El Salvador / Impunity

Espíritu Santo Island against the Sergeant

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Friday, December 8, 2023
Carlos Martínez

Leer en español

“The criminal involvement of the defendant has been clearly established,” said the judge, “given that said involvement reveals, with total certainty, the elements that incriminate the teenager in question as part of the illicit criminal group known as the 18 Sureños gang, in his role as collaborator.” And in that moment, in that courtroom in Usulután, had the judge had a gavel, he would have sealed his decision with a solemn strike upon announcing that Samuel would spend the next ten years in prison.

Who can say how those two words —ten years— figure in the mind of a teenager: How far afield must he have cast his gaze to perceive a time longer than half of his life? What account of past mistakes he must have made, if his thoughts were clear enough to recount anything at all? How must the words of the witness have sounded, spoken in the voice of the man who had brought him to trial

On the morning of July 4, 2022, Sergeant Montesinos and his Marine infantry unit were patrolling the “urban zone” —that is, the area with houses— on the island of El Espíritu Santo, in the Jiquilisco Bay in southeastern El Salvador, when they observed seven individuals preparing to supply provisions to gang members who were hiding out in the surrounding mangrove swamps — who were, as the criminal complaint put it, “enmanglarados,” or “mangroved.” When they saw the soldiers, the men tried to flee, but Sergeant Montesinos orchestrated a kettling maneuver and prevented them from escaping. After cornering the men, the sergeant recognized one of them —the only minor in the group— as the same individual he had witnessed on previous occasions supplying a camp of criminals just like this one, so he proceeded to arrest him. In addition to the minor, the sergeant also identified five of the subjects accompanying him as gang collaborators, so he arrested them as well, and transported them to the Puerto El Triunfo police station at around 9:00 a.m.

At least, this is what Sergeant Montesinos told the judge, according to the record of the testimony provided in the sentencing document.

Three weeks after that trial, on November 16, a group of campesinos —relatives of the detainees, mostly women— went to the prosecutor’s office in the department of Usulután to accuse Sergeant Montesinos of lying under oath, and to declare, on record, that they were ready to prove they were right in a court of law.

If there is a fact in the matter that stands out from the rest, it is this: The boy is from El Espíritu Santo, one of a string of islands in the municipality of Puerto El Triunfo, Usulután. Puerto el Triunfo has had a strong gang presence and considerable base of social support, particularly of the Sureños faction of 18th Street and, to a much smaller extent, MS-13. The gang expansion has permeated some of the islands of the bay, too, but El Espíritu Santo is not one of them. In fact, since the 1980s, with the civil war underway, the community has kept close tabs on every person to enter and exit the community, checking IDs and issuing three-day entry passes renewable only by permission from local families.

On the sidewalk outside the prosecutor’s office in Usulután, the relatives of the detained listened attentively to the instructions of the lawyer who accompanied them: “So, what we’re going to focus our testimonies on is the location, date, and time that the arrest took place. The specific crime is providing false testimony, but if you don’t remember that when you’re testifying, you can just say: I don’t know what the crime is, but I know that it’s not right to lie under oath about the day, time and place that a person is arrested.” And then, one by one, they entered the office to declare that the events took place as follows:


It was Sunday, July 3, and Alexis had just returned home with his dinner of pupusas. He lived in a one-room house, built of cinder blocks, that he shared with his mother and father. Alexis had tried to migrate to the United States without papers and, to pay for the trip, his parents had mortgaged their home. But he failed in his attempt and his parents lost their property, so they moved in with him. That night, the door to the house was closed and there were two windows open, to invite a cross-breeze. Outside, in a small yard enclosed with a wire fence, there was a pigsty with a sow that had given birth just a few weeks earlier. Alexis and his parents were sitting in front of the TV watching Channel 6, which was playing the weekly news summary and would soon be showing the movie “Independence Day.” It was just after 7 o’clock at night.

By that time, the island is fully enveloped in night, totally dark. On land, the only light to break the black comes from the houses, or from the handful of stores and pupuserías that stay open late. The sky is scattered with a spectacle of stars and in the sea, a few small fishing boats drift along the edge of the mangroves, illuminating the roots of the plants with their lanterns, and sometimes joined by the lights of the Marine patrol boat.

“Open the door,” came a voice from outside, and Marisol, Alexis’ mother, looked out the window. It was the Marines. They had come through the gate in the fence and were peering into the windows of the house.

“We opened the door. Come in, I said, what can we help you with? How many people live here, they asked. Three, I told them — me, my husband and my son. They stared at my son. One of the soldiers told him: Give me your ID, and he gave it to them. They were looking at a list and they saw that his name wasn’t on it.”

On this point, Marisol and her husband remember a detail: the list was a sheet of paper from an ordinary notebook, with various names written on it by hand.

“Then he rolled up the list and they left.” The soldiers walked back to the fence and argued among themselves. Then two of them came back and ordered Alexis to lift up his shirt. When they saw that he had a tattoo —his parents’ names surrounded by roses— they asked for his ID again. “Give them your ID, son. El que nada debe nada teme — the innocent have nothing to fear,” Marisol counseled. The soldiers went back outside and took the document to their boss, who was waiting by the fence. The two men watched as their commander wrote Alexis’ name on the list, then two soldiers returned to the house and told him: “You’re coming with us.”

“Why are you taking away my son? I asked, and one of them told me, no, ma’am, we’re just going to bring him in to ask him a few questions, he’ll be back soon. Really? I asked. Yes, they said, don’t worry. And now he’s been in prison for 16 months.”

Alexis is two years older now than he was then, because two Septembers have passed since the day they took him away. He was 29 years old on the night of July 3. Now he is a 31-year-old inmate at Mariona Prison held incommunicado with his parents since the day he was arrested.

Naturally, Marisol and her husband were not reassured by the soldier’s promises, so a few minutes after the soldiers left, they got dressed and headed to the nearby military post to find answers.

“On our way, we saw them going inside Sister Virginia’s house,” Marisol remembers.

The community of El Jobal is located on Espíritu Santo Island in Jiquilisco Bay, Usulután. According to local leaders, there are approximately 1,400 people living in the community, which is home to a coconut by-product production cooperative. Photo Carlos Barrera
The community of El Jobal is located on Espíritu Santo Island in Jiquilisco Bay, Usulután. According to local leaders, there are approximately 1,400 people living in the community, which is home to a coconut by-product production cooperative. Photo Carlos Barrera


A month prior to his arrest, Samuel had a run-in with one of the soldiers patrolling the island, concerning a disagreement over how a man ought to wear his hair. Or, to put it another way, the soldier believed the boy’s haircut was not befitting good, honest men, so he forced Samuel to his knees in front of the island’s school.

The place the soldier chose to teach the teenager a lesson was itself part of the humiliation: it is impossible to enter El Espíritu Santo without passing by the school. Moreover, the incident took place at the foot of a massive ceibo tree, so majestic that it attracts the otherwise spotty cell signal that flitters around the island like an elusive mosquito, so that someone is almost always sitting at the base of the tree checking their phone. In other words, that day’s punishment was carried out in full view of whoever wanted to see it.

Grabbing him by his hair with one hand, the soldier unholstered his military knife —a yatagan— and not so much cut the boy’s hair as amputated it, slicing and hacking it off to teach him a lesson in the proper habits of good men. Samuel came home that day, seeking sanctuary with his mother, with his hair mutilated and the humiliation still fresh on his face. “He came home with his hair all hacked to pieces,” recalls Virginia, his mother.

Samuel’s house is built from coconut palm branches: mature palms are stripped of their leaves and the woody veins are left to cure, to be used in construction. Virginia is known as La Conservera, because she makes a living scraping out coconut meat and making sweet preserves that she sells as candy. She also splits almond shells with a hammer to harvest and sell the nuts encased inside. She is deeply religious, and for this reason the other women in the community also call her Sister Virginia.

Samuel was 17 years old, the only minor in the group. He finished ninth grade at the island’s one and only school, but shortly after starting high school in Puerto El Triunfo, he began to face threats from the gang members who controlled the area, so he dropped out. It was only recently that his mother had allowed him to start working in the one tourist hostel on the island, as a kitchen assistant. On Sunday, July 3, his boss at the hostel let the staff go home early, around 5 p.m., due to a lack of customers. The boss confirmed this, and remembered that he had told Samuel to take a moto-taxi to go drop some things off for him. After finishing his work, Samuel went to buy some pupusas and then headed home.

Around 7:30 that night, soldiers showed up to his house and ordered all the men outside, without explanation. Samuel, his father, his brother, and a brother-in-law who had stopped by for a visit all obediently lined up and faced the soldiers, who went through their identity documents one by one, until they reached Samuel, who didn’t have documents because he was a minor. They demanded his minor ID card, which Virginia ran inside to grab and brought back out to the soldiers. Then they asked him to hand over his phone and took the boy inside to get it. “You’re coming with us,” they told him, and took him back out of the house wearing just his underwear, until his sister, after asking permission, put a shirt on him. Then the soldiers took him away and walked off down the dirt alley.

Standing outside the house, Virginia saw the soldiers talking to Kender and suspected that he was the one who had turned her son in.


Kender’s name is not Kender, or it is, depending on which country he is in. He was born in Guatemala and his birth was registered under that name, but when his mother went to file his paperwork in her home country of El Salvador, the official told her that the name Kender was not permitted, so in his mother’s country, his name is Kerin.

The soldiers showed up at his house just after 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 3. They had his brother Victor’s name written on a piece of notebook paper, but he wasn’t home. After checking the documents of all the men in the house, the soldiers ordered Kerin to accompany them to go look for his brother. Kerin argued with them as long as he could, but they eventually forced him to leave. No sooner had they stepped foot on the street than Kerin saw another group of soldiers hauling away his neighbor, Samuel. Realizing what was happening, he told the Marines he had no idea where his brother was.

“Walk, you son of a bitch, if we don’t find your brother, we’ll just take you instead,” Kerin remembers them saying. They never called him by his name again. From that point on, they only addressed him as hijuelagranputa — son of a bitch.

Kerin obeyed. The first place he could think to look was Don Chepe Ramirez’s store, where his brother would probably be hanging out with his friend Jimy, who everyone knows as El Tierno, and finishing off his last Sunday beer. So they went to the store, but Victor was not there. Then they went to the home of El Tierno, who was terrified to see the soldiers arrive, but Victor was not there either. As they were leaving El Tierno’s, one of the shortest soldiers in the bunch hit Kerin in the chest with his open palm —a technique used by the military called a pechada— and threatened him again, thinking that Kerin was running them in circles to avoid turning his brother in. “If your brother isn’t home when we get back, we’re gonna take you, hijuelagranputa.” But Víctor was at home.

“That is not an arrest warrant; it doesn’t have the seal of a judge or a prosecutor,” the brothers’ stepfather, who had served in the military, told the soldiers. But it didn’t matter; they took Víctor past the helpless eyes of his mother, his two brothers, his stepfather, his uncle, and his nephew.

To this day, his mother does not know for sure where her son is being held. The authorities have told her that he is in Izalco Prison, but the name on the lists displayed outside the facility only has the same first name and surname of her son, with a second surname that is not his. But just in case, she delivers packages of food, clothing, and hygiene products to the man on the list. Her head is filled with anxious doubts: Am I taking care of another woman’s son? And if that man is not my son, then where is he?


Carolina was helping her niece at her pupusa stand just after 7 p.m. when she saw Alexis pass by, escorted by four soldiers, and had a terrible feeling. Her husband was at home alone, taking a bath after a day’s work. She left the pupusa stand around 7:30. On the way home, she heard Virginia crying and stopped to find out what was going on: “They took Samuel,” Virginia told her, crying. After a brief chat, Carolina hurried home, watching the streets to avoid running into the soldiers.

When she got there, she saw the navy knocking on a neighbor’s door. It was about 8 p.m.

“My husband was about to sit down to eat and I yelled to him: Open up, open up! The soldiers are at Antonina’s place. You’re crazy, he said. Open up, I told him. He came out and opened the gate. We went back in and locked the gate behind us. Once we were inside, he asked: Do you want something to eat? But I was so scared I wasn’t hungry anymore, and he was just sitting there, calmly eating his dinner. Pull yourself together, he told me, el que no la debe no la teme — the innocent have nothing to fear. That’s what he told me. Ay, Cristian, I said, you’d better go get your ID just in case, and I turned off the outside light and we stayed inside with the lights on. After a while, we saw the flashlights outside. Be quiet, I told Cristian. Suddenly, without making any other noise, they were at the door, knocking. They had jumped the fence. Wait, don’t open the door, he told me, let them knock three times. They knocked again and he opened the door. There were two soldiers already inside the courtyard. What’s your name? One of them asked him. And he gave the agent his name. I need you to come with me, he said. And they took him away.”

In 2022, the mothers and wives of the 22 detainees from the community of El Jobal organized to demonstrate their opposition to arbitrary detentions. They hope to attend the protests against the state of exception that have been taking place in San Salvador. Photo Carlos Barrera
In 2022, the mothers and wives of the 22 detainees from the community of El Jobal organized to demonstrate their opposition to arbitrary detentions. They hope to attend the protests against the state of exception that have been taking place in San Salvador. Photo Carlos Barrera

Carolina ran to her brother-in-law’s house. “What do you want me to do?” he told her. “If I go, they’ll just take me, too.” So she went to the soldiers’ post where her husband, Alexis, Samuel and Victor were being detained. That was when she saw Calín, alone and on his own two feet, walking toward the outpost to present himself to the soldiers.


Calín had finished fishing for the day. When he got home, he heard rumors that the Marines had detained Alexis. It didn’t make sense to him. Why would they have taken the boy? With that question still on his mind, he left his house at around 7:10 p.m. and crossed the street to buy some cigarettes at the corner store nearby. He exchanged some brief pleasantries with the shopkeepers and turned around and went straight home with his cigarettes. When got back, his wife had some news: “A soldier just came by asking about you.”

“Ok, I told her, get me something to eat, because if they come and take me, I don’t want to go hungry. And I ate.”

Calín’s head was buzzing, waiting for the soldiers to come for him at any moment. But they didn’t.

“No, I told her, I’m gonna go see why they were looking for me. And I left.” Calín walked the dark streets, alone, until he reached the military post, where a few other people had already gathered, searching for answers about the arrests of their relatives.

“When I got there, I asked who was in charge. A short, dark-skinned kid came out and said: And who are you? I answered: Weren’t you guys just looking for me? And he just stood there looking me up and down. Well, he said, since you’re here, come on in.”

Calín was imprisoned for eight months. He is the only person in the group of detainees who has recovered his freedom. When he was released, he was given the same explanations as when he was arrested: none. He says he saw people tortured to death in prison. When he left, his body was infested with scabies and he was severely malnourished. “The only thing keeping my bones from falling apart was my skin,” he said. But that Sunday, July 3, Calín had no idea what the future had in store for him, and he still had the good humor to laugh when he saw Armando arrive at the outpost half naked.


It was a few minutes before 10 p.m. when the soldiers arrived at Ana’s house. Deep night, everyone fast asleep. A short-statured soldier ordered her daughter to take off her clothes and they inspected her body in detail for tattoos. Then they turned to her son, Armando, who was still shaking off his sleep and taking in the shock, and without hesitation, delivered their standard line: “You’re coming with us.” The only objection Armando ventured was to ask if he could put on a shirt. They told him no.

When they got to the outpost, Calín greeted Armando with a tease: “Hey! Why’d they drag you here looking like that?” Armando managed a laugh: “Pelado was too old and he was only in his boxers.”

Throughout the night, the soldiers kept telling them that they would look for them in “the system,” but that at the moment, “there was no system.” They were held at the outpost until dawn. The next day, Monday, July 4, the soldiers put all six of them on a boat and took them to the police station in Puerto El Triunfo. Their families brought them food; with the exception of Calín, that was the last time they saw them.

* * *

Ángel César Montesinos Flores, a sergeant in the Salvadoran Navy, has been stationed in Puerto El Triunfo for six years. He is responsible for overseeing maritime and land patrols of the entire area, including its islands and peninsulas. On the island of El Espíritu Santo, there is a military post staffed by eight soldiers who operate under the supervision of the sergeant.

On October 25, 2023, Sergeant Montesinos appeared before the Usulután juvenile court as a witness for the prosecution, to testify against Samuel, who had been charged with the crime of illicit association. According to the judge, it was the sergeant’s testimony that had tipped the scales against Samuel.

Sergeant Ángel Montesinos commands the Marine units that patrol the islands and peninsulas of Puerto El Triunfo, El Salvador. Inhabitants of Espíritu Santo Island have formally accused him of lying under oath.
Sergeant Ángel Montesinos commands the Marine units that patrol the islands and peninsulas of Puerto El Triunfo, El Salvador. Inhabitants of Espíritu Santo Island have formally accused him of lying under oath.

Sergeant Montesinos testified that the six arrests from that day were all made on the morning of Monday, July 4, 2022, and not during the night of the previous day, as Calín and the relatives of the detained claim. In the sergeant’s version of events, none of the people arrested were taken from their homes at night, but were detained the next morning, at a basketball court located a block and a half from the military post. None of the men taken into custody were having dinner, or watching the news, or sleeping — they were meeting for criminal purposes and attempted to flee when they saw the soldiers approaching.

“When we saw the people gathered at the basketball court, we went over to where they were and then they made like they were trying to leave... I don’t know their names and I don’t know where they live. I had already seen these people committing acts in support of the gangs. When we saw them trying to escape, we rushed over and surrounded them. They were going to leave food for gang members,” the sergeant said, though he did not present the food or any photos to the court as evidence, nor did he offer any details about the supplies the group was allegedly planning to leave for the gang members. The indictment, however, states that the men were arrested in flagrante delicto, that is, in the act. 

