Marvin Recinos / AFP / Getty Images

Fear, uncertainty prevail on San Salvador’s increasingly violent streets

As homicides soar after failed truce, El Salvador could surpass Honduras as most murderous peacetime country

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on how the sharp increase in violence in El Salvador is changing the daily lives of residents of the capital. Part one looks at gangs targeting police officers in the aftermath of the failed truce.

SAN SALVADOR — Graffiti bearing MS, or Mara Salvatrucha, insignia blot the walls of the market street near the cathedral, identifying the gang’s territory. Its growing influence and that of the rival 18th Street gang are being acutely felt as violence continues to rise after the failure of a gang truce.

Barney, who runs a small stall selling cellphones and didn’t want to give his full name, said he’s can’t remember a worse time. “It’s like we are at the beginning of a war,” he said. “They’ll kill you for anything. Everything happens here at any hour of the day — kidnapping, murder, extortion.”

He said customers are afraid to come. Then he abruptly ended the conversation.

“It’s better not to talk anymore, because they are watching,” he said after he described how he and all the others who work in the small market are forced to pay $10 a week to the MS gang. With business down, sometimes he makes less than that in a day.

In El Salvador, 12 to 16 people are killed each day, the majority of them in the capital. According to official figures, 481 were killed this March alone — the most in one month for a decade. Some are documenting this new reality. Ivan Manzano, a journalist, posts on Facebook the daily stream of crime and violence, for example, “11 wounded in a grenade attack in Cojutepeque,” “Double murder in Gotera and one in San Martin,” “Taxi driver killed in Izalco,” “Two attackers and a passenger die when bus passengers defend themselves against robbery.” 

The situation is so grave, and so many young people in particular are going missing that Israel Ticas, El Salvador’s leading criminologist, has been issuing repeated warnings through social media that they shouldn’t walk alone in San Salvador.

He is in no doubt his country is experiencing a terrible moment.

“We are stuck in a bubble which is called El Salvador and which is totally violent,” he said, adding that most people, both ordinary citizens and officials, are too afraid to describe what is really happening for fear of retaliation from gang members. He said the police, criminal investigators and the country’s institutions are all under attack as the gangs fight for territory and power. He said the gangs are growing stronger, not weaker. “Weapons, members, technology, organization — they have so much.” A series of grenade attacks on police stations and the murders of police officers and soldiers have demonstrated the gangs’ growing confidence.

Nicknamed “the lawyer for the dead” for his success finding clandestine graves where gangs hide their victims, Ticas almost every day publishes on Facebook pictures of another missing person or articles of clothes and possessions he has discovered in a hidden cemetery. Parents of the disappeared follow him to locations he is excavating, hoping for news. Many wait years for information; others never know. The gangs’ philosophy is no body, no crime. Asked last August about El Salvador’s thousands of missing people, one gang member told Al Jazeera, “That is our secret. We’ll never tell.”

On the corner of a downtown square considered neutral territory by the gangs, taxi driver 42-year-old Armando, who also didn’t want to give his last name, said each day he feels more unsafe.

“There’s no work and more places I can’t go. They’ll kill me if I go to an area controlled by them. I already can’t go north or south, and they’re trying to gain more territory,” he said. “I just work the main streets and drop people there.”

His fears don’t stop when his workday ends.

“I hate living like this,” he continued. “I have my daughters and mother to think of. They never leave the house because we live in a gang-controlled area. They only leave in the car with me. In this country you have to know how to survive.”

‘There are virtually no police patrols. Soldiers come occasionally and always in groups of six or more.’

Ivonne Fuentes

San Salvador mother

The violence has brought with it a heightened sense for ordinary Salvadorans that their lives can change in a moment. Few are immune from the uncertainty.

Ivonne Fuentes’ 19-year-old son, José Fuentes, was last seen leaving school on March 13, 2015.
Matt Chandler

Ivonne Fuentes has not seen her 19-year-old son, José Fuentes, since March 13, a significant day of the month for the Mara Salvatrucha 13, when they are rumored to step up their activity. He left their neighborhood in San Ramon, which is dominated by the 18th Street gang, to go to school. He was seen leaving school later that day but never arrived home. “No one saw anything, and if they had, they wouldn’t say so for fear,” she said.

According to her, José Fuentes had never had a problem with the gangs before. “They never tried to recruit him. They never threatened him,” she said, although some students at his school are members. A shy boy, her son had lived among gang members his entire life.

“We’ve always lived with this. We know it. Whenever we invited outsiders to the neighborhood, they wouldn’t come,” she said, crying as she described her desperation.

According to her, even police are afraid to come. She said they took 22 days to interview her. “They’re scared to come to where we live. There are virtually no police patrols. Soldiers come occasionally and always in groups of six or more,” she said.

The grieving mother believes the Mara Salvatrucha gang is responsible for her son’s disappearance. If it had been the 18th Street gang, which controls her neighborhood, she said, local members would have told her not to look for him or report his disappearance, or she would have been forced to leave the neighborhood or worse.

Every three days she revisits the hospitals and morgues, hoping for news. She conceded that José Fuentes could have been killed for refusing to be recruited.

“They see potential in certain young people,” she said. “They want the kids to want to be a part of them. Usually they look for kids walking the streets, kids whose families aren’t interested, who aren’t loved. They take advantage and tell them they can give them what they’re missing.”

At the national university, Rocio Velasco, a student, described a play her drama group is staging, “De la Calle,” or “From the Street.” It features street kids, corrupt police, prostitutes and drug traffickers mirroring San Salvador’s street life. She said her small town of Santa Tecla, on the outskirts of the capital, is also suffering problems of gangs, organized crime and no-go areas. But the change she has seen in the capital has made her paranoid and on constant alert.

“You can’t trust anyone,” she said.

Daniel Vasquez, another student, agreed, but he pointed a finger at the government and its inability to tackle what he believes is the root problem: poverty. “Poverty breeds violence, generates gangs, creates all that is rotten,” he said. “And the media plays an important role too by making people afraid.”

He, like many others, recognizes the vicious cycle that exists. He is adamant that there is no short-term solution and that the long-term one — aimed at the generations to come — would require a deep commitment not just from this government but those to follow.

“I come from Zoyapango, a place which is in a state of conflict and always has been. Poverty drove us to college, but we lived there among gang members’ children and left them behind. The teachers knew who they were and did nothing for them. We don’t justify what the gangs do, but I believe of 100 gang members, 90 percent can be recovered. The young people are the key. One of the problems that could unlock so much else is education, and that is one of the very things the government just doesn’t do enough to support.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter