The El Salvador Gang Rebellion that Made Zacatecoluca Bleed: Part 1

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In early 2014, a faction of El Salvador's Barrio 18 gang known at the Revolutionaries decided to kill one of their own. Upon finding this out, rather than trying to hide, the condemned man declared war against his own gang. Since then, in the city of Zacatecoluca and along the sides of the Chichontepec volcano, everyone has been sleeping with one eye open and one hand on the trigger: gang members, municipal police agents, other police and farmers. It's an area that's become a battle zone, where everyone has decided to impose their version of the law by gunfire. Residents are now asking what will happen once everything has gone up in flames.

On the side of the old highway that goes from Zacatecoluca to another city near San Salvador -- Olocuilta -- a bleeding man tries to stand. He is wearing blue jeans and a white button-down shirt, soaked and torn. He crawls slowly through the weeds that grow beside the sidewalk.

A kilometer back, we had stopped the car, surprised by the number of vultures sitting in a tree, looming over the remains of an animal carcass. Fred, the photojournalist who was accompanying me on this trip, thought this could maybe work as a funny photo to fill some space in the site, and he jumped out of the vehicle with his camera to see what the birds were hunting. But he did this so quickly that by the time he was close enough, no bird remained in the branches. He came back repeating, "I fucked it up, did you see?" while checking his blurred photos of the birds flying off.

This is part one of an article that was originally published in El Faro's Sala Negra, and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here

We are still talking about this -- the vultures in the tree -- when we see a man at the side of the road, trying to move, bleeding his life out on the weeds.

I halt the car and back up. His head is sticky, covered in thick, black blood. He is supporting himself on his knees and palms, before he falls onto his side. He clutches his stomach with one hand and manages to tell us he has been shot.

A pick-up passes by and we jump up, trying to get it to stop. The man driving it slows down, but upon seeing the scene he accelerates again and drives away.

"I can't make it," the man sighs, and the blood washes over his hand, leaks out between his fingers.

Another pick-up drives by and does the same thing as the first one.

"Get me in the car, I can't make it." I realize that I don't want to touch him because I don't want to get covered in blood.

I go for the car, but he can't stand and we have to carry him to the back seat. He screams when we lift him from the ground and his knees don't have the strength to support him. Inside the vehicle he collapses onto the seat and grimaces while clutching his stomach. There's a dark stain spreading across the white shirt.

***

Zacatecoluca isn't a pretty place, and the city's name has had a pretentious ring to it since 1844. Its honors include: having been part of the Federal District of Central America, which only lasted two years, from 1836 to 1838; being the departmental capital of La Paz; being home to El Salvador's only maximum security prison, popularly known as the "Zacatraz" [an homage to the infamous and now closed prison in California]; and not much else.

It's a hot place, both day and night. Probably the most famous people to have come out of Zacatecoluca are Jose Simeon Cañas, whose face appears on the now extinct colon bills, and Anastasio Martir Aquino, an indigenous man who wasn't even from there, but who a local court ordered beheaded in the mid-19th century -- although he wasn't beheaded there either. He's always depicted scowling, carrying a machete and something that looks like a harquebus.  

On July 17, 2013, representatives from the MS13 and a Barrio 18 faction, the Revolutionaries, gathered at the kiosk in the Nicolas Peña park, in the center of the city. They announced that Zacatecoluca had become the 11th Violence-Free Municipality, as part of the gang truce which was initiated on March 8, 2012, and which has since collapsed (although the exact date of failure hasn't yet been determined).

The spokesmen for the gangs gave speeches about the recovery of "total peace" and their support for the "social pact." The Barrio 18's Revolutionaries took advantage of the occasion to reject certain statements made by then-Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo, who accused the Revolutionaries of being behind the subtle yet steady rise in homicides, which had begun to creep upwards again, after a year of dropping steadily.

***

"Cornering a wild animal is a reckless act that normally ends up being costly," someone who didn't want to be named in this article explained to me. "That's why you usually need to leave it at least one escape route," the person continued, "Even if it's just to give it the illusion that there is a way out -- that it can live. Then you need to see if you can kill it while it's using its escape route. But trapping a wild beast -- or a man, for example -- and leaving it without a way out, with no options, that usually ends badly. And that's what happened in Zacatecoluca."

As of October 22, 2013, Zacatecoluca had registered 26 murders for the year. During that same time period in 2014, there were already 81. The first half of 2014 saw nearly as many people killed as the most violent year that the city registered under the previous federal administration. In all of 2010, there were 58 people killed. In the first half of 2014, there were 52 murders.

Barrio 18 used to be a single gang in El Salvador, just as it has been in Los Angeles for some 50 years now, just as it is in Guatemala and Honduras. But in El Salvador, the Barrio 18 split into two factions in 2005, and these factions are now sworn enemies. The reasons for this are deep and complicated, but if we must summarize it, the split boils down to two main reasons: power and business (that is, if we assume these aren't the same thing).  

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

Zacatecoluca and its most central neighborhoods were lucky enough to be ruled by just one of these factions: the Revolutionaries of the Barrio 18. There are several advantages to this clear distribution of territory: it means fewer shoot-outs over control of different places; everybody knows who's in charge; just one extortion fee needs to be paid out to just one collector; and, above all else, citizens don't need to know every detail of that complex gangland geography that prevents them from crossing a road or entering a neighborhood that's controlled by a rival gang. Doing so could mean getting killed -- even if the victim has nothing to do with the gang war.

Things were clearly laid out this way in the underworld, until the gang split once against in February this year, for the same two reasons mentioned above. That is to say, in Zacatecoluca the Barrio 18 faction known as the Revolutionaries also split into two, and this is where the analogy above about the wild beast becomes relevant. In this case, the wild beast was named Oscar Oliva, although everyone knew him as "Chipilin."


"If you did anything, they got pissed or they'd want to kill you."


Chipilin left the Izalco penitentiary after serving a 16-year sentence, with the goal of becoming the head of the Zacatecoluca faction -- becoming the leader of the local Barrio 18 Revolutionaries. Afterwards, it became clear that Chipilin, a 38-year-old born and raised in the municipality of La Paz, wasn't the clear pick to become leader; he wasn't where the gang's chain of command stopped. He wasn't even where the local chain of command stopped.

Three gang members -- who are now collaborating with Salvadoran authorities -- have described the chain of command like this: Chipilin was the strongest voice on the streets, but he had to report back to three people in Izalco prison: Chucho Ronco, Mad Dog ("Perro Bravo"), and Paradise. They in turn reported back to the gang's top leaders, who, according to the informants, included alias Cawina, Crazy Boy (El Niño Cracy) and the Dead Man (El Muerto), who is also known as the Cemetery (El Cementerio).

Chipilin thought that the percentage of profits that these prison leaders demanded was excessively high, given the amount of effort and the high risks that his homeboys put into collecting money, via extortion, threats and teaching the Zacatecolucans to follow this logic. One of Chipilin's subordinates also asserted that the number of new rules that the gang truce entailed irritated his former boss, like a spider web caught in his face. It forced him to walk on his tippy-toes, as if he were trying to avoid stepping on chalk lines drawn on the ground.

"If you did anything, they got pissed or they'd want to kill you," the subordinate said, pouting like a child.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador Gang Truce

Chipilin was also successful in convincing several of his subordinates that his rebellion was evoked in the spirit of Robin Hood.

"Something else that bugged him is that even the lady who sold avocados got extorted," the young man told us.

It's possible that within the labyrinthine networks touched by the gang, a poor woman did exist who sold avocados and had to pay extortion fees, because despite the plethora of examples (the pupusa woman, the tortilla woman) everyone who refers to this case -- priests, cops, gang members, and journalists -- cites this same example. So it's either true, or in Zacatecoluca, selling avocados is something synonymous with being really poor.

But the gang isn't an assembly. Chipilin's talk soon reached his bosses' ears, and they decided -- at some point in early 2014 -- to just cut him loose cleanly: that is, kill him.

Up until this point, the story is the same as usual: the gang talked about gunshots, probably one of Chipilin's friends would blow his head off in between beers, or a homeboy from another neighborhood would kill him undercover. But what's never supposed to happen in these cases actually happened: the condemned man found out about the sentence, he found out that he "had been green-lit," that his own gang was breathing down his neck. And he turned into a wild beast.

Instead of running away in a panic, Chipilin decided to plant his flag and return the unfriendly gesture: he would declare himself an independent republic, and the Revolutionaries would have to decide between their leader and their gang. In a matter of days, things turned around and Chipilin's insurrection was successful. By the end of February, the neighborhoods of Upper El Espino and Lower El Espino, Upper Buena Vista and Lower Buena Vista, El Copinol, El Jobo, Pineda, La Española and 10 de Mayo were all his territory. Not bad for an independent operator who, upon first glance, appeared to be rallying people to his cause by offering them the chance to smash a tiny cart against an incoming train.

