A double homicide inside a juvenile detention center uncovered an unwritten rule within El Salvador's MS13 gang: under no circumstances are members allowed to be homosexual.
The sound of a bed sheet being ripped into pieces can be heard against the silence of the night. "The Claw" and "Smoker" are careful not to alert the guards by making too much noise. "The Weekend" of the Fulton clique, "The Little Crazy" of Park View and "The Clown" of Projects accompany them. The five MS13 gang members are preparing to kill two of their brothers at the Center for Reintegration of Minors in the municipality of Tonacatepeque.
The teenagers quickly stash the pieces of sheet between the bunks where the other youths sleep and then go to look for their victims' beds. It's almost midnight. The gang members know what they have to do.
Two gang members, aged 16 and 17, are sleeping on the top of a bunk. Finding them sleeping together further entices the killers' desire to murder them. Their fates have been sealed for some time. The two gang members are homosexual and therefore their deaths are inevitable.
Mara Salvatrucha's cells are known as cliques. Each clique has a degree of independence, but always has to answer to higher cells, called "Programs," which in turn answer to "La Ranfla." Each clique has its own rules, but many of them are similar. Some, in fact, are exactly the same: "do not kill homeboys' family members;" "do not rape homeboys' relatives;" and "do not cooperate with the police." Each rule has its own punishment for those that don't obey, which could be anything from a beating to death.
There are also rules which, although they are not written down, are nonetheless enforced by all the cliques. One of these rules is that it is forbidden to be gay. Under no circumstances is any gang member allowed to be homosexual.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
This is the story of two gang members who were found to be breaking this rule. The account of events is given by a gang member through an interview with the Attorney General's Office. He had enforced the law before eventually betraying the MS13 by recounting all the crimes he and other gang members had committed. If found by other MS13 members, he would be killed.
On the afternoon of September 18, 2010, a group of youths from different Mara Salvatrucha cliques met in section three of the Tonacatepeque Children's Center to discuss a serious situation. This detention center, which only holds MS13 minors, is divided into two sections: one for those who have been sentenced and another for those awaiting trial. The group of youths who met that afternoon fell into the latter category.
There is no direct contact between those who have been sentenced and those awaiting trial. It is prohibited that they talk to or see each other, so the gang members called Jhonatan de Jesús, alias "El Infierno," and they put him on loudspeaker. "El Infierno" is a convicted gang member from the MS13's Proyectos Locos Salvatruchos clique and at the time was the center's "boss." He was the one who had to know what was happening on the other side of the prison.
There was more than enough evidence. All the MS13 members on the "temporary" side swore to have seen indications and clues of "strange behavior" regarding two of their brothers. Others confirmed that they saw it even more clearly. "We have seen two of our brothers acting gay, they both go into the bathroom and stay there for some time," said a gang member known as The Claw. "They have to be killed."
The alleged offense was committed by Hugo René Ayala, alias "El Vago," a 16-year-old member of the Santa Lucia Locos Salvatruchas clique, and Dennis Barrera, alias "El Tramposo," a 17-year-old with the Park View Locos Salvatruchos clique. The former had been charged with aggravated homicide and the latter with belonging to an illicit group. That is, a gang.
Surprised, El Infierno ordered the bosses on the preventive detention side of the prison to investigate and gather together all those who had claimed to have seen the homosexual behavior. "You can't play with the lives of two brothers like that," he said. He then reported to his superiors.
The MS13 is violent by nature. It is also deeply misogynistic, macho and homophobic. And it's not a coincidence that Salvadoran society shares these same characteristics. The gangs feed off society, but they all feed it. This can be seen in a report written by several non-governmental organizations in the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) titled "Violent and Violated: Gender Relations in the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18." The report is based on a series of interviews with current and former gang members in the region.
A sample paragraph of the report states:
Women are considered subordinate subjects in a system of patriarchal domination, as are all those considered to belong to a category lower than the dominant subject. Therefore, homosexuality is unthinkable for gangs and their members, unless it occurs within the framework of rape as a form of punishment.
