The Gang Informant El Salvador Failed to Protect

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Miguel Angel Tobar was an assassin and a former member of a faction of El Salvador's biggest gang, the MS13. He was murdered on Friday, November 21, 2014 by hit men. He was also a key witness for the Attorney General's Office who helped send more than 30 gang members to prison. He was a man that the state had promised to protect. This is the story of a man that both the police and the Attorney General's Office knew would be assassinated.

As far back as November 2009, Miguel Angel Tobar knew that he would be killed.

He wasn't sure who would do it. Sometimes he thought that police from western El Salvador would kill him. Sometimes he thought it would be Barrio 18 gang members. But mostly when he thought about dying, he was convinced he would be murdered by members of his old gang -- the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). 

Tobar, age 30, was certain that he wouldn't die of a heart attack or a fall from a great height, or from old age -- he never thought he would die of old age. Sometimes he thought he would be murdered in some dusty street in the province of Santa Ana or Ahuachapan. As far as this reporter knows, from January 2012 onwards Tobar was always aware that "The Beast" was following him. He said so all the time. For that reason, the year before he died, Tobar retrieved his 12-gauge shotgun from where he'd buried it in a vacant lot, after stealing it from a security guard at a gas station, during an attack that the police ordered him to carry out.

This is part one of a story that originally appeared in El Faro's Sala Negra, which was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here

Tobar's life was complicated. That's why he got a .357 pistol at the beginning of 2014, but the police took it from him when he was walking near his house, in the neighborhood of Las Pozas in San Lorenzo municipality, Ahuachapan province. Because he knew The Beast was following him, Tobar crossed the border into Guatemala via an unguarded crossing at the beginning of 2014 and paid $20 to have a popgun manufactured -- two tubular pieces of metal that eject a 12-gauge shotgun cartridge.

 

Miguel Angel Tobar knew he would be murdered, but he wanted to avoid being dismembered, tortured, or strangled.

Miguel Angel Tobar knew he would be murdered, but he wanted to avoid being dismembered, tortured, or strangled. He preferred a bullet.

He was so sure he would be murdered that he was able to discuss the matter openly. On Tuesday, January 14, 2014, I visited him. I usually visited him once a month after meeting him for the first time in January 2012. That day, he felt that his death was nearer than usual. The night before, he had been told that some young guys had come to his neighborhood asking about the gang member who lived there. That day we talked inside the vehicle with tinted windows that I had come to visit him in. I never turned the motor off.

"Hey, there's a problem, Miguel," I told him that Tuesday. "Since you're always changing phones, it's hard to locate you. I need you to give me the numbers of your family in order to call them if the need arises."

"Ah, Simon, in case anything happens… In other words, so that they'll let you know when they kill me and they'll tell you: 'Hey, they killed El Niño,'" Tobar said to me in the pickup. He always used the nickname that they gave him in the MS13. El Niño from the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha clique of Atiquizaya.

On Friday, November 21, none of his family members called me. Instead, it was one of El Niño's neighbors from Las Pozas. He told me that at 3:43 p.m. the thing we had all been expecting happened.

"Hey, bad news. They killed El Niño in San Lorenzo."

***

Miguel Angel Tobar was an assassin.

When asked how many people he had killed, he would answer:

"I've broken," he would start to say, using the Salvadoran slang from the verb "quebrar."

"I've broken 56. About six women and 50 men. Among the men I include the faggots, because I've killed two faggots."

Miguel Angel Tobar was an assassin.

In the police records, there is evidence of 30 homicides Tobar took part in when he was in the MS13.

Miguel Angel Tobar was an assassin.

He was ruthless. Around 2005, together with other gang members he killed a 23-year-old youth called "Caballo." In an act of lunacy, that young man had decided to tattoo himself a "1" on one thigh and an "8" on the other, but he also had two letters tattooed on his chest: MS. Who knows how he managed it, but Caballo played the role of a Barrio 18 gang member when it was convenient and an MS13 gang member when it suited him.