By March, the war between those who followed Chipilin and those who remained loyal to the Revolutionaries had become evident in Zacatecoluca's murder rates: the four murders registered in February rose to 12 in March and 20 in April. In May, the rebels attacked a bus along route 302, on the highway to Comalapa. They killed six people in an attempt to fight the Revolutionaries for the rights to extort the transport sector. Zacatecoluca had become a war zone, divided between the city's rural outskirts -- which were part of the rebellion -- and the urban center. 

The person whose name I cannot mention in this story knows the inner workings of this underworld war quite well. The person explained several things to me: Chipilin's insolence could have been squashed relatively quickly if it hadn't been for two things. Firstly, although they deny it, the other faction of the Barrio 18, the Sureños, were sympathetic to Chipilin's cause and secretly supported him with weapons and a refuge, which gave the rebels the fuel they needed to resist the Revolutionaries' assault. Currently, local police say that the war that Chipilin started is actually between the Revolutionaries and the Sureños.

The other thing was a misstep by a Revolutionaries gang member, who had the bad idea of killing an elderly woman who turned out to be the mother of a police official.

***

The blood is thick and dries fast. It sticks to my hands and to the steering wheel, as I speed the car towards the Zacatecoluca hospital. A street had never before seemed so deserted to me, so empty of vehicles, of people and police, and I had never realized how a few kilometers could feel so long. In the backseat, Fred, the photographer, fights to keep the bleeding man seated upright, and slaps him to keep him awake. The two of them are covered in blood.

"What's your name?!"

"Felipe."

"What happened to you?"

"They came to kill me."

"Who?"

"…"

"Who?"

And he falls to one side, just as he did on the street. It looks as though he fainted. Fred grabs him by the shirt and wakes him up by screaming and shaking him, because according to our knowledge of these types of situations -- basically acquired from police shows on TV -- if the guy falls asleep he'll die in the backseat of the car.

"Felipe! Fuck, Felipe! How old are you?" Fred yells.

"Thirty-four," he slurs in a voice full of pain.

"Do you have kids?"

"Yes. Four." And he recites the names of his kids for us.

The man shifts in the seat and howls like an animal. He cries out from pain while clutching his stomach with all the life still left in him. In the rearview mirror I can see that the color is draining from his face and that he can barely keep his eyes open. I tell myself that if a man can scream like that, then he's surely capable of holding on for another 30 kilometers before we reach the hospital. I'm driving as fast as I can, and when the gas light comes on, I cover it with a little picture of Bishop Oscar Romero that I always carry on the dashboard in case of emergencies like these. The highway winds between infinite hills and Fred tries to keep Felipe conscious.

"What do you do, Felipe?"

"Chef."

"And what's your best dish?"

"Lasagna."

"Ummmmm…. What kind of lasagna?"

"All kinds."

"You're going to cook us lasagna, you asshole!"

"Yes."

We realize that we can take advantage of Felipe's more lucid moments for a less trivial purpose, and we get him to give us a phone number. Fred calls it, and a girl who says she's his sister answers. She doesn't believe a word we tell her and she hangs up as though an insurance salesman had called her. Felipe faints again.

"Felipe, fuck, fuck, Felipe!" Slaps and shakes. "I need you awake, you asshole, help us! Do you want to see your kids?"

"Yes."

"So keep those peepers open! Do you want to see your mother again!"

"No."

We don't know it then, but Felipe's mother died of a stroke while visiting a cousin in Tonacatepeque prison when Felipe was eight years old.

***

As tends to happen in these things, the gang asserted, via its spokesmen, that the murder of the police official's mother was a mistake -- ordered by someone who wasn't even part of the gang, just a sympathizer who acted alone, and who even went against the will of the barrio. But it seems as though this version of events didn't convince anybody: according to these same representatives from the Revolutionaries, after the murder -- which took place on an uncertain date in January -- the police entered the game ready to kill or be killed, as one more player to watch out for. Thus, when Chipilin's insurrection kicked off, the police kept their hatred focused on the original faction of the Revolutionaries that had kept its label.


The gang said these were extrajudicial killings; police assert they acted in self-defense.


On January 11, three gang members were killed in one neighborhood; and three days later another four were killed in different districts adjacent to Zacatecoluca. As of April, the gang had carried out eight police ambushes in the region: on the 21st of that month, gang members in Lower Penitente riddled a police-pick up with bullets from a mini Uzi. Two days later, there was a gun battle between gang members and some police officers who had become aware of a plan to kill one of Chipilin's lieutenants as he left a courthouse. On April 30, the police killed five gang members inside an unpainted cement-block house in Hacienda Escuintla. The gang said these were extrajudicial killings; police assert they acted in self-defense, responding to the gang's gunfire. The first photographs of this incident -- taken by the police -- show the bodies of five young men inside the house: four on the floor and a fifth hanging on a hammock. All of the slain gang members were Revolutionaries.