It's no coincidence that gang members call their enemies "chavalas," a term typically used to refer to girls.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
Examples of misogyny abound. "How female gang members live and die in El Salvador," a Factum investigation published in March of this year, offers a concise summary of what happens on a daily basis across the country:
In February 2005, a gang member from the MS13 known as El Crimen went to the Iberia community accompanied by a dark haired woman of about 30 years. He left her talking to the gang members of that community and went to speak with the boss. He told the boss that he was bringing that "lioness" to be killed. He claimed that she had broken up with an MS13 member who was in prison. She ended the relationship and stopped visiting him. They considered it a betrayal of the whole gang.
The story of El Vago and El Tramposo is similar.
On September 22, four days after the call from El Infierno, the "temporary" gang members gathered together to plan the killing of their two brothers. This time it was El Infierno who called them to ask about the result of an investigation that he had ordered. All the witnesses confirmed their suspicions: the two homeboys were gay, they told him.
El Infierno said that he had spoken to the "ranfla" in different prisons, including the clicas in Park View detention center and the St. Lucia prison. The order was clear: the two had to be killed. (The term ranfla describes the gang's top command group.)
Under the cover of night, a sheet is ripped in tatters. El Garra and El Smoker, the two who have been tasked with making the weapons, try not to make too much noise. They don't want to catch the guards' attention. With them are Weekend from the Fulton clica, Little Crazy from Park View, and El Payaso from Proyectos. The five are preparing to kill their two brothers.
Moving carefully, the five adolescent gang members get to the bunk where El Vago and El Tramposo sleep. They find the two under one single blanket, a fact that infuriates them even more.
El Garra tells the two to leave their bed, that they have to talk about a robbery that took place in the area. The two agree to talk the following day when the sun is up. But El Garra insists, threatening them with a beating if they do not obey the order. Finally, El Vago and El Tramposo accept and follow the group to the bathroom. It is nearing midnight.
When they arrived at the bathroom, the light was switched on. El Tramposo was only wearing boxer shorts, brown with white squares; El Vago was wearing pants and a shirt.
Tonacatepeque is one of the worst youth detention centers in the country with regard to the living conditions of the inmates, according to separate reports published by the Supreme Court and a local legal non-profit in 2008 and 2009, shortly before the deaths of El Vago and El Tramposo.
Among the findings of the reports were indications the guards abused the prisoners -- a practice that continued until at least 2014. The food was so bad that many inmates suffered from digestive problems. There were so few possibilities for rehabilitation that, with time, their isolation strengthened their identification with the gangs.
Once they were in the bathroom, no one needed further instructions. Everything had already been said, seen, and heard.
Weekend and Smoker pounced on El Vago, kicking and punching him in the stomach and back while he did his best to protect his face and genitals. Then his executioners took out the piece of sheet that they had prepared, and wrapped it around his neck until he suffocated.
El Garra and Littel Crazy did the same to El Tramposo.
They left the two bodies tossed on the bathroom floor, between a malfunctioning shower and a bathroom stall that wouldn't close. Then suddenly they had an idea.
Little Crazy and Smoker tied the sheets around the boys' necks, while El Payaso tied the other end to a tube on the ceiling. El Tramposo and El Vago were hung face to face. One inside the stall and the other in the shower. The idea was to hang them in order to mislead the guards. But in the end it was more of a game. Everyone knew it would be hard to believe that the two beat each other up only to then hang themselves at the same moment.
The young gang members left, leaving their two brothers hanging. Their punishment was complete.
At 6:30 the next morning, while the guards were counting the inmates, an alarm blared through the prison. The whole detention center was placed under a state of emergency. Everyone from the "temporary" sector was moved to the visitors area. Two bodies had been found in the bathroom.
The story spread immediately. The media reported on the two deaths inside the detention center for minors, but the motive behind the two murders remained unknown. It was never made public that the two gang members had broken one of the principal rules of the gang by spending time together, by going to the bathroom together, by liking each other. It was this behavior that led to their death sentence.
Years later, on a December morning in 2016, an ex-Barrio 18 member insisted that the same thing happens in his former gang. He said that "being a homo" is unforgivable in the gang. He said that lot of people are discovered to have "those tastes" in jail.
"The worst part is when you realize that someone in your gang has been labeled a homo," the gang member said. "For me it was hard [to see this] because... I mean, when someone is in a gang, it's absolute and it's unforgivable. It means death."