How El Salvador Handed its Prisons to the Mara Street Gangs

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September 2 was the 10th anniversary of the decision of El Salvador’s government to assign exclusive jails to the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs. The measure is now considered by academics and researchers as one that facilitated the evolution of the gangs, but very few opposed it while it was happening. Now, the question is whether reversing the segregation is viable or not. 

September 2, 2004 is not a date that is studied in schools or appears in books on El Salvador’s recent history; not even security experts are very aware of it. But on that day something momentous happened: the government made it public policy to have exclusive prisons for the country’s two principal gangs — a risky move that no other country in the region has dared to replicate.

That Thursday morning, close to 1,100 prisoners — almost 10 percent of the entire prison population — were moved between four of the country’s prisons: Apanteos (Santa Ana), Sonsonate, Quezaltepeque (La Libertad) and Ciudad Barrios (San Miguel). More than 700 were active members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang, who celebrated the fact that the government had finally conceded one of their major requests. 

The following are excerpts of an article that was originally published in El Faro’s Sala Negra and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here

Two weeks earlier, those celebrating had been their arch rivals from the Barrio 18, although they had to do it a day after the most deadly prison massacre of the century, which took place August 18 in the La Esperanza prison, known as Mariona, and resulted in 32 deaths. As a result, 360 members of the Barrio 18 were moved to Cojutepeque, a prison that paradoxically had officially been closed down a year earlier for being obsolete, and which was supposed to be converted into a cultural center.

In an article published on September 3 that year, El Diario de Hoy summarized the new scenario in a sentence: “As of yesterday, the Quezaltepeque and Ciudad Barrios prisons are assigned to the Mara Salvatrucha; and Chalatenango and Cojutepeque to the (Barrio) 18.”

The operation, which took place the same week that ex-President Antonio Saca presented with great fanfare his Plan Super Mano Dura (Super Iron Fist), did not cause any commotion. The opposition parties did not challenge it; not even the NGOs and other institutions that in those years usually rejected any security measure made by the Arena government said anything.

Rodolfo Garay Pineda, the Director General of Penitentiary Centers that ordered the segregation, gave one explanation as to why one of the seemingly most influential measures in the evolution of the maras was carried out without any debate in Salvadoran society: “If they didn’t separate the gangs, maintaining stability would have been impossible…impossible! The separation was an indispensable tool to maintain control of the centers.”

The Consequences

On September 2, 2004 the government essentially created the system of separation that is still currently in use: they gave Ciudad Barrios and Quezaltepeque to the MS13 and Cojutepeque and Chalatenango to the Barrio 18. The Sonsonate prison was reserved for retired gang members, who the active gang members call pesetas.

In the decade that has followed, some changes occurred that did not drastically alter the established order, but are worth noting. In 2006, the government transferred gangs between the Chalatenango and Quezaltepeque prisons and the growth of the prison population allowed the MS-13s to take over sections of the San Francisco Gotera and Apanteos prisons. In 2007, the Barrio 18 was assigned to the recently built prison Izalco. Then, following the division of the Barrio 18 into two factions between 2009 and 2010, Cojutepeque became the headquarters of the Sureños (Southerners), and Quezaltepeque became the stronghold of the Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries), while Izalco was divided into two independent sections to accomodate them.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 Profile

The segregation strategy was advertised in 2004 as the only way to manage the penitentiary system and avoid violence and massacres, but it seems that the government did not consider the consequences of putting a couple thousand idle homies — gang members — together under the same roof.

***

Sleepy, a former gang member who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, essentially said the same as many academics, in less words: “In the history of the gangs there have been two importants moments: the first, when they gave them the prisons; and later, the truce.”

Genesis and Evolution

What occurred on September 2, 2004 was not an accident, or a government move nobody was aware of. To the contrary. If one looks back at what had happened since the mid 1990s, the operation was more akin to placing the final piece in a jig saw puzzle. 

It is true that the Mariona massacre accelerated everything, but the handover of the prisons would have happened anyway. “Maybe not in that moment, but six months or one year later”, said Garay Pineda. He is convinced that, considering the deplorable state of the prisons, the overcrowding and the phenomenon of gang evolution, it was the only real option.

It is difficult to tell if Garay Pineda’s decision aggravated or alleviated the situation, but the maras are not what they once were. The names and the letters haven’t changed, but the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 of the 1990s bore little resemblance to their 2003 counterparts, and much less resemblance to the organized criminal structures that now exercise control in the country.

***

In the 1990s, the incarcerated gang members were generally assigned to the closest prison: the MS13 members from San Miguel went to the San Miguel prison; those from Chalchuapa went to Apanteos; the Barrio 18 members from Soyapango went to Mariona. It went on like this for years, until the gang members began to grow in numbers and became determined to confront the powerful groups the common prisoners — civiles — had established. 

Looked at today, the segregation was the consequence of a complex and bloody process that went on for nearly a decade. It began in the mid-1990s, at the same time as the war between the gangs began. There were mid-level concessions made by the state, first in the assigning of exclusive cells within the jails, later wings, later whole sections — until the transfers were made on September 2, 2004.

It is not very well known that, during the long segregation debate, the protagonists were not the imprisoned adults, but rather, the gang members shut up in juvenile detention centers. “The measure was taken with the adolescents first and later the adults were transferred,” said Maria Teresa de Mejia, who was the director general of the Salvadoran Institute of Protection for Minors (ISPM, now the ISNA) between 1993 and 2000.

Since the gang phenomenon is largely a youth movement, in some ways the logic makes sense. The child gang members were the first ones the state assigned to exclusive precincts. By the end of 2000, the Tonacatepeque Internment Center for Minors was for the MS13 and that of El Espino (Ahuachapan) was for the Barrio 18.

***

Four years went by before the segregation was replicated with the adults, but the seed had been planted.

“During my time, we were already discussing whether to separate them or leave them together,” said Francisco Bertrand Galindo, who was security minister between June 1999 and May 2002. “The idea that they couldn’t be together came as a result of the events in Ciudad Barrios,” he said, referring to a bloody uprising between minors in September 1999 that resulted in one body cut up and over 40 injuries.

Although the segregation did not occur while he was in office, Bertrand Galindo said he supported it. “There were arguments for it and against it, and it was clear to me that the jails given to each gang would become a stronghold for them, but the point was that if we left them in the same facilities, with the level of violence that was occurring and the weakness of the infrastructure, the state was not going to be able to prevent them from killing each other.”

During the new millennium, the state slowly began the segregation. As of 2002, there were already various centers with a strong gang presence: Quezaltepeque, Chalatenango, Apanteos and even Ciudad Barrios which, when it was reopened as a jail for adults, initially received a large group of Barrio 18 members, headed by Carlos Mojica Lechuga, alias “Viejo Lin.”

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

At that time, Ines de Medina was the president of the Prison Fellowship, an NGO linked to the Catholic Church that works in the jails. “The gang members tried to impose themselves in each jail,” she said, “and the authorities didn’t know what to do. That’s why the idea of separation emerged: they wanted to avoid the confrontations and the deaths, but they didn’t think about what they were going to do afterwards.”

***

The Mariona prison, the most populated one in the country, had its own dynamic. The gang members were always a minority compared to the powerful group led by a civil named Bruno, who had absolute control of the center.

Sleepy, the now-retired Barrio 18 member, was imprisoned there between 2000 and 2003. “When I entered Mariona, there were twenty-something people in my cell and there were three of us from the 18, four from ‘Las Letras’ and the rest were civilians. And that’s where we slept and joked because we knew who was in charge, understand? Bruno and his guys had control, and the gang members kept quite because if they even got a whisper we were meeting about something, we had a major beating coming. In other jails it wasn’t like that. The dominant group is that which imposes its rules, and in other jails, the civilians were a minority and the gang members could even force them to skip about. That’s why Mariona has to be seen differently from the rest.”

