The quiet dirt street seems peaceful enough. An old lady is waiting out the afternoon heat under a shade tree. A small child is happily playing with a dog. Occasionally a car will pass by, the driver greeting neighbors through the rolled-down window. As I stand here in the Central American midday sun, it is hard to believe that over 100 murders have been committed on this little street in recent years. But the murders have been committed; they ARE real, as is this San Salvador barrio and its gang problem. My partner, Jeff Randall, and I are literally standing on the front lines between two of the most vicious gangs in the western hemisphere.
Much has been written in recent years regarding Salvadoran gangs. Primarily, there are two: The Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13), and the 18th Street. The term mara is a Spanish word that Salvadorans use for gangs. Salvatrucha is a nickname in Spanish for Salvadorans, particularly those Farabundo Marti Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) guerillas that fought in the civil war throughout the 1980’s. As of late, however, the nickname has come to have a broader definition. The 18th Street title is reportedly derived from the street in Los Angeles where this Hispanic gang originated.
Both gangs have developed particularly violent reputations, especially against one another; however, due to the intricate multi-dimensional structure of gang alliances in the US, the two Salvadoran gangs, although rivals, do not share the same animosity in the States that is so often displayed in their native country of El Salvador.
Jeff and I traveled to El Salvador to view this situation firsthand and to see how the police there are dealing with the gang violence. In February 2005, the month we were there, there were 255 murders in El Salvador, a country of just 6 million inhabitants. By all accounts, the majority of this violence (roughly 70%) involved gang on gang murders. This is indeed a shocking number, but what is even more shocking is that this is an improvement over previous periods.
The question then becomes, what is being done about this epidemic? To get the answer, we hit the streets, armed with cameras and just enough Spanish to get ourselves into trouble. Like any other country in the world, the war on crime is not won in multi-storied government buildings, but in the trenches. The bulk of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of a select few within the Salvadoran police, the Unidad Tactica de Operativa or U.T.O. Jeff and I had the distinct pleasure of riding with these highly professional officers during some of their routine gang investigations, and were able to observe their weapons and tactics.
When traveling the lesser-developed countries, one gains a sense of how the local culture operates by observation, since nuances in the local tongue may go unnoticed by the gringo. It was our past experience that instantly drew our attention to fact that the officers were preparing to enter the front lines of the gang war by donning load bearing vests, equipped with 8 additional, fully-loaded Galil magazines.
With the clear and increasingly obvious knowledge that neither of us had ever visited San Salvador gang territory, coupled with the “255 murders” statistic still fresh in our minds, and the fact that these seasoned officers felt they needed over 300 rounds of rifle ammo each, we rather introspectively began preparing our camera gear. Then a few minutes later, the four fully armed police and the two fully unarmed photojournalists hopped into the back of the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux and headed into the barrio.
It took an entire 30 seconds upon entering the neighborhood to realize that we were in stone-cold gang territory. Immediately, the UTO officers spotted 2 suspected gang members of the MS organization and became decidedly proactive. With graffitied walls serving as a backdrop, some officers took the “contact” responsibility by patting the individuals down while others, with Galils, took up perimeter “cover” positions, watching various areas of responsibilities, both at street level and upwards toward the second and third floor balconies that lined the small road. Although the officers are very young, it was clear they had the maturity that only comes with experiencing life and death situations. They maintained interval discipline and concentrated on their particular areas of operation, creating a 360-degree ring of coverage. Operating inside this secured ring, UTO Subinspector Rivera, the leader of our particular unit, identified one of the individuals as a known member of the MS gang, based on a rather sophisticated intelligence chart carried by the higher ranking members of the police. These charts show links, titles and responsibilities of various gang associates, along with photos of each. A primary responsibility of UTOs is that of intelligence gathering. Much like organized crime in the US, it is often difficult to prosecute gang members since many witnesses are reluctant to testify for fear of retaliation. As such, the local police and prosecutors rely on the intelligence gathering capabilities of the UTO to help build cases against suspected gang members.
Subinspector Rivera questions the individuals and documents their answers. Then another officer produces a digital camera and captures images of the various tattoos so proudly displayed by Salvadoran gang members. Sometimes these tattoos are the only means to identify what is left of a body after a particularly violent rival gang encounter. Salvadorans gang members are particularly liberal with their use of tattoos, often tattooing their entire faces, lips, head and ears. Tattoos have become so synonymous with gangs in El Salvador that the police are specifically prohibited from having or obtaining any tattoos whatsoever.
We are walking back to the truck when several UTO officers begin shouting, and sprint towards an open-air market. It seems they have spotted a known sicario – an assassin.
Through the stalls selling brightly colored hammocks, dried fish and handicrafts, the police pursue the individual while shouting rapid-fire Spanish. Although much younger than the officers, he is not faster and is quickly caught. He is 21 years old and a member of the 18th Street gang. Scars over his chest and stomach tell the story of his violent youth. I count 3 scarred-over gunshot wounds and a scar that appears to be from the business end of a machete. Two of the gunshots are in the center of his chest and one would think they would have been fatal. In his short life, he’s developed a reputation for being very efficient with a knife and has killed at least 7 rival gang members. Unfortunately, as is often the case, witnesses are too scared to testify against the assassin and after some more photo-taking and questioning, the police are forced to let him go since no one has been able to obtain an arrest warrant for him. Given the appearance of the life he is leading, he may very well not live long enough to face prosecution anyway.
We have several more encounters during the rest of the day, and afterwards, our time with this well-trained unit comes safely to a close with the only shooting having been done with our digital Canons.
What have I learned from my trip to El Salvador? Gang violence, although a terrible problem in certain concentrated neighborhoods of El Salvador, it is actually on the decline due to the proactive and efficient work by the local police, something that cannot be said in most of the other countries of the world, including many parts of the United States. It should also not discourage the average tourist from visiting what is otherwise a beautiful country. Hopefully the US and El Salvador will continue to work hand in hand to combat these gangs since together, they make up two sides of the same coin.
Many thanks to Jeff Randall for allowing us to use images from his website. More of Jeff’s photos can been seen at –