Less than a month ago, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang and the two factions of the Barrio 18 gang sent conciliatory messages to each other, promising, in their own words, to restrict their criminal activity in light of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading throughout the country. But by Friday, April 24, this delicate equilibrium broke, and El Salvador ended the day with 23 murders. The next day, Saturday, counted 13 deaths, Sunday 23, and Monday 14 murders by eight at night.
Something had suddenly changed, but the speed at which the change came about leaves a puzzle that is both difficult to read and is missing some key pieces, and which has also left prison officials, police commanders, and even leaders of the gang bewildered. El Salvador has suffered an average of 3.5 murders a day this year, which was on track to make it the least violent year of this century—until the spike of violence during the last four days.
President Nayib Bukele immediately attributed responsibility for these deaths to “the gangs”—in general—and suggested, as he usually does, and without any evidence, that the political opposition could be behind them. He immediately ordered the imposition of a state of emergency in all gang prisons, and publicly stated that the Police and the Army are authorized to use “lethal force” against gang members who put anybody’s life at risk.
The government took another significant step, undoing the method by which they had been organizing the penitentiary system for over a decade: beginning on Saturday, they have begun mixing members of rival gangs in shared cells, something that hasn’t been seen since the 2004 total separation of gang members, according to their affiliation, in separate prisons or wards—a process which took years to implement, and which sparked riots and massacres.
After the first suspicions, the initial signs point to MS-13, the gang that is twice the size of its two rivals, in terms of members, as being responsible for the sudden uptick in murders. The hypothesis is backed by an official of the prisons with access to intelligence information, as well as MS-13’s rivals in the 18 Sureños gang, some of whose members circulated a video in which five people in hoods appear reading a communique distancing themselves from the spate of murder. President Bukele validated the video and referenced it on Twitter as a sign of the effectiveness of his security program: “The first gang already has come forward saying they won’t murder any more Salvadorans. We’re waiting for the two others. Immediately stop the killing or you and your homeboys will suffer the consequences,” he Tweeted. He followed the threat with another even more cryptic Tweet: “They are closing in on you, on your houses, on your hiding places, you have hours left.”
El Faro spoke with a gang leader, a police commissioner, a beat cop, a police investigator specializing in Organized Crime and criminal structures, and a prison official to try to put together the pieces of the puzzle they are hoping to fit together.
The Silence of the Gangs
On Monday March 30, the MS-13 gang began a sort of media campaign with the purpose of informing people that they were supporting the sanitation measures being implemented by the government, helping to enforce the obligatory curfew in all the communities they maintain control of. Though at first both factions of the Barrio 18 gang joined in the warning calls, they backed down in the following days after MS-13 started posting videos of members torturing people who were circulating in public without a valid reason. Instead of issuing blows, the Sureños faction published videos of their members delivering basic market goods to residents of impoverished communities.
The gangs made clear that they sought to reclaim their position of being a protagonist during the pandemic. “Tony,” the leader of MS-13, even talked about the importance of saving the lives of Salvadorans.
These days, the murder rate has become unusually low, according to the standards of the country: on March 30 there was one murder; on March 31 there was one more. Throughout the month of March there were an average of 2.1 murders a day, and April began along the same lines: averaging 2.3 murders a day until Thursday April 23, the day before violence would pick up its pace.
Though the number of murders had been nose-diving since Bukele came to office, the same did not happen with extortions: in 2019—in which he was only president half the year—the number of reports of people being covered “renta” went up by 30 percent. Not one gang promised to end this crime, despite the health crisis. And yet, the possibility of actually collecting these illegal fees was affected by the fact that a large portion of the victims were no longer earning income.
The MS-13 spokesman was very explicit about it: “We don’t talk about the rent issue, because the people’s perception will be: ‘Do you see that you can stop charging us, you sons of bitches? They haven’t taken it away because they don’t want to.’ It’s stupid to tell them we’re going to forgive rent. There are people who worked up the balls to tell us that they can’t pay rent, and they’re understood, but there’s big companies that are profiting and we can’t tell those people not to pay. If we put out that message everybody is going to say they don’t have it, even though they do.”
The last time “Tony” was online on Whatsapp was on Monday, April 20. Ever since, the gang has been quiet. A leader of one of the Barrio 18 factions assured El Faro that his organization made several efforts to reopen communication lines with MS-13 leaders, with no success, both before and after the uptick in homicides.
“From the moment we lost communication with them, we can’t rule them out, but we can’t be sure it was them either. A lot of things are making us believe it was them. We’re looking for them and they’ve been impossible to find. We don’t know if they get our messages, but the logic is that they got the message and they didn’t give a reason. They cut off communication and didn’t reestablish it. If it’s pure pelazon, or gossip, on their behalf, what’s the point of throwing themselves like that for nothing? It’s weird. Logic tells us to think about the letters [the MS] but it still doesn’t make sense. I’m not defending them, much less, but they can’t be this stupid,” a gang leader, who said he was just as bewildered as the rest of the country, told El Faro.
In a video broadcast by the Southern faction of Barrio 18 — to which Bukele gave legitimacy — that gang not only distances itself from the killings, but it also made explicit its three hypotheses: “Yesterday, the homicide rates were triggered and we don’t know if [the perpetrators are] the government itself or political parties who’ve always been behind these violent situations, or the rival gang [MS].”
The prison official — a person deeply familiar with the internal organization of gangs — has no doubt that MS-13 is behind these deaths: “After assessing the information we have, it seems logical to us: MS-13 protocols have been activated. The Revolutionaries are always at the ready and I don’t think they will activate; the Sureños are always slightly more violent, better equipped. I would say it definitely is the Mara Salvatrucha. Still, we can’t just take it against a single gang, because we don’t have the information to be sure.”
On Saturday, April 25, El Faro spoke with a police commissioner and asked for an explanation for the rising homicides. The commissioner asked us to omit his name to avoid repercussions. He said, “There is a lot of fear that information may leak and that the population in general has facts and data to analyze what’s happening. In fact, for a few weeks now, access to the Imperium (the internal police information system) has been handled with great zeal. On the inside, access was widespread. Now it has to be requested in many cases.”
On Monday, April 27, El Faro tried to contact the commissioner again, who assured us that, after speaking to different heads of delegations and sub-delegations, and police who have informants inside the gangs, he had two certainties to explain this uprising.
The first, he said, is because of money. “There are many desperate gang members because they have no income, and not only because of the extortions, but because their families’ incomes depend on selling in the market. They’re suffering a double impact from the pandemic: no rent, and no sales. And all in a moment when they feel outside of the spotlight: the issue is the virus and not the homicides. It was like a wake-up call to let us know that they’re still there, with the same power and control of their territory,” he explained.
During the last weeks of March and the first week of April, El Faro spoke with different workers from San Salvador. Some restaurant workers said that the gang members who used to charge them extortion money had not done so since mid-March. Taxi drivers from the capital’s center, for example, said they paid gang members in the area once every 15 days, but that, for the first time in many years, they hadn’t arrived. One of the taxi drivers said that he continued to keep the quota, because he understood that the lack of collection was not due to any kind of forgiveness for the emergency, but to the fact that gang members could not go to the very visible areas of the center at a time when police and military presence is heavy, and when the circulation of citizens is reduced.
The second certainty, the commissioner said, “is that during the deployment of the military and police to oversee the quarantine, gang members are complaining of an increase in aggressions, humiliations, and beatings against them and their families. There are more cops on the streets, there are no licenses at the moment, and there’s a feeling that police brutality has increased in some gang areas.”
This second certainty is also supported by the prison official, who said that the information obtained by their sources leads in the same direction: 'We have been listening from the beginning of this issue that they wanted privileges in prisons and also because, in recent days, the police has been killing them and, sometimes, posting on social media images of gang members in agony, and that was going to trigger something.”
The commissioner said he could not be conclusive about whether the increase in homicides was exclusively a decision of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 or whether it also involved the Barrio 18 factions. 'You would have to see every homicide, not by municipality, but by colony or by canton, because in a municipality all three can be present,' he said. 'What can be concluded,' he continued, 'is that the Territorial Control Plan has failed to remove territorial control from them. With everything and an unusual deployment of soldiers and policemen, when they want to kill they, they do.'
That same afternoon, El Faro also spoke with an organized crime police investigator. He holds a key position as government liaison and has worked on several investigative operations against structures of the three main gangs throughout the country. The researcher said: 'The government wants to say it’s the opposition, but it has nothing to do with it. We have nothing to indicate that the increase in homicides has to do with that kind of political activity.'
In recent days, several government-minded officials and politicians have insisted that political interests are behind the increase in killings. Guillermo Gallegos, the most visible MP of the Gana party, who led Bukele to the presidency, has even said in interviews and social media that he would not be surprised if the FMLN and Arena are behind the more than 60 murders. To date, no one has presented any evidence to back the claim.
El Faro spoke that same day with a police officer from the state of Cuscatlán. From the perspective of this basic-level policeman, who is in charge of patrols, abandoning combat measures to gangs has been an inciting factor: 'The Territorial Control Plan was paused for a while, the people in the territories got out of there, and focused on preventive measures to avoid Covid-19. The officials have been in vehicle controls, taking care of banks, markets…”
He claims that this time, officials at checkpoints, including 'police intelligence people, have not given any information on who is behind these killings.'
In the midst of such a confusing scenario, the Government has chosen to show as much muscle as possible: on Saturday 25, via Twitter, Bukele ordered the director general of Penal Centers, Osiris Luna, to implement extreme isolation measures in the seven gang prisons. A day later, he wrote on the same social network that he’d authorized the public forces to use 'lethal force' in combating gangs and immediately clarified that the government will bear the legal expenses of elements that are accused of murder 'for defending the lives of honest people.'
That same day, it was announced that the government would mix members of rival gangs in the same cells, thus reversing a decision made more than a decade ago that helped form the base of the evolution of these criminal structures.
On Monday, April 27, several videos were made public in which the government showed the reorganization inside penal centers, drawing on the images of the semi-naked and handcuffed gang members, some of whom were forced to run to into formations of long lines of bodies, of searches inside the cells, of the police restraining them… But there was one novelty: images of gang members tattooed with the M and the S were shown along with bodies covered in the number 18, something that only happened in prisons with retired gang members.
With this move, El Salvador’s prison director announced the end of prisons dedicated exclusively to locking up members of a single gang, and president Bukele took the opportunity to send a sarcastic message on his favorite social network: “From now on, all gang members’ cells in our country will remain sealed. You can no longer see outside the cell. This will prevent them from using signs to communicate across the hallway. They’ll be inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang,” he wrote. The official with whom El Faro spoke assured us that the logic was that the government believes that the killings were ordered from inside the jails after a recently released gang member received detailed instructions from his cell. The government thinks that, by mixing them, gang members will be less likely to send orders from the prison. According to the official, there is no plan to stop any fights from taking place in the cells at night. They’re trusting that the gang members themselves organize some sort of amnesty.
Over the last few days, the government shared several photographs of gang members sitting in line, their legs intertwined, as a response to the increase in homicides. Various international organizations, including Human Rights Watch and some U.N. officials showed concern on social media about the actions taken by the government in times where social distancing has become a motto.
*Translated by Mariana Alfaro and John Washington