Gang members say that the police have created special extermination squads that viciously oppose the Revolutionaries. From their offices, police officials have strongly denied that this is the case. Lower-ranking agents on the street don't deny anything.

One policeman who worked investigating homicides earlier this year put it bluntly. "In Zacatecoluca our companies saw the killing of that mother as an opportunity to do something." He doesn't call that "something" extrajudicial killings. He prefers the more institutional term, "executions."

***

The truth is a blurry thing. Sometimes the truth is the truth, cut and dry, as two and two make four, to cite a famous expression. There's no problem with these types of truths. Other truths are more intricate, such as whether or not the gang ordered a curfew ("toque de queda") this March in Zacatecoluca. These truths become debates, and over time become various truths at the same time.

According to the March 13 edition of newspaper El Diario de Hoy, unknown perpetrators distributed fliers in the center of the municipality, threatening everyone who was out on the street after 6 p.m. The flier was signed "Mara 18." There's a few problems with this little document, such as the fact that no member of the Barrio 18 gang who doesn't want to be beaten up or killed off would associate the word "mara" with their organization, just like a fervent Muslim wouldn't go through life selling caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. ["Mara" is the term their rival the MS13 uses to refer to itself. Barrio 18 prefers the word "pandilla."]

But what's the truth? One question is whether or not an actual gang member wrote up that document, another is whether or not there was a curfew that day.

Father Celestino Palacios, the priest at a cathedral known as Our Lady of the Poor, noted that there were fewer souls attending evening mass that day. A lot fewer -- less than half the usual. And when leaving the Church, no one bothered with socializing, they just left.

"There wasn't a single person in the park," he recalled.

And it appears that indeed there was not a single person. A Channel 12 news team went to film the sunset and the early evening hours in Zacatecoluca, and the place looked like a ghost town with the doors shut up. The only person willing to talk to the journalists was a member of the metropolitan police corps, under the condition that they filmed his boots instead of his face.

"Well yes, they say that whoever goes through here, they're going to get them," he said.

Just in case, the police agent wasn't patrolling the streets either; he was leaning on city hall. That same day, residents of El Copinol neighborhood -- Chipilin's territory -- told a correspondent from the newspaper La Prensa Grafica that gang members with rifles were nice enough to visit each house, telling residents not to go out after 6 p.m. All the bus routes that went into the center of the municipality -- Routes 92, 3LP, 4LP, and 5LP -- stopped running after 1 p.m.

The chief of police in Zacatecoluca, Sheriff Omar Joachin, told newspaper El Mundo the next day that there had been no curfew, and that the hubbub stemmed from a rumor in the neighborhood of El Copinol, where he said there was a "low murder rate." As proof, he said that as of that Thursday, the last murder had taken place on Tuesday. 


The Revolutionaries tried to wipe the rebels from the map in a furious assault.


Two days later, Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo told Prensa Grafica that there was no evidence of a curfew, adding there was "no point" in spreading rumors. On April 26, that same minister told Diario CoLatino that he had information regarding a war between the Sureños and the Revolutionaries of the Barrio 18, and he asserted that the police had the situation under control. That same day, he admitted to doubling his personal security team.

With 20 homicides, April was the most violent month so far this year. Taking advantage of their initial impulse, Chipilin and his backers tried to drive their former companions in the Revolutionaries out of the city center, which is rich in businesses and therefore ripe for extortion. The Revolutionaries tried to wipe the rebels from the map in a furious assault. Neither of them achieved their goal.

Some said that the curfew was only supposed to last a day and that day was April 13, others said that it started the 12th and was supposed to last a week. Father Celestino Palacios recalls other alarming signs in May and June.

Normal life returned to Zacatecoluca without anyone giving the order. Its inhabitants went on, either from bravery or hunger, and from this perspective who knows the truth of what really happened during those days.  

***

Felipe loses consciousness just before we reach Santa Teresa hospital in Zacatecoluca. Inside the city, we've already found a police patrol that guides us through the maze of streets and escorts us to the hospital's entrance. 

I help get him out of the car and on to a stretcher, like a rag, and a group of nurses wheel him down dark hallways. The police interrogate us; I find Felipe's two sneakers on the floor of my car; we wash our hands; we wait…

All we find out after an hour of waiting is that Felipe has three bullets in his abdomen and signs of beating all over his body. That, and that he's still alive. 

*This is Part I of an article that was originally published in El Faro's Sala Negra, and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here