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Postcard from San Salvador: The Subtle Tyranny of Gangs

Categories: Latin America, El Salvador, Citizen Media, Governance, Politics, War & Conflict, Women & Gender
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Graffiti with the initials of Mara Salvatrucha gang. Photo taken from the Flickr account of Walking The Tracks under Creative Commons license.

This story by Daniel Alarcón was originally published [2] in Radio Ambulante and is reproduced here under our partnership agreement [3].

If you’ve read about the situation in El Salvador recently, you might have seen a headline like this one, which came out in the International Business Times [4]. It said: “El Salvador to become deadliest peace-time country in the world.” That phrase is kind of strange, right?

Since last year, when the truce between the government and the gangs ended, the homicide rate has skyrocketed, growing over 50 percent. In May of 2015, there were more than 600 homicides, in a country with a little over 6 million inhabitants; numbers they hadn’t seen since the 1990s—more than double of what we see in Iraq today. Over 35 police officers have been arrested this year, and it looks like things are getting worse. Last Sunday, August 16, was the most violent day of 2015, with more than 40 homicides.

So the question is this: if what’s going on in El Salvador is not a war, then what is it exactly?

Everyone has been touched, directly or indirectly, by this chaos and violence. And Salvadorans of all social classes have learned to deal with that constant feeling of insecurity. Many of the people I talked to told me that it doesn’t matter what foreign newspapers publish. “Here,” they said, “here we’re at war. And it’s going to last.”

So what is this war about? Like in other armed conflicts, there are deaths from both sides. In this case, the maras—or gangs—and the police. And like in other armed conflicts, the ones who often suffer the most are civilians—people who have nothing to do with the conflict. That’s because excessive violence in El Salvador affects all aspects of daily life. And not always in the way you expect it.

This is Iris. For safety reasons, we have decided not to use her last name. Iris, like many Salvadorans, lives trying to avoid problems. And in general she’s succeeded. She has a good job, and she is doing well in her career. The gang members don’t pay too much attention to her. She dresses well, and takes care of her appearance. And since she was younger, there’s been something that she really likes to do: color her hair.

It’s part of her look—part of her identity. And this story is about that. Because violence, the insecurity brought on by the maras, is not just about what you read in the headlines. A shooting here, a mugging there. No. It’s also about the details. Moments where evil shows up in front of you. Next to you.

Moments like this one.

Iris: Yo iba en un Coaster, o sea un microbús, y una muchacha se sentó a la par mío… Una muchacha poquito más gordita que yo. Andaba las cejas súper delgaditas, el pelo maltratado, pintado.

Daniel Alarcón: Color rubio. La boca delineada con rojo… Pantalones de lycra estampados con piel de leopardo. Según Iris, este tipo de vestimenta… en El Salvador, es un código.

Iris: Y por la forma en que comenzó a hablar sabía que no era una muchacha normal, que quizá a lo mejor era la mujer de un pandillero.

Iris: I was riding a Coaster, a bus, and a girl sat next to me… The girl was a little heavier than I was. She had her eyebrows very thin, and her hair damaged, dyed.

Daniel Alarcón: Blond. Her lips outlined in red.… Leopard-skin tights. According to Iris, this type of clothing, in El Salvador, is a code.

Iris: And because of the way she started talking I knew she wasn’t a normal girl, that maybe she was a gang member’s girlfriend.

And here’s another detail to consider: buses in El Salvador are dangerous, because gangs have infiltrated transportation. Passengers run the risk of being mugged, robbed. Sometimes the gangs demand money from transportation companies. And if they don’t pay, the maras can kill the drivers. In other cases, the drivers are accomplices of the gang members. It’s a very complicated situation.

Iris: Ella me enseñó una cicatriz que andaba en el estomago. Y me dijo, “Mirá, estas son heridas de guerra. Esta demuestra en la calle el valor que tenemos nosotros”, me dijo ella. Nosotros. Es decir, La Mara. Y luego, la muchacha vino con esto:

“Mirá. Cámbiate el pelo. Porque si yo te vuelvo a ver en esta ruta o uno de los motoristas te ve en esta ruta, ya vas a quedar fichada, porque aquí todos nos conocemos. Y como no has querido decirme de donde venís, cuidáte. Y cambiate el pelo”.

Y yo me quedé helada. Fue como…por Dios, ¿qué hago? Había un rumor acá, verdad, que si tu andabas de pelo rojo eras de cierta pandilla, y que si tu tenías pelo rubio pertenecías a otra pandilla.

Iris: She showed me a scar she had on her stomach. And she said, ‘‘Look, these are war wounds. This shows people on the streets the courage we have,” she said.

“Hey, change your hair. Because if I see you again, or if any of the drivers see you again, we’ll know it’s you. We all know each other here. And since you don’t want to tell me where you’re from, just be careful. And change your hair.’’

I froze. It was was like…Oh, God, what do I? At that time, there were rumors that if you went around with red hair you were this gang; if you were blonde, it was another.

This was something Iris had not considered when she decided to dye her hair… A small act of self-expression, snuffed out by gangs. And of course, when you compare this with what you read in newspapers, it seems like it’s not that important. But it is. When gangs impose themselves on aspects of daily life that are so incidental, it’s a way of telling the people: “Hey, we’re in charge here. Not you. Not the government. Not the police. We are.”

You can listen the complete episode here: