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This is the third part of a three-part series on San Salvador’s Historic Center, the heart of the country’s informal urban markets and a long-time bastion of the street gangs. The stories chronicle how the gangs have used their stranglehold on the center to expand their power in El Salvador. This part illustrates the different ways in which the gangs are violently usurping the lucrative criminal economy from rivals. 

For San Salvador resident Humberto Reyes, a sunny morning in the Historic Center’s sprawling markets began with two shots in the back of the head.

The 33-year-old, known locally as “El Pelón” (Baldy), was reportedly on his way to buy fruit near to the city’s Central Market but was instead left for dead on the concrete floor, his blood inching towards the adjacent crates of fresh fruit and vegetables, as passersby began to gather at the scene and watch from behind police tape.

Forensic technicians soon arrived to wrap up and remove the body, leaving the nearby vendors to clean the victim’s blood before normal business could resume.

Following the murder, witnesses identified Reyes as a local gang member who directed the collection of extortion in the Central Market. His death, police suspected, was likely the result of intra-gang squabbles in the area, they said.

*This story is based on field research spread out over two years, including numerous field visits and dozens of interviews with police officials, police intelligence officers, gang members, municipal and federal authorities, street vendors, community workers, business owners, non-governmental workers and others, most of which were done prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Given the sensitive subject matter, most of the sources agreed to speak with InSight Crime anonymously. Read the entire investigation here, as well as our follow-up article on President Nayib Bukele’s informal pact with gangs.

It was January 5, 2020, a new year but it had brought the same old killings in a city dogged by violence, where competition for space and illicit economies has long been a deadly affair.

San Salvador has always been one of the most violent municipalities in a country among the most deadly in Latin America. But the violence is especially acute in downtown San Salvador’s Central Market where deaths like Reyes’ are a common occurrence, even after the coronavirus slowed much of the commercial activity in the area.

“Here, there is no virus that can stop this,” a vendor told a reporter from El Diario de Hoy. “Robberies, assaults, homicides and extortion continue just like before the quarantine. Except for small periods, this place is hot.”

The battle has transformed the Central Market and its surrounding streets, known as the Historic Center for its celebrated churches and age-old government buildings, into a cauldron of complex rivalries and fragile alliances that wreaks havoc on those who rely on these formal and informal salespoints to make ends meet.

Indeed, for the best part of the past decade, the Central Market has had the highest concentration of homicides of anywhere in San Salvador’s Historic Center, according to data from 2010 to 2018 collected for an InSight Crime investigation into violence and extortion dynamics in El Salvador’s capital.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile

In other words, the Central Market is one of the most violent places in the most violent city in one of the most violent countries in Latin America.

Historic Center: A Lucrative ‘Protection Racket’

The Historic Center – which one police intelligence official described as “organized disorder” – is the heart of the country’s capital city, San Salvador. It combines the chaos that comes with being the headquarters of government and the single largest, open-air market. On any given pre-COVID-19 weekday, buses and cars of all sizes would pack the city’s main arteries. The sidewalks and streets would be littered with hundreds of informal vendors and tourists would amble by colonial-era buildings and religious sites.

San Salvador’s Central Market lies a few blocks southwest of the Historic Center’s main squares.

The complex comprises about a dozen buildings, chock-full of stores and restaurants, adorned with multicolored hoardings, fluorescent lights and plastic furniture, hawking fresh food, clothes and electronics. The surrounding streets are filled with dense clusters of market stalls, where vendors flog their own goods beneath awnings of tattered parasols and rusty iron roofs, shielding them from the tropical heat of El Salvador’s capital.

There are an estimated 5,500 to 6,000 stands in the Central Market, according to police sources interviewed by InSight Crime. On an average pre-coronavirus day, these stalls would swarm with San Salvador residents who rely on the city’s thriving commerce for work and access to affordable goods. But beyond the market’s bustling exterior lies a pattern of commonplace and lucrative criminal activity.

Among other things, the Central Market is the Historic Center’s wholesale hub for legal and illegal goods, according to police intelligence in the area. To that end, it has long been dominated by powerful contraband distribution networks that traditionally paid for protection from a mixture of private and public security forces. But that system has been steadily, and often violently, usurped by street gangs trying to take over what is often referred to as a “protection racket” – in other words, extortion – as well as to become wholesalers themselves.

The protection racket in the Historic Center as a whole is mostly run by two of the country’s most notorious street gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and a faction of the Barrio 18 known as the Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) – both of which emerged in El Salvador in the 1990s following the mass deportation of gang members from the United States.

