El Salvador's National Police (PNC, by its Spanish initials) claims its agents were attacked at a farm in San Jose Villanueva during the early morning of March 26, and that while "exchanging fire," the agents killed "eight members of a criminal structure." Their story is false. The facts, reconstructed by newspaper El Faro, indicate that those killed were summarily executed and arranged to appear as if they died in a shootout.
Dennis wasn't even a gang member. When the police knocked on his door there were already seven bodies littering the San Blas farm. Dennis' mother Consuelo was in the shed next to the house, surrounded by masked police officers. She was unable to see what happened to her son but could hear. Consuelo said the only person living upstairs was her son.
The shots had stopped. The police were shouting in front of the door to Dennis' room. He was on the phone to Chus, his uncle and the farm's overseer. "What do I do?" he asked.
Since the original publication of this story by El Faro on July 22, El Faro has reported receiving several threats. The newspaper has reported these threats to the Attorney General's Office of El Salvador, the police, and the Ministry of Security. The newspaper registered multiple threatening posts on their social media networks, such as one post that stated, "I hope to God to catch one of the damn rats employed at this garbage newspaper." There is also evidence that one of El Faro's journalists has been followed, in the weeks following the publication of this story.
Chus asked Dennis whether the people outside his door were police or gang members. Dennis said they were police, that he had heard them as they grabbed his mother, stepfather, and younger siblings downstairs. Chus encouraged him: "If it's the police, don't be scared. The police will respect you. When they tell you to open the door, do it and get on the ground."
"And my Dennis opened the door," said Consuelo.
Chus the overseer heard one of the police through the phone: "Who are you talking to?" Then the line was cut. He tried calling back many times but no one answered.
In the shed, sitting next to the brick surface they use to dry coffee beans, Consuelo could hear Dennis. "I heard when he opened the door and got out. I felt relieved to hear his voice. I asked the [police] to let him speak, to give him the chance to explain ... but they didn't."
Consuelo Hernandez de Ramirez thinks her 20-year-old son Dennis Alexander Martinez Hernandez wanted to explain to the police that he'd lived and worked at the farm for six years as its clerk, keeping track of the hours worked by all employees. She believes he wanted to tell them that he actively served at the local branch of the Biblical Baptist Tabernacle church, and that if they searched his room they would find a bible, a watch, a small knife, a bed and a TV. That he knew nothing about weapons, that he was not a gang member.
After Denis' plea, no more voices were heard. Consuelo and her family -- her husband Fidencio and their three young sons -- heard the final shots of that morning. Two, maybe three shots, they don't remember exactly. An officer next to Consuelo heard them as well and shouted: "Cease fire! Cease fire!" But Dennis was already dead.
Revealing a Hidden Massacre
On the morning of March 26, 2015, eight people -- including one woman and two minors -- died under fire from agents of the PNC's special unit the Police Reaction Group (GPR by its Spanish initials). On paper it's considered one of El Salvador's best-trained units. The massacre happened at the San Blas coffee farm in El Matazano 2, a sector of San Jose Villanueva municipality, in La Libertad department.
The official version (pdf), repeated and spread by most media sources, indicted that the eight killed were members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), who died when police responded to an attack. "The subjects fired their weapons upon discovering the police, leading to an exchange in fire," said a PNC press release shortly after the event.
But that is not what happened.
El Faro interviewed four teenagers who escaped that morning with their lives; spoke with the families of those killed and reviewed the forensic evidence, autopsies and court files. El Faro also consulted with human rights experts, medical forensics, prosecutors and a shooting instructor. El Faro examined notes, photos and videos published after the massacre, and also visited the scene and the surrounding settlements. Most importantly, El Faro discovered that a family of farmworkers was also on the scene that night and witnessed -- and suffered from -- the GRP's operation.
This mountain of testimonies and documents indicated that the official version is false and that terms like "massacre," "summary executions," and "scene tampering" better describe what actually happened on March 26.
Why were the Mara Salvatrucha in San Blas?
The gangs had become a problem for Dennis and his family.
They didn't all show up at once. The first was Taz, the 34-year-old "palabrero," or leader of the Ayagualos Locos (ALS) clica. ALS is based in Ayagualo, a canton of Santa Tecla, which is separated from El Matazano 2 by a road running to the port of La Libertad. Taz arrived with his new girlfriend, a 16-year-old named Sonia. Consuelo remembers Taz asked Chus for a place to stay. Taz and his girlfriend moved into San Blas a month before the massacre.
A week after Taz' arrival, another gang member named Matador started showing up at the farm. The 40-year-old member of the Teclas Locos (TLS) clique had allowed the creation of the ALS, back in his day. Both cliques formed part of the MS13 "program" in La Libertad, which frequently made headlines in the Salvadoran press and included prominent leaders like Saul Antonio Turcios, alias "13," and Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, alias "Sirra."
Matador showed up roughly 20 days before the massacre. Taz introduced him to Chus, and Matador also asked for a place to stay on occasion. Chus did know how to refuse him.
According to multiple conversations that occurred during the investigation, Matador saw the farm as a good place to hide from the police. Since mid-February, the police had been carrying out aggressive operations, following the governments' symbolic end of the gang truce with the transfer of top gang leaders to the maximum security Zacatecoluca prison.
The easiest way to get to San Blas is via a dirt road which barely fits two cars at a time. It begins at the road leading to the port, passes through the El Matazano 2 canton, then it narrows further and give out three kilometers after the El Encanto golf course. San Blas is halfway between the canton and the gold course.
The property is owned by Francisco Eduardo Menendez Guirola. It was listed with the Commercial Registry in August 2014 as a coffee farm valued at over $110,000.
(The entrance to the San Blas farm. Photo by Roberto Valencia.)
It includes two cement houses, facing each other, with wood beams and sheet metal roofs. The houses are roughly 20 meters from each other. The main house, to the left of the farm's entrance, has three rooms. The other has two rooms, which function as an office and a storeroom. On one side of the main house the ground drops three meters. Here sits the shed and stacks of sheet metal. Next to the second house is a roofless crumbling structure, behind which is a latrine. Beyond the property, its coffee plants and tiny paths that allow access to a village called El Cajon, which is part of the Huizucar municipality.
The farm offered space and privacy for the new guests. The main house was enough. Matador occupied the small room, sporadically staying the night, while Taz and Sonia occupied the middle room. Dennis had been staying in the big room since 2009. Consuelo, her husband, and their three younger sons had been staying in the shed for six months prior to the massacre. Chus, the overseer and her brother, had recommended them to the boss. Chus had a home in El Matazano 2 and visited the farm daily.
After Taz appeared, visits by other gang members and collaborators became more frequent. They'd spend the day there, sometimes staying the night. They came and went. Almost all of them were born and raised in the surrounding areas. The four survivors of the massacre had been doing this since learning that Taz had moved to San Blas. They said they would visit not only to pass time, but also to harvest izote flowers, avocados, mangos, and bananas to sell in the Santa Tecla market. Chus had given them permission as the farm did not use the fruit, they said.
According to Adalberto Gonzalez, a pastor with 18 years of service at the Biblical Baptists Tabernacle's El Matazano 2 branch, "more than 20 young men," visited the farm during that period. Gonzalez remembered nights when Dennis would ask to sleep in the church after service because it was too dangerous at the farm. The pastor said Dennis made it clear the gang members had not asked permission. "They live easy and don't ask permission from anyone," was something Dennis told him. Gonzalez told Dennis to be careful on many occasions, and Dennis told him he wasn't involved with them in any way. "I study, work and go to church."
Consuelo said that in the days prior to the massacre Chus -- a rural man who usually took his machete with him wherever he went -- was "very resentful" and had dared to confront Matador about the constant visits and gang members' increasing use of the farm as a hideout. Chus told Matador that many of the workers were afraid to come to the farm, and the risk of police intervention was too great. Matador promised him the visitors would leave.
Despite Matador's promise, many were visiting the day of the massacre. Those visiting included alias "Saiper" from Panchimalco, "Bote" from San Jose Villanueva, "Garrobo" and "Güereja" from Las Brumas in Zaragoza, as well as the four survivors.
That night they made soup. The night was cold, almost everyone was wearing a sweater.
"We when finished the soup everyone went to sleep. Matador went to his room. Taz went with his woman. Dennis ... doesn't count, he lived separate in his room. The rest of us were relaxing," said the youngest of the survivors.
The San Blas Massacre
The GRP didn't arrive in San Blas by accident. Someone called the National Police and told them there was unusually high gang presence at the farm on the evening of March 25. Around 10 active and aspiring Mara Salvatrucha members had congregated there from various surrounding towns. Also at the farm was Dennis, Sonia, Consuelo and her family.
The call informing the police of the unusual concentration of gang members said they were "armed" and "meeting to plan some crimes," according to a report following the incident.
"It wasn't the first time we'd visited since Taz started living there, and we decided to stay because they'd made soup," another survivor said.
The Santa Tecla police branch sought the GRP's help. They were like police shock troops; the unit that would get called in if there was a hostage situation in a bank. Dressed in grey camouflage, ski masks and bullet-proof vests; sporting equipment like M-16 machine guns, 9mm pistols, and stun grenades, the GRP marched on San Blas.
While there wasn't complete consensus on exactly when the assault began, most witnesses placed it sometime past midnight. By then all that remained of the gang members' soup was an empty pot on dying embers. Meanwhile, Dennis had been in his room for hours, after having a coffee with his mom in the shed. Taz, Sonia and Matador were also in their rooms.
The remaining gang members had divided into two groups. The younger members stayed up in the house talking, while the older members including Saiper, Güereja and Garrobo occupied the crumbling structure behind the second house.
"At one point Bote was with us, the younger guys. He came to give us some cigarettes and when he went back, that's when they killed him," a survivor said.
The GRP didn't come up the road in their vehicles but instead crossed through the coffee plants on foot from El Cajon. They entered the farm from its eastern side.
"They had the spotlight on Bote and said, 'It's the Police! Freeze!' And all at once they started firing. They even turned off their light and were shooting without seeing what they were hitting," a survivor said. His version coincides with what they other three surviving youths said.
The Teclas Locos gang member Ernesto Hernandez Aguirre, alias "Bote," was killed at age 17. The autopsy couldn't determine the exact number of bullets that struck him, but estimated around 20, along his head, chest and legs. His body fell near the door of the crumbling building, under some shabby blue wagon wheels that he might have been trying to use as cover. He was hit around five times near the right ear, which destroyed his head. "It's very difficult to hit the same place five times, you'd have to be an expert to control the shots," a PNC shooting instructor explained.
Minutes before being riddled with bullets, Bote had called his girlfriend. Investigators found his body near a machete. He was carrying a backpack full of clothes, and was wearing rings (esposas? – Ed.) and a hat which his girlfriend later said wasn't Bote's. When he was killed, Bote was wearing his favorite shoes: a pair of black Dombas.
(This photo was taken March 27, 2015, a day after the massacre, right where the body of gang member Ernesto Hernandez Aguirre, alias Bote, was found. Photo by Nelson Rauda Zablah.)
According to the crime scene report, Bote was not carrying a gun, but he ended up with at least 20 shots to his body.
"Upon detecting the police presence, the subject opened fire on the officers and were able to wound one of them," said a report given to the Prosecutor General. But the four remaining survivors say the police were the first to begin shooting that morning.
The moments following Bote's shooting are the hardest to reconstruct.
"The police climbed up to the patio and started shooting in all directions," said another of the four survivors.
The survivors lived through the event because they were in the hallway of the main house and instinctually started running from the sounds of the shooting, towards Las Oscuranas road. From there, they scattered into the woods. The four swear that the remaining gang members in the crumbling building were unarmed. However, after the massacre one of the dead was photographed with an assault rifle in his hand and the other two with shotguns.
The Mara Salvatrucha says its homies didn't fire a shot that night, but the official version speaks of a GRP agent being wounded in the leg during the "exchange of fire." Consuelo and Fidencio hear some of the officers referring to a colleagues' knee being hurt, but were unable to determine if it was caused by a bullet. Meanwhile, the Santa Tecla Legal Medicine Institute, which is legally obligated to report any injured officers, gave no indication of any police being hurt during the operation.
While this was occurring, Dennis, Matador, Taz and his girlfriend Sonia remained in their respective rooms.
The second phase of the operation involved taking the crumbling building, which Saiper, Güereja and Garrobo occupied while armed with an M-16 machine gun and two 12-gauge shotguns, according to the official report.
Some time may have passed between the police gunning down Bote, and then deciding to assault the crumbling building. The structures' facade was found riddled with bullets. Most of the bullets were concentrated in the building's principal entry point.
The police tossed an ALS09NR stun grenade into the structure. The device creates a disorienting sound blast and blinding light. Launching the grenade into the building was easy, since there was no roof.
It appears that the three gang members decided to risk it and escape out of the back of the structure, where the latrine was located, a septic tank in a cubicle of rusted metal sheets. The gang members may have hoped that the police had not taken position in the area, since no shots were coming from there.
But they were.
The 27-year-old Teclas Locos gang member Jose Antonio Gomez, alias "Güereja," fell roughly eight meters from the latrine. His body was found face down next to a concrete post, with a shotgun next to him, the handle close to his feet than his hands. The gun had five shells in its magazine and one in the chamber. A forensic medical expert who read the autopsy report couldn't explain the sequence of shots. "The exit wounds on his front and back suggest he was laying down. And then what? They turned him over? The investigation should clarify this ... we can't really explain more." The undertakers advised Güereja's family not to open the casket during his wake.
(A police agent inspects the body of Jose Antonio Gomez, alias "Güereja," the morning of March 26. The forensic doctor who later examined the body counted 23 bullets. Photo by Marvin Recinos (AFP).)
The 29-year-old Teclas Locos member Manuel de Jesus Gutierrez, alias "Garrobo," made it a little further than his homeboy, some 15 meters from the latrine. He was also found disfigured by shots, with a shotgun next to him and shells scattered around his body. According to the autopsy, he died due to "projectile wounds to the head, thorax and abdomen." Among the 13 bullet wounds identified by forensics, two were located in the center of the head, and two others in his arm and forearm, as if he was covering himself.
The 34-year-old veteran of the Teclas Locos, Hugo Nelso Melara, alias "Saiper," ran south from the back of the structure and his body was found 20 meters from the latrine. He was killed by 10 shots, including one to the head, according to his autopsy, ending a life which began in the small town of Panchimalco and which then involved years in Chalatenango prison, where Saiper had been imprisoned for homicide. By day, March 26, there was an M-16 rifle next to his body. The rifle had 22 cartridges which had not been fired, and another one in the gun chamber.
It's impossible to exactly determine how much time passed between the time the three men died, and the officers' decision to empty the houses. The police rejected El Faro's requests to interview the director or deputy director of the GRP.
In the main house, Dennis, Matador, Taz and his girlfriend Sonia remained in their rooms. Consuelo and Fidencio were in the shed, with their three children who they made hide under the bed.
The explosions and shots were heard not only on the farm but in the surrounding areas. Witnesses agree the shooting lasted no longer than 45 minutes, while some estimate up to an hour and a half. Witnesses also agreed that there were calm periods of 10-15 minutes, before the shooting would begin again.
Witnesses also agreed that by the time the GRP officers arrived at the shed and asked Consuelo if anyone was in the main house, only Dennis and Sonia were still alive.
At the start of the incident, Consuelo had called Dennis. He advised the rest of the family to stay in the shed. Dennis then called his uncle Chus to tell him what was happening and ask his advice, but the end was already near.
Cornered, Taz and Matador decided to leave their rooms in the main house. Matador made it three meters in the outside patio, Taz made it four. The next morning, their bodies appeared just where the roof stopped sheltering the paio. Matador had his dark sweater pulled up to his chest; his enormous tattooed stomach to the air, as if he wanted to show he was unarmed. The photographs of Taz show him shirtless during a cold night, with his pants lowered to his buttocks and his underwear raised high.
Like their homies Güereja, Garrobo, and Saiper, they were found with weapons next to them. Matador with an unfired 9mm pistol and Taz with an M4 machine gun.
Without the testimony of the GRP agents, it's impossible to say what happened when the two left the house. But the consequences were certainly clear.
Mauricio Lopez Garcia, alias "Matador," age 40, member of the Teclas Locos and a gang member since the 1990's, died from four or five shots to the head and neck, two of which first passed through his right hand, according to the autopsy.A forensic expert hypothesized that Matador had his hands up as he was shot. Matador had spent more than a decade locked up in the Quezaltepeque and Chalatenango prisons. Apart from his face, he was covered in tattoos, with the letters "MS" on his neck. He'd spent the night before the massacre not at the farm but in Colon, with his girlfriend and mother of his only child, a six-month old baby.
The 34-year-old Ayagualos Locos gang member Jose Alfredo Aldana, alias "Taz," left his room before his girlfriend Sonia. He died of "wounds to his head, thorax and abdomen," according to his autopsy. Two of the bullets, in the head. A bullet wound in his left hand indicated that he was raising his hands in a defensive position, a forensic specialist said. "Yes, the first thing you do is raise your hands," responded the specialist when asked whether the wound was evidence of someone reacting defensively.
Shortly after Taz and Matador were dead, another group of GRP officers moved to Consuelo's shed. The family didn't resist. They opened up when told to do so. Nevertheless, Fidencio, who is in his 60's and should already be retired, suffered their wrath.
"They kicked him, threw him on the floor and held him at gunpoint," said Consuelo. "Another officer arrived and asked, 'What do we do with him?' The other said not to shoot him, since there were kids around."
Consuelo and the kids were placed outside the shed under some mango trees. Fidencio was kept on the ground at gunpoint.
"Thank God the other police said don't shoot him because of the kids," said Fidencio, "I thank God for that." Like his wife, he is a religious man, and like his wife, he does not know how to read or write.
But up in the main house, the massacre hadn't ended. Taz's teenage girlfriend Sonia was next.
"I just heard them yelling to open the doors and come out," Fidencio said.
Perhaps Sonia opened the door or maybe the GRP did.
Consuelo: They took her out before Dennis.
El Faro: What did she say? Did it sound like she was resisting?
Consuelo: No. I believe that when the man told her to kneel, she kneeled.
El Faro: You heard when the police told her to kneel?
Consuelo: Yes. 'Kneel!' they said. And then some words that I'm not going to repeat, and then.... I don't know what they were asking her, but she said, 'I don't know anything.' That I could make out clear. I guess she was kneeling or something.
El Faro: And then you heard shots?
Consuelo: Just one.
El Faro: There was no more gunfire?
Consuelo: Not after that.
Sonia Esmeralda Guerrero, age 16, died from a single gunshot wound to the mouth, which destroyed the upper part of her spinal column. According to her autopsy, the bullet entered centimeters from her lips, also destroying several teeth and part of her jaw. The eighth-grader was tall and happy and had been active in her church for several years. But she fell in love with Taz and didn't know how to say no when he asked her to live with him. Neither her family or Consuelo -- who had grown close to her during Sonia's time on the farm -- could imagine her brandishing a weapon. The four surviving gang members also deny that possibility.
"She was very posh," said the youngest of them. "She didn't even like to get her fingernails dirty."
This conflicts with the official version. Sonia's body was found with a Glock pistol in her left hand, a bullet magazine in her pocket, and another one stuffed into her bra, pressed against her small breasts, according to the crime scene report.
