The Day of the Beast


An excerpt from the book, Letter from Zacatraz

Gustavo Adolfo Morales, known as El Directo, in the Zacatecoluca Prison. Photo: Carlos Barrera for El Faro.

Sequence One

The Day of the Beast

January 24, 1982

The soldier showed up without a uniform, with a pistol on his hip, a grenade in his backpack. As was typical for his days of leave, the soldier was looking forward to being showered with sex, alcohol, and homecooked food. That weekend, after leaving the barracks, he headed straight to the Panamericana neighborhood of San Miguel, El Salvador, to a building on the corner of Costa Rica and Mexico avenues. It was a humble, one-story row house with roof tiles, red stucco walls, and four doors opening to the street: one for each rented sub-unit where a separate family lived. In one of the units lived his sister with an older man everyone knew as Don Mario. The couple had a baby and, for a small fee, the soldier had convinced them to let his young girlfriend and lover crash with them. 

The grenade exploded just after eleven that night. The soldier and Don Mario died instantly. The baby, whose stomach was blown open, her intestines spilling out, was evacuated to the San Juan de Dios Hospital, where she would die shortly thereafter. The soldier’s sister and lover were both shaken, but neither was seriously wounded. 

On the other side of the wall, at the moment the grenade exploded, a sixteen-year-old girl was trying to sleep. Her name was Dora Alicia Morales, and she lived with her mother and three sisters. Miraculously, the wall protected her from the explosion. Neither Dora, nor anybody else in her family, had even a scratch, and yet they saw, and would live through, the aftermath. Shortly after midnight Dora started experiencing such fierce pains that she, too, would have to be hospitalized at San Juan de Dios. She would leave with a baby in her arms.

Dora is convinced that the explosion rushed the baby into the world, that the grenade that ended the life of three people also detonated the life of another. 

That was how she would explain it again and again to Gustavo Adolfo, converting his violent arrival into this world into a precious anecdote about life. Thirty years after that explosion, that baby, since become infamous gang leader El Directo, would reflect on his origins in a letter he would deliver to a journalist visiting him in the Zacatraz prison. In that letter he would recall the story of the explosion that his mom, his grandmother, and his aunts used to tell him: “It’s not like I fought in the war with a gun in my hand, but I was born because of a grenade explosion, and I was born with a stomach that was empty due to the fear of searching for food.” 

But before getting to that letter, there’s a whole book that needs telling.


The Civil War was raging at the time. The five armed groups that joined together under the banner of the FMLN, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, had launched their final offensive in January of 1981, with the hope of taking power before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as US President. In the first rounds of the fight, the guerrilla army had the stunned Salvadoran military up against the ropes, but their inexperience prompted them to throw in the towel. 

Nobody expected it at the time, but the war, even as both sides saw a sure path to victory, was barely even beginning. What would follow was twelve years of hate and death, with a toll of at least 75,000 dead. For over a decade (from 1980 to 1992), El Salvador,  a small underdeveloped country of less than 12,500 square miles, became one of the bloodiest sites of the Cold War, as well as a prime location for international war correspondents to pad their CVs.

The government’s response to the FMLN’s Final Offensive was ferocious. With its obsession to destroy the guerrilla’s bulwarks and its social support networks, the military began widespread excutions and waging a scorched earth campaign. There were unspeakable massacres in Guazapa, Armenia, Cacaopera, and most well known, El Mozote, which took place in the towns of Meanguera y Arambala, in the Morazán department. In mid-December of that year, soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion, the bloodiest of the elite Army forces, killed and torched a thousand children, women, and senior citizens. 

The terror was nothing new: it had been spreading through the country since the middle of the 1970s. And the barbarity didn’t even respect Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who would have won the Nobel Peace prize in 1979 if the Vatican hadn’t lobbied for Mother Teresa. 

It was in that context of homicidal madness, summary executions, and bodies showing up in ditches—which remained there as people were afraid to touch them and end up in the ditch themselves—when everything was on the table, when a soldier armed to the teeth with a pistol and a grenade in his backback just for a weekend leave was nothing out of the ordinary. Unless, of course, you were Dora Alicia, and your son came into the world on the same night that one of those grenades exploded. 

