EL SALVADOR – El Salvador looked beautiful from the air. We flew in on a Monday, and after collecting our baggage, immediately ate pupusas and drank coconut juice near the airport. It was delicious and cheap, and the vendors were friendly, but even they have to pay up or else.
In a country about the size of New Jersey and about as populous as Greater Houston, the MS-13 gang is everywhere, and extortion and death are a way of life. The Salvadoran government considers the group a terrorist organization. In the U.S., it is officially a “transnational criminal organization.”
At our hotel in San Salvador, we sat down with an MS-13 associate named Oscar. He said members of the gang in Santa Lucia, including top leaders, wanted to meet.
“What do they want?” I asked in Spanish. “Usually nothing. They’re just curious,” Oscar replied. “But don’t record unless you ask permission. They’ll kill you.”
Over the next several days in El Salvador, we watched police and prosecutors target MS-13 members on the streets and in court; we interviewed MS-13 members in their neighborhoods and in prison, many of whom said they had lived and killed in the United States.
The directors of El Salvador’s war on gangs, its prison system and immigration center explained to us what is and what isn’t working. We interviewed Salvadorans, including dozens who had just been deported from several U.S. states, including Texas.
In Santa Lucia, MS-13 marked their territory with graffiti, a typical characteristic of the gang. An associate checked our car at the entrance of the neighborhood.
“We’re here to see Joaquin,” Oscar said in Spanish.
We were told to wait near our car. Locals brought us chairs, food and drinks. All of it, we later learned, on the gang’s errand. We talked and waited for four hours, until dark.
“Tranquilo,” Oscar said. “They’re coming.”
The dozen or so MS-13 members who arrived looked like regular guys. Their handshakes were soft, and so were their voices. No visible tattoos or weapons. Just a question.
“Why are you here?” one asked in Spanish. I explained the purpose of our trip to El Salvador, and suggested they sit down with us for an interview. They would need approval and told us to return the next day.
There is one police force in El Salvador, the Policia Civil Nacional. The 911 officers respond to repeated calls of murder, extortion, assault and other crimes, mostly gang-related. Other elite police teams conduct massive raids organized by prosecutors.
We ride along with a 911 patrol on Monday night, and within minutes there is a homicide. A man in his 20s, tortured and executed. His body was dumped on the side of the road in Ilopango.
“You’re tired of this, aren’t you?” I asked Officer Jesus Martinez. “I really am. I really am,” he replied.
The conviction rate in El Salvador is an abysmal 3 percent. Thousands of Salvadorans are murdered in the country every year, but most killers will never be caught; and most who are, will never be convicted because witnesses won't talk.
On Tuesday, we get a few hours notice that a massive raid will take place in Panchimalco. We arrive early to find 400 or so officers gathering in a tunnel. They will target 31 gang leaders and associates.
We travel with a driver and two police captains for protection, we’re told. Media members aren’t usually targeted by MS-13, but dozens of law enforcement and their family members are killed every year.
Police trucks speed through neighborhoods and officers surround homes of gang members. They knock once, then force their way inside, and we follow close behind. In the end, 20 out of 31 MS-13 members targeted are captured.
They ranged in age from 18 to 56 and will be charged with murder, extortion and other crimes. Many said they are innocent. Most left behind spouses and children.
During the largest-ever MS-13 trial in El Salvador, while we were there, prosecutors revealed the MS-13 structure in new detail: There are 15 “free” leaders, or “ranfleros,” one for every letter of Mara Salvatrucha, the full name of the group. They oversee 48 “programas,” and 249 “clicas,” or cells, across the country. Additional “ranfleros” operate in El Salvador’s five overcrowded gang prisons.
Hundreds of Salvadorans are deported from the United States every week to La Chacra, the country’s immigration center. On Wednesday, we watched 90 Salvadorans arrive from a dozen or so states.
Most admitted to some sort of crime, from driving with an expired license to assault with a deadly weapon and burglary. La Chacra’s director, Ana Solorzano, said that in 2017, the total number of Salvadorans deported from the United States and Mexico (presumed, she said, to be in transit to the U.S.), was cut in half compared to 2016.
But within that group, there were more than twice as many Salvadorans with criminal records and nearly three times as many gang members, Solozano said. Many we talked to said they planned to return immediately, but they said the coyote fee had almost doubled since 2017.
Coyotes are people paid to smuggle immigrants into other countries illegally.
“Deporting more MS-13 from the U.S. strengthens the gang here?” I asked Guadalupe Echevverria, El Salvador’s war on gang chief, in Spanish. “Of course, of course it strengthens the gang here.”
El Salvador became the deadliest country in the world in 2015, with 6,656 murders. That number dropped by more than a thousand each of the next two years. But in 2018, the homicide rate is going back up.
“We know that MS-13 doesn’t have borders,” Echeverria said in Spanish. Increasingly, law enforcement personnel throughout the states, Mexico and Central America are sharing intelligence and resources to fight MS-13.