KETR

Gangs Flex Their Muscle On Violent Streets Of El Salvador

Apr 14, 2016
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This year the country with the highest murder rate in the world outside of war zones is breaking its own records. El Salvador is a place where one person is killed nearly every hour. The reason for that is street gangs. These gangs first formed in the U.S. in the 1980s by Salvadorans fleeing civil war. Then in the 1990s thousands of gang members were deported from the U.S. back to El Salvador and the gangs reformed there. Now they control entire sections of cities and operate like mafias, collecting protection money and killing people if they don't comply.

Last summer the gangs flexed their muscles in a way the country had rarely seen. For her podcast Embedded, our co-host Kelly McEvers and NPR's Jasmine Garsd were there.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It started around 5 in the morning on a Monday. City bus drivers started getting killed, shot while driving their regular routes. Then the gangs put out a statement that says any public transportation driver who goes out to work today is a target. By afternoon, four drivers have been killed. Jasmine and I head to downtown San Salvador.

So there's a bunch of buses down here. There's buses that look like school buses and a big formation of army dudes with M-16s. They all have their - a lot of them have their faces covered with balaclavas.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Each bus is going to take two or three agents on it - like heavily armed.

MCEVERS: Jasmine talks to a local reporter who's working with us in El Salvador.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: He doesn't want to give his real name for fear he'll be targeted by the gangs. We have agreed to call him Roberto. Roberto gets a message on his phone.

GARSD: He's saying another driver just got murdered.

MCEVERS: That's a fifth bus driver who's just been killed, presumably by the gangs. We try to go to the scene, but it's in a part of the city Roberto says isn't safe. Traffic gets crazy then everyone seems to go home for the night. In some neighborhoods police issue a curfew. Then we get another call. Another bus driver's been killed. We drive up a bunch of winding streets 'til we get to the neighborhood where it happened. One streetlight shines on a handful of people standing outside their houses, staring past the police tape.

Oh, is that the bus?

GARSD: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Oh man. So there's a bus that's like pulled up way onto the median and it's like run into a tree. And there's just like broken glass everywhere. So the driver of this bus was killed.

GARSD: The driver is still in there.

MCEVERS: Oh boy.

GARSD: This is the sixth murder of a bus driver today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: They're saying like bring coffee and bread 'cause it's going to be a long night.

MCEVERS: Back in 2012 the government of El Salvador and the gangs had negotiated a truce. That lasted for two years but then fell apart. Since then the government has been cracking down on the gangs, leading raids of known gang havens and locking up gang leaders in maximum-security prisons. But the reporters say it hasn't been working. The gangs are only getting more violent.

And now, with these bus killings the reporters say, the gangs are trying to show that they are the ones in control. The next day, things are still tense. The number of bus drivers killed goes up to eight. Way fewer buses are running. There are armored personnel carriers in the streets. During a break, Jasmine and I sit in the car and ask Roberto if he's had any experience with the gangs.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: He tells us about a woman he knows. A gang in her neighborhood told her she had to work for them, to collaborate as he says, or else. But the woman didn't want to.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Then one day a gang member really liked the 13-year-old daughter."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "The gang member told her I want your daughter as a girlfriend."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "And the lady said no. She said, I'll collaborate, whatever you want, but don't touch my daughter."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "So the gang member insisted and said if you do not collaborate, I'm going to kill you and the girl's grandmother."

MCEVERS: Eventually the girl was forced to marry the gang member.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Now she's 15."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "She's about to have her second child."

MCEVERS: Oh my god.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "They ruined her life before she was 18. Now she has two kids."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "She's the wife of a gang banger."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "He beats her."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "He beats their children."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "He forces her to take drugs."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "She was - got involved in a dark, dark world without asking for it and without deserving it."

MCEVERS: That's horrible.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "It's very difficult. And like her there are so many." I want to ask him, like, how he deals with it.

MCEVERS: Yeah, please.

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "I'm a very spiritual person honestly."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: "For the past five years," he starts, but he can't finish. He's crying and kind of hitting the steering wheel to get himself to stop crying.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: "For the past five years, I've been part of a Catholic community," he says. "And that practice has helped me not lose hope. We live in an area full of gangs," he says. "We don't mess with them. They don't mess with us. It's the only way I can carry on."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "It's hard living surrounded by so much violence."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "And to get home at night and for my daughter to be like, Dad, how did your day go?"

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "And to have to say I had a good day because I got back home..."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "...And nothing happened to me. And have to hide from my daughter..."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "...When she says, so tell me what you saw. And to have to say, I saw five dead bodies today - can't tell her and so I lie to her."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "And I say, we went to the beautiful beach and we saw a beautiful mountain, even though she sees the television. I don't..."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "I don't like her absorbing all this. My daughter is everything."

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "And that's why I work so hard for her to never lack anything." Let's stop.

MCEVERS: By the end of the day, the total number of bus drivers killed is eight plus one transit worker. The government announces they've caught the mastermind. He's from Barrio 18, one of the country's two biggest gangs. For now Roberto says he'll stay in El Salvador, unlike the tens of thousands of people who leave each year and try to come to the U.S. Some of us, he says, have to believe in this country.

SHAPIRO: Since Kelly and Jasmine reported this story the situation in El Salvador has not improved. The government is now cracking down harder. The Associated Press reports that last week officials transferred more than 300 high-ranking gang members to a maximum-security prison. El Salvador's president called up a thousand military reservists to join the fight. The gangs declared open season on the police. Fifteen officers have been killed this year. A day in the life of El Salvador's brutal gang wars on the NPR podcast Embedded. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.