Over time, they set up protection rackets throughout the Historic Center. The biggest revenue stream for the gangs, by far, are the payments that come from the informal market in the area. Roughly speaking, the gangs collect $1 per weekday from each of the 40,000 vendors that operate without a license in the area, or about $1 million per year, according to interviews with vendors and authorities in the area.

In return, the gangs have established a fierce regime that prohibits theft and other crime, but as InSight Crime notes in another part of this series, this complicated quid pro quo rarely falls in the vendors’ favor.

There are also a wide variety of legitimate storefronts in the Historic Center that pay an equally wide range of rents. According to several store owners and local business associations, as well as police intelligence sources, rent levels appear to be connected to the size of the storefront and the amount of business that it is generating. It can range from $50 to $1,000 per month.

Some pay weekly, some monthly. All of them pay one-time fees during Christmas, Easter and the annual August Festival. They are sometimes asked to “collaborate” when gang members are hospitalized or killed (to indemnify gang members’ wives or girlfriends), or when there are unexpected legal fees or other unforeseen expenses.

Taxi drivers also told InSight Crime they paid on average $1 per day, so they could park and work from specific points in the Historic Center. Some pay a weekly instead of a daily fee. Some non-taxi drivers told us some gangs established a means to calculate fees based on “commercial flow” (how many rides, or “giros” any single taxi driver did), but no taxi drivers confirmed for us that the gangs collected rent in this way.

Gangs also feed on the buses and transport companies that pass through the Historic Center. Bus owners told InSight Crime they pay according to the number of buses they own and operate and that costs can reach into the thousands of dollars per month. Distribution companies allegedly pay per truck.

The extortion system for public transport and distribution companies, however, has somewhat outgrown the city center, since payments are now channeled through the gang leadership instead via the leaders in each of the neighborhoods the buses and trucks traverse. Still, some bus drivers said the gang members occasionally extract a sort of mini-rent of a few dollars when they travel through the Historic Center.

The Battle for the Central Market

Always on the lookout for new ways to expand their criminal earnings, the gangs have made a conscious decision to take over at least part of the protection racket in the Central Market, according to police sources in the area. This decision put them in direct conflict with another, well-armed group: private security guards hired by market workers to fend off criminal groups like the gangs.

These guards have long had their own protection racket, getting money not just from the formal and informal vendors, but also the contraband distributors who are frequently harassed by gangs. In an interview with InSight Crime, local police estimated that these days each market stall pays a weekly fee of around $15 to $20, meaning the extraction of rent from the market stalls alone could be worth between $82,500 and $120,000 a week for whoever controls it.

But who to pay? In the early part of the 2000s, the gangs and the guards maintained a complicated détente. It did not last. According to data collected from the forensic medicine division of the Attorney General’s Office, in 2010, there were five homicides in the area as the two gangs and the guards began a pitched battle for control of the racket. In 2013, that number had jumped to 11.

By then – as numerous gang, local businessmen and police sources told InSight Crime – the situation had shifted: On one side was the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, who controlled about half of the market and had forged an alliance with one of the main companies in the city center to collect protection money together.

On the other side was the MS13. The MS13 did not want to forge an alliance with private security as much as take over their spots or use private security for their own ends. In other parts of the Historic Center, for instance, the MS13 reportedly used private security to collect extortion for them. And according to an indictment against numerous leaders of the MS13, the gang used its contacts with a private security guard in the city center to purchase police-issued flak jackets and other police-issued clothing to camouflage themselves during high-level operations.

Not surprisingly, the violence deepened. And in 2015, there were a record 29 killings around and inside the Central Market, according to the same forensic medicine homicide data. The violence has subsided somewhat since, but police intelligence officials told InSight Crime the fight over the protection racket and the wholesale market are still ongoing.

In March 2017, for instance, a private security guard was shot dead after reportedly confronting gang members who were extorting a merchant on a street outside the Central Market. The murder sparked a retaliatory shootout between security guards and the gangs that left six dead in a day.

More recently, in March 2019, a private security guard operating near the market complex was killed when a group of gang members approached and shot him multiple times. A gang member was killed later on the same day in a nearby market, possibly as revenge for the security guard’s death.

Those types of head-on confrontations are common in the market area, particularly when it comes to the MS13, whose main strategy has remained displacing private security and controlling an increasing amount of the wholesale market, police intelligence told InSight Crime. MS13 members, for example, were involved in the March 2017 shootout with guards outside the Central Market.

Meanwhile, the Revolucionarios continue to employ the strategy of aligning with the umbrella organization that represents private security guards operating in the Central Market.

