- an MS13 gang member who served as a witness for El Salvador's government in that trial -- was not yet living in the neighborhood of Las Pozas in San Lorenzo. El Niño was living in El Refugio, very close to the municipality of Atiquizaya. He lived in a little house on a plot of land in front of the police station. The house was paid for by the police and the Attorney General's Office. In theory, the authorities had made him leave Atiquizaya because those same authorities were convinced that the gang leader "Chepe Furia," who was imprisoned thanks to El Niño's testimony, had infiltrated that municipality's police force.
In El Refugio, El Niño lived with his partner of 18 years and his two-year-old daughter Marbely. They lived off what El Niño was able to do, which was growing marijuana, or importing marijuana from Guatemala, which he sold in small quantities to the few people who knew he lived in El Refugio. In addition, every month a unit of the Salvadoran Justice Department, known as the UTE, sent him a basket full of basic groceries, something they do for all protected witnesses who don't live in safe houses. It's a miserly food stipend.
The UTE takes care of some 1,000 people each year. The vast majority are victims or eyewitnesses of some crime. Only about 50 each year are protected witnesses like El Niño. The Attorney General and police protect murderers, thieves and human smugglers so that they will testify in court. The agreement is simple: protection and maintenance in exchange for betraying a group of criminals in court.
In return for his cooperation, the state gave El Niño a little house with a plot of land and a monthly food basket. That basket included four pounds of beans, four pounds of rice, a bit of pasta, ketchup, salt, sugar, oil, toilet paper, soap, and a toothbrush. That's it. That's why, in order to buy more food, and clothes or milk for his little girl, El Niño sold marijuana.
Miguel Angel Tobar, alias "El Niño." Photo by Oscar Martinez for El Faro
In January 2014, without any explanation, the food baskets stopped coming. El Niño still had to testify against the police and against the murderers who tossed their victims down a well in Turin -- he helped throw in the bodies. And it wasn't just the food basket. The $60 stipend that the police occasionally sent him also stopped. (When the police find witnesses who give good information, they usually give them a small monthly stipend in order to keep them in their purview.)
So El Niño decided to leave the house in El Refugio in March 2014, with his pregnant wife and Marbely.
At first, El Niño left his family in Las Pozas and went to live alone on a nearby hillside, in an abandoned house that some local farmer had built years earlier. He used a 12-gauge shotgun for protection -- one that he had acquired after an attack on a police station in 2009.
That attack was actually supposed to be a police crackdown. El Niño was already a police informant within a group of gang members -- back when the gang still didn't know that he was a traitor. He was supposed to give police a minute-by-minute account of the attack until they arrived on the scene. That's what El Niño did. He sent messages, but the police patrols never arrived. So he decided to participate in the attack anyway and steal the security guard's shotgun and some money.
El Niño took this shotgun with him when he left El Refugio. He went with three guys from the neighborhood, who he called "Los Ganyeros" from the Spanish "engañar," meaning to trick or fool someone. They got their name because they all smoked marijuana, and they were all in some kind of trouble with the MS13 members who occasionally patrolled the neighborhood on the lookout for rival Barrio 18 guys. Las Pozas is a transit point for the MS13 and the Barrio 18; there is graffiti from both in the neighborhood.
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile
Up in the mountains, El Niño and his guys took turns sleeping: two dozed and two kept watch, and they only came to town when they needed more supplies.
The first time that I visited him outside El Refugio, El Niño told me to wait for him along a path linked to the San Lorenzo highway, by a large and leafy fig tree. This is Barrio 18 territory. Some guys from a tire shop were already very nervous about the presence of my car with tinted windows, parked in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, El Niño appeared, walking quickly down the street. He had a small machete in his hand, a popgun in his pants and five 12-gauge shotgun cartridges. He was wearing the same ski mask that he wore during the trial of the two police sergeants.
El Niño got in the back of the car -- my brother Juan was sitting up front. He was scared, agitated. He was looking all around him.
"Let's go," he said. "Give it all you've got, put your foot down!"
As we were driving through Atiquizaya, he slid down in his seat as much as he could and covered half of his face with one hand. We went to a motel along the highway to Santa Ana. We closed the door and slid the safety latch shut. Only then we were able to speak in peace.
Little by little, El Niño had come to understand the risks in Las Pozas and had decided to go back to his mother's house, where he was born and raised. He was constantly on alert. He had a network of "ganyeros" watching out for any strange movements on his behalf.
Once he was out of El Refugio, it was much more harder for me to find him. He got rid of his cell phone each week. He traveled through the mountains to Guatemala to buy ounces of marijuana to sell in Las Pozas. He was picked up various times by soldiers and police. They took his guns and arrested him when he went to the river to fish, after finding two joints that he had been planning to smoke. The cops took him to Atiquizaya and stuck him in an MS13 holding cell. That was October 2014.
