How Gangs Have Disturbed the Math of Soccer in El Salvador

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Most of El Salvador’s professional soccer teams have stopped giving players the numbers 13 and 18, fearing reprisals from the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. El Faro investigates.

The evidence is in the Salvadoran Soccer Federation itself, there for anyone who wants to see it. On the right, as soon as you enter the main building, are cubicles for the 2nd Division, with a large noticeboard and a sign saying “Championship 2011-2012.” Below, neatly arranged and held up by colored pins, there are 10 sheets of paper with the line up of the teams. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 — all normal until 12. But there is no 13, and no 18.

In the three top national soccer leagues there are 66 clubs registered, of which only 14 — 21 percent — think it appropriate in the current climate to use 13 and 18. Those who are behind the measure explain that it is an attempt to avoid attacks on the players.

But not everyone agrees with the initiative. Marcelino Dias, a forensic psychologist who has worked with the government forensic institute since 1993, thinks that in some way it legitimizes the maras (gangs) and recognizes their influence on society. “The state should be the one that control people’s behavior, through laws, but in El Salvador many aspects of social conduct are controlled by criminal groups, and what has happened in soccer is a clear example.”

El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, at 65 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. The United Nations considers anything over 10 per 100,000 to be an “epidemic.” According to the national police (PNC), more than half of the murders are related to the maras. The Armed Forces go further and speak of 90 percent.

“Fear is the most effective way to control a society, and the gangs know that,” added the sociologist Diaz.

The Origins

The decision to give up the numbers 13 and 18 is not new. The world of soccer began to consider the move — on its own initiative, and with absolute discretion — at least four years ago. After receiving some complaints from players who were wearing those numbers, the measure was discussed in presidents’ meeting in each of the leagues, and was approved as a suggestion, so it was the teams who took the decision

“For a player it’s dangerous to go around with those numbers on his back when he comes from Soyapango and places like that, says Orsy Tejada, president of Brasilia, of Suchitoto (Cuscatlan).

“Our goalkeeper still plays with the 13 on his back, but we are thinking about removing the number because some players live in other places and they could be attacked,” said Elba Josefina Peña, president of La Asuncion, in Anamoros (La Union). “There have not been any deaths because of this, but there have been beatings, insults, verbal aggression, rocks thrown, etc.,” says Pinto.

Why 13, Why 18?

Barrio 18, or the 18 (also wrongly known as Mara 18) is the Hispanic name of the 18th Street Gang, a group created in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Originally made up of Mexican migrants, various investigators have said it was the first Latin gang to open its doors to people of different origins. In El Salvador it is currently divided into two factions, called Sureños and Revolucionarios. Even though they are deadly rivals, neither group has given up the 18 as a mark of identity.

The origins of the rival group, the MS-13, are more recent. It also emerged in Los Angeles, but well into the 1970s, and also in the Rampart area, the same sector in which the 18 was born. Some investigators think that the Mara Salvatrucha is a group that splintered off from Barrio 18 because, at the beginning, most of its members were Salvadoran migrants.

Both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 are southern gangs, that is to say, they are under the umbrella of a criminal structure called the Mexican Mafia or La Eme (The M). The identifying number for the Eme is 13 — the letter M is the the 13th letter of the alphabet — and that’s why all the southern gangs are identified with that number. Contrary to popular belief, the 13 does not divide the groups, but unites them. Hundreds of members of the 18 have a 13 tattoo, without it being a problem.

The number 18, however, is banned and reviled among the members of Mara Salvatrucha as being for the exclusive use of the rival group, which adopted it because, in its earlier years it began to gain strength in some parts of 18th Street in Los Angeles.

The symbolism around these two numbers was born, then, in Los Angeles, thousands of kilometers from El Salvador. Central America imported and radicalized it. And now Salvadoran soccer is paying the toll.

A Violent Time

For the psychologist Marcelino Diaz, the decision by soccer teams not to use the numbers is a step back for the country. “It is evidence that the gangs, with their violent deaths and dismembering, have managed to intimidate a society.”

On his reading, what is happening in the world of football is not far removed from other developments, also motivated by the development of the maras, like the fact that some public institutions are in practice aligned with one pandilla or another. This makes them no-go zones for young people that live in areas under the influence of a rival gang, even if they are not members of the mara.

“Little by little we are allowing the gang members to stop us doing what we have to do. Even though what is happening with soccer is only a small, symbolic step, if we start to give way on these things, more demands will come,” concluded the sociologist Diaz.

The above is an edited and translated version of an article by El Faro, reprinted with permission from El Faro.

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