Under the Gaze of Police, Residents Flee El Salvador Gangs

More than ten families abandon their homes, fleeing the threat of massacre from Barrio 18. A man cries furiously as he will have to sleep in the flophouse room of a family member with his three children. The head of the National Civil Police’s anti-gang unit arrives on the scene and asks people to pray. This is the flight of many families from the San Valentin condominiums in Mejicanos, located in San Salvador’s Metropolitan Area.

This is happening today, Tuesday 20 January. In fact many people are watching from their homes as they eat lunch, as if it were a soccer game being broadcast live on TV. This is how, live and direct, more than ten families are fleeing their homes in San Valentin condominium in Mejicanos. The cameras are recording them and the police are protecting them. The police are protecting people believed to be threatened by the Barrio 18 gang. The gang said it would do something last week. The people did nothing. The gang said it would kill them. Many people believe them, so they are leaving. They are fleeing live on national television.

Here, the condominium’s heat is suffocating. It’s noon. People began emptying their apartments around ten in the morning because the 24-hour period the gang warned them about ends at seven tonight. Afterwards comes the massacre, the gang has promised. The people are exhausted from moving beds, refrigerators, televisions, chairs… They sweat but keep working because they truly believe seven tonight is the time limit for anyone who doesn’t want to be massacred to get away from here.

*This article originally appeared in El Faro‘s Sala Negra and has been translated and reprinted with permission. See original here.

The San Valentin condominium is in the Delicias del Norte suburb, in the Mejicanos municipality. You find it before arriving at the Finca Argentina, a few blocks from the route 2-C bus stop. Although perhaps two other facts would be better references. The San Valentin condominium complex is four blocks from where assassins killed Giovanni Morales, known as “El Destino” (Destiny) and a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, on March 6, 2013. Morales was a veteran of the Mara clique Guanacos Criminal Salvatruchos, which has its headquarters further up in the high part of the suburb of Montreal.

Afterwards comes the massacre, the gang has promised.

Morales’ killing was famous because he was an aide to Father Antonio Rodriguez, who was accused of abetting gangs and forced by the Attorney General to leave the country for his native Spain last year. But if someone doesn’t remember Father Toño or El Destino, they’ll surely remember another reference. The San Valentin condominium is six blocks from where, on June 20, 2010, Barrio 18 members alongside members of the Columbia Locos Sureños crew, from the Jardin suburb, set fire to a route 47 bus with the passengers aboard. 17 people died. Some burned to death while others were riddled with bullets as they tried to escape through the windows. The route ends in the suburb of Buenos Aires, part of Mejicanos and controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha. However, to get there the route runs through a large section of territory controlled by Barrio 18. Dispute over the area’s control led to this insane event which turned the world upside down.  

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

Here, in the middle of all this death, are the San Valentin condominiums. Some 46 families live here. They are condominiums without any specific architectural style. A cement walkway is the backbone between gates which give access to the surrounding streets. Perpendicular to this concrete pathway, passages open to rows of small houses, below and above. Three passageways and the central column, where there are also houses. Tiny houses. An all-in-one bedroom-dining room-kitchen-living room. A single space and a bathroom. People here are experts in converting rooms into multipurpose areas. At night blankets lay on the ground and chairs are stacked on the table. During the day blankets are stored on tiny clotheslines and chairs are moved back to ground at the dinner table or in front of the TV.

It is in these San Valentin condominiums where families are dismantling their homes while we journalists ask them why, and the police guard their escape.

On the lower part of a walkway a family sweats and cries. Since ten in the morning they have been moving couches, appliances and blankets. They pack what little fits onto a pickup truck. The truck goes and returns to take a little more. Only the adults of the family are here. Two men in their 20s, a woman over 50, a pregnant woman over 40 and a 20-year-old woman. The two men’s wives and their four children have all left to a sister-in-law’s house. They didn’t stay for the hurried move. The kids are just babies. The oldest child is six years old. The whole family rents three tiny houses in the San Valentin complex. Each house costs $100 a month to rent. Most of it was paid through their work as car window washers at a stoplight in San Salvador.

The pickup truck has just left and is headed to a cousin’s house, in a complex very much like this one. Some of the family will sleep there until they find a new place. Others will go to flophouse room of one of the men’s parents, and hope they are not all kicked out if the owners find out they are putting more people in the room than they are supposed to.

Although the complex they are being evicted from is surrounded by daily violence, the family insists it was not a housing area known for gang activity. That said, it’s all relative. For the working class of this country, the gangs are never far away. It can only ever be a problem a little further away. A few months ago “four gang girls” moved into the second condominium house — reached by the primary gate. Condominium residents took notice. At night, tattooed young men from the Jardin suburb, gang members of Barrio 18, would visit them. They drank and laughed. No one from the condominium messed with them.

The men of the family I’m talking to tell the story. The women intermittently cry as they watch their house becoming no longer their house

On Tuesday at least five families awoke with a clear thought: flee.

Last Saturday, January 17, police raided the “gang girls’” house. As it was an illegally occupied house, the police took everything inside, but the girls were not there, neighbors said.

The police did their job. They responded to a complaint. They dismantled an illegally occupied house, took what was inside and left. This is the problem. The gangs don’t leave. They’re part of the social framework. They live here, they are children of some of the women who live here and siblings to men and women who live here. They are parents, uncles and friends to some people who live in these areas. The gangs are part of El Salvador. The gangs are as rooted to their neighborhood, their suburb, as the local corner store.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The girls returned. Seven condominium residents – who are currently fleeing their homes – confirmed with me that on Sunday the girls returned, accompanied by two gang members armed with pistols. The group turned to one of the neighbors and told them, among other things, to inform the community that the girls wanted their house refurnished, that “the rat” — as they said — who had informed the police of their presence was part of the community, therefore the community had to replace their door, refrigerator, television, stove, kitchen table and chairs, sofas… Additionally, they wanted the community to sign a letter saying the girls were rightful inhabitants of San Valentin. Or there was plan B — they asked for a new apartment in the complex, paid for and refurnished by the community. 

According to one resident, the girls told them if neither option was carried out, the gang would kill several people in San Valentin. The neighbor who received the message began to pack. He was the first to believe the threat. On Monday, after having passed on the message to many neighbors, the man received another message via telephone. It was the same threat with something extra: “you have 24 hours to comply or there will be a massacre.” The man showed the message to many people, including a member of the family I’m currently watching take apart their house. Panic in the condominium began on Monday night.

He cries profoundly humiliated. Looking down at the floor with his head turned, despite his efforts.

Someone told the police they were being threatened and some arrived to stay the night at the condominium and dissuade people who were already murmuring about leaving. On Tuesday at least five families awoke with a clear thought: flee. These five scared five more and by noon 17 families packed their stuff in trucks, pickups, old cars, where ever they could, and escaped to another area, controlled by the same or a different gang. Each knew what their strategy would be.

“This is one of the key things” – a member of one of the families of windows washers told me. “Now where do we go? There are gangs in any place we might live. There are gangs in any place below 300 dollars a month. Where do we go? What are we going to say if gang members there ask us where we are coming from? If they’re from Barrio 18 they won’t be happy with what happened here. If they’re of a different gang, they won’t want us there. Right now we only know we’re leaving, afterwards we’ll see what we will do.”

The man finishes speaking — a tough man, whose life has led him to window washing. The man is silent. The man tries to hold back his tears. He doesn’t cry with abandon like his aunt at his side. She is crying continuously and constantly drying her eyes with a handkerchief. The man cries without wanting to cry, or at least without wanting others to see his tears. He tries not to cry but does and turns his head. He cries deeply. His stomach wracked by spasms. He cries, humiliated. “Humiliated,” he says. 

He, who cleans car windows all damn day on a corner in this hot and sunny country, has to move his home that he furnished and rented through window cleaning, because girls caked in makeup threatened the whole community. He, who after all day begging, lowered his gaze when he saw them pass. He, who lived in these condominiums under the motto “don’t mess with those girls.” He, who always thought, “from work to the house to shut myself in.” He now has to leave because the girls have backing from a gang.

The other man sees him crying and begins to cry as well. He cries like his brother-in-law. He cries profoundly humiliated. Looking down at the floor with his head turned, despite his efforts.

Today they and their children will sleep crowded together in another condominium or in a flophouse room. They’ll sleep crowded together, and tomorrow will go back to cleaning windows.

It’s one in the afternoon and the fleeing families are being guarded by seven public security police. Suddenly, 15 police in ski-masks enter the complex. They are accompanied by their boss, the assistant director of the police in charge of the anti-gang unit, Pedro Gonzalez. The flight was televised. The nation can eat lunch while watching people flee. Something has to be done.

The anti-gang police kick all media out of the apartment complex. I was at the end of one of the passages and am able to stay. Gonzalez calls out to the people, “Gather around please, call everybody and come. There’s no cameras, we’ve removed the media for a minute to give you this message.” A few residents gather. Some 12 people. The rest continue hurriedly fleeing or stay in their homes.

A woman leaves her home and says, “I’m coming myself because my husband suffers from a heart condition.”

Gonzalez asks people to wash their clothes, cook their lunch, watch TV and return to their homes. He says he’s brought police officers with him. He tells them to carry on with life. That his people will capture “all the gang members.”

He tells them: “We’re going to take away all the gang members in these areas.” He shouts out a strange order into the air: “Comb the area!” Before his orders, the police officers are motionless. He asks, finally, for the people to pray. He tells them: “It doesn’t matter who here is Catholic or Evangelical. Raise a prayer, that is what’s important, ask God.” He asks someone to volunteer to lead the prayer. The people just watch. The police commissioner insists, please, that someone offers to lead the prayer. No one. He asks a woman in front of him, a 70 year old woman “who looks devoted,” to pray. She doesn’t, but a woman by her side finally does. In between prayers I write in my notebook: “God, put an angel at each door.”

The families of window washers continue their flight.

Some ten families continue to leave their homes as the nation’s biggest anti-gang police head asks them to stay and promises to protect them.

In between prayers I write in my notebook: “God, put an angel at each door.”

These roughly 50 people don’t believe he can protect them.

Minutes later, Gonzalez tells me something his boss, the head of the police, as well as the head of the Ministry of Security and Justice, has told him on many occasions: “It’s also a question of perception of the situation.”

Yes, it’s possible that the threats were just a bluff. In fact, some families have decided to stay. They believed it was more talk than action. However, who can call the people who left cowards? The gangs have killed four blocks south of here. The gangs have massacred, burned and shot people six blocks north of here. Just ten days ago the gangs killed the child of the pupusa vendor of this complex. They kidnaped him, right outside, while he was carrying a cylinder of gas, and they dropped his body off a day later nearby in the Panama neighborhood.

Yes, this does have to do with perceptions, but perceptions of a threat both real and fatal. This is not like someone’s perception of the weather and deciding to bring a jacket or a T-shirt. This is not the perception of someone thinking robbers might steal their car. This is the perception of someone who has to decide whether or not to believe that tonight, this very night, they will come to slaughter your family. Yes or no? Should I take the gamble?

The prayer proposed by police director Gonzalez is over. Hours later they will present the arrest of six people from nearby neighborhood, believed to be part of Barrio 18.

Here in the San Valentin condominiums a woman asks: “So will the police stay?” Gonzalez says: “They’ll stay here until you feel safer.” The woman responds: “And after that? When they leave? And when we get on the bus to take the kids to school? When we’re coming back from work?” The woman leaves to continue packing to escape.

Another woman asks: “Could you leave police at each gate permanently?” The gathering has already broken up and no one is responding. 

*This article originally appeared in El Faro‘s Sala Negra and has been translated and reprinted with permission. See original here.