Tobar discovered Caballo's secret and lured him to a rural area of Atiquizaya, together with other MS13 members. They killed him. Suffice to say that Caballo died without arms, without legs; without tattoos. And, when he didn't have any of those left, they still managed to torture him for a few more minutes. It was that day that Tobar -- who was known in his clique as "Clown," thanks to his sly, elongated face and big mouth -- changed his name to "El Niño" (the Boy), because when they took Caballo's heart out he had an epiphany, and it felt as though he had just given birth to a child.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

Miguel Angel Tobar was an assassin.

 

Miguel Angel Tobar was much more than an assassin. He was the key witness that the police and the Attorney General's Office used to stick more than 30 gang members in jail.

Everyone had known this for a long time. When the police approached Tobar in 2009, asking him to help solve murders committed by a faction of the MS13, the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha, the police knew they were approaching a murderer. They never thought otherwise. In fact, the police sergeant that came to Tobar's house in Las Pozas -- the day that Tobar decided to cooperate with authorities and betray his own gang -- had to take precautions. That day, Tobar was armed with a .40 and a .357 and high on crack, but he agreed to go to the police station in El Refugio municipality.

El Niño felt trapped. His gang was beginning to suspect that he had killed three members of another faction, the Parvis Locos Salvatrucha clique from a neighboring municipality. The Parvis Locos clique had murdered Tobar's brother. This is what the inner workings of a gang is like --  a tangle of intrigues and conspiracies among its own members. El Niño's brother, called "El Cheje" by his gang, was murdered in 2007. El Niño avenged his brother's death discreetly, little by little, without telling anybody. He murdered Chato, Zarco, and Mosco with single shots to their heads. Just one of the perpetrators, called "Coco," survived. He fled to western El Salvador after he saw his partners in crime fall one by one, with their skulls perforated by their victim's brother.

However, Tobar was much more than an assassin. He was the key witness that the police and the Attorney General's Office used to stick more than 30 members of the Hollywood, Parvis and Angeles cliques in jail. It was Tobar's testimony that led a judge to sentence two Hollywood leaders to 22 years in prison. One was Jose Guillermo Solito Escobar, known as "El Extraño" (The Strange One), a thirty-year-old gang member from the Atiquizaya region.

The other Hollywood Locos gang leader was even more famous. El Salvador's former security minister even said he was one of the few Salvadoran gang members who had made the leap into organized crime. His name is Jose Antonio Teran, alias "Chepe Furia," a man in his forties who is a former national guard member; the owner of several garbage trucks in Atiquizaya; one of the first MS13 members in the United States; and a founder of the Fulton Locos Salvatrucha gang there and the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha in El Salvador.

15-01-15-Chepe Furia

Chepe Furia, imprisoned thanks to Miguel Angel Tobar' testimony.

 

Now, thanks to Tobar's testimony in a special court in San Miguel, Chepe Furia and El Extraño are doing 22 years in prison for murdering a police informant in the Usulutan province on November 24, 2009. The slain informant was called Samuel Trejo. He was 23 when he was murdered, and he was known in the gang as "Rambito."

Miguel Angel Tobar was an assassin.

Nevertheless, without his help, 30 murderers would still be at large in El Salvador. And probably -- very probably -- Tobar was murdered precisely for having provided this assistance to the Salvadoran justice system. And perhaps he could have put 11 more gang members in jail, but he is no longer around to testify in another case, involving those accused of throwing bodies into an abandoned pit in the middle of a cornfield in the Turin municipality.


Miguel Angel Tobar was a man who was murdered, while the state was taking care of him.


Friday, November 21, was not only the day a murderer was murdered. It was also the day a protected witness of the Salvadoran state was murdered. On Friday, November 21, Miguel Angel Tobar was shot to death by hit men. That day a man who the Salvadoran state had sworn to protect in exchange for his testimony was murdered. He had even received a new nickname from state authorities: "Liebre" or "Yogui." That is what he was called in the judicial records and during the trials, where he appeared in a ski mask and dressed as a policeman, with a uniform that was too big for his short, stocky body. Miguel Angel Tobar was a man who was murdered while the state was taking care of him.

***

The bicycle and the pool of blood that leaked from his head are 30 steps from here, on this street that everyone calls Portillo Road, behind the police station in San Lorenzo. It is Friday, November 21, 2014, at 8 p.m.

San Lorenzo is a municipality that is only reached by entering Atiquizaya, past a central park and down some 20 kilometers on a two-lane street that cuts through the valley. I came here with my brother Juan, who had been visiting El Niño with me since January 2012.

 

When we visited, the two police officers at the San Lorenzo station knew of just one homicide – Miguel Angel Tobar, who died just hours before. This is the first murder that San Lorenzo has seen since June 2012.

The police station is a tiny building located at the edge of San Lorenzo. At just 8 p.m., the municipality is already dark. A few public lamps illuminate the street. The people here go to sleep just after the chickens do. There is only a small group of young people chatting in the street, who are perplexed when they see our pickup pass by.

There are two agents in the police station. They don't seem afraid. If a pickup with tinted windows nears a police station in some other rural Salvadoran municipality at night, the police will usually greet it with one hand on their weapon. If they don't do so, like here in San Lorenzo, it is because they don't believe themselves to be in a dangerous part of the country.

And they're not. According to police records, San Lorenzo, population approximately 100,000, had zero homicides in 2013; two in 2012; and zero in 2011. In fact, when we visited, the two police officers at the San Lorenzo station knew of just one homicide -- Miguel Angel Tobar, who died just hours before. This is the first murder that San Lorenzo has seen since June 2012. That makes San Lorenzo a fortunate place to be in El Salvador.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

After a brief chat, it becomes clear that the police see El Niño as an exception -- someone who was destined to die. "He was problematic." "He was a criminal." "Just this year, there was a problem in which he injured a colleague from the DIC [Criminal Investigation Unit] of Santa Ana who was off-duty drinking there in the neighborhood that boy was from."

 

The police hated him partly because he had been a gang member. He talked like a gang member, he caused problems like a gang member, and he was an irreverent smoker of marijuana.

El Niño was known throughout the region. Based on the statistics, San Lorenzo is not a municipality with a serious gang problem. El Niño himself described it as a place with robbers and truck thieves, but no gangs. It is a transit point for gang members traveling between Atiquizya and the Guatemalan border, but it is not a home for them.

When El Niño came to San Lorenzo in mid-2014, word spread that a gang member -- or someone , or maybe, a gang leader -- was living in the neighborhood of Las Pozas. Some said one thing, and others said another. The first time I visited El Niño here -- one of several times that we spoke inside the car with the motor turned on -- a bunch of curious onlookers arrived to see who was visiting the famous El Niño. Salesmen, neighbors, and students from the dusty Las Pozas neighborhood came out to see what was going on.

The police hated him partly because he had been a gang member. He talked like a gang member, he caused problems like a gang member, and he was an irreverent smoker of marijuana.

Many police from the region also hated him for being the key witness in the case against two sergeants from Atiquizaya. Their names are Jose Wilfredo Tejada, of the anti-homicide unit, and Walter Misael Hernandez, of the anti-extortion unit. On the morning of November 24, 2009, these two police ordered the detention of a 23-year-old boy in the market because they needed to talk to him. That boy was Samuel Trejo, known as "Rambito." That boy was later murdered by Chepe Furia.

 

15-01-15-InformantElFaro

A scene from the trial of the two police officers. 

 

In the records from November 24, 2009, it is stated that these two sergeants took the boy away from the Atiquizaya police station and never brought him back. Hours later, El Niño saw Rambito in a pickup driven by Chepe Furia, accompanied by El Extraño and another gang member who had been deported from the United States in 2009 on charges of aggravated assault. In Maryland, according to his deportation card, this gang member was known as "Baby Yorker." In El Salvador, he was renamed "Liro Jocker." His real name is Jorge Alberto Gonzalez Navarrete and he is 32 years old. Chepe Furia, El Extraño and Liro Jocker had Rambito in the pickup, and El Niño saw them.

Rambito, the boy who was travelling in that pickup hours after the police sergeants took him away from station, showed up dead 13 days later along a highway. Rotting. He had his hands tied behind him with blue rope -- the same blue rope that El Niño claimed to have seen in the pickup. The forensic report said Rambito was murdered the same day the sergeants took him from the station -- the same day that the gang members were seen carrying him in the pickup. The report also said Rambito was tortured and later shot three times in the head. The police investigators claimed Rambito was a police informant and that he had been helping build an extortion case against Chepe Furia.

El Niño said that before he saw Rambito in Chepe Furia's pickup, he had seen the sergeants pass by with Rambito in another vehicle. He testified this early on, during the trial against the police.

On Wednesday, January 15, 2014, more than four years after Rambito's murder, the sergeants were absolved. Three other police officers who'd previously participated in the investigation stopped collaborating. These police said they didn't remember what they had previously said to prosecutors. They said they didn't remember if those sergeants had ordered Rambito's detention the day he was murdered. The prosecutors showed them the records, in which those same police, in their own handwriting, had written that the sergeants had taken Rambito out of the station. Later, they showed the police their previous statements, in which they had remembered everything clearly. Then, the prosecutors reminded the police they were under oath.

The three police that testified said they recognized their handwriting, but that they no longer remembered anything; they were confused. They lowered their heads -- all three of them -- and repeated the same thing: "I don't remember, I don't remember, I don't remember."


He didn't care if the defense lawyers of the accused police sergeants saw him. He said everybody already knew him. Everybody knew that El Niño was Miguel Angel Tobar. 


El Niño went into the courtroom that day with his face covered. He was a protected witness, and the Attorney General's Office had assigned him a new alias: Yogui. Shortly after taking the stand, he took off the mask. He said his face was prickling. He didn't care if the defense lawyers of the accused police sergeants -- who were sitting behind a screen, praying -- saw him. He said everybody already knew him. Everyone knew that El Niño was Miguel Angel Tobar.

On the judge's orders, he put the ski mask on again and acted just like the police that were called to speak as witnesses. He said he didn't remember anything, that he didn't remember what he'd said before, that he didn't remember having seen Rambito in the pickup or anything. The sergeants' defense lawyers laughed in the courtroom. The prosecutors looked at each other incredulously, scared. The sergeants prayed behind the screen. The sergeants were absolved.

 

Without El Niño's testimony, the Attorney General's Office was nothing. They were two scared prosecutors acting ridiculous. It was an absurd spectacle that the defense lawyers laughed about in private.

By all logic, the sentences issued by the court were nonsense. The absolved sergeants took Rambito out of the police station, and he ended up in the hands of gang members who were convicted of murdering him. But between one thing and another, everything is blurry.

In that room, without El Niño's testimony, the Attorney General's Office was nothing. They were two scared prosecutors acting ridiculous. It was an absurd spectacle that the defense lawyers laughed about in private.

I left the courtroom confused. I thought for a moment that El Niño had tricked me. Then I remembered that he himself had told me that some investigators from Atiquizaya and El Refugio had asked him to mess up the first stage of the trial, to confuse the investigators. They offered him $5,000 to say the wrong thing, El Niño told me. Then they offered him the chance to go commit a murder in a rural part of Atiquizaya, but they said they would give him the weapon once they were there. El Niño, with hatred in his voice, laughed at the rudimentary nature of the ruse when we spoke during one of my visits.

"Assholes, idiots, fuckin' rats. They wanted to kill El Niño. The Beast, assholes."

When the trial ended and the sergeants were freed, I called El Niño on the phone.

"Niño, did you lie to me, or did you lie to the judge?"

"I saw them with Rambito and I saw Rambito with Chepe and the rest," he said. "The thing is that… I just didn't want to say so. I'm already carrying too many crosses for them to put one more on me." 

*This is the first part of a story that originally appeared in El Faro's Sala Negra, which was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here