By August 2004, the MS13 members had already been evacuated from Mariona and there were about 400 Barrio 18 members held there — a clear minority, but still enough to stand up to La Raza, the remains of the once omnipresent group led by Bruno, who had been transferred to another prison. The resulting clash of powers ended in no less than 32 killed from both sides.

The next day, the state handed the Cojutepeque prison to the Barrio 18 survivors of the Mariona riot.

And two weeks later, on September 2, the state turned over Ciudad Barrios and Quezaltepeque to the MS13.

Nobody Foresaw It, Nobody Protested

Three, six, 10 years after the segregation was enforced, there are innumerable analysts, academics, politicians, judges, investigators, journalists and NGO workers who have spoken out against the measure. “When we divided the gang members among jails, we began to strengthen them,” said Benito Lara, the new security minister.

But these voices were not heard in 2002, or in 2003, or in 2004.

“Never! Nobody foresaw it. Nobody protested. To the contrary. There was tacit support for it, even among those that normally questioned us for political reasons. FESPAD stayed quiet. IEJES stayed quiet. IDHUCA stayed quiet,” said former director Garay Pineda, when asked if anyone had warned of the possibility that the gangs would become more dangerous.

“I think that FESPAD did write a report speaking out against the decision, but yes, he is right that they were not belligerent about it. Facing the trauma of a massacre, it is always more difficult to say a decision was wrong,” said Jaime Martinez.

“The problem is that something had to be done. It was not necessarily the right thing, but it was a response to the situation,” said Judge Astrid Torres.

“There was no public debate, no,” said former Minister Bertrand Galindo.

The newspaper archives also show Garay Pineda was right. The political and NGO sectors responded to modern “mano dura” policies with a barrage of appeals of unconstitutionality, statements of rejection and paid newspaper campaigns, but they barely said anything about the gang segregation.

Was There an Alternative?

During the years in which the segregation plan was developed, the National Public Security Council (CNSP) maintained a relatively high profile — it was an acronym with a constant presence in newspapers. Between 1999 and 2004, the president of the institution was Salvador Samayoa, a former leader of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL) who took on the challenge of getting involved in public security during the administration of former President Francisco Flores.

Samayoa insisted that he was not even asked his opinion during the segregation debate. This alleged distance, an anomaly considering his position, is supported by the fact that, in such an ideologically-inclined government as that of Flores, he was viewed with suspicion due to his guerrilla past. Shortly before he took the reins of the CNSP, an executive decree restricted his duties to prevention tasks in areas of concern.

“The separation of the gangs was invented by them,” he said, in reference to the security cabinet. “But I believe that decisions of that type are not good or bad per se. I, for example, had contacts with the positive side of the decision.”

Samayoa understood that, when it came to areas with a high number of gang members, the most productive thing was to engage in dialogue with the leaders. And he did so.

“Rehabilitating prisoners was not my job, but I began to speak with them for practical reasons: they were practically present in all the neighborhoods where we worked, and they had enough influence to obstruct or aid [our work’.”

“Did you work with both gangs?”

“No, just with the MS13, and it was an intuition. It seemed to me that the Barrio 18 had a reputation as being crazier, more unpredictable, less trustworthy.”

In the early years of the new millennium, the undisputed leader of the MS13 was Borromeo Henriquez Solorzano, alias “Diablito de Hollywood.” Now, a decade later, he is held prisoner in Ciudad Barrios. He was one of the 30 palabreros — mara leaders — who in March 2012 the government moved out of the Zacatecoluca High Security Penitentiary Center, signalling the start of the truce. He continues to be one of the most respected voices within the MS13.

“The leadership of Borromeo was very solid and very responsible,” said Samayoa. “I discussed everything, absolutely everything, with him, because his word was very valuable. Of course, it was worth much more than that of the politicians.”