(These two images of Sonia Guerrero circulated on social media networks after the massacre. They were taken before forensic agents from Medicina Legal removed the bodies.)
However, a different photo of the crime scene shows the pistol in a different position and the bullet magazines have disappeared. One of the consulted forensic experts said bluntly, "It's impossible for the gun to have moved itself between photos. They probably fabricated this scene."
With Sonia dead, the police went to Dennis' room, which is when he called his uncle Chus, the overseer.
His mother, stepfather and brothers heard everything.
Dennis was shot through the head, according to his autopsy, entering the left frontal region, and then exiting below his right eye. The bullet was shot from above and went through his head in a downward trajectory. Another bullet hit his right arm, 12 centimeters from his shoulder, and stayed lodged inside of him.
By dawn, next to his body were two hooks and a knife.
Dennis wasn't even a gang member.
The March for Peace
On the morning of March 26, as the eight bodies on San Blas farm still waited for forensic teams to arrive, in San Salvador and other department capitals, the National Council for Citizen Security and the government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren organized a march for peace. Some 200,000 participated, according to official numbers. Here are some of President Sanchez Ceren's comments during the event:
"This is a beautiful day, full of love, the streets of El Salvador are dressed in love."
"All are essential, no one is replaceable in this grand battle, this grand battle in which we need to show our love, in the home."
"We need to rescue our communities and co-exist in harmony."
"We need to rid our hearts of hate and learn tolerance, understanding, to comprehend that we are all indispensable in life."
"I pay tribute to all the victims of violence and crime in our country. We reaffirm our commitment that no crime will go unpunished."
On the morning of March 26, Consuelo and her family were taken to the PNC office in Santa Tecla. The Salvadoran governments knows that a family of farmers were at San Blas that night, but in the16 weeks that followed, Consuelo hasn't seen a single prosecutor, police, or representative from the Prosecutor General's human rights division. After a little over two weeks they returned to living in San Blas. No one has asked them what they witnessed that night.
On April 13, some 18 days after the massacre, President Sanchez Ceren boasted that 140 of the 481 homicides in March were gang members killed during confrontations with the PNC. At the time, March was El Salvador's most violent month in a decade. Dennis and Sonia were part of the president's statistics.
Chus the farm overseer disappeared 19 days after the massacre. His body appeared a day later, his face shredded by a machete.
On the morning of April 14, 2015, Jesus Hernandez Martinez, age 44, the San Blas farm overseer, brother of Consuelo and uncle to Dennis, left for work at 6.30 a.m. No one knew anything else about his whereabouts for more than 24 hours.
At 7.15 a.m. on April 15, a call to the Huizucar police station reported there was a body on the main street of the town of El Zapote. This area is not controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, but their rivals the Barrio 18. A quarter of an hour later, a patrol arrived. Two hours later, a forensic specialist.
The autopsy said the body had five wounds produced from a sharp-edged weapon, such as a machete, to the face. There was also a blue nylon rope looped around his neck. The bones of his skull were crashed, as was his face and teeth. He died from asphyxiation and as a result from the slash wounds.
He carried no ID. His wife recognized him when she arrived to the Santa Tecla police station, asking to see photographs of bodies that had appeared in the last few hours. One of the photos was the body of Chus the overseer.
Chus was the last person to speak with Dennis. His cellphone – purchased just a few weeks ago – is missing, along with other personal items belonging to Dennis, such as his watch and Bible. Someone stole them from the room that morning. Two family members have since received calls from that same cell phone, weeks after Dennis was killed by the bullets of some GRP agent. They haven't dared to answer.
According to Consuelo, Chus was "indignant and hurt" after the massacre. He swore to many people that the police hadn't given his nephew a chance to surrender, that they killed him in cold blood. Chus was present while the police processed the scene, and he ranted, calling them assassins.
Afterwards, he was killed. When we asked Consuelo who she is afraid of, she said the police.