In El Salvador, ruthless gangs draw invisible borders
Facing the majestic Chinchontepec volcano a seemingly bucolic path runs past a suburb of El Salvador's capital -- but this "devil's alley" is nothing but a strip of homes emptied by gang violence and swallowed by tropical vegetation.
Turf wars between the country's street gangs -- especially the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 -- have threatened entire neighborhoods and forced families to flee for safety.
In this area of the San Salvador suburb of Soyapango, those residents who remain have been pushed into makeshift huts.
Gang members "don't like to be seen," one of only two heavily armed police officers patrolling the zone told AFP.
"They harassed people, until they left," he said.
El Salvador, a small, densely populated country of 6.2 million, has some 70,000 members of gangs, known here as "maras," according to official estimates.
In some neighborhoods gangs are like "a local authority, using threats to maintain control," said Noah Bullock, director of the human rights non-profit Cristosal.
The organization says forced displacement due to violence has impacted some 230,000 people, in a country where 33 percent of the population already lives in poverty.
- Trapped -
Walls along the "devil's alley" serve as a canvas for graffiti marking "mara" territory. Gang members use the alley to slip away from police. Paintings memorializing slain members show that Barrio 18 rules the area -- and serve as a warning to anyone who dares tread on their turf.
Other parts of Soyapango like Las Margaritas, home to 80,000 people, are controlled by the rival Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13.
Though students are on holiday, the Las Margaritas football stadium stands deserted. Window curtains are drawn. Adults speak of the gang in hushed tones, and never say its name out loud -- referring to it only as "the letters."
Residents live in fear, without road maintenance, garbage collection or even a hospital. The greatest problem however is getting to neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs.
"Just going from one neighborhood to another to look for work is a crime," says Jose Martin Alas, 55.
Alas, who has been in a wheelchair after falling off a roof some two decades ago, has three daughters -- ages 35, 29 and 27 -- living in the United States where they work as housekeepers, "scrubbing toilets" as he puts it.
"They don't have an easy life, but they're safe," he said, noting his six grandchildren are also there.
- Leave to survive -
"Between neighborhoods, there are invisible borders," explained a 23-year-old anthropology student, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The student's unemployed friend said that gang members "forcefully recruit or insult you, beat you, kidnap you -- or worse -- just because you're from a different neighborhood."
"To stay alive," he said, "you have to leave this ghetto forever."
Residents of Las Margaritas don't dare venture to the hospital, located less than two kilometers (1.2 miles) away but controlled by the rival Barrio 18 gang.
So once a week they wait for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, to pay a visit.
MSF workers give consultations in these neighborhoods where "access to health is not guaranteed" due to "social conflict," says Marca Roca, who coordinates a program called "Invisible Borders" for the medical aid group.
The MSF has ambulances to pick up the sick, wounded and pregnant from areas where taxis won't venture.
Their psychologists treat residents for depression, a common ailment because of the gang presence.
The youngest patients, Roca says, "tend to express themselves through violence."
- Infiltration strategies -
The gangs, armed wings of organized crime, also raise millions of dollars each year through extortion.
Few area shops or services escape this fate. Not even bus drivers or trucks delivering containers of drinking water get away without paying for their safety.
Gang members were once distinguished by spectacular tattoos and loose clothes, but today "they have mutated," says Vladimir Caceres, a police spokesperson.
"It's a strategy to infiltrate" society at large -- and launder funds via shell companies, he said.
According to the latest police figures, an average of 9.2 people are murdered in El Salvador each day.
Since January the country has seen 2,926 murders -- a 15 percent drop from 2017 over the same period, but still one of the world's highest homicide rates.
Add to that between 1,000 and 1,500 people -- often witnesses to crimes or people who dared to speak out -- who go missing every year according to Bullock, of the nonprofit Cristosal.
At the decrepit police station in Ilopango, a suburb bordering Soyapango, only older gang members still boast the letters MS tattooed on their skin.
Some have been there for a year for lack of space in El Salvador's prisons.
Caged in a cell of sorts measuring five square meters, the dozen inmates sleep on the cement floor, awaiting judgment.
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