Contradictory testimony surrounding the death of four alleged gang members at the hands of police again focuses attention on alleged extrajudicial killings by El Salvador security forces.
The El Salvador police department’s official version fell apart again in the face of eyewitness testimony of a scene that included several corpses. The police say they killed four “pandilleros” (“gang members”) in a shootout in a house in Villas de Zaragoza. Two witnesses say that when they left the house, the four were alive and had surrendered. One of the dead is a worker who was sleeping when three pandilleros, fleeing from the police, entered his house from the roof. Even one of the police agents on the scene refuted details of the official version offered by the Deputy Police Chief.
Minutes before the police killed him, José Armando Díaz Valladares was sleeping in his house. Armando, as he was called by family members, had worked all night in a plastics factory. He had begun work Sunday night and returned home, tired, at 8 a.m. on Monday. He had something to eat, put on an orange-colored pair of sports pants, and went to bed. His life partner, Dayana, and their three-year-old child, Aaron, were also in the house, along with Sofía, Armando’s thirteen-year-old sister.
Dayana was frightened when, around mid-day, she heard shots. She ran toward Armando. Judging from the shouts she heard outside, it seemed to be a shootout between pandilleros and the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC). Although dominated by the Barrio 18 Sureños gang, the neighborhood is also surrounded by other areas controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). Police raids are frequent, and Dayana figured that perhaps the people she heard running across their roof were police agents.
“Armando’s sleeping; they won’t do anything to him,” she thought.
But the first ones to enter the house from the roof weren’t police agents but three pandilleros, all of them minors. Dayana saw that at least one of them was wounded. The noise had awakened Armando. Still in bed, he asked the pandilleros several times to leave. But then, “The police got to the door, and they (the pandilleros) couldn’t leave,” Dayana recalled.
On Monday, February 8, a communiqué on the PNC’s website said that five pandilleros had been killed in two armed clashes in the town of Zaragoza, a municipality in La Libertad province. Deputy Police Chief César Baldemar Flores Murillo spoke about the incident while the crime scene was still being processed. In 1991, in San Miguel province, Flores Murillo was tried and acquitted of having covered up for “La Sombra Negra” (The Black Shadow), a vigilante death squad that targeted pandilleros.
He said that on the morning of the killings, “subjects” had attacked “a vehicle with merchandise” at a place known as “La Fuente,” in the center of town. When local police intervened, the pandilleros fired at them. One pandillero died in the exchange — some agents say he was 15 years old, others say he was 24, or 18 — and “the rest fled.” He also said a sergeant had been wounded. According to the official version, the police were told that the pandilleros who fled had taken refuge in a house in the Villas de Zaragoza neighborhood, about five minutes from where the shootout took place. When the police went to the site, the pandilleros tried to flee over the roofs to the neighboring house, where another “exchange of fire took place, in which four members of the criminal structure died.”
This version said that the operation was carried out by members of the regional Police Reaction Group (Grupo de Reacción Policial – GRP). The police said they found a shotgun and a 9 mm pistol at the scene. Flores Murillo told reporters they also found “military knapsacks, telescopic sights, and other items that, it can be presumed, they were going to use in their criminal acts.” The police at the scene of the crime only gave reporters the alleged names and nicknames of three of the dead: Carlos Vladimir Nerio Andrade, alias “Queco,” 13; Edwin Manuel Lemus Aldana, alias “Pinki,” 16; and Miguel Ángel Ponce, alias “Gazú,” 17. They said nothing about Armando, who was 23.
“Mom, they’re saying that four people were killed. Armando was in the house. He stayed there, they took us out,” said a girl to a woman who had just arrived at the crime scene.
She was far from the journalists when she said this, and did not realize that I could overhear her.
It was 4 p.m. on February 8. The police said they clashed with some pandilleros and killed four of them in this neighborhood in Zaragoza. The girl was Sofía. She’s 13, and lives in the house where the bodies were. She said that when the police took her from the house, Armando and the other three were alive. The woman is Ana del Carmen, mother of Armando and Sofía. Holding her daughter’s arm, she walked toward the police line, which circled the block around the house. But the police, wearing black ski masks, were not letting anyone — even the people who live there — approach house, #33. The woman broke down and cried out, “They’ve killed him!” The press filmed her. The girl moved her away from the cameras. Mockingly, a police agent shouted, “Oh, my little boy, he was taking a bath!”
The woman received a phone call: “I don’t know. I don’t know. They say they’ve killed four, and Armando was in there… I don’t know. I don’t know.”
The girl sat on the sidewalk, the mother holding her arm. Four other mothers had arrived, asking about their sons, but from the other side of the yellow line, no one answered them.
“They killed them in cold blood,” said the girl, when I asked her what happened. She and her mother had moved away from the reporters and the police. The girl was weeping. “There were lots of them (those who entered the house),” she told me. “They (the three pandilleros) jumped in from the roof, and the police were right behind them. They pointed their guns at us and took me and Dayana and the child outside. Armando stayed inside. It was around 1 p.m.”
After that, the girl only recalled that “every minute there was another gun shot.” The mother received another call. It was her other son, Armando’s brother, calling from the United States, where he’s living without papers.
“They went into the house, son. I don’t know anything,” she told him. “They took the others out of the house. Armando stayed inside.”
Employees from five low-cost funeral homes, who had arrived before the press, were trying to convince the mothers, who didn’t even know if their sons were among the dead yet, to buy their services. The lowest price was $200: “It’s not a luxury service, mother, but it will be dignified. Others try to take advantage of your point. All we want to do is help. So, Christian or Catholic?”
It was 5 p.m. The police did not let the mother enter the home until 9 p.m., where, without the press being able to see it, the bodies had been removed in white bags and been taken to the morgue in Santa Tecla.
In 2015, the pandilleros and police began fighting each other more frequently. Sixty-three agents were killed last year, most of them while they were off-duty. So far in 2016, more than 15 family members of police agents or soldiers have been murdered. The agents and soldiers have gotten the message, acting more and more as if they were a party to a conflict, and not as government authorities. In 2014, 40 percent of the complaints received by the human rights ombudsman were against agents or soldiers; in 2015, it was 74 percent.
The scene in Villas de Zaragoza is similar to what happens every week in El Salvador. The police report that there was a shootout in which two or three or eight pandilleros died. They say a police agent was injured but is out of danger or, in the worst — and less frequent — case, that the agent died. The report says weapons were found, but says nothing about ballistics examinations or other information about where the weapons came from.
They don’t let anyone see the crime scene, except in cases where there’s no way to hide it. The police Internal Affairs Department doesn’t go to the scene, nor does it, in most cases, do an investigation if no one in the press pays attention. As members of the Attorney General’s Office have told El Faro, the office doesn’t provide more information on the case.
The police report is regarded as true, as happened after the massacre at a farm in San Blas — just three kilometers from Villas de Zaragoza — on March 26, 2015. The police killed four people who were labeled as pandilleros. La Prensa Gráfica reported last October on the case of five alleged pandilleros killed in Panchimalco. Again the police and army claimed the deaths were the result of a shootout, but the forensic evidence and the testimony of witnesses suggested that the victims had been murdered.
Nevertheless, rather than questioning the official story, the press tends to accept what it’s told when it reports on such stories. In the case of Villas de Zaragoza, La Página reported that, “The police were able to end the lives of four more antisocial types;” El Diario de Hoy said, “Five pandilleros die in shootout with police;” and Diario1 wrote, “Four pandilleros of the Sureños wing of the 18th Street gang died Monday afternoon in a confrontation with the police in Brisas de Zaragoza.”
The financial officer of the plastics factory where Armando worked answered the phone.
“He was very friendly,” he told me. “He didn’t have anything to do with gangs. He worked Sunday night. He came in at 7 and left at 7 in the morning. There’s no instance of misconduct in his personnel file. He began working here about four years ago; he was recommended by a sales executive who’s been working here for 35 years.”
Armando’s boss, the production manager, also spoke about him by phone.
“He was one of the best workers,” he said. “We’ve had suspicions about some of our workers, but he was young and really wanted to work. We played together on the soccer team. There’d been an opening, and he was hoping to be promoted. When he got home, he hadn’t slept. I believe what his mother says. He has workmates who live in that area, and they confirm what she said.”
A police inspector who was at the scene answered the phone: “At first, they (the pandilleros) weren’t in the house where they were killed. They only went there when they saw the police coming,” he told me.
An investigator who gathered evidence at the scene also told me by phone, “I never saw those military knapsacks that the officials say they found in the house. And the telescopic sight they’re talking about was like a toy. It wasn’t something you’d use with a gun. We didn’t even take it with us.”
On Tuesday at 3 p.m., we sent some questions to the PNC’s head press officer. We asked him if only two guns were found, how can the police claim that all four had participated in a gun battle? We also asked him if the dead had records, and how the police knew that Armando was a pandillero. A few minutes later, he answered: “This case is now in the hands of the Attorney General’s Office. They’re the only ones authorized to provide information about it. I suggest you ask them.”
The Attorney General Office’s spokesperson said that, for the moment, he had nothing to say.
Students and neighbors in the area wait to enter their homes in the Villas de Zaragoza neighborhood. The police cordoned off an entire block in connection with the case. Photo: Víctor Peña.
It was midday on Tuesday, February 9. The families were waiting for the bodies of their sons outside the morgue in Santa Tecla.
“They had surrendered. They killed my son with so much hate that parts of his face are missing,” one mother said. She didn’t deny that her son was a pandillero.
I asked her, “Was Armando a pandillero?”
“He wasn’t part of that. He was simply resting in his house.”
“All he did was work. He was resting,” said Armando’s father, an electrician. Later, during the wake, he had to lie down because he has heart problems and began to have strong palpitations in his chest.
The first corpse emerged from the morgue. It was Armando. His life partner, Dayana, got on the microbus and went to the low-cost funeral home that was going to prepare the body.
The document that the forensics office gave the family says Armando died of “gunshot wounds in the thorax and abdomen.” But when his body was examined at the funeral home, another entry wound was found. He had a hole in his right ear, an abrasion on his neck and a hole in the collar bone, as if a bullet had broken, caused a wound, and then broken again. It appeared to be a gunshot fired from above.
As she awaited the body at the funeral home, Dayana was weeping. Nevertheless, she said she would answer a question.
“What happened yesterday?”
“I don’t know how they turned up on the roof,” she explained. “The police entered and I don’t know what they did to the other boys… The police pointed their guns at us. Armando threw himself on the floor like this (she puts her hands on her neck), and said to me, ‘Be calm. Be calm.’ The policeman said to me, ‘Come here right now.’ I said to him, ‘Look, he (Armando) isn’t involved in all this. He’s just come home from work, and he hasn’t slept. I don’t know how these other guys got here. Here’s his wallet, take it,’ I said to him. ‘We’ll look at that later,’ he said. ‘Go over there.’ I said, ‘Look, here are his papers, look at them (his I.D. card from the plastics factory).’ He said, ‘Go outside,’ and pointed his gun at me… Sofía went running to where my mother was, with the child. I said to them, ‘He isn’t a gang member. Please, just look at his papers.’ There were lots of police there… The policeman said to Armando, ‘Get over there,’ beside one of the kids who was bleeding, I suppose from bullet wounds… Then I went running to where my mother was. And then I heard the shots. I felt badly, my heart hurt when I heard the shots, the last shots.”
The testimonies of the two direct witnesses coincide. They say not only Armando but also the other three alleged pandilleros were on the floor, some of them wounded. Dayana doesn’t remember if they were all bleeding.
“I was looking at Armando. I was thinking about him. He put his hands on his head and threw himself on the floor,” she said. She’s certain that there was no armed clash inside the house; rather, there were three alleged pandilleros, 17-, 16- and 13-years old, sitting on the floor, and a worker lying there face down. There were no shots when she was trying to negotiate with the police. There were no shots when Sofía and Aaron, Armando’s sister and brother, went running out of the house. There were no shots when the police finally forced Dayana to leave.
The gunshots came later.