The sergeant said he had been following Samuel for months, ever since the day (he doesn’t remember which day) of the month (he doesn’t remember which month) that he witnessed the boy, with his own eyes, resupplying a gang camp: “One time, the minor arrived by boat. We were hiding in the mangroves... When he entered, he was carrying jugs of water and other things in bags that looked like food, and when he left, he was carrying nothing,” the sergeant told the judge. No one asked (or at least the court did not record anyone asking) why the sergeant did not arrest the boy right then and there. Nor did anyone ask if the sergeant, apart from what he had said, had any proof of the event, like photos or videos, or if he had left any record of what he saw in an incident report or some other document. The only detail the sergeant could indicate was that the crime occurred after the state of exception had gone into force — that is, between March 27, 2022, and the following July 4: the day he claims to have arrested Samuel.

The sergeant also testified that, at the moment of his arrest, Samuel had a cell phone in the pocket of his shorts, and that after inspecting the device, the sergeant returned it to him. He ended by claiming that, after arresting the group of men, he had transferred them to the police station in Puerto El Triunfo, and added: “We arrested them, wrote up a report, and handed them over to the police.”

But when it was time for the police chief who had received the arrestees in Puerto El Triunfo to testify, he made a statement that contradicted the sergeant’s: “They did not give me any document when they transferred the minor into my custody. They did not give me a report; we prepared the report ourselves.” If his version is true, it would suggest that no official document exists that could confirm the place, date, time, or circumstances of Samuel’s arrest.

On November 16, 2023, family members of six residents of Espíritu Santo Island who were detained under the state of exception filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office in Usulután accusing a Marine sergeant of giving false testimony under oath — a testimony that has already led to the conviction of one of the detained. Photo Carlos Barrera
On November 16, 2023, family members of six residents of Espíritu Santo Island who were detained under the state of exception filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office in Usulután accusing a Marine sergeant of giving false testimony under oath — a testimony that has already led to the conviction of one of the detained. Photo Carlos Barrera

Samuel testified in his own defense, narrating the incident exactly as his mother also remembered it. His brother-in-law testified as well, recounting an almost identical version of events: the Sunday night arrest, the soldiers in the house, the search of all the men... except for one detail: according to him, when the military officers demanded Samuel’s minor ID card, the boy took it out of the pocket of his shorts, rather than asking his mother to go get it. Because of this discrepancy, the judge ruled that Samuel’s testimony was “not credible, since he lacks a source of proof or a witness to support his statement,” and added that the brother-in-law’s testimony “includes contradictory elements,” specifically, “that according to the witness, when the soldiers arrived and asked for identity documents, he stated that Samuel had the minor ID on his person.”

Apparently, it was not so important to the judge that Sergeant Montesinos had failed to present any “sources of proof” or “a witness to support his statement.” Nor did he seem to place the same value on the contradiction between the officer’s statement and the police chief’s, as he did on the contradiction between Samuel’s version of events and Samuel’s brother-in-law’s.

And so it was that a court delivered the first conviction under the state of exception against a resident of El Espíritu Santo Island.

The rest of the people arrested that day now fear that they, too, will find themselves tangled up in Sergeant Montesinos’ testimony. And if a judge believed his account of Samuel’s arrest, what is to stop another judge from believing the same account of their arrest, and delivering the same sentence that the boy received, or worse?

The home of Antonio Campos Pineda, who prior to his arrest in May 2022 collected mollusks in the mangroves around El Jobal, in Jiquilisco Bay. Photo Carlos Barrera
The home of Antonio Campos Pineda, who prior to his arrest in May 2022 collected mollusks in the mangroves around El Jobal, in Jiquilisco Bay. Photo Carlos Barrera

Ten years in prison is more than half of Samuel’s life: He is now 18 years old. Recently, one of his sisters recognized the soldier who had hacked off his hair with a yatagan: she saw him in a photograph published in La Prensa Gráfica, one of five soldiers accused of raping a 13-year-old girl in the canton of Mizata.

Virginia appealed the sentence, and has organized the group of fishermen, mollusk-collectors, and coconut workers who think they can square off with the word of a military officer in a court of law, amid a state of exception that in just 20 months has led to the imprisonment of the same number of people killed during El Salvador’s 12-year-long civil war: 75,000.

What they are attempting is no small feat. In fact, their efforts have no known precedent under the state of exception. Perhaps this is because their pursuit contravenes one of the core procedural foundations of the exception regime: that a judge believes a soldier.

*Translated by Max Granger

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