HomeNewsAnalysisImages from El Salvador, World's New Murder Capital
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Images from El Salvador, World's New Murder Capital

EL SALVADOR / 11 MAR 2016 BY SALVADOR MELÉNDEZ* EN

Salvador Meléndez, a photographer for Revista Factum, has put together an album on the violence gripping El Salvador. His photos begin in 2010, recalling the horrific scene in which members of the Barrio 18 street gang set fire to a bus full of people. These images are a powerful testimonial to the social upheaval Meléndez refers to as the "war without commanders."

Social violence. War. Last year, 6,657 murders. Between January 1 and February 21 of this year, 1,622 murders. An average of 23 Salvadorans assassinated every day during 2016, as confirmed recently by Howard Augusto Cotto, the director of the National Civil Police (PNC).

This article originally appeared in Revista Factum and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

The victims can be gang members or the neighbor who sells stuffed tortillas in gang territory, where the army has no control. This is not to mention forced displacements, in which entire families must leave their homes behind out of fear.

One Salvadoran dies every 60 minutes in El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Here, one has to flee to survive. And while the river of blood continues to flow in neighborhoods and communities, politicians shout themselves hoarse, making headlines with accusations about what and who is behind the violence. Empty accusations.

{module The War Without Commanders}

Photos taken by the author

Violence comes in many shapes and under many names. There are massacres. Clashes between police and gangs. Police killings. Executions. Dismemberments. Machine-gunnings. Death threats. Evictions. We become indifferent to so much bloodshed in the country. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

But people keep dying. There are days in which up to 52 people die, as on August 23, 2015, the most violent day of the decade. That month there were 911 murders, according to El Salvador's Institute of Forensic Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal - IML). In January, 336; in February, 307; in March, 484, in April, 418; in May, 643, in June, 677; in July, 477 … 6,657 murders by the end of 2015.

Before the end of the failed gang truce that was backed by the administration of former President Mauricio Funes, violence was already a registered trademark in El Salvador.

On June 20, 2010, a group of Barrio 18 gang members hijacked a bus in Mejicanos, locked the passengers inside, drenched them in gasoline and set fire to them. The result: 13 incinerated people. Some bodies melted into the iron of the vehicle…


That day, the gangs showed they had the government and the country on its knees.

On that day I was 13,374 kilometers from San Salvador and in a time zone with eight hours' difference. I was covering the Brazil - Ivory Coast soccer match during the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and the only violence I filmed with El Gráfico's camera was a foul against Keita by Kaká in the 88th minute, which got the Brazilian kicked out of the game. The only cries that I could hear were those of the fans and players complaining, along with some scuffling between the two sides.

May 23, 2014 was another terrible day. The gangs called it "black Friday." That day, the gangs showed they had the government and the country on its knees. A group of gang members disguised as Road Maintenance Fund (Fondo de Conservación Vial - FOVIAL) employees machine-gunned the inside of a bus on route 302, killing six people, including guards from the maximum security prison of Zacatecoluca. That day, 38 families mourned.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

In 2014, the man appointed to put an end to the work of General David Munguía Payés and his "gang truce" was the engineer Ricardo Perdomo, the former chief of the State Intelligence Agency (Organismo de Inteligencia del Estado - OIE) who became the Minister of Justice and Public Security. Perdomo began making changes, and sparked a reaction that reached the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who on January 5, 2015, declared that negotiations with gangs would no longer continue.

On July 28 and 29 of last year, thanks in part to their accumulated power, the gangs carried out a forced strike that left Sánchez Cerén's government begging the public to not let themselves be intimidated.

During these days of resignation, ordinary Salvadorans, those older than 40 who take the bus every day to get to work early, have relived scenes from the 1980s, during the civil war years, when the streets were guarded by tanks and armored vehicles provided public transportation.

The last PNC report counts around 100 armed clashes so far in 2016 between police, military and gangs. The war without commanders continues.

*This article originally appeared in Revista Factum and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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