Known as the Association of Security Guards for Municipal Markets, Shopping Malls, Agroindustry and Finance Companies (Asociación de Vigilantes de Mercados Municipales, Centros Comerciales, Agroindustriales y Financieras – AVIMCES), it is an attractive ally for the gang, since the organization not only manages large swathes of the protection racket – and shares its revenue – but also holds the keys to the market and controls specific commercial spaces critical to criminal activities, including drop-off points for contraband and stolen goods.

The benefits for private security forces are less clear. According to the police, the pact is informal and based more on their mutual enmity with the MS13 than the guards’ sympathy with the Barrio 18. What’s more, being associated with the gangs has landed security guards in hot water. In December 2019, for example, seven private security guards were arrested on suspicion of collecting extortion money in the Central Market and then passing it on to gang members. Still, according to police and businesses operating in the area, the two maintained this informal pact through at least the beginning of 2019.

Gang Violence and Control in the Historic Center

The fighting between the gangs and the guards accounts for only some of the homicides, but making sense of all the gang violence in the area is difficult. There are, put simply, multiple reasons for the gangs to commit homicides, especially in places like downtown San Salvador’s most vibrant formal and informal marketplace. But most of them are related to efforts to establish a protection racket.

First, in the case of the Central Market, violence allows the gangs to expand their principal revenue source: extortion. This holds true throughout the Historic Center, where gangs are absorbed in near-perpetual conflicts for control of vending hubs, drug peddling hotspots, and contraband and counterfeit salespoints, among other important spaces where they are either collecting extortion payments or they are managing the businesses themselves.

The boundaries between gang territories, however, are porous and fluid. Take the case of extortion payments. Gangs may leave phones, which will serve, for short periods, as the means by which the two parties will communicate. But for payments, the gangs have to go in person, exposing themselves. Store owners told InSight Crime the gang members will arrive in groups of two to four members on the same day every week. Two will wait on the outside of the storefront keeping watch, while the others will enter and collect the money. The collectors will then leave the store and quickly deposit the money at a street vendor’s stall, so as to avoid being captured with marked money and to avoid any kind of ambush from a rival.

SEE ALSO: MS13 Gang Truce: Social vs. Criminal Capital

What’s more, the number of parties involved in the regular collection of extortion creates a volatile situation in and of itself. The practice involves several layers of the gangs as well as civilians who keep watch or transfer money for them. The density of the Central Market, as well as the different levels of payment and the regular presence of security forces in these areas, further complicates matters and can lead to misunderstandings, confusion and opportunities to cheat the system.

There may also be fatal misunderstandings if distributors and vendors operating inside and outside the market do not know who controls what territory. And those payment systems may change as competition gets more intense. In the process, money may go missing or get stolen. And other criminal actors may step into the confusion to take advantage, causing further misunderstandings. The result, very often, is violence.

Second, gangs commit homicides to maintain or expand their criminal portfolios.

As noted, for example, the gangs are trying to enter the wholesale market for contraband and counterfeit products that operates in and around the Central Market. This means threatening rivals who operate in this business or control this business. For the gangs, controlling the distribution of these products to thousands of informal vendors would translate into a colossal cash boost that could serve for buying firearms, drugs and other illicit products to consume and sell.

Police said there are some indications the gangs have already managed to establish themselves in theft and resale in the Historic Center and appear to have usurped many of the prime vending spots in the Central Market. They also have access to Central Market’s dispatch areas where they have first choice of goods from trucks unloading stolen items or contraband, according to a former municipal employee who spoke to InSight Crime but preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

But the traditional contraband and counterfeit networks are still powerful criminal actors in and of themselves. They have experience operating more sophisticated supply chains and have better contacts than the gangs, police intelligence told InSight Crime. Gangs, for example, might be able to steal a truck, but they do not necessarily have the contacts to get the stolen truck past security forces or a place to store and distribute the stolen goods efficiently.

This may explain why, despite the gangs’ best efforts, they do not appear to have taken a position as contraband wholesalers themselves just yet. Nonetheless, their continuing foray into this criminal market could also be another cause for conflict in the area, especially since the wholesale business is such a prominent part of the Central Market.

Third, gangs commit homicides to maintain political and social control in their areas of influence. The gangs impose strict rules on their own members and those who operate in their territory. Suspected collaboration with security forces is the most commonly perceived offense but theft, rape and abuse of authority are others.

It is important to note the gangs are tribal. If they encounter rival gang members, for instance, they are obliged to take action against them. This too may have specific implications for the Central Market, which unlike other parts of the Historic Center, where gang territory is well-defined, is not fully controlled by any single gang.

With both the MS13 and the Revolucionarios trying to move in on the protection racket, the chances of rival members bumping into each other may be higher than elsewhere in the city center and may serve to further destabilize the security situation in the market. The tension is so high that vendors told InSight Crime they are careful not to send their small children to certain areas for fear they may be mistaken for a spy or a lookout.

