El Salvador’s main passenger transport entrepreneur dares to resist paying extortion to the country’s gangs. Catalino Miranda already knows that the police and prosecution services will not solve the problem, and he has chosen to arm his company and hire former military personnel for security. Most transport entrepreneurs, buses and minibuses pay “aguinaldo” (extortion fees) to gangs, but Catalino refuses to do so even though it has cost, according to him, a couple of dozen of his employees.
A white, double cab pickup has travelled the road from San Salvador to the port of Libertad at high speed and parked at the entrance to Zaragoza. In the passenger seat is a man named “Tragaperras” (Slots). Tonight, in April, Tragaperras will collect the money from all the minibuses that pass Route 152, in the dark street in front of the property. “El Chele” (Whitey), 38, sits in the driver seat with an AK-47 assault rifle in his hands and a Browning 9 mm. El Chele will make sure that Tragaperras takes money from the buses.
A few blocks beyond this makeshift checkpoint is the center of the municipality Zaragoza, territory that’s disputed by MS13 and Barrio 18. And about 5 kilometers below, between the mountains, is the district El Zaite, governed by MS13.
By 10 p.m., in front of the property, Tragaperras has gone past 10 buses and each one has given him their money from the boxes. He counts the notes and coins, ordering them by denomination. El Chele smokes and keeps watch. Tragaperras puts away $313 from tonight. Already the last bus has passed from the center of the capital to the area Brisas de Zaragoza. Minibuses loaded with passengers continued their journey until the “checkpoint” — the slang that the drivers use — and ventured to the MS13’s area of control. Tragaperras and El Chele only let the buses go forward after removing all the money from the boxes.
They had completed the order given by their boss, Catalino Miranda, the owner of all of these buses.
Catalino Miranda Ezequiel Arteaga is one of El Salvador’s bus czars. He has been a bus entrepreneur since the late 1970s. In 2004 he founded Acostes, a company that has 313 bus permits, seven routes in 12 municipalities in the sub-central areas: San Salvador, La Libertad and Cuscatlán. He assisted with the creation of the Federation of Employers of Transportation (Federación de Empresarios del Transporte – FECOATRANS) in 1992 and is currently chairman. There are 80 transport companies, but Catalino’s is the largest. On social media channels, FECOTRANS says that it has over 4,500 buses and minibuses. “From 33 percent to 40 percent of the total fleet nationwide,” Catalino boasts.
Catalino is a character who calls his employees by their nicknames: Tragaperras, El Chele, “Mi Villano Favorito” (My Favorite Villain), “Mala Suerte” (Bad Luck), Calcetín (Sock). He is renowned for saying that he is a man protected “by God, his hands and a 9 mm gun” and he defends “execution” as a way to achieve “sustained social peace,” because as he says, a gang member “within his satanic religion will never be fixed.”
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Catalino wanted to be a representative in government; he founded the Popular Party (Partido Popular) in 2011. However, after a few months of existence, when they were electing candidates, the party was dissolved after Catalino and other founders were expelled, accusing each other of corruption. One of the party leaders who supported Catalino’s side was fugitive former deputy Horacio Rios who is accused of belonging to the Texis Cartel.
None of what has been said forms the main argument that Catalino is a true character in El Salvador. There is something extraordinary about him: he hasn’t paid a penny of extortion to gangs for at least 10 years, he’s recognized publicly and he is still alive.
In a country where it is more dangerous to own buses than to be a policeman, Catalino still does not pay extortion.
According to police, from 2010 to 2015 692 transport employees and 93 police were killed. Of those killings, 123 happened in the seven municipalities where Catalino buses serve. Police believe the killings occurred because the bus owners didn’t pay extortion: the owner does not pay, gangs kill the employee. Catalino says that since 2004, “about 26 or 28 drivers and conductors” from his company have been killed. The most recent, “Malasuerte,” was shot in the head by gang members in Cojutepeque while driving a bus on March 10 this year. The murder was recorded by the vehicle’s cameras.
Catalino still does not pay extortion.
Catalino is an exception in a country where paying extortion to gangs is an unwritten rule. A study conducted by the National Private Enterprise Association (Asociación Nacional de la Empresa Privada – ANEP) in 2013 found that 70 percent of all bus companies in the country pay extortion.
From 2013 to 2015, the police received 7,506 complaints of extortion, which according to authorities is a minute proportion of the real total. In the same period, there were only 424 sentences of gang members.
In a country where extortion and impunity has become normalized, what does one have to do to not pay gangs? Catalino has a harsh answer to this, “On the table there’s no payment”, however “Under the table, the drivers pay some way or another.”
“We have problems on the 38-F in Los Ángeles, Apopa. The gangs want $4 for every bus. I sent them to eat shit. I told the drivers that the company has its policy. I said, ‘If you have a deal with gang members, comply with it,'” Catalino said from his office in the center of San Salvador, surrounded by groups of MS13 and Barrio 18. Catalino says, he told gang members to “eat shit” in the areas where 37 of his employers have been killed in the last five years.
Tragaperras, one of Catalino’s most trusted men, is responsible for coordinating the work of the patrols that monitor the routes of the buses, holding two 9 mm bullets between his fingers, he says to his boss “This lead cancels the payment, they’re bullets for the head.”
These two previous sentences are the essence of Catalino’s tactics: indirect payments and weapons. Catalino is a bus entrepreneur who has made his refusal to pay public. This is remarkable when there are other bus company owners such as Genaro Ramírez and Elizardo González Lovo who pay extortion by deducting it from their employees salaries. Genaro Ramírez, who ran for vice president of El Salvador in 2004, estimates that he has paid approximately half a million dollars in extortion to gangs over 19 years.
The gangs control the points on the routes where Catalino’s buses go. They kill their employees and charge them money to let them do their work. “usually they make them pay $2 per bus,” says Catalino. His attitude doesn’t guarantee peace for his employees. He also has suffered levels of violence that anyone could imagine that gangs could conflict. Several buses have been burned in the country because the owners didn’t pay.
Catalino adds another element to his tactics: fear. Gang members in Quezaltepeque, Apopa, Santa Tecla, Cojutepeque, Zaragoza, Nejapa and the capital’s center know that attacking Catalino will result in retaliation.
All this happens under the same principle: the bus entrepreneurs like Catalino and Genera are convinced that reporting extortion is not a solution. They have to resolve their own threats. Fighting, like Catalino, or paying, like Genaro.
The interview with Catalino happened in the middle of April in his “fort” (the bus station) in the city center. It’s in a noisy area, surrounded by street vendors, smoke and dozens of passengers waiting for the bus. Everything looks gray with soot. The “fort” has a large area where the buses are parked, with one of its sides raised, from which you can see the parking area below. There are three sections on the second floor: one where accounts and money is kept, another where five people watch the live monitors of security cameras. A meeting room and Catalino’s office are in the third section. This conversation takes place in the meeting room, where Catalino’s 9 mm gun sits on the table. Bulletproof vests, a shotgun, two assault rifles and various gun magazines can be seen in the corner behind Catalino.
Below, in the parking lot, four men with rifles and pistols guard the entrance. Sometimes there are more, today there are only four. At least one bodyguard always accompanies Catalino. The responsibility of guarding the station is divided among them. At rush hour they leave in the pickups to collect the money from the buses before they enter the “points.” If any threats are reported from the security cameras, they will retaliate.
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Every afternoon, Catalino’s armed men pick up the money boxes from the buses to prevent the gangs from stealing them at the “checkpoints” and also to assert their power.
This initiative has already shown good results. The gang members at the checkpoints assume that the extortion is paid by the employees and not by the boss, although this means that the gangs give up larger quantities. It’s rare to find a company with a fleet of 20 buses or minibuses that pays less than $400 a month to the gangs. Catalino has much more. The companies that pay not only pay monthly, but they pay a bonus to gang members and pay a special contribution when there is a death in the gang. They also lend buses to gang members and their families for when there is a funeral or when they go to vacation on the beach. The employer is in charge of the bus and the driver. In the east, some gangs even require buses for four days over Easter and for a vacation in August. Once a bus owner pays extortion the first time, he has entered into an unwritten agreement and it can be very difficult to avoid paying it again.
However, Catalino’s AK-47s haven’t always prevented attacks from gangs. One employee, “Malasuerte” (Bad Luck), and two other employees were killed between 2015 and 2016. Yet these deaths do not make a difference Catalino’s methods and tactics. “It was very difficult and hard to negotiate, like I said to one, that if he wants to kill all the drivers and conductors…I said kill them, because we are 8 million Salvadorians and you won’t be able to continue doing this forever,” says Catalino.
How much does Catalino invest in the cameras, guards, weapons, cars, security and hit men? “More than $30,000 a month which includes radios, weapons and vehicles…it doesn’t include the workers’ salaries,” he explained.
The option that Catalino has taken is unique in comparison to the majority of other bus owners with one, two or ten vehicles. It’s only possible for companies like Acostes, that have over $4 million of assets.
An obvious question arises: would it not be better for Catalino just to pay the extortion? “I would feel bad, not only as a businessman, but also as a Christian to know that policemen have died with weapons bought with my money; it would be painful if another bus owner dies. I would be an accomplice,” he says.
Some of Catalino’s answers present him to be a man of morals, someone who would pay to rid evil. At other times, he shows a different side, leaving his drivers and conductors with nothing but luck to rely on. “I don’t want you to say that we have no problems at the ‘checkpoints’ or with trade offs between employees and with the gangs letting them to their jobs…They remove them, they rob them,” he said.
Catalino decided to rely on his methods, rather than prosecutors who have about “300 or 400 cases” or police or “who get a witness and then the witness dies.” So the company has its own parallel investigations to find out where the attack will be. Catalino is looking “to hire former members of the army, because they are more aware and disciplined.” For example, El Chele, carrying the AK-47 in Zaragoza was recruited in the late 1980s by the guerrillas when he was a child. He worked as a messenger to be trained in combat. He escaped from the camp as a child and enlisted in the army for protection. He’s been loading rifles since he was a boy.
Catalino does not hide that. “If they come to attack the company, there will be a big retaliation. Those instructions are given,” he said. He hires private investigators to find out the motive for the murders and attacks on his employees, but he does not accept that he takes revenge on gang members; he argues that they are responsible themselves. “An entrepreneur never invests to kill people,” he says.
Three other transport company owners have accused Catalino of using “illegal” techniques to deal with gangs. Between laughs, Catalino says that he has in the past offered “$1000 for somebody’s head” on Facebook, and in the office one of his workers says that “when we catch a thief we handcuff him and beat him.”
Catalino is like many other Salvadorians. He thinks the gang problem must be resolved with guns and by taking the law into his own hands.
“I was born in the countryside and it was a joy to bathe in the pools and to catch a lizard or an iguana. Today you can’t go to bathe. You will be shot dead.” His approach is a “killing wall.” and to the gang member or the killer “a firing squad.” It makes you realize that all the gangs are underage murderers, even under 15 years old. “The killing wall,” he says, “is the only way. Before, children were still innocent until they were 16 and had never sinned; today 10 and 12 year olds are having sex with women. From the moment they start doing that they become aware of their actions.”
Catalino doesn’t admit how far his shocking tactics go. But it’s obvious that he goes a lot further than simply protecting the buses’ money boxes and hiring private detectives.
El Zaite is an area in Zaragoza, reached by a narrow alley that descends into another dark street where dirt roads join it. Below there is the “checkpoint” for many of Catalino’s buses. When El Chele and Tragaperras drive down in the white pickup, people from the street look fearful and divert their gazes. This area belongs to Mara Salvatrucha. They don’t decide who goes in, but who goes out. However, they respect this car. The gang has so much control in this area that it even orders the traffic. The gangs have been very clear that no bus or minibus should drive through any of the main streets. Nobody does it.
“They ask me for a dollar or two every day,” says one of Catalino’s drivers who drives down to El Zaite. It seems a tiny amount, but it’s not for drivers who have difficulty earning $10 a day.
The points here in Zaragoza are hostile places and difficult to access. It’s impossible to go through in a vehicle without the gang detecting it. The points are surrounded by paths that connect El Zaite with Brisas de Zaragoza. It is impossible to pass a “checkpoint” without paying.
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For example, in Apopa or in Quezaltepeque, where the “point” is in the area controlled by the MS13 behind the prison, “one has to be strategic,” says Catalino. He only hires people who live in the area. Catalino’s armed men don’t go to Apopa. He takes control of the route by counting the passengers on board the buses from the camera. El Chele and Tragaperras are parked at the entrance to Zaragoza to take the money boxes, because before when they went to Brisas the gang members started to watch them. “They were watching us and there’s only one street to exit,” said El Chele. With guns and arms, the control of the gangs has strengthened over the years.
However, tonight in April, some of Catalino’s drivers are at those “checkpoints” relaxing, playing cards and smoking. Some are sitting on benches. Their daily extortion payment allows them to work with some elements of normality. They pay extortion in order to be able to do their jobs.
That and the fact that the MS13 gang members in El Zaite have already learned that if they attack Catalino’s company, Catalino will respond.
On August 30, 2015, when they were leaving El Zaite on their first trip in the morning, driver Emer Portillo, 32, and conductor Roberto Jose Lopez, 25, were shot dead by gang members. Both worked on Catalino’s minibus route, 42-E. The police said that it was because they didn’t pay extortion. Catalino told the media it was because they lived in an area governed by a different gang that caused mistrust among the MS13 in El Zaite.
One of Catalino’s drivers who used to live in El Zaite said that after the killings, Catalino’s men carried out at least two raids. “They were talking about seven missing gang members,” said the 27 year old. “There they’re scared of the boss.”
When one of Catalino’s bodyguards was asked what happened in El Zaite, he said that there, they had to “go down.” When asked why there were no traces of what happened, he responded:
“If you wear dark clothes like a policeman and arrive in the night, nobody is going to know what happened.”