El Niño had told the police he was a retired member of the Centrales Locos Salvatrucha gang of San Salvador. El Niño later told me that a policeman passed by his cell and said: "This is El Niño from Hollywood, the guy who put Chepe Furia in prison."
El Niño, luckily, had managed to hide a razor blade in his sock. He prepared himself for a riot in the corner of the cell, but the gang members -- very young guys who remembered El Niño -- weren't willing to attack the celebrated gang member. Finally, the order for El Niño's release arrived, because this same guy who brandished his razor to the other gang members was actually under the state's protection. Well, presumably under its protection.
El Niño was what he was: a hard living man, a criminal. And once on the loose, he started to live that way. He fought in bars. One time, he even knocked out a policeman who lived nearby, after the drunk cop had entered El Niño's house, taking advantage of the fact El Niño had left the door open while bringing in firewood. The cop began to insult El Niño, calling him an "asshole, Mara-traitor, faggot." El Niño beat him up. Hours later, the policeman was hit with two 12-gauge shotgun bullets. He accused El Niño. Three witnesses from the area swore to me that it was two anonymous guys from the neighborhood who were passing through. El Niño didn't have his shotgun then. He told me they were "some Barrio 18 jerks" who, according to his theory, came by and saw a drunk policeman and decided to attack him.
After my visits, it was very common for El Niño to say goodbye as follows:
"Go, then. Let's see if the next time you come I'm still alive."
The police reconstruction of the crime scene indicated the following: El Niño was cycling down the street towards El Portillo, in San Lorenzo. This is a street that connects the dirt roads leading to Las Pozas. In front of him, a motorcycle taxi appeared with two fat, bald, approximately 40-year-old men. They charged at him with the motorcycle taxi. He flung his bicycle aside and took off running. The first of the six bullets hit him in the back. The first red drops splattered on the pavement just a meter from his bicycle.
El Niño got a little further before two more bullets hit him -- one in the head, behind one of his ears, and the other in his side. The red drops of blood become more frequent 15 steps forward. He fell face down. He turned over to fight. The attackers neared and pumped three more bullets into him. Head and chest. The bullet shells are there, next to the pool of blood painting the pavement in a wide swathe, as though a wounded animal had dragged itself around. The murderers took off, not towards the mountains, but towards the town of San Lorenzo, in one of those motorcycle taxis that makes a tremendous noise. The attack scene is about 50 meters from the police station. The police arrived about 20 minutes after the murder. There was no search or anything resembling an investigation.
I imagine him writhing around on the pavement and spitting up blood. I know him. I know that he fought like an animal until the last minute. They had tried to kill him before. He had already fought like a beast, with every bit of his body. He was always sure he would be killed with a bullet, but he rejected the idea that The Beast would take him somewhere else and kill him calmly: "Not that, that's chicken," he said. And he said it because he knew, because he had been that Beast before.
On Friday, November 21, 2014 -- the day of his death -- El Niño had gone to San Lorenzo to meet his second daughter. He brought his ID card and his wife's. They named her Jennifer, and she is three months old. She lost her father on the same day that her father legally recognized her as his daughter.
Nobody, not one policeman or prosecutor or judge or Justice Ministry official did anything to ensure that El Niño would again receive protection. Nobody did anything so that he would get back his food basket. Over the course of two years, all of the police that I spoke to about the case knew that El Niño would wind up dead. They said this as though as it didn't represent any failure on their part.
In March 2014, I published an article titled "The Thorn of the Mara Salvatrucha," in El Faro -- a profile of El Niño that my brother Juan and I wrote in 2013, for a book we are preparing. About a month later, my brother Carlos, also a reporter for El Faro, told me that gang truce negotiator Raul Mijango had sent him a message from the national MS13 leadership. (Mijango is a former guerrilla commander who became a mediator for the gang truce implemented in March 2012, which drastically reduced homicides for over a year. The truce is now unraveling at the same speed as homicides are climbing, but gang members continue to recognize Mijango as their spokesman.)
The national MS13 leadership establishes the general rules for all mara factions, or "cliques." All of the leaders are imprisoned in the Ciudad Barrios penitentiary. Mijango told my brother that the article had caused bad feelings among the leadership, who didn't like having the gang's internal business in the public eye. Knowing that the article put El Niño in more danger, my brother Carlos asked Mijango if there was any way to resolve his case. MIjango's response was: "No. No. There's no solution."
Everyone knew that El Niño would be murdered. I was one of the people who knew.
Nobody did anything to prevent it.
On one occasion, at the beginning of 2013, we had this conversation at the El Refugio farmhouse, while we ate boiled meat cooked in chili sauce.
"Do you feel used?" I asked El Niño.
"Out of everyone in my case, I'm the one who's benefitted the least," was El Niño's reply. "All of those old guys up there, the higher-ups, they've all benefitted. How much was Rambito's death worth? Chepe Furia paid $11,000 so that Rambito would get killed. I'm the person who's gotten the least."
"And what about us?" I replied. "What guarantees us that when the state releases you, you won't work as a hit man?"
"They haven't offered me any other choice," he said. "There would have to be a work program. 'We're going to give you the chance to testify in such and such court.' And I haven't erased the tattoos because they haven't offered me anything, and at least that gives me some respect if I go somewhere else. The information that I've given is worth something. I said that I was there, that I shot the gun, and that the others did what they did. That's valuable!"
"You've ruled out going back to your old ways?" I continued.
"I can't rule it out," he responded. "While I've been here they've offered me opportunities."
"And what do we Salvadorans owe you?" I asked.
"I risked my life," he said. "I left the streets and took some asshole hit men with me. That's why there's a bunch of jerks who want to kill me. Police, gang members. I don't know who works for who here. It's a business called organized crime. I don't want to be in this risky situation anymore. I've got my little girl. Society doesn't care that I'm in danger, to them it only matters that the witness already testified. If they took the time to think, they might say: 'Hey, this guy could end up in trouble. He's got his child. He's got his wife. Let's at least give him a little money.'"
The gang members from Ciudad Barrios prison, who in 2011 threatened El Niño over the phone, were wrong. They threatened to leave him stinking of pine, a reference to the material used to build coffins. El Niño was also wrong. He told them he didn't know what pine smelled like and that coffins in his region were made of mango trees and guanacaste.
El Niño's casket is made of teak. It was the cheapest wood the funeral home had. It was donated by the San Lorenzo municipal government at the request of El Niño's father-in-law.
The vigil took place without incident on Saturday, November 22. Some 30 people, friends of El Niño's mother, sang evangelical songs. One of those songs said something about how there are only two sides: one is heaven and the other is the infernal lake. There was atol, a thick corn-based beverage, coffee and sweet bread. El Niño's mother was slumped in a plastic chair next to the coffin. She didn't cry; this wasn't her first time doing this. In 2007, the MS13 murdered her other son, Cheje, a member of the Parvis Locos Salvatrucha gang. She was done crying. This time she just slumped in her seat without speaking. El Niño's widow breastfed Jennifer in a corner.
Outside, there was a party. There was a party in Las Pozas. There was a stage, and a disco ball emitted colored lights as they played reggaeton at full blast in front of the school. The party was 100 meters from the ceremony and the reggaeton threatened to drown out the evangelical choir. The party was scheduled beforehand; it happens every year around that time, and is organized by the San Lorenzo municipal government. They weren't going to stop it for a death.
El Niño's wake, November 22, 2014. Photo c/o of El Faro.
Sunday, November 23, noon, the Atiquizaya cemetery. El Niño's burial. The tomb is a hole next to a ravine, at the cemetery's edge. The hole was dug that morning by El Niño's father-in-law. Some 30 people are here. The majority of them were brought here by a pastor from Las Pozas. About five tombs away, a group of gang members are playing dice. The gravedigger, who is sitting next to the municipal cemetery's watchman, told us when we entered, "They are the people who rule here." The area is dominated by the Barrio 18.
My presence and that of my brother Juan is disconcerting for the gang members who are monitoring the burial. One emerges from the ravine. Two more reach the grave where they are rolling dice. One shows up laughing, just as several men throw earth on the coffin. This last one is so dressed up in gang garb it's almost absurd: flashy round hat, baggy white t-shirt tucked into some pants made of a loose black cloth, and white tennis shoes. He is feeling confident -- he laughs, and as he passes behind us, he spits. He leaves. Another one comes up the ravine. Two women sing evangelical songs. El Niño's mother wails and cries for five minutes. We decide to leave when the men throw the last shovelfuls of dirt on the grave. We get the impression that the gang members are planning to do something soon. There are too many around. We tell the widow that we'll see her at the entrance of the cemetery, that it's better if we get going. We go. Without saying so, she and her father have noticed the tension. They hurry up the burial. A man cuts a branch from an izote -- El Salvador's national flower -- and sticks it in the place where perhaps someone will put a cross one day.
I leave with Juan and a tall, dark guy who's no more than 25-years old follows us down the narrow street. He orders us to stop. We don't listen. All of the people from the burial follow behind us. A small parade of poor people. The youth stations himself at the entrance to the cemetery together with another guy to make sure that everyone leaves. We barely manage to shake hands with the widow and her father.
Inside the cemetery, without a cross, without a mausoleum, without any epitaph, is a pile of dirt decorated with an izote branch. There below lies Miguel Angel Tobar, El Niño de Hollywood, a man that everyone knew would be murdered.