It wasn’t a planned pregnancy. Born to a humble family, Dora Alicia grew up in a broken home—dysfunctional, she would call it. Her parents were separated, they suffered extreme poverty, the streets were her classroom, an abusive step-dad…. She went to school, just long enough to learn to read and write, at the Centro Escolar Dolores C. Retes, but her real education came from her experience working that most Salvadoran of professions, what poet Roque Dalton coined as vendelotodo, or sells-it-all. What she would boast about all her life was not the solving of equations or the reading of classics, but that at eight-years-old she already knew how to make coconut bars and sweets from nance, a local fruit, and that she herself would sell them for money. At fifteen years old, the war pushed her to live with some family members in Santa María, a small village in the Usulután Department, where she met William Nelson Parada. And then everything started moving too quickly: they fell for each other, they kissed, they fucked, they went to live in the neighboring town of Santa Elena, and she got pregnant. Later, everything ended too quickly: William Nelson’s mother, who never liked Dora Alicia, pushed her son to flee the war and migrate to the US, just as hundreds of thousands of other Salvadorans were fleeing. Young William sold a cow in order to pay the coyote to take him north.

When she was just over three months pregnant, she had no other choice but to go back to live with her mother and sisters in the house that would explode a half a year later. 

One February 8, fourteen days after his birth, the grandmother, Juana Isabel Ascencio, took the child to the Civil Registry Office in San Miguel. On page 66 in the first book of 1982, written and signed by the head of registry, the birth of Gustavo Adolfo Morales (he wasn’t given a paternal last name) was recorded: born on January 25, 1982 at 12:35am, son of Dora Alicia Morales Granados, resident of the Panamericana neighborhood, a domestic worker and a Salvadoran national. 

Back then the name el Directo didn’t mean anything to San Miguel.

La Mara Salvatrucha didn’t mean anything.


Sequence Two

The Mara Is Not What It Once Was

Mara is a Salvadoran term that the Real Academia Española has officially acknowledged only since 2001. The first definition postulated by the dictionary was “gang of young men,” until the 2014 edition updated it to “violent organized youth gang, of hispanoamerican origin.”

The word has been used in El Salvador at least since the 1970s, meaning something like a group of close friends, or simply people, but, as in recent decades it has taken on a negative connotation, most Salvadorans have stopped using it to refer to friend groups. It’s also lost its connotation of people, or community. 

In Mexico the word is incorrectly used in its masculine form: los maras, they say. Specialists have reached a consensus to use the term to refer to gangs based in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) and sometimes including the southern stretch of Mexico. That’s to say, the word refers now specifically to the particular evolution of the young gangs in these societies. Thus there are gangs throughout the Americas, throughout the world, but there are no maras in South America, in Europe, or in the United States, no matter what academics or sensationalist journalists claim. 


Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha, the two gangs that helped split apart El Salvador, originated in Los Angeles, the world mecca of gangs. Both of the gangs were born out of the Sureño system. Other gangs, originally from LA, also took root in El Salvador in the mid-90s, such as La Mirada Locos 13, San Fer 818, Crazy Rider 13, Playboys 13, Pacoimas, White Fence… seeds sown by migrants who had fled to the United States, were jumped in in an Angelino gang, and then deported. Almost all of these early gangs disappeared: their members killed off or absorbed just like the autochthonous gangs.

Barrio 18 is also known as Gang 18, the 18s, or the Eighteenth Street Gang. Some of its more powerful members decry the fact that people sometimes still refer to it as the Mara 18. Barrio 18 was founded in the mid-20th century in the Rampart neighborhood of Los Angeles. Its exponential growth—now the largest Latino gang in the world, according to various researchers—is thanks to the fact that though the majority of its members were chicanos or Mexican, it opened itself from the beginning to other nationalities and ethnicities. Its offer of eternal fraternity seduced hundreds of Salvadoran migrants pushed out of their country by state oppression and war. 

More than three hundred thousand Salvadorans would move to the Los Angeles region, the majority arriving between 1977 and 1982, when repression in El Salvador reached insane heights. The flow has never since ceased. In 2004 there were almost three million Salvadorans living in the United States, according to Ministry of Foreign Relations’ estimates, an exodus of biblical proportions if you take into account that the entire population of El Salvador is only around 6.5 million people. 