***

What Salvador Samayoa essentially suggested was that negotiating with gang leaders could be valid and useful. He claimed that El Salvador received concrete benefits as a result of his efforts in the CNSP. “The leap made by the gangs was not in the 1999-2004 five-year period, but later.” Whether it is a cause and effect issue or pure coincidence, the fact is that the phenomenon lost control when the government eliminated the spaces for dialogue with the maras and opted for the mano dura route instead.

“I always thought, and I still think, that one of the immense deficiencies that we have had in El Salvador with the issue of the gangs is that nobody, or very few people, have even bothered to try to understand the phenomenon, from an anthropological, sociological or historical point of view.”

Today’s Mara-Controlled Prisons

In the past three years I have on various occasions entered Ciudad Barrios, Quezaltepeque, Cojutepeque and Izalco. I suppose that this is because it was the most recent, but Izalco does give the sensation that the state has a certain control over what happens within. For example, the prisoners are in uniform, and when they move from one sector to another they wear chains on their feet and hands.

Cojutepeque and Quezaltepeque have been completely given over to the Barrio 18 — the Sureños and Revolucionarios [factions], respectively. In those two prisons, the state is essentially limited to controlling the administrative offices, to the extent that [the government] doesn’t even have the capacity to divide food between prisoners; they leave it in large containers at the entrances to the cells and the gangs distribute it between the homies. When a journalist enters, they do so only with the approval of the palabreros – the authorization of the prison director is not worth anything — and they do so, literally, at their own risk.

But the most striking prison is, without a doubt, Ciudad Barrios, the general headquarters of the MS13, which has the same problems as the two others, but multiplied, and which holds some 2,500 active members. Without the rigid norms of coexistence and discipline that the gangs have, it would be a true jungle, but miraculously each day passes without that time bomb going off. Ciudad Barrios is also a market where everything is bought and sold, but with such an orderliness that it is as much improbable as it is real. The prisoners shut themselves in the cells at night because they wish to, as a courtesy to the system, and when one enters, the guards leave him alone with the leaders, lock the prison door and turn their backs. Within, the sensation that the state disappeared is palpable.

Is the Segregation Reversible?

On June 11, 2014, a proposal to reform the Penitentiary Code was presented in the Legislative Assembly, which would add a clause to Article 68. This is “In regard to the destination or location of the prisoners, no distinction may be made between penitentiary centers based on their affiliation with maras, gangs, groups, associations or criminal organizations.”

The reform proposal comes prior to the 2015 legislative election period. It was signed by Guillermo Gallegos (of the GANA party), who ironically was one of the congressmen that supported the mano dura policies.

When the state turned its jails over to the maras in 2004, there were 12,000 people locked up; today there are nearly 28,000, in a prison system designed for slightly over 8,000. Despite these numbers, Minister Benito Lara has let slip on a couple of occasions that the government may be considering returning to holding both Barrio 18 and MS13 members, as well as civiles in the same jails.

***

“Will gang members from the MS13 and the Barrio 18 be put together in the same prison?” a journalist asked Minister Benito Lara during a press conference on July 30.

“What we have proposed is that we should not be assigning prison centers each time that the gangs divide or when they have conflicts between them. It is impossible. We are not positioned to, because… Where are we going to put them? We would have to construct new prisons… with what funds?”

“But, in the short or medium term, are the MS13 and Barrio 18 members going to live together in Salvadoran jails, as you have suggested?”

“That is something that we are going to have to face, but in the future. Right now what is clear is that prisons cannot be adapted for each group.”

Absolute ambiguity. The natural response of a politician who does not have a clear answer.

The retired Barrio 18 member Sleepy had his own, more practical opinion. “Putting them together right now would be just as absurd as separating them was when it happened.”

*The above are excerpts of an article that was originally published in El Faro’s Sala Negra and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here

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