Crime in Central America: The culture of death

Inspired by America's Latino communities, members of El Salvador's bloodthirsty gangs express their tribal loyalty with tattoos ­ even though they may mark them out for an early death
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The Independent US

Sitting handcuffed in a sweltering police station in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, a 22-year-old man waits as a police officer searches for the keys to a damp, grubby cell where he will spend the night. "Man, I'm innocent, I've done nothing," he says, shrugging with a smile as he leans against a filthy blue wall. "They've just arrested me because of my tattoos. Anyway, I don't care. Tomorrow I'll be back out there with the other homeboys."

Approach him and you will understand what Ismael means by "my tattoos": his body - from forehead to ankles - is etched with names, acronyms, numbers, signs and creepy symbols, as if it had been painted by an alchemist or a freemason. Spanish and English slang words mingle on his legs. Skulls and monstrous figures cover his arms. If you were Salvadorean, you would not even need to ask him what he was; you could just read him. His nose, cheeks, temples and chin bear the indelible stamp of one of Central America's fiercest and deadliest gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha.

This young thug has spent most of his life as a Mara Salvatrucha member. Recruited at 10, he remembers clearly the two ordeals he suffered as part of his initiation. First, a group of gang members beat him for 13 seconds. He said he had up to 30 blows to his face and body. Then he was forced to participate in an execution of an enemy gang member, who was beheaded in front of him. "I had nightmares about that guy for about a month," Ismael says, laughing hysterically. "He would haunt me at night carrying his head in his own hands. I guess it's normal. I was just a little kid. After a while you get used to it, and it's almost like a game. It's fun. You find yourself teasing someone who is dying in front of you. Until you become addicted to killing."

Fourteen years after a peace agreement between the government and a leftist rebel group ended a long and bloody civil war in this small, unfortunate country that looks out on the Pacific Ocean, El Salvador now has to deal with a new wave of dreadful violence and the resurgence of an extreme tribalism that is posing a severe threat to its social and economic stability.

Crime rates are rocketing throughout the Central American region as two rival gangs, or maras, are rapidly developing into massive tentacled criminal organisations that are turning their barrios and towns into urban guerrilla strongholds.

These youth gangs, known as Mara 18 (or M-18) and Mara Salvatrucha (or M-13), have built their reputations over the years with a constant barrage of brutal attacks on the population, while fighting each other for control of their own territories. By recruiting youngsters from the slums of San Salvador, Guate-mala City and Tegucigalpa, and turning them into thieves, drug-runners and ruthless killers, the maras have developed an international network now estimated to number between 60,000 and 300,000 members across at least nine countries, including the United States and Spain. They traffic in arms and smuggle drugs, control prostitution, and make millions by collecting protection money from truck-drivers, shopkeepers, and even private households in their own barrios and shantytowns.

Comply with their rules, and you will live. Refuse, and in a few days the police may find your body - or parts of it - in a dump or on the side of a road. This explains why few people here dare to wander around town after dusk, especially in the large urban areas. Those who do run the risk of ending up in the next morning edition with a headline above their picture saying, "lo mataron" (They killed him). With an average of 10 murders a day in a population of less than seven million, El Salvador is among the world's most crime-ridden countries.

Oddly, although today the maras virtually control large portions of Central America's informal and shadow economy, their roots lie in the US, where they were formed four decades ago, among Latino communities. At the end of the 1950s, as Mexican immigrants began cramming into the suburbs of San Diego and Los Angeles, local groups were formed among the youth to defend their areas from the rising Afro-American and Asian gangs.

In the 1960s, some of these groups merged, giving birth to the Mara 18, named after 18th street in Los Angeles, where they roamed. While initially composed almost exclusively of Mexicans, with the years, and the influx of immigrants from other Latin American countries, the M-18 dropped its nationalistic raison d'être and recruited manpower from other nationalities, thereby growing bigger.

In the 1980s, as civil war raged in El Salvador between an oligarchic, right-wing government and the FMLN leftist guerrillas, thousands of Salvadorean families sought refuge in the US. Again, the youngsters grouped to defend their poor neighbourhoods, forming the Mara Salvatrucha, a mixed name where Salva stands for their nationality and trucho is a slang word meaning "alert". The new mara adopted the number 13 as the gang's logo, a reference to the districts of southern California, whose origin no one seems to recall. Bloody confrontations ensued between the two gangs. By 1992, when a peace deal was finally agreed between the warring factions in El Salvador, the Latino gangs had spread all over America.

The US, which had played a key role in the civil war, funnelling millions of dollars in aid to the Salvadorean government to prevent what they saw as a Communist threat, now started repatriating thousands of illegal immigrants, many with criminal records, back to their countries of origin. Many of them found themselves in places shattered by years of warfare, countries which they had left when they were children, and they had no family support, no social services, no job opportunities, and did not properly know the language. It did not take long for them to re-form their maras in the poorest barrios and shantytowns, where thousands of children had been left orphaned, homeless and hopeless. A weakened state and a newly trained police force could do little to stop them. The gangs quickly took over the underworld, enriching themselves and imposing their rule.

"Los Angeles was rough, I mean, we had to fight the other Latinos, the blacks and the Asians," says Skid, a Salvatrucha warrior, as he patrols his street in Villa Mariona, a barrio in the outskirts of San Salvador. At 33, he is considered old; most of his fellow thugs do not survive their twenties. He has various bullet scars, and other ones on his tattooed body. "This is part of the gangster's life; it's the vida loca. Only the strongest survive; you have to kill before you get killed. That's why, if I come across some of those bastards from the M-18, I won't hesitate. Bang, bang, bang. They'll be dead in a few seconds."

None of the mareros can explain the ideological hatred that exists between these gangs. While the roots of the Salvatrucha/M-18 rivalry run deep into fierce past battles over territory and identity in LA, both maras are now mixed up with Salvadorans, Hondurans, Mexicans and Guatemalans, leaving them with no apparent reason to engage in warfare. This is why many children from the same barrio, who grew up playing together, today find themselves hating each other to death on opposite fronts: if he has a tattoo with your number, he is your brother. If not, kill him.

What the two gangs do have in common is the belief that life and death are somehow intermingled. This belief partly explains the bones and devils tattooed on their bodies, as well as their satanic rituals, such as hacking a victim to death and scattering the organs on the ground in a pentagonal shape.

"I joined the Mara-18 because my father kicked me out when I was a boy, and I happened to live in an M-18 district," says Jose, a 23-year-old gang member who has just been arrested. "Now the mara is my only family. I've got the number 18 tattooed all over my body. That's the only reason why I got arrested."

A police officer says, "Yeah right, so whose stuff is this, huh?", tossing a bunch of stolen rings, bracelets, necklaces and watches in one hand. "We caught you and your friends red-handed right around the corner. You were robbing people at gunpoint on a bus. And you had bags of marijuana on you."

Drug-smuggling is among the maras' most profitable activities. As their power began to grow, the drug cartels in Medellin, Cali and Tijuana realised that the thousands of mara urban warriors could be of considerable use. They recruited them as hit-men and drug-runners who would smuggle cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, on its way to the US. This meant even more cash flowing to mara upper echelons, and even more power. Today, classified reports from the Salvadorean National Public Security Council reveal that, given their strategic geographical location between the Americas, the Central American gangs are planning to create a third force to compete with the Colombians and the Mexicans for the multibillion-dollar prize that is drug trafficking. Still more deaths are expected.

So far, any attempt by the government of El Salvador and those of neighbouring countries to curb this threat has failed. Three years ago, the former Salvadorean president Francisco Flores launched what he called the Plan Mano Dura (Strong Hand Plan) in an effort to reduce criminal activities by tightening up penalties and sanctions against the mareros. Some reactions were brutal. On Christmas Eve 2004, thugs from the Mara Salvatrucha attacked a public bus on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, shooting and hacking to death 28 commuters. Among them were four children. The killers left a blood-soaked note, insulting the government for its anti-mara laws.

"We are not animals, we're just human beings," says Flor de Maria, a 23-year-old with two children. She was 12 when she joined the Mara-18, both parents having died in the Salvadorean civil war. Today she carries the gang number on her forehead and neck. "I want to remove these tattoos, but I can't," she says. "The other gang members will kill me. It's dangerous for me to go outside. I was already shot by the Salvatruchos. I don't want my kids to become like that. I just want a job and a normal life."

But no one in this poor, crime-ridden country would hire anyone wearing gang marks. Those who join will be members for life, knowing they have nothing to lose. They will rob, smuggle or kill to survive. Once they choose this path to death, there is no turning back.

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