Why are There No Gangs in Berlin, El Salvador?

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Berlin is not one of those municipalities often presented as a territory immune to El Salvador’s gang phenomenon. Berlin has more than 17,000 residents and is nestled in one of the most violent zones in the country, but over the past decade its homicide rate has been closer to that of Costa Rica than El Salvador. There are no gangs in Berlin, and that alone deserves an explanation. 

Berlin is not Germany, but it also doesn’t seem like El Salvador.

Hence my confusion when bus 354, after snaking through the Tecapa-Chinameca mountain range, reaches its destination one block from the town’s central park. The first thing I see when I get off the bus is three police officers with bullet-proof vests and shotguns propped against a wall. They are frisking a docile and lanky youth who has his hands on the back of his neck. An officer removes his wallet and checks his bag without a hint of modesty. Another plays with the youth’s cellphone. They soon let him go, unharmed.

I am confused because I thought that Berlin, which is located in the department of Usulutan, is a peaceful place by Salvadoran standards. During the last ten years this municipality has registered homicide rates closer to Costa Rica than El Salvador. Even in the last two or three years, when the violence shot up in nearby towns such as Santiago de Maria, Tecapan, and Mercedes Umaña, the rate here has been one homicide every three or four months. I came here, in fact, to search for why this place is so peaceful.

This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here

The frisking of the lanky youth begins the paradox. The central park is full of police officers with stern faces and heavy weapons. They are waiting for a funeral mass to end in San Jose church, which is situated in a corner of the park.

Inside a grey casket lies Roberto Carlos Alejo, 31 years old, a former employee of a local bus company. Gang members killed him three days prior in the metropolitan area of San Salvador. The mother, a native of Berlin, believed it was appropriate to bury him in the town that he left those many years ago. In the town, the idea has spread that it is a funeral for a gang member.

“Neighbors told us that some youths had come [to town] that nobody knew,” Deputy Inspector Francisco Perez would tell me two days later.

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Friends and family at the funeral of Roberto Carlos Alejo. Photo: Roberto Valