Jonathan Martínez Castro, a “marero” (gang member) also known as “Budín,” was sentenced to 30 years in prison by a San Salvador court on 31 May for the April 2011 murder of Canal 33 cameraman Alfredo Hurtado. His alleged accomplice, Marlon Abrego Rivas, also known as “Gato,” is currently a fugitive.
Martínez and Abrego are members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13), a feared San Salvador criminal gang and main rival of Mara 18, the gang that murdered French documentary filmmaker Christian Poveda in September 2009, a year after being the subject of Poveda’s documentary La Vida Loca.
“We take note of the efforts being made by the Salvadoran police and judicial authorities to combat impunity,” Reporters Without Borders said. “El Salvador’s very high crime rate has a direct impact on civil liberties, including the freedom to report news and information.
“The long sentence passed on Martínez sends a strong signal. The authorities must now shed light on the motive for Hurtado’s murder, as well as the various roles of all those involved. Last week’s conviction was a first step but others must follow.”
Two gunmen shot Hurtado in cold blood while he was visiting Ilopango, on the outskirts of the capital, on 25 April 2011. He often covered “marero” arrests and MS supposedly suspected that he had identified two of its members to the police as the murderers of a gangster known as Piñata. The prosecutor’s office nonetheless claim that other MS members identified Piñata’s killers.
Abrego, Hurtado’s other alleged killer, has been wanted ever since a warrant for his arrest was issued in the Piñata investigation.
Members of Hurtado’s family point out that he had already been threatened by MS because of his coverage of police operations and his close relations with the police and judicial authorities in connection with his journalistic work. His Canal 33 colleagues seem to agree that this was the most likely motive.
El Salvador’s vicious gangs have called a cease-fire, enticed in part by conjugal visits for incarcerated leaders. Salvadorans are skeptical it will last.
El Salvador — Carlos shows no emotion as he talks about the victims he shot and stabbed as he worked his way up the ladder of one of the world’s most vicious street gangs.
“It’s how you gain status,” he says matter-of-factly. When asked how many people he hurt, he thinks for a split second before responding: “Enough.”
One of six siblings whose single mother struggled to make ends meet, he was recruited to the Mara Salvatrucha — one of two Central American gangs, or “maras,” whose violent tentacles reach from Los Angeles to Lima — by his cousin when he was just 12.
“Who else was going to employ me at that age?” shrugs Carlos, who has insisted GlobalPost not use his real name for fear of reprisals.
Five years later, Carlos, now 33, would discover that cousin’s body slumped against a bloodstained wall in a local park, with an ice pick embedded in his temple.
The murder was carried out not by a rival gang but by one of his cousin’s own lieutenants, eager to take his turn as gang leader.
As he talks, Carlos casually shows his own scars from the ferocious turf wars with Mara Salvatrucha’s sworn enemy, a gang called Mara 18 — a welt from a bullet that brushed his shoulder, a knife scar across his stomach.
Yet Carlos’ most dangerous challenge may have been his decision to leave gang life behind him, eventually joining Quetzalcoatl, a small nonprofit (named after a Mesoamerican deity) that works to save youngsters from El Salvador’s rampant, senseless violence.
Now, with many close friends behind bars for gang crimes, he has a unique perspective on the controversial truce announced jointly by jailed Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 leaders in March.
Like many Salvadorans, he is deeply skeptical of the cease-fire, which the government claims has slashed the murder rate of this country of 6 million people from 13 per day to 4.5 per day.
“It is a tactic to defeat the government,” Carlos said as he queries the official statistics and predicts that the violence will, in any case, erupt once again. “It is a farce.”
At the root of the problem lie the government’s own evolving explanations of the truce negotiations.
Initially, the administration of President Mauricio Funes said the cease-fire had been brokered by the Catholic Church. It then backtracked after local journalists printed revelations apparently showing the government had been directly involved.
What is undeniable is that days after the rival maras announced the truce, many of their incarcerated leaders were moved to new jails with more lenient conditions, and were allowed conjugal visits.
Meanwhile, many wonder how long jailed senior gang members can enforce the peace among the new generation of aggressive, ambitious and younger leaders outside. “Never,” Carlos said emphatically when asked if the cease-fire can last.
Nelson Flores is an expert on public safety and penal policy at the Foundation for the Studies of Applied Law, a San Salvador think-tank. He argues that offering jailed gangsters privileges that they are not legally entitled to has undermined the rule of law.
“This kind of dialogue is positive but unless it is transparent, so that the public can see what is on the table, it will not be sustainable,” he said.
And without addressing the grinding poverty in El Salvador’s slums, Flores warns, little will change in the long run. Carlos, for example, estimates unemployment in his neighborhood at 70 percent.
The Maras were, notoriously, born in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1980s as Central American immigrants’ answer to the Mexican and African-American gangs.
They quickly established a reputation as some of the US’ most trigger-happy criminals. When a change in the law in 1996 allowed the FBI to deport gang members, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were flooded with ultra-violent gangsters.
Now, the Maras have moved from robbery and street corner drug peddling to extortion, kidnapping and a key role in the trafficking of cocaine from South America to the United States.
In doing so, their bloodshed has brought these three impoverished Central American nations to their knees and some experts have even begun to talk of failed states.
According to United Nations figures, El Salvador’s pre-truce homicide rate of 66 slayings per 100,000 residents in 2010 was roughly 14 times higher than that of the US — the developed world’s most murderous nation. That makes this tiny country statistically more dangerous than some war zones.
Today’s violence also salts unhealed wounds from El Salvador’s 1980-92 civil war, which cost 75,000 lives and saw widespread torture and disappearances as the country descended into a living hell.
Carlos knows more about the country’s vicious cycle of murder than most. Revenge was not long in coming for his cousin’s assassin. Carlos describes how, three days after the slaying, he witnessed a friend pump 15 bullets into the killer’s forehead.
Few gang members reach Carlos’ age. Now, a reformed father of three, he insists he has no regrets. But even as he talks positively about the new role he has found for himself, the trauma of his time inside the Mara Salvatrucha is never far from the surface.
“I like this work and I am happy to take risks for it, like going to different neighborhoods where they don’t know me, to talk with the children there,” he said. “If I die, then it will be doing something important.”
Equally conflicted, many Salvadorans are both relieved at the sudden fall in the body count and critical of the government’s alleged failure to confront the Maras’ bloody stranglehold on this country.
Now, as the truce nears its third month, an entire nation is holding its breath to see whether the government can make its contentious strategy for dealing with the gangs stick.
The most significant story in Central America right now is also the most underreported. El Salvador, the tiniest country in the land belt connecting North and South America, has long suffered socioeconomic violence—first in its civil war during the 1980s, then in the period of organized crime’s rising power in the 1990s, and most recently under the mano dura years of conservative authoritarianism—largely in answer to the growing influence of transnational criminal gangs in the 2000s. But since the start of May, El Salvador’s murder rate—by some estimates, the highest in the world in 2011—has dropped by nearly 66 percent, the result of a truce between the country’s two leading gangs (or maras, as they are popularly known) that was brokered in March by religious and government representatives and deepened by gang leaders on May 2.
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival, MS-18, were formed on the streets of South Central Los Angeles by young refugees of the Central American wars of the 1980s and 90s. Largely comprising Honduran and Salvadoran youths, the gangs initially provided protection to Latinos excluded from Mexican gangs, and the largely African-American Bloods and Crips. The maras blossomed, growing in scope and capacity to carry out sophisticated operations. Before long, the maras appeared on the FBI’s radar and in 1996, changes in the immigration law allowed the FBI to deport tens of thousands of suspected mareros back to their native countries. Not surprisingly, back home and without ready access to formal market opportunity, they set up shop and continued their business as usual. Since then, the gangs have grown so strong that they are virtually uncontrollable in Central America, and have become worrisome threats to the security of the United States. The truce between the maras, then, comes as a welcome relief on all sides.
And the good news extends beyond declining rates of violence and symbolic “days without murder.” As the Economist reports, “The mobs have since made further concessions. On May 2nd they promised not to recruit in schools. Five days later inmates at La Esperanza, an overcrowded prison, vowed to stop extorting people using jail phones. ‘I want to ask forgiveness from society and those who gave us the chance to change,” said Dionisio Arístides, the Salvatrucha leader. “We’re human beings who aren’t just here to do evil.’”
This is not to say that the truce between rival gangs will hold up in the long term. Many, as the Economist coverage suggests, are suspicious that the maras will be peaceful long enough to allow El Salvador’s economy recover from the damage it has suffered as the gangs duke it out for monopoly control over territory, extortion rackets, and trafficking networks. But a bigger concern lies in the worry that the gangs have grown so big and unwieldy that even if the higher ups in MS-13 and MS-18, many of whom are directing traffic from prison, genuinely endorse the peace plan, they may not be able to effectively enforce it.
Nor is it to suggest that government security forces have given up their old ways. In some respects, the spirit of mano dura—the heavily militarized approach to combating maras under former president, Tony Saca—is alive and well. When leftist president Mauricio Funes announced earlier this year that his government intended to implement a nationwide curfew and beef up school security by calling in the military to stand guard, Insight Crime noted that these policies “appear to be part of Funes’ escalation of the war against street gangs…Funes is mimicking the…strategy of his predecessors, placing ex-military officials in top security posts, some of whom are intimating that they may begin mass incarcerations of suspected gang members. These policies have more than a few critics. El Salvador’s focus on incarcerating suspected gang members has placed more inmates in badly overcrowded prisons… These overcrowded prisons may have worsened crime and violence in the country.”
Nevertheless, things in El Salvador right now look markedly more hopeful than they have in decades. Any substantial reduction of violence is obviously to be embraced, as are efforts that the Funes administration has made to match iron-fist policies by extending an open hand to former criminals seeking social reintegration. Perhaps most encouragingly, gang members from opposing factions have begun to collaborate on music projects and other forms of cultural production which may have positive normative effects—both within the gangs and more broadly in Salvadoran society—and which seem like an awfully elaborate, and unlikely, PR ruse if the maras weren’t serious about giving peace a chance.
Still, any optimism on this count must be met with a heavy dose of caution.
On Saturday police in the small Central American country of El Salvador were not called upon to attend a homicide.
The Pacific Ocean country, which is sandwiched between Guatemala and Honduras, has been plagued by violence for years as rival drug gangs fight to gain control.
However, this weekend’s murder-free day may be an indication that recent attempts to crackdown on the violent clashes may be paying off.
It is the first ‘clear day’ since President Mauricio Funes took office in June 2009.
WORLD’S TEN MOST DANGEROUS COUNTRIES
Below is a list of the countries with the highest murder rates per 100,000 of the population in 2011:
1. Honduras – 86
2. El Salvador – 71
3. Saint Kitts and Nevis – 68
4. Venezuala – 67
5. Belize – 39
6. Guatemala – 39
7. Jamaica – 39
8. Bahamas – 36
9. Colombia – 33
10. South Africa – 32
(Figures from United Nations Offic on Drugs and Crime)
In a statement released on Sunday the left wing leader revealed the news.
He said: ‘After years when the number of murders reached alarming levels of up to 18 per day, we saw not one homicide in the country.’
At the beginning of Mr Funes’s term in office there was an average of 12 murders a day, but that figure rose closer to 18 a day in early 2012.
Rival gangs operating in El Salvador called a truce last month and bloodshed between the country’s two most powerful criminal groups, Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, has for the time being at least abated.
El Salvador is one of a glutch of Central and South American countries that experience high murder rates.
Guatemala, Honduras and Belize also have some of the highest murder figures in the World and much of the blame for El Salvador’s problems is being laid at the door of Mexico’s drug cartels which use the country as a transit point.
Poverty, lack of education, corruption in different areas of society and lack of money are also seen as possible causes.
Mr Funes, who attended this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, has claimed credit for the reduced levels of violence arguing that his government’s security measures are responsible.
The president has recently ordered the military to pick up routine security duties.
Analysis: Homicides have soared in Central America as local street gangs are fed by Mexican drug cartels, which have taken over drug trafficking routes once handled by Colombians.
WASHINGTON – Just a few kilometres away from the CIA headquarters in Washington D.C. live thousands of marginalized young people involved in Latino gangs called maras. They are pawns in a violent game being orchestrated by international drug cartels, which in recent years have increased their activity in both Central America and the United States.
“They use the maras for transport, logistics and the local distribution of drugs… and in some cases (but not all), the maras provide the cartels with muscle,” says James Bosworth, a security analyst based in Nicaragua and with many years of experience in Central American affairs.
Together, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala make up the area with the highest homicide rate in the world. Murders have spiked drastically in recent years. The excessive violence is due to various factors: the weakened rule of law, a general lack of law enforcement, endemic poverty and, more recently, new corporate involvement in the management of criminal activities. Paradoxically, this increased violence is really the result of the war on drugs itself.
During the 1980s and at the start of the 1990s, thousands of Latino youths joined gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, in the eastern United States, or the 18th Street Gang in Los Angeles: for many it was the only possibility they had of feeling like they belonged. In the 1990s, U.S. authorities began deporting them en masse back to Central America. It was there – often within local prisons – that they started to formalize their activity, transforming their gangs into truly multi-headed, multi-talented organizations. They boosted their presence and networks in the United States via cells that recruited young disadvantaged Latinos. U.S. security agencies estimate that the maras now have more than 170,000 members in different countries.
Also during the 1990s, Colombian cartels established themselves as the principal drugs suppliers to traffickers in Central America. This was a direct consequence of efforts by the administration of Ronald Reagan to block off the flow of drugs through Miami, previously the main port of entry.
The business strategy was simple. Basically, the drug producers paid the Central American traffickers in order to ensure safe and reliable transportation for their products. The families or local networks involved (known as transportistas) received a small profit. The drug trafficking happened alongside the movement of other types of contraband, especially of people and essential goods, such as rice and gasoline. The same gang networks and ringleaders – the capos – were involved, as well as landowners, business men, benefactors and local community leaders. But it wasn’t just about drugs: the capos built roads, clinics and football grounds; they guaranteed law and order, safety in the streets and job prospects. Would they have achieved all this without the protection of the military, intelligence services and civil servants? Unlikely. It was a stable, steady market that also managed to stay relatively free of violence… until everything changed.
Fighting fire with fire
At the end of the 1990s, ever more aggressive military and police activity from the Colombian government reduced the capacity of the local cartels to oversee the international drug routes. At the same time, the demobilization of armies that took place in Central America after the region’s various civil wars ended had the unintended effect of putting more guns into circulation and of reshaping local trafficking networks.
Colombian influence waned; new members and suppliers emerged from Mexico. The once stable business system crumbled following multiple arrests of transportistas and new practices appeared, such as the theft of drugs while in transit and their resale, better known as tumbe.
The Mexican groups introduced new practices. The Gulf Cartel created a paramilitary branch called Los Zetas, an organized gang trained in large part by ex-soldiers of Mexican special operations teams who used to fight drug trafficking. The speciality of the Zetas was their speedy attack and willingness to kill even the highest-ranked capos and cartel members. But then, in 2010, the Zetas complicated matters by splitting with the Gulf Cartel, after closing deals with other gangs.
Faced with this violent situation, the response of the Central American governments was to ask the United States for help and to “militarize security.”
“The U.S. Congress almost always agrees to strong military support with very little public debate, whereas every cent of aid donated to social and civil programmes is questioned,” says Bosworth.
Countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have implemented “mano dura” (iron fist) policies, putting the military in charge of what had previously been police tasks. Panama and Costa Rica have also taken action to strengthen their police forces with help from the United States and European Community. But will it be enough?
Not according to Renata Ávila, a Guatemalan lawyer and director of the citizen media platform Global Voices Online. “Popular perceptions, which are frequently misinformed, have serious adverse effects because they cause further exclusion and fear, which leads to demands for mano dura policies,” she says. Avila, also a public policy analyst, believes that this emphasis on mano dura “relegates social rehabilitation for former gang members and social protection networks for their families to an afterthought.”
As Ávila notes, the maras strike fear in the population and this generalized fear “has affected urban development, increasing the number of gated communities and middle- and upper-class buildings with strict security in place.”
Various specialists in Central America agree that the chain of violence has had significant negative consequences for the State, public spaces, small local economies and even people’s mental health: in short, serious consequences for the fabric of society as a whole. In cities like Tegucigalpa, San Salvador or Guatemala, “it is no longer acceptable for teenagers or young adults to hang around in the street or to express themselves with language, clothes or signs that are linked to the maras,” says Ávila.
Lacking resources and cohesion
Any comprehensive solution will end up facing two enormous obstacles: a lack of resources and a lack of regional cohesion when it comes to planning and public policy. U.S. police vis-à-vis Central America has changed during the Obama administration, with a greater emphasis on reforms of the police and the judicial system, as well as on social support. “Although the U.S. government has finished with the rhetoric of the war on drugs, these areas remain the principal focus,” says Bosworth.
Ávila has suggested that the respective governments analyze and evaluate the measures adopted in Italy where “they passed a law permitting the confiscation of all goods from the mafia.” Similarly, authorities in Mexico and Central America could seize the property of organized criminal gangs and use the proceeds to combat social problems faced by the young mara members.
The U.S. government has prioritized working with international organizations such as the Central American Integration System and the Organization of American States. It is a slow and bureaucratic process that is often all talk with little action when it comes to the topic of civil aid.
“The U.S., Mexican and Central American governments work together to draw up a regional strategy, and then to obtain the necessary resources and fulfil their part of the strategy,” says Bosworth. “There is nothing that can be done by one country alone.”
Hardened in the streets and prisons of California and deported in the 1990s to the Central American countries where they were born, the members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang swiftly grew into a force of heavily tattooed young men carrying out kidnappings, murder and extortion.
Now, Guatemalan authorities say, they have begun to see new and disturbing evidence of an alliance between the Maras and another of the most feared criminal organizations in Latin America — a deal with the potential to further undermine that U.S.-backed effort to fight violent crime and narcotics trafficking in the region.
Secret jailhouse recordings and a turncoat kidnapper have described a pact between leaders of the Maras and the Zetas, the brutal Mexican paramilitary drug cartel that has seized control of large parts of rural northern Guatemala in its campaign for mastery of drug-trafficking routes from South America to the United States.
In recent months, authorities say, they have begun to see the first signs that the Zetas are providing paramilitary training and equipment to the Maras in exchange for intelligence and crimes meant to divert law-enforcement resources and attention.
The Zetas, formed more than a decade ago by defectors from Mexico’s army special forces, have already joined forces with local drug kingpins in the Guatemalan countryside, and recruited turncoat members of Guatemala’s military special forces for operations in Mexico and Guatemala, officials in the two neighboring countries have said.
There is some evidence that other Mexican cartels have paid Central American street gangs to sell drugs for them. And Salvadoran authorities said they are aware of informal links between the Zetas and local cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha paid to sell individual shipments of drugs, but officials have seen no proof of any formal deal between the gangs.
But a formal, durable alliance with the Maras could bring the Zetas thousands of new foot soldiers, extending the cartel’s reach into the cities of Guatemala, and, potentially, other countries in Central America where the Maras maintain a grip on urban slums.
Guatemalan authorities told The Associated Press that they believe the Zetas have trained a small group of Maras in at least one camp inside Mexico. Zeta members have spoken of recruiting 5,000 more, although the extent to which they have succeeded remains unclear, officials said.
Surreptitious recordings of jailhouse conversations between Zeta and Mara leaders contain mentions of a deal between the two groups, according to a high-ranking investigator who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive and dangerous nature of the information.
Eduardo Velasco, head of an Interior Ministry task force on organized crime, told the AP that authorities believed the Maras’ training by the Zetas had manifested itself in the increasing brutality, planning, organization and firepower of Maras’ operations in Guatemala.
Previously armed mainly with handguns, Maras, recognizable by intimidating, dark tattoos that cover swaths of their bodies and often their faces, have begun carrying AR-15, M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles and military fragmentation grenades.
In the city of Villanueva in January, a group of Maras armed with assault rifles burst into a suburban disco and opened fire on a meeting of rivals, killing five people.
Maras have also begun chopping off the fingers of kidnapping victims to pressure their families into sending ransoms, a technique previously seen in Mexico, Velasco said.
“As a result of this union with the Zetas, the Mara Salvatrucha have more ability to organize, strategize and maneuver,” Velasco said. “The Mara Salvatrucha want to build up their inventory of long-range weapons, grenades and drugs for their own use and for sale … they know the economic benefit is great for them and that the Zetas, as an outside group, need the Maras’ network in order to grow inside Guatemala.”
The Zetas have not tried to recruit the Salvatruchas’ rival MS-18 gang, also a group whose name and organization originate in the slums of Los Angeles, because it is not as powerful or sophisticated, Velasco said.
The Zetas’ ultimate goal, according to analysts, Guatemalan authorities and international officials, is to integrate the Maras into their network and become the most powerful group in Guatemala — criminal or legitimate.
“The Zetas are a paramilitary organization that wants to control all the legitimate, illegitimate and criminal activities in Guatemala,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, regional head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organized Crime.
Miguel Angel Galvez, a judge who hears narcotics and organized crime cases, said the Mara-Zeta alliance was increasingly evident in the cases he hears, and had been documented in notebooks found on arrested Zetas that detailed payments to Mara members.
“The Zetas come to a group like the Maras and grab total control,” he said.
Authorities first learned of the alliance after arresting 50 suspected Zeta members linked to a May 14 massacre on a cattle farm in Peten province that left 27 people dead, 25 of them decapitated, another law-enforcement official said on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety.
The suspects were incarcerated alongside Maras, and their secretly recorded conversations contained the first mention of an alliance, the official said.
The Zetas expressed the desire to completely integrate with the Zeta members of the Mara Salvatrucha and are providing them with military training and indoctrination in Mexican camps, Velasco said.
Another operation led to the dismantling of a group of kidnappers, Velasco said. The head of the gang became a cooperating witness and told authorities he had sent 18 members of his group to a Zeta training camp in Veracruz, Mexico, paying each 5,000 quetzales ($640). They came back to Guatemala and worked as kidnappers for him. He was planning to send another six for training when he was arrested.
Velasco declined to elaborate on the case.
Mexican officials have dismantled Zeta training camps in the state of Nuevo Leon but declined to comment on the Guatemalan claims. U.S. officials in Guatemala also declined to comment.
Contributing to this story were Sonia Perez in Guatemala City, Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, El Salvador and Adriana Gomez Licon, Michael Weissenstein and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City.