The same day they buried the seventh police officer killed by gang members in November, the government announced a new response plan, “Nemesis,” which means revenge. This plan stems from measures that have already been implemented and promises very little. However, before the government’s new commitment, police have said they are taking their own measures; some of them have decided to flee, others have chosen to create cells across the country to kill gang members and their families. The authorities have denied this on camera and declare that it is “speculation.”
There are five uniformed policemen in the center of a small church. Four are standing and one is dead. The first four are next to the dead policeman and his son, who also is in a coffin and burial garments.
The preacher begins.
“This war, said the disciple Paul, is not between all of you; this war is against principalities, against authorities, against governors of the rules of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. So, we must always be prepared, because no one knows the day or hour when evil can come upon us.”
Chanting and preaching interrupt the sermon. The pews of the church in San Juan Los Planes, on the foothills of San Salvador’s volcano, are full and the wind comes through the doors shaking the insides. Four candles struggle to stay alight by the sides of the bodies of Deputy Inspector Lorenzo Rojas and his son Marvin. Gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha assassinated them on November 16. And today, two days later, dozens of police are gathered at their funeral.
More than thirty more policemen are dispersed outside the church. Two of them are talking on the corner while the preaching ends. They speak in whispers with arms folded and stop when they see me get close. After answering questions with monosyllabic responses, after a few minutes they realize it’s more of a conversation than an interview and begin to relax.
The two policemen speak with vengeance. They say that they were colleagues of Deputy Inspector Rojas and had known him for a long time. His death has caused them pain and they swear before the church that those who killed him will pay.
“Each time a policeman is killed it puts extra pressure on us. It’s like a pot that keeps filling up and filling up…There will come a time when the police will reach their limit and burst,” said the first policemen, who we will call Montano. Montano is tall and strong, wearing a navarone cap and a bulletproof vest.
The other police officer has an honest face and is much taller and thinner than Montano. He listens to what his colleague says and after a pause he divulges his anger too.
“Blood will keep running. But don’t think that it will only be blood from us. Those assholes will have to go down. They have to end,” says the police officer who we will call Zepeda.
“They are killing us” is how the policeman started the conversation. It’s the truth. Deputy Inspector Rojas is the last of the seven policemen who were killed across the country in the first two weeks of November and is the 44th killed so far this year. Authorities have accused Mara Salvatrucha of the most recent attacks, one of El Salvador’s most notorious and powerful gangs, against which the state has been waging an unofficial war.
The police are afraid and angry. Montano and Zepeda say that these fears work in tandem. Everyone has fear, fear of death. “Would you like to die?” he asks to us, finishing the conversation with conviction.
And fear, believes Montano, can be channeled in two ways. Some want to flee and abandon this war, to leave the country with their families and forget everything that has happened. Others, on the other hand, believe that the only way to rid their fears for their lives is by killing their enemies.
“Here, I’m telling you between us,” says Montano, squinting his eyes in a discerning manner, questioning whether he should be telling me this secret, “the order is already underway. The communication has happened and colleagues are being organized across the country. We are forming nationwide groups to kill gang members and their relatives.”
I ask for more details about this.
The police officer glances at his colleague and both of them are silent for a few seconds. Montano decides that he will tell me.
“There are already teams of police in various parts of the country that are forming groups to kill the gangs and their families. They look like they are death squads, but actually they are police. They are not members of the public, they are part of the corporation. But, this is off the record.”
Zepeda has been listening to his colleague, nodding and repeating to sentences in agreement. Finally, Zepeda speaks up: “This is the only way to stop this. Only by killing them all.”
There is a renowned hatred of the police. Both of them talk about and they justify their perceived needs to kill with this hatred and the hardships they have experienced.
“I can’t go to the park with my partner and my children,” says Zepeda.
“I haven’t gone to the beach for three years, because I’m afraid they will get me there,” added Montano.
“I never leave my gun, and all the time I’m going around like I’m on patrol, I never rest from it all,” Zepeda chimes in.
“To get to my house, every day I change my route. One day I go one way, the other day another. One day I go a few blocks the long way around…Sometimes I see a kid sitting at a corner with a phone in his hand and I think, ‘Has he been sent there? Will they keep me under surveillance and later kill me?'” Montano concluded.
“Here, every day we wake up thinking it’s going to be the last. Sometimes I’m walking and I think, ‘Will I be next?'” said Zepeda before a big silence in our conversation.
I remember what another policeman said to me in July last year: “Being a policeman is like being a gang member. All the time they live thinking whether they are going to be killed, whether their opponents or the police will fall. We also have this paranoia”.
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The National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) is a body of 28,000 policemen. Ninety percent of them have the basic rank. This rank is made up of officers, corporals and sergeants who earn between $242 and $680 per month (pdf). After graduating from the police academy, an officer makes the minimum and is entitled to a 6 percent increase in their salary every four years, equivalent to $25 to $40 every pay rise. Therefore, with these low salaries, 90 percent of the 28,000 police have to live in areas controlled by gangs.
Their salary, which their families have to survive on, according to police, is what makes them easy targets for gangs. Between 2014 and 2015, 101 policemen were killed. Of these, nine out of ten were killed leaving their houses in the areas controlled by gangs, while not in work.
However, it wasn’t always like this. According to the statistics from the PNC, a year before the situation escalated in 2013, 14 policemen were killed, similar to the 15 killed the year before. In 2014 the figure rose to 39 and to 62 in 2015. What will that statistic be at the end of 2016, when already 44 have been killed and there’s more than a month left before the end of the year? Authorities say this is an achievement. An achievement because “only” 44 policemen have been killed, an achievement because the statistic hasn’t risen since last year, although the number killed this year is three times what it was three years ago.
Agent Esquivel earns $475 every month, he says. “With that I provide for five people…every month.” Esquivel is dressed more like a government worker than a police investigator. But his salary is nowhere near as much as that of a government clerk. An administrative employee who works for the Legislative Assembly earns $115 more than he does. Esquivel is concerned that gang members in the area will threaten him and that his family will be left without him, the only breadwinner.
Esquivel, not his actual name, went to the local human rights office see how the process was going. This year, a group of gang members gave him 15 days to leave his house. They knew he was a policeman and thought he had called the patrols. Esquivel filed a complaint at work.
Then he went to the NGO, as have three other agents in the last two months, to ask for assistance in obtaining asylum in another country.
From the room where he tells his story, he looks out at San Salvador’s volcano. Esquivel arrived after 2 p.m. on November 18. We know, because they had written in a WhatsApp group that Deputy Inspector Rojas was still being buried. “This is a little more than a war. We are living like it says in the Bible, almost in the end times,” says Esquivel.
Esquivel says that in this war, there will be more attacks. He made the decision to leave and knows that a group of colleagues have already been organized to go out and kill gang members.
“It’s organized because it’s already been announced, right? Other policemen are going to start killing gangs and even families. A statement has been issued directly.”
Esquivel takes his phone out of his left pocket. On the other side he has a weapon. He looks on WhatsApp and finds an image. The statement is signed by a death squad known as the El Salvador Extermination Group (El Grupo de Exterminio de El Salvador) and is a threat to gang members from MS13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 — and their families.
That statement was circulated on November 17 on social media. Obviously, no policemen have signed it and it’s not official. Esquivel knows that but explains.
“It’s what the police are going to do, and they’ve portrayed it as an extermination group not to give it away. It comes across like it’s other people outside of the institution, but there are policemen too.”
The scene appears choreographed. Members of the Security Cabinet walk down the hall, one by one, with their chests out and arms hanging loosely. They stop to stand under the lights that they had installed for a few minutes for the press to focus and adjust their cameras. A soldier, a policeman, a director, a vice minister and a vice president form the first line. The rest remain in the background against the wall.
The first to take the microphone is Vice President Óscar Ortiz. Tonight he is wearing black pants and a soft lilac shirt. He clears his throat and rolls up his sleeves. His small silhouette is in the center of the five men who are in charge of security for the whole country. He begins his speak triumphantly,
“This afternoon we met with the security cabinet and we have approved Plan Nemesis, plan that responds to combat the extraordinary situation that we have now reviewed and approved.”
The word Nemesis means revenge. This is what the cabinet wanted to call this plan, which they think will shorten the war. On this same day is the funeral of the last of the seven policemen who have been killed in less than two weeks.
The new plan, however, entails very little. Each of the measures outlined in Nemesis has already been implemented for weeks or months. Yet, Vice President Ortiz insists that this time it is different.
“Revenge” has a lot to do with how the police in the lower ranks are feeling, but it’s contradictory to how Ortiz and his entourage are feeling.
After the conference ends, the vice president’s communication team is open for questions, before warning journalists that there can only be one question from each media type: one for radio, television, another for digital media and one for print newspapers.
The first to be questioned is Police Chief Howard Cotto, who is in the first row next to Ortiz. The question is about the talks that Factum’s journalists have had with police officers from the lower ranks and the two “extraordinary” measures that agents have announced: flee the country or create parallel groups to kill gang members and their relatives.
The other question was for Vice President Ortiz and revolves around the assertions that he and the president’s communications secretary, Eguenio Chicas, had made halfway through last year, when they said that by the end of 2016 the war against gangs would be much more controlled.
What Ortiz and Chicas had said, according to statistics, were lies. If things continue as they have been going, this year will end with fewer homicides than there were in 2015. But making a comparison with that year — the most violent so far this century — and not with previous years is hardly what could be called “normal.” In 2013, 2,492 were killed and in 2014 the figure was 3,912. In 2015, there were more than 6,640 murders in El Salvador, the highest figure in Central America.
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Ortiz refused to answer questions and started talking about what he wanted in the future with a triumphant speech.
Cotto was more direct and when he found out that Factum journalists have heard directly from police that they are forming death squads to kill gang members and their families, Cotto categorically denied this and said the information was “speculative.”
In regards to police resignations and the asylum claims that several have made in other countries, he said it was “false,” even though other media outlets such as La Prensa Gráfica have given evidence of this.
After the first three questions, members of the security cabinet looked agitated. Annoyed. Uncomfortable. The press officer took the microphone and managed to give it to another journalist.
The second journalist continued on the same line of questioning. In response, Ortiz gave a speech that had nothing to do with the questions.
Finally, the third and last journalist asked the same question: “What’s different about this plan if everything you just said was already said before?”
Ortiz remained silent before hesitantly saying, “There is a difference. It is that we are hitting the crime, we are hitting it hard and we will continue hitting it hard.”
Subsequently, the vice president gave his victory speech and terminated the conference.
The lights go out and the officials leave. Evidently, it was an utter failure.