The massive Salvadoran migration fed into the growth of the 18th Street Gang as well as, to a much lesser degree, some of the other Californian gangs. The migration also spawned an entirely new gang, one for which being Salvadoran and proud of being Salvadoran is an essential property: the Mara Salvatrucha.

The first small Salvatrucha groups first cropped up in the late 1970s, though it wasn’t until the late ‘80s that the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13, when they earned the right to add that number) achieved any relevancy. They came to power on the same downtown Los Angeles streets where the 18th Street Gang was most aggressive. It was on those streets where these two gangs began their spectacular growth.

Both of the gangs were Latino, with a majority of members who shared both history and accent. They both began under the all-powerful umbrella of the prison gang, the Mexican Mafia, or the eMe. They were both sureña gangs, and both shared the pride of using the number 13. “If the Mara Salvatrucha ever had a brother organization in Los Angeles, it was Barrio 18,” journalists José Luis Sanz and Carlos Martinez write in “The Journey of the Mara Salvatrucha.” But that wouldn’t prevent, at the tail-end of the 1980s, that the relationship would turn sour: a vile hate that was exported to Central America when the US government turned on the deportation centrifuge. 


“It’s true that the 18s came about before the Mara,” el Directo told me in Zacatraz, “but a bunch of years passed before they became Sureños. The MS was born later, and they got to be Sureños faster.”

Memory is selective, and sly. I remember a moment from a documentary about the Cold War that I watched more than 20 years ago. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon was in Moscow in 1959 at the American National Exhibition. In a discussion with Nikita Khrushchev, which would be remembered as the Kitchen Debate, the two would exchange opinions on the successes from each of their countries, focusing on improving conditions for the working class. A smiling Khrushchev acknowledged the American advances, but qualified them as the result of two centuries of capitalism, whereas the the USSR, only 42 years since the Bolshevik Revolution, was already on heels of the United States. Hearing el Directo talk about the successes of Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha, that image of a boastful Khrushcheve comes to mind. I make a note of it in my notebook. 

“A few days ago,” I told him—I should mention that our conversation is wandering—“a veteran of the 18s, a Guatemalan guy, told me that the 13 of MS-13 is a punishment.”

“Punishment?” he said. “Not at all.”

“He told me that some emeeses once burned a Mexican flag in Los Angeles, and the Mexican Mafia ordered all the sureño gangs to wipe out the emeeses, and that after racking up a few kills, in order to get rid of the green light, the MS had to pay out a lot of money and accept 13 in their name, as a punishment.”

“That story of the burned Mexican flag I have heard of. And yeah, it happens that a green light gets given against cliques or entire barrios, but that about the 13 as punishment is bunk. I mean, Sur 13 is part of the Mexican Mafia, and every part of the Mafia is sureño, but it’s not simple to be sureño, and it’s not a form of punishment. You have to earn it. I’ve talked about it with people who come from the north, and the 13 isn’t punishment, because… I don’t know how to put it… if you don’t work for the gang, they don’t give you the 13.”


US policy has long sought to contain the gang problem, but it has approached the issue through a uncoordinated variety of institutions. On both local and state levels it prioritized efforts on inclusion and prevention, work led by organizations like Los Angeles’s Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. At the federal level, however, the focus was mostly on gang repression. In December of 2004, the FBI created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force, and a year later, the National Gang Intelligence Center. They opened offices in El Salvador and Guatemala, and have deployed agents to both those countries to try to interrupt the flow of information, money, and personnel between the cliques in the United States and Central America.

But just as a block of ice won’t have the same life in the Tropics as it would in the Arctic, the gangs evolved differently depending on whether they were in the United States or in Central America. According to a US Congressional report: “The MS-13 and Barrio 18 have more members in Central America and Mexico, and reports show that they are more structured [in Central America] than their counterparts in the US.”

If the statistic of 40,000 members of MS and the 18s sounds scandalous in a country like the United States (with a population of over 350 million), in El Salvador the numbers are terrifying: in a country with six million inhabitants there are, according to an official government count from 2015, an estimated 60,000 gang members woven into the social fabric, along with another 400,000 collaborators including chequeos (aspiring young gang members in a sort of trial status), jainas (girfriends or female friends of gang members), mascotas (young kids who collaborate with the gangs), as well as sympathizers and direct family members who provide a variety of support. 

Only the right conditions—including the fact that more than half of the population was under eighteen years old, three out of four children were growing up in poverty, there were around twenty murders a day throughout the country, revolting levels of inequality, hundreds of thousands of available firearms, security personnel were recently decommissioned, social institutions were hardly functioning, families were torn apart by a biblical exodus, the social fabric was in shreds, and impunity was rampant—could have laid the groundwork for such grotesque numbers of newly joined gang members. Salvadoran society was choking on its peace, and the gangs multiplied in the context of violence.

In those first years after the war there was a bounty of people like Francisco, from San Miguel, who was recruited into the Army in 1984 when he was just sixteen years old and shuttled into the bloody Atonal Battalion. As he cut his teeth with firearms, when the battalion was disbanded it didn’t take long for him to find a job in a related field: bodyguard for a coyote in El Tránsito, a village nearby San Miguel. Soon after beginning his new job, a thief tried to break into his boss’s house. Francisco shot him. “I blasted that snot-nose, and seeing him laid out and suffering, I went up and finished him off. You know, how was I supposed to know…” This was in the first years after the Peace Agreements had been signed. “I didn’t know you couldn’t do that, that it was off-limits now. You know. I didn’t know that if I did something like that on the job, defending myself, that they could take me to jail. I could have escaped, but I went home, since I thought it was just part of the job.” He was sentenced to six years in prison and freed in 1998. By 1999 he started working again, a shotgun over his shoulder once more, as a security guard.

And into that society, into that cocktail of violence-ignorance-impunity-misery that was El Salvador in the early 1990s, the United States dumped hundreds of gang members with criminal records.

The deportations took off in the 1980s, slowly, like someone flicks dust off their shoulder. But things changed in 1992, after the race riots following the brutal police beating of Rodney King. The deportations became national policy in 1996 with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which allowed for a wide targeting of immigrants for deportation. Around 4,000 Salvadorans with criminal records, the majority of them gang members, were deported between 1993 and 1996. 


The war hadn’t even officially ended when the first bodies inked with gothic letters and numbers and wrapped in large t-shirts, flowing shorts, handkerchiefs, and expensive tennis shoes started showing up in El Salvador. The figures seemed straight out of Hollywood—their clothing, their tattoos, their mannerisms—and a somber Salvadoran society was, at first, fascinated.

Héctor Atilio Brizuela Silva is a psychologist with the Juvenile Court in San Miguel, but as a recent graduate in 1989, he was still working in an adult prison. That was where he saw deported gang members for the first time: three intimidating men who couldn’t be missed. “It was incredible to see them… they were so tough. I guess they had spent time in US jails. Even the politicians [political prisoners from the war] respected them. A bunch of the little brats inside did all they could”—and Brizuela brings his fingers up to his eye and squints through a sliver of a hole—“just to catch a glimpse of them. Nobody messed with them.”

Gang membership, in general, wasn’t punished in those early years. It was tolerated, even celebrated. People spoke openly about “gang fashion.”

In April of 1993, when the Salvadoran national soccer team beat Mexico 2–1 in a World Cup qualifying match, with goals from Papo Castro Borja and Renderos Iraheta, the cameras from Channel 4 focused a few long seconds on a cluster of fans with a large sign alluding to the Mara Salvatrucha. The commentators proudly hailed the national spirit of the fans. A psychologist in the Department of Crime Prevention of the Attorney General’s Office, Arístides Borja, sketched a portrait in May of 1995—as part of a report published in El Diario de Hoy—on how Salvadoran youth “dreamed and fantasized” about the gangs. “The gangs are in fashion. Belonging to a gang is an achievement, a triumph. For them it’s a sign of success, and it means power.” Psychologist Héctor Brizuela explains how the media celebrated the early gangs: “In those years La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy ran features on the dress habits of the gangs, how they wore Domba sneakers, how they spoke… they even published photographs explaining their system of gang signs. The papers encouraged the kids.”

In the first years of [Correcto? En aquellos primeros años de la guerra] the war, the authorities’ biggest worry in terms of public security was not the gagns, but organized criminal groups who were armed like commandos and were experts in kidnapping and robbery, groups that were often made up of ex-soldiers. 

