Reporting from Ilopango: El Salvador’s First Peace Zone

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El Faro tells the story of Ilopango’s first month as a “violence-free” municipality, after it was named as the first “peace zone” to be launched as part of El Salvador’s gang truce. 

Ilopango — one of 14 municipalities that compose the metropolitan area of San Salvador, and historically one of the most violent — was chosen as the first area for the implementation of peace zones. The zones are part of the second phase of the country’s gang truce, negotiated between the government and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs. In January, Ilopango’s gangs agreed to hand in their weapons and cease all forms of criminal activity.

However, the area’s first months as a designated “violence-free” zone have been rocky. A spate of murders in February, three of which took place in Ilopango, raised concerns over the long-term prospects of the truce, though Justice and Security Minister David Munguia Payes denied that these killings undermined either the truce or the idea of peace zones.

In this context, El Faro interviewed members of both gangs in Ilopango to paint a picture of the trials and achievements of the process thus far. The following is InSight Crime’s translation of selected extracts of the article, with permission from El Faro. The full text in Spanish can be read at El Faro.

What happened in Ilopango during its first month as a “violence-free” municipality? Beyond the cold numbers, which show an undeniable decrease in homicides, Ilopango has gangs faced with the problem of trying to reinvent themselves and at the same time preserve their essence, and a community long repressed by gang brutality wanting to believe in the only hope that has come in years: the truce. This is the story of the first sanctuary municipality and of its struggle to believe its own promises.

***

They [the MS-13] are about to inaugurate a new chicken farm … the gang members themselves have constructed it with their own hands: they’ve sawed, hammered, cut, nailed … every piece of this farm.

Marvin [MS-13’s spokesman in Ilopango] hopes that this farm will sustain at least 20 gang members and their families. But he doesn’t say so with great contentment. In Ilopango alone there are 14 cliques and the smallest is the Guanacos Locos, which has 20 members. His own cell has 45 active “homeboys.” “But it’s not just that, we alone have about 30 homeboys in prison, and we can’t let them be lost, so that there alone would be 75 people, and you have to put that many for each clique around here. We have more than 37 dead, and we have to provide for their families. Marvin estimates that the size of the problem is at least 500 people. “And that is only us, from the MS-13. How do you see the problem? It’s a big one, right?”

***

The written records of the agreement between the municipal government and the gang members show a change in word choice: they will no longer be called gang members, but rather, “at-risk youth.”

Marvin’s turn [in the inauguration ceremony] arrived … “We are the youth that are at risk in the municipality of Ilopango. We are anxious to work; if you give us a shovel we’ll do it, if you give us a hammer we’ll do it. Now we are seeing the fruits of our labor.”

The final moment arrived: Mayor Salvador Ruano’s turn … When he raised his gaze from the floor, his voice was a shout: “I’m making a call to the central government … that instead of spending huge quantities of money on publicity they come and give us a few thousand dollars!”

***

Edwin is Marvin’s equivalent in Barrio 18 … from his house emerges the welcome odor of recently baked bread. This bakery of the “Tiny Locos” clique was the first reconciliation project between the municipal government and the town’s gang members. In fact, according to Mayor Ruano, it was in one of the streets of this neighborhood where a Barrio 18 member, his face completely tattooed, surprised him as he was going door to door asking for residents’ votes during his campaign: “Hey Ruano, if you win, is it possible that we could talk?”

Edwin explains to me how things have changed, as he strokes the hair of his little girl, who has scraped her knees playing in the street. He insists that they have suspended all types of extortion of the neighbors with small businesses and that in order to become part of the gang now you are no longer required to kill, like you had to until recently, when he was an aspiring gang member.

***

This [the place where a public event is being held] is MS-13 territory: The municipal government offices, the central park, the school and its surroundings are considered part of the domain which the mara acquired by force. That’s why they have kept the park, in full view of everyone, next to the inflatable pools, while a corner next to the stage has been reserved for the guests of Barrio 18.

The politicians said hello and congratulated each other. There was a minister with his assistant minister, police chiefs, pastors, priests, prayers and they freed white doves and Marvin offered a speech on behalf of the Mara: “We promise before Ilopango to return peace to this municipality”. Later Edwin, representing Barrio 18, said: “There will no longer be any bloodshed”. And people applauded.

***

Today there is a parents’ meeting in the Colonia Las Cañas school [located in a long-time dangerous neighborhood controlled by and divided between the MS-13 and Barrio 18], where they will discuss the important point of student security … the majority have come to hear the promises of MS-13 and Barrio 18.

Last year, when the municipal government formalized discussions with the gangs, it was the Las Cañas cliques who were the first to attend.

Both agreed to a truce of complete non-aggression and, in addition, Barrio 18 agreed to clean up and improve their territory.  Mayor Ruano signed, the head of the municipal government signed and the police chief signed. The gang members wrote and signed their names, and in the part of the document reserved for the official post held, they wrote MS or 18.

***

On the afternoon of February 12, “Godo” left to sell avocadoes on foot, accompanied by his friend. It was his second trip that day. In the morning he worked selling bread for the San Bartolo bakery. He was an active member of Barrio 18. In the afternoon he sold avocadoes from a cart. His real name was Kevin Antonio Lemus Paz. Several days earlier he had turned 18. Five guys came across his path and didn’t give him time to react. They left 14 bullet holes in his body. Experts could not agree on whether there were 8 or 11 gunshot wounds. The avocadoes lay strewn on the ground several meters from his body. The boy with him said that Godo couldn’t even run. The police arrested two people in the act. At least one had M and the S tattooed on his body.

***

Following Godo’s death, the Barrio 18’s phones exploded, and there were those who spoke of treason … The MS-13 members only managed to explain that this was not an official order from the gang and that those responsible would have to answer to others, whose names were not mentioned.

One week after Godo’s murder, the first meeting of the two gangs took place in the municipal council’s meeting room. The Mara asked everyone “to be serious and recognize that there are problems,” but said that that despite this, the process must continue. They also said that when a Barrio 18 member entered their territory, they would capture him, but would turn him over alive to their enemies, and said that they hoped the other side would do the same. Following that occasion, they agreed that all future meetings would be held with both gangs present, and it has been that way since.

***

On February 11, the bloody corpse of an anonymous man appeared. It appeared that he had been kidnapped in another zone and forced to walk, tied up, to one of the most miserable and ungoverned parts of Ilopango, the San Mauricio neighborhood. All of the clues indicate that he was brutally beaten, and that they later attempted to hang him from a structure that couldn’t support his weight. The murderers pulled up some cement tubing holding filthy water and used it to smash in his head. In connection with the murder, police are looking for two suspects from the MS, known only as Fredy and Alex.

***

Perhaps so that we can see them, or maybe because they don’t care at all if we see them, the gang members that control this place [members of the Hollywood Gangsters clique of Barrio 18] pass a pistol from hand to hand and smoke marijuana constantly … They buy a liter of beer in the store and share sips. They listen to music on their cell phones … They make phone calls in order to monitor the police presence, activate their alarms when  a car enters that from a distance appears unfamiliar, receive other “homeboys” who come to this space looking for marijuana, tell jokes, talk about the stories behind their tattoes, spit, and nod off under the effect of that strong and relaxing smoke.

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