All these lapses and confusion appear to be causes of violence in the Historic Center and beyond.

Steady Expansion, More Competition

The gangs have expanded their influence in other ways as well. According to vendors and authorities who spoke to InSight Crime, the gangs have steadily taken control of more informal vending spots and the pop-up restaurants that flank them, often parceling them out to their family and relatives. They have also usurped at least part of the informal taxi business. The same sources say they have increasingly “embedded” themselves in the vendors’ associations.

Their newfound businesses have changed how they conduct their criminal business. In some cases, they now take product from extortion victims instead of money. In at least one example in the Historic Center, police and local businessmen told InSight Crime that one company paid an estimated $10,000 per year to the two different gangs, as well as $8,000 per year in raw chicken, which gang members would then sell at gang-controlled distribution points in the San Salvador markets. The company is also subject to “special” payments if gangs have unforeseen expenses as well as the holiday bonus payments.

The MS13 has also tried to achieve blanket control over the counterfeit cigarette market. Police told InSight Crime that a wholesaler based in the Sagrado Corazón market that sits diagonally from the Central Market sells most of the counterfeit cigarettes in the Historic Center, which he obtains from a larger contraband wholesaler. These police sources say he pays the MS13 a quota of his earnings; according to other sources interviewed by InSight Crime, though, he is an “employee” of the gang. In both cases, the gang has established more control over this revenue stream than it previously had, even if it doesn’t control it completely.

The gangs control several drug distribution points in the Historic Center, police intelligence officials told InSight Crime. At minimum, these points are sources of rent. But the gangs may also control some portion or all of the wholesale market, and they may have operational control of at least some of the distribution points.

In addition, the Historic Center is an important hub for the sex trade. Along Independencia Avenue is an important hub where prostitution is prevalent. Law enforcement sources told InSight Crime that both the business establishments where they work and the prostitutes who are on the streets pay extortion to gangs, a claim corroborated by several sex workers who also spoke to InSight Crime.

Finally, the gangs have begun to collect rent from bars, restaurants, billiards halls, and other businesses that have established themselves in the area.

In all instances, the gangs are establishing a parallel tax system based on the protection racket and are regulating the distribution of vending spots. The vendors, therefore, rely on them, not only for protection from petty crime but also for the space to sell their goods, to settle disputes and to dish out reprisals against those who break the rules.

The state, however, has not remained idle. And when it has gone head-to-head with the de facto bosses of the market, it has added further potential for conflict. That was made clear in March 2017, when the national police temporarily suspended AVIMCES guards from operating in the market, replacing them with agents of the Metropolitan Guard (Cuerpo de Agentes Municipales – CAM).

The CAM is a municipal law enforcement body with little training and, as a result of their poor pay and training, even less legitimacy. In one case chronicled by InSight Crime, they were also linked directly to the gangs. In this case, the suspension of AVIMCES eventually sparked an outcry from vendors, some of whom viewed the decision as an attempt by CAM to take control of the protection racket in the Central Market.

The power play was not the first in the area. On other occasions, police agents have been linked to assassination attempts against leaders of informal vendors associations, further tarnishing their reputation in downtown San Salvador and giving rise to suspicions they have their own interests in mind.

Even seemingly legitimate efforts have been viewed with suspicion. In 2015, for instance, the mayor’s office, working closely with police, installed cameras in the market and increased vigilance around it in an attempt to improve security. Instead of relief, the vendors protested: They saw it as yet another criminal actor making a bid for the protection racket.

The importance of San Salvador’s Central Market as a hub of the informal economy and a goldmine for extortion has placed it firmly on the front lines in the battle for control of key territory in the Historic Center. And though the violence has subsided somewhat since its peak in 2015, the continuing murders and images like that of Humberto Reyes lying dead on a street outside the market are a stark reminder that the same conflicts continue.

*Additional reporting by César Castro Fagoaga and Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson.

**This is the third part of a three-part series on San Salvador’s Historic Center, the heart of the country’s informal urban markets and a long-time bastion of the street gangs. The stories chronicle how the gangs have used their stranglehold on the center to expand their power in El Salvador. This part illustrates the different ways in which the gangs are violently usurping the lucrative criminal economy from rivals.

This story is based on field research spread out over two years, including numerous field visits and dozens of interviews with police officials, police intelligence officers, gang members, municipal and federal authorities, street vendors, community workers, business owners, non-governmental workers and others, most of which were done prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Given the sensitive subject matter, most of the sources agreed to speak with InSight Crime anonymously. Read the entire investigation here.

Main Photo: Associated Press

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