Jaime Martín Santos Flores, sergeant in the National Civil Police, confirms that in those years the gangs were not part of the police’s agenda. “At first there were just some kids who went around with little more than a knife, right? The gang member was tied to problems with social order: fights amongst themselves, even if they were occasionally large and bloody brawls, or robberies or beatings, a problem for the citizens who suffered them, but far from being considered a national security matter.”

Rolando Elías Julián Belloso, a doctor and guerrillero commander in Morazán, and who was responsible for the San Miguel police delegation between 1995 and 1999, remembers the small early gangs and, later, their rapid growth: “Since they were speaking Spanish, what happened was that thousands of the bichos were illiterate in the United States, and then they came back as gang members.”

An article from the Associated Press published in March of 1996, “Salvadorans Take Gang Culture Back to Homeland” claimed that there were 10,000 active gang members. “Gang graffiti is everywhere,” Douglas Engle wrote. “After Coca-Cola, gangs appear to be the most visible import from the United States.”

Another article, written by Larry Rohter and published in the New York Times in August of 1997, drills on the resignation and passivity with which the Salvadoran state weathered the storm. The article gathered testimonies from deportees discussing how easy it was to start a clique, wherever they ended up. One of the stories covered Edwin Castillo, from Quezaltepeque, who had migrated to Houston in 1983. When he was only eleven years old he joined the MS, was arrested, and deported in 1996 to his native Quezaltepeque. “But once back home,” Rohter writes, “Mr. Castillo and other deportees said, it is easy to recruit local teen-agers into the gang life. Unemployment is high, school is expensive, amusements are minimal, and, thanks in large part to the gangs, drugs are increasingly available.”

The article, “The Children of War,” written by American Donna DeCesare and published in the July 1998 edition of NACLA magazine, counted thirty thousand gang members in El Salvador, the majority of them either members of the MS or the 18th Street Gang. LA gangs and Salvadoran society turned to be a good match: like shredded cabbage and pupusas, they seemed made for each other.

The process of gang development is best understood with a name: Carlos José Romero, or Gato Negro (Black Cat), the most widely known MS member until El Directo broke onto the scene. Carlos José’s father migrated to Los Angeles in the early years of the war. He worked for a while at a carwash, and after saving up enough money paid a coyote to bring his son north. It was the standard story. On the hostile streets of LA, adolescent Carlos José was seduced by an expanding Mara Salvatrucha. He was jumped in. He turned to a life of crime, and passed through the juvenile correctional system. He tattooed his chest, back, and arms. And then, at sixteen-years-old, he was deported. As an active member of MS-13, Carlos José returned to the Hato Nuevo neighborhood of San Miguel where he moved in with his mother, a motel housekeeper. He was rebaptized as Gato Negro and was given the okay to establish the Coronados Locos clique. He started working at a carwash nearby the Urbina Bridge. But he hardly earned anything and soon quit to make ends meet robbing mostly livestock vendors in the Santa Rosa de Lima neighborhood. By 1996, when he was seventeen, he was sent to juvenile court. Psychologist Héctor Brizuela treated him and wrote that he was “Respectful, focused, a young man who speaks perfect English and Spanish, keen on recognizing who has money.” Even while he was sentenced to parole for arms possession, Gato Negro and another MS member attempted to rob a delivery truck in the 15 de Septiembre neighborhood. A policemen interrupted the robbery attempt and a shootout ensued. The cop called for reinforcements. That day three police officers were killed, and another wounded. Gato Negro and the other gang member were left unrecognizable due to all the lead blasted into them. City police commissioner Julián Belloso recalls it as a most delicate case: “Gato Negro was a son-of-a-bitch, and we killed him. He killed two of my officers and wounded four. The son-of-a-bitch fucked me, but we killed Gato Negro. We weren’t going to let him live.”

Apoya el periodismo incómodo

Si te parece valioso el trabajo de El Faro, apóyanos para seguir. Únete a nuestra comunidad de lectores y lectoras que con su membresía mensual o anual garantizan nuestra sostenibilidad y hacen posible que nuestro equipo de periodistas llegue adonde otros no llegan y cuente lo que otros no cuentan o tratan de ocultar.
Te necesitamos para seguir incomodando al poder.
¿Aún no te convences? Conoce más sobre cómo se financia El Faro y quiénes son sus propietarios acá.