Fear and loathing in El Salvador
I knew that there was now an acute economic crisis, and that the right-wing death squads that used to terrorise the country when I was covering the war in the late 1980s, had been replaced by violent gangs and drug traffickers.
I also knew that for the first time in its history, central America’s smallest and most densely populated country had a moderate left-wing president, Mauricio Funes.
He is a former journalist who made a name for himself, and risked his life in the process, denouncing abuse of power and inequality in El Salvador.
I was intrigued to know how he had made the switch from being a colleague who constantly questioned power, to being at its helm…and now accused by many of those who had voted for him of betraying his principles. (See full interview with President Mauricio Funes on Talk to Al Jazeera.)
As a result of the violence generated by organised crime, drug trafficking and the huge gangs that roam the entire country, El Salvador now has the highest murder rate in the western hemisphere, equalled only perhaps by its neighbour Honduras.
President Funes took the radical step of putting the army back onto the streets for the first time since the war, in an attempt to curtail the gangs, which survive on extortion, selling drugs and robbery.
Many people are uncomfortable seeing the same institution that was once responsible for killing innocent civilians, even nuns and priests, out on patrol with high-powered rifles.
In the Iberia neighbourhood of San Salvador, we saw for ourselves how soldiers searched young men with disdain and loathing.
“Everyone here is involved in crime, even the women and children. They are all rotten apples,” the head of the patrol told me.
What surprised me, though, was that despite their weapons and their bravado, the soldiers were afraid. They asked that we not show close ups of their faces. They did not want to do on-camera interviews.
And the fear of reprisals was not limited to the soldiers. All of the active gang members we spoke to were equally afraid of being identified and singled out, especially by the police, but also by rival gangs.
“We help each other out no matter what, we die for each other, and kill for each other,” a 19-year-old gang member told me.
Living in fear
But they also admit that they live in permanent fear of being beaten and imprisoned by the police or murdered by rival gangs.
“Saint Death is always hovering nearby. That’s just the way it is,” said a gang leader.
They used to proudly wear tattoos from head to foot, but since being a gang member was declared illegal, more and more of these young men and women are abandoning the marks that identify them as a member of either the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang, the largest one in the Americas, or their main rival, La 18.
And the fear is not just of the police, the army or a rival, but of their own gang should they start getting cold feet.
I went to a clinic called Goodbye Tattoo, run by Father Antonio Rodriguez, a Catholic priest who tries to help gang members reintegrate into society.
There, I found a 24-year-old undergoing his fourth, painful session of removal of his tattoos. He had a scar from a knife wound on his throat, a bigger scar on his belly, remnants of bullet wounds on his arms and legs.
I asked him why he was wearing a wide elastic support around his stomach, he said his intestines had literally been cut out in a knife fight and the support was to help hold them in while his wound healed.
He still had a small tear tattoo under his left eye. “We wear it to show we have killed our first enemy. I can’t tell you that we do nice things. But I am tired of killing and trying not to be killed. I want to have a family, so please don’t show my face because I don’t have permission from everyone in my gang to do this (remove his tattoos) and they could give me the “green light”.
What does that mean, I asked him?
“That they have the green light to kill me. Once you are in a gang, you are in forever, although sometimes you are allowed to get a job and be a non-active member. But it’s not easy.”
And then, of course, there is the fear amongst ordinary Salvadorans which used to be so widespread during the civil war.
I asked an elderly man who was coming out of the church after Father Antonio’s Sunday Mass, if things were better or worse now than in the 1980s.
“This is worse, as unbelievable as it sounds,” he answered.
“Before everyone knew who was who. Now we live in permanent fear of getting robbed or killed at any time, day or night. The younger generation doesn’t fight for a cause, it is simply being swallowed up by the despair, inequality, corruption and lack of opportunities that caused the war in the first place. This country is still not at peace.”