SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — It all started with a phone call. The man on the line said he was part of the Mara Salvatrucha gang and asked for money in exchange for the gang’s protection.
Carlos owns a car wash in one of the upper-middle class districts in the western part of the capital. He did not want his real name or the name of his business to appear in print for fear of retaliation.
Carlos said he couldn’t afford the $100 per week the gang demanded. The criminals had guessed his income too high.
The man kept calling, though, so Carlos went to the police with his phone. The police’s anti-extortion unit listened in on one of the conversations and advised Carlos to change his number and forget about everything. As long as there was no culprit they could catch in the act, there was no case, the police told him.
So Carlos painted a new telephone number on the front of his business and waited. It was quiet for 18 months. Then one day a young boy walked in with a cellphone. He placed it on the counter and told Carlos he would get a call in an hour.
Carlos contacted the police again, who advised him not to answer the phone. But his employees were scared: It wouldn’t be the first time Salvadoran gangs killed a low-level employee to increase pressure on the boss.
So Carlos answered the phone. Indeed, it was a marero again, who asked him politely how he was doing.
The phone kept ringing in the following days. The voice, always polite, said it knew when Carlos was waiting at a traffic light or shopping at the supermarket.
The voice said the gang knew where Carlos’ son was, and when his wife was at the hairdresser. It asked Carlos threatening questions like: “Would you rather have your picture up on the wall in your house, or in the newspaper?”
Constant fear kept Carlos awake. Finally, the voice gave him an ultimatum: Starting the following Saturday, he had to pay. Otherwise the gang would visit him on Monday.
In return for the money, the voice on the phone promised to protect Carlos from the rival gang, whose territory began down the street from the car wash.
Carlos figured he could afford to pay $50 max per month. But he thought of something else he could offer: free car washes to Mara Salvatrucha members.
The man on the phone agreed. Since then, every week someone shows up to collect the $50, and cars are regularly brought for washing. These moments are always scary — Carlos knows he has a car that belongs to a gang whose rivals are not far away.
Playing soccer with the mara
Carlos’ story is one of thousands of similar anecdotes in San Salvador. The city is controlled by gangs, mainly the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18. According to InSight Crime, an organization that analyzes organized crime in Latin America, there are an estimated 20,000 active gang members in El Salvador.
Gang members get much of their money and power through extortion, often killing people who refuse to pay. Carlos has been lucky; he knows business owners who have not been so lucky.
There are regular shootouts in San Salvador. Bodies of tortured gang members are frequently found in the streets.
The 26-year-old psychologist Alan Henriquez tells how he grew up among gangs.
“As an 8-year-old I played soccer with the big guys,” he told The Tico Times. “My friends and I knew they did bad things, but we didn’t understand it. Then one day we heard gunshots. We ran toward the shots and saw a body in the middle of the street, a rival gang member who was first beaten up, then attacked with machetes and finally shot nine times in the back.”
As Henriquez grew older, he learned that his community was subdivided into territories where different gangs would recruit the more aggressive boys. Henriquez was never approached. The guys he played soccer with eventually told him not to come any more.
Henriquez came from a stable family and had opportunities in life, so he wasn’t the kind of boy they where looking for. Gangs specifically target boys and girls from broken homes, and the gang becomes their family.
Most often recruiting is paired with violence: If you’re asked to join and don’t, you risk being killed.
“It’s important not to consider the gangs as a free-standing phenomenon,” Henriquez said. “They evolved out of our country’s problems: poverty, corruption, the weapons trade. If we want to face the gang issue, we actually have to work on these problems.”
Prison as main office
Although many gang members and their leaders are locked up in prison, being behind bars does little to diminish their influence. In fact, most extortion calls come from prison, while gang members on the outside collect the money and kill when necessary.
In March, the government passed an anti-extortion law that, among other measures, forbids companies from supplying cellphone signals near jails. Under the new law, a phone company who breaks the law is subject to a fine of $753,000 per day.
In the meantime, gangs are part of daily life in El Salvador. Many citizens are confronted with violence and extortion on a daily basis.
People who can afford to send their children to private school do so to try and keep them from being recruited by gang members.
The daily newspapers report an average of 15 murders per day.
Still, because of heavy policing, gangs have become less obvious than they used to be. Members have begun hiding tattoos, and gang-related graffiti is less prevalent.
Now, gang members travel through the city invisibly, though in reality they’re everywhere, from poorer districts such as Soyapango to luxurious areas like Escalón and San Benito.
Carlos recognizes the good fortune he’s had up until now — in part, because gangs have always been in his life.
“I grew up with some of these gang members so they knew who I was and they didn’t kill me immediately,” he said. “But still, this is our sad truth: I’m always afraid something will happen to my children.”
Carlos said he has friends living across the border, in Barrio 18 territory, whom he could no longer safely visit.
“We live in fear every day,” he said.
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