El Faro’s interviews with members of El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha point to limits of the current gang truce, and demonstrate that unresolved issues like the gang’s strong collective identity and links to violent crime will be difficult to overcome.
In the first of a four part series of interviews, El Faro spoke with imprisoned high-level members of the MS-13 in El Salvador. In them, Mara members cast a peculiar, and often contradictory image of the gang which clashes, in particular, with the United States government's recent designation of it as a violent transnational criminal organization on par with Mexico's Zetas or the Italian mafia.
While the leaders appeared interested in showing that the MS-13 has reached a new stage in its development and is willing to renounce violence, they assured El Faro that the Mara isn’t going anywhere, an ominous sign for the future of the country.
[T]he “ranfla,” or wheel...is the top command of the Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador. Since March 8, most of its members have been transferred from the maximum security prison of Zacatecoluca to that of Ciudad Barrios [100 miles east of San Salvador], and have sent orders to the streets to stop killing...
The ranfla is a heterogeneous group of about 20 people, in which gang members well known for their criminal career and media coverage, like Dionysius Aristides Umanzor, alias “Sirra,” are joined by others like Cristian Ramirez Alfredo Beltran, alias “Locker,” or Jesus Joaquin Cruz Lopez, alias “Chele,” who for years have managed to avoid the front pages of newspapers. Men who are around 30 years old share camaraderie with old-school homies closer to 50 like Jose Luis Mendoza, alias “El Pava,” who is one of the first members of the MS-13’s first clique in Los Angeles, the Seven Eleven.
The temper of Saul Turcios, alias “El Trece,” who during the interviews was almost always more violent and suspicious than the rest, contrasts with the leisurely and almost magisterial tone of TIberio Valladares Ramirez, alias “Snyder,” who to speaks with such cordiality that the tattoos covering his face seem to disappear.
Amidst all these, Borromeo Henriquez, alias “Diablo,” or “Diablito Hollywood,” known for his extraordinary way with words, acts as a facilitator who sets the pace of the conversation. He is not the only leader of the mara, as some say (authorities have come to present him as the "Central American leader" of the MS-13), but it is clear that the rest have chosen him as the voice that they want to project. In this text, when the name of the respondent is not specified, it is because Diablo is speaking on behalf of the ranfla, and the mara as a whole.
This conversation took place more than 200 days after the truce began, and homicides in El Salvador dropped to unprecedented lows. If the figures had remained at an average of 14 per day, where they were before the pact, at this time of year, on this stretch of land, 1,700 more people would have died.
In July the two gangs delivered to [Secretary General of the Organization of American States] Jose Miguel Insulza a document they called the "Outeline for the Pursuit of Peace," which called for the suspension of police operations, the repeal of the law banning gang membership, eliminating the role of protected witnesses and removing the army from the streets, along with another set of demands that, ultimately, call for the application of the law like the elimination of torture and death squads. Have you had a response from the administration?
No, not yet. What happened is this: They also presented a list just as long and just as delicate to us. The media riled people up, and upon hearing our request for the removal of security operatives they say "Damn! How can the police, the minister, the president do this?” This point and that of removing the military are the most delicate. Why these points? Because mega-operations that have been taking place since the administration of Francisco Flores haven’t achieved anything, they’re just filling more prisons and have imprisoned a load of innocent people. Perhaps it was inspired by the war, in the [counterinsurgency strategy of] separating the water from the fish, because many of these mega-operations were directed especially against our families and against two, three, four, five guys ... and against 70 civilians. Because I speak to them, because I play on their team, because we are related, because we occasionally drink together. Others, yes, maybe they were involved in some wrongdoing. But why do we ask this? Because just as the people are scared, we too were startled to see the list they handed us, because it talked about a lot of tricky things. We see that and say, "Well, if they are saying that, then they have to accept that this issue is also on the table."
The fact that the president has not yet responded to the proposal, does this get you in trouble with people on the street? Is it difficult to keep the peace on the streets?
No, not yet. The damage that has been caused is great ... So the president, his advisers, the security cabinet have to take it easy, and if we accept it they have to bring a counterproposal. You understand what it means to put this on the table? Take away this one, add another. "Do you agree? No. Well, let's see ..." I think they are studying it. The problem is becoming politicized, presidential candidates are emerging ... the president has to be very careful. But we have faith that at least they will listen to us. And then comes our international "bombardment": to seek out international organizations and people to become involved in this. Because this is worth it, man; for me, for my family and for everyone. We're patient.
If that time comes, is it too much to hope for the gang to be asked, for example, to show where disappeared victims are?
It is not nonsense. It is the obligation of institutions to try to get to the truth, to clarify all demands made by the Salvadoran people. Relatives of the victims, people who have lost their sons and daughters ... It isn’t nonsense. It's real. It’s happened. It's in our history. A few days ago was the International Day of the Disappeared which called for the country to recognize the fault of those who [disappeared people] during the war, and to say where they are.
Is the Mara willing to do this?
We are willing to do many things.
Is the Mara wiling to reveal the location of those who have been disappeared?
We are prepared to discuss all issues that they bring to the table.
Trece: But we do not know where they are, how could we?
Is the Mara willing to disarm?
We are ready to bring any issue to the table and discuss it.
Is the Mara willing to present the homies who have outstanding charges to justice?
We are ready to discuss any issue that comes to the table.
Is Mara is willing to disband?
We are ready to talk about anything that comes to the table.
That's interesting. Many people have that expectation for this process, and believe the Mara Salvatrucha and its rival gang are criminal structures. Right?
And there are people who wonder if at the end of this process, the Mara Salvatrucha would cease to exist.
Trece: You tell me, you have a family. Your family! Would you break it up? This is my family, what you see here (pointing to the other gang members present).
But an organization like yours has dynamics, hierarchies, an organizational structure. A group of friends has no rituals to get in or out, no laws... The point is not whether you'll stop talking to Trece, Diablo, but whether you will dismantle the structure that makes you an an organization. How do you imagine the future, if this works?
Snyder: It all depends on the possibilities they offer, do you understand? If they allow us, our people, our families on the streets to have opportunities, jobs, livelihoods for their children ... if the prison system is not only to repress but to provide opportunities that we can one day apply on the outside and be able to take care of myself. You know? As a member of the Mara Salvatrucha who also works, and exists, who still contributes to society.
Diablo: It's like if you remove from the constitution the right that every citizen has to meet if it is for peaceful purposes. The issue of violence, of illicit activities, is what we want to negotiate, but we will have every right in the world, because the constitution says so, to be comrades, to meet, to walk around and go wherever we want, without violence.
Chele: The fact is we are a gang and always will be. Maybe we strayed from the limits of what is acceptable, the actions of the gang. We have rules and there are things that got out of control, which are what led us to where we were, and why society is on our backs, because of our own actions. We want to continue as a gang and we will continue, but we are trying to show the people that we can be a gang while still useful to the Salvadoran people in general.
Snyder: And to our families.
So far it has been easier for society to trust in individuals than in the Mara as a group. In recent years, if someone wanted to distance himself from violence he would have to leave the gang, because the Mara would not allow a member to renounce violence.
Is not that so?
There are plenty of people who left out of treason, and these people have spoken ill of the gang. We're going to invite you to an event we have coming, with a lot of our comrades, that you will admire and will make you say "Wow, this guy was with the Mara?" An example. "This guy, or this other, this one goes to university, or works where I work ... and now they say they belonged to the Mara." They're going to show you. If anyone in this group or outside it wants to carry out their life, to be calm, more tranquil, and he says this, without betraying the gang, as Joaquin just explained: there's the door. Man, we are always here to give you a hand if you need one.
Has that been the case in recent years?
It always has.
Diablo: What has happened is that there have been those who have gone through that door and betrayed us. And every traitor pays with death. They do not go easy, and actions they commit make them think there is no alternative. But we are figuring out this activity, preparing, calling the Mara to say "Are we going to get into this?" Because we believe they will be given opportunities.
...Today, a homie can renounce his affiliation, can owe nothing to the barrio, and is free to leave?
Let him go. Thanks for everything, comrade, and here we are.
Just like that?
It's that simple. It always has been.
Trece: It's been at our core.
Chele: Whoever wants to live their life, with their children, or follow Christianity ... Here we have a bunch of homies who are Christians.
And you don’t believe them to be traitors?
No man, they are our comrades!
This article has been translated and re-published with the authors' permission. It can be read in its original Spanish at El Faro's Sala Negra.