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Under siege: El Salvador’s state of chaos

A police officer guards a murder scene in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015. In a new offensive, police in El Salvador are pushing deep into the slums where gangs hold sway and three battalions of elite troops have prepared to join the battle on the streets for the first time, but the strategy has backfired, and the violence has only intensified.

A police officer guards a murder scene in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015. In a new offensive, police in El Salvador are pushing deep into the slums where gangs hold sway and three battalions of elite troops have prepared to join the battle on the streets for the first time, but the strategy has backfired, and the violence has only intensified.

Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

Under Siege

The end of a truce between El Salvador's government and street gangs has turned the country back into a war zone where dozens of people – including the innocent – are murdered every day, reports Stephanie Nolen in San Salvador

Forty people were killed last Sunday in El Salvador. Forty-two on Monday, 43 on Tuesday, 30 on Wednesday, and on through the week. Even the brutal civil war in the 1980s never had a week like this one.

A spasm of murderous violence has convulsed this Central American country and shows no sign of abating. Many of the dead are young men who are members of notorious street gangs. At least a quarter of them were shot by police with a tacit take-no-prisoners policy. Many more of the victims were civilians, including at least two toddlers, their murders without any motive other than that's what happens now: People get killed.

"Old people and young people and just anybody – we don't know who is killing and we don't know who will die," said Guadalupe Cruz, who works in a gas station in the capital and prays the whole way home on the bus each afternoon that she arrives before dark and finds both of her teenage sons still alive.

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The population of El Salvador is the same size as that of metropolitan Toronto, 6.1 million people. By way of comparison, 26 people were murdered in Toronto in all of 2014 – fewer than were killed on any single day in El Salvador this summer.

A team from the medical examiner's office take a body to the morgue in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015.

A team from the medical examiner’s office take a body to the morgue in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015.

Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

There is a surreal aspect to the violence: In the low-income neighbourhoods that are gang strongholds, the weight of imminent danger prickles in the air, even as women walk to the bakeries on the corners and boys play soccer in dirt fields. At sundown, everyone who can goes indoors and stays there. Wealthy areas are peaceful. There is little other than the coded gang sign graffiti to indicate that the whole city is divided up into territories, and a person must not inadvertently make a wrong turn. Gang members themselves cannot cross the invisible borders without facing near-certain death, but today even civilians cannot go to a job interview or a high school in another territory. In late July, the gangs declared buses could not cross territories; they shut down the public transport on which the city's poor depend, and killed eight drivers.

Perhaps the most grim aspect of this killing spree is that everybody involved has a recent memory of how different things could be. Back in March of 2012, El Salvador's five gangs – dominated by the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 – agreed to a truce, brokered by church and other community leaders. They committed to stop killing each other, and to stop killing police, soldiers, jail guards and civilians.

The government also made pledges as part of the deal: that it would ease up on repressive measures against the gangs and soften the prison conditions of jailed leaders. There was also a promise of new social development programs in poor neighbourhoods to help reintegration of gang-affiliated youth, who live in slums with poor access to education and almost no hope of employment.

Overnight, the murder rate plunged from 15 a day to an average of 5.5. There were a couple of days, in fact, where no one was killed at all, a phenomenon that nobody could recall happening in decades. Levels of all other kinds of crime also dropped considerably.

In El Salvador, however, this was not considered a public-policy triumph. In fact, in March, 2014, the government withdrew from the process: The presidential election was tight, and the ruling party concluded that the perception it negotiated with criminals did not play well. Then at the end of 2014, with assembly and local elections looming, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren launched an aggressive crackdown, putting gang leaders back in maximum-security cells, calling in the armed forces for help and intensifying police actions in gang territories. The El Salvadoran digital newspaper El Faro recently reported on the existence of police death squads carrying out point-blank executions of suspected gang members, and of civilians who get in the way; its reporters were forced to leave the country for a period, after receiving death threats over the story.

The remains of murder victims in the morgue lay in white plastic bags in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015.

The remains of murder victims in the morgue lay in white plastic bags in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015.

The New York Times

The killings have grown steadily since the intensified police campaign. June, with 677 homicides recorded, was the bloodiest month on record – although August seems certain to surpass it.

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"The politicians decided to win votes from the deaths of gang members," said Raul Mijango, a former guerrilla leader in the civil war era who became a legislator and was a key broker of the ceasefire.

How could a policy that cut the murder rate by more than 50 per cent be unpopular? It has to do with El Salvador's political culture, steeped in a history of the authoritarianism of military government and the violence of civil war, said Jeannette Aguilar, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at the University of Central America in San Salvador. In a country where everyone is touched by the gangs, either through extortion or the imminent threat of violence, "people tend to support these kinds of measures and ask for even tougher ones." They want what's called mano dura, an iron fist, the popular term for repressive policies adopted periodically over the past decade. "And some segment of the public even asks for elimination – 'Just kill them,' she added. "There is a climate of intolerance and vigilantism and polarization." Typically, each government crackdown initially has widespread public support that dies away when it proves to make no difference to public security – or to worsen it.

Nevertheless, praise or at least lukewarm support for the mano dura can be heard in every pupuseria and cantina in this city today. "The truce made things worse: The gangs had more freedom, but not the people," said Ana Gonzalez, 40, who sells trinkets emblazoned with the face of the recently beatified priest Oscar Romero, outside the cathedral where he preached before his assassination. Ms. Gonzalez said she earns $250 a month – and $42 of them she must pay to the gang that controls the cathedral block, or someone in her family would be assaulted or perhaps killed. "There isn't one Salvadoran family who wasn't a victim of their murder or extortion. The government should build more prisons, arrest more of them, attack them harder." The current murder rate does not trouble her: "It's mostly them killing each other. Which is good for the rest of us."

A period of truce between March 2012 and March 2014 saw a decline in the number of murders each month.

Indeed, the biggest advantage of the truce is found among civilians who live in the gang areas and gang members themselves, Ms. Aguilar said – and no one polls them, or worries overmuch about their votes.

Howard Cotto, the deputy chief of police in San Salvador, where the violence is worst, firmly rejected the idea that the state should be negotiating with the gangs, saying they are simply criminal organizations. "What do they want? What's their social or economic or political plan?" he asked rhetorically. "They don't have one. It's easy to talk about a 'truce' but it's really a pax mafioso. What's it for – so they can get better organized and have better structures, so they have a future ability to act more strongly against the state and civilians."

Critics say the truce served mainly to give the gangs breathing space to increase their resources and their power. Gang leaders were able to run things more efficiently from lower-security cells. They bought more weapons, and beefed up their ranks, by both enticing and forcing more youths to join. Making deals with them is giving in to blackmail, buying peace by agreeing to let them conduct criminal activity, Mr. Cotto said.

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Outside opinion is more tempered. Academics who have analyzed the truce period conclude that gangs did not lose strength or move members out of criminal activity, but that this is largely a reflection of government failure to follow through on commitments to boost spending on social inclusion.

"We promised so much and we did nothing," admitted a senior government official working on the gang response, speaking off the record because his personal views conflict with the official position. The gangs have their origins in Los Angeles, and were exported to El Salvador in the 1990s with deportees. Today they have no connection with the U.S. or other organizations of the same name in Central America, but exist as a warped source of identity and recreation for young people, predominantly male, in communities where many families are split by migration, and everyone is poor.

Investigators process the crime scene of a man shot to death in downtown San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015.

Investigators process the crime scene of a man shot to death in downtown San Salvador, El Salvador, May 29, 2015.

Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

And although he is not allowed to call it one in public, the official believes the country is once again in the midst of war. "This is a war: the war between the 18 and the MS causes 85 per cent of the homicides, but the war with the government causes gangs to develop, to get more weapons, to do more extortion to pay for them, to move to rural areas to avoid the pressure," he said. "It's not a war the state will win – I won't say they can't, but it will be very difficult."

Gangs are killing now because of a hyperactive sense that if they don't kill first they will be killed; because of suspicion of informers and traitors; and from a desire to show strength, he said. There is a toxic mix of numbness and bloodlust in the air at this point – "now they kill just because that's what they do," the official said.

Police and soldiers have been the target of some of this violence – 42 police officers and 15 soldiers have been killed so far this year – but the vast majority of deaths in the recent surge have been civilians killed by gang members.

The gang population is estimated at 60,000 people, of whom 12,500 are in prison. The gangs are surrounded by another circle of people – spouses, children, parents – that bring the total to 500,000, or 8 per cent of the population. To talk of wiping them out, Mr. Mijango says, is effectively to talk about genocide.

Across the country, thousands of Salvadorans are engaged in a desperate search for somewhere even incrementally safer to go. Some 288,900 people fled their homes within the country in 2014, according to the Norway-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

And since the end of the truce, there has also been a massive surge in illegal migration to the U.S. – particularly of unaccompanied minors, teenagers whose parents take on crippling loans to entrust their children to traffickers to take them away before the gangs get them. Some 32,000 Salvadoran children traveling without parents reached the border in 2014. The U.S. puts those it catches in overcrowded prison-like conditions that judges have repeatedly ruled violate its own laws, and has stepped up deportations.

Young men, in a jail for minors for committing gang-related crimes, in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 28, 2015.

Young men, in a jail for minors for committing gang-related crimes, in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 28, 2015.

Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

Mr. Mijango is one of the few outsiders with whom gang leaders still speak (for his pains, the federal prosecutor has announced that he is being investigated), and he says they are willing to consider new dialogue. But Mr. Cotto, the deputy police chief, said the state has no intention of changing tactics.

Forty minutes drive from the streets of San Salvador, wreathed in yellow police tape each morning, there is a surreal and bucolic vision of what dialogue could produce. In the town of Ilopango, a wheeling-dealing mayor named Salvador Ruano has managed to keep a local truce in place. Instead of killing each other, he says, he has the maras growing tomatoes in a greenhouse project – or rather two greenhouse projects, since relations have not improved to the point that the two gangs could hoe the same fields.

Here, a baby-faced senior leader of the Mara Salvatrucha who is known in the streets as Marvin took time out to try to explain the current spike in killings elsewhere in the country. "Sometimes I like to imagine that the streets are like a jungle – in a jungle there are the hunted and the hunters. Even animals, when they sense death, respond. Gangs are feeling some pressure and they react."

Tregua – truce – became a dirty word in El Salvador, he said. And now there is a three-way conflict between "a group of politicians, a group of psychopathic police officers, and a group of gang members who don't want to just sit back when a member is killed." But it doesn't have to be that way, said Marvin, who joined the gang at 14 and went to jail for a decade at 19 for a murder he said he foolishly committed to impress his pals.

He described sitting across the table from his sworn enemies in the Barrio 18 gang during the last negotiations, people he knew had killed his friends. "Why is it that the gangs could do this and put aside their differences and try to make a change," he said, "but all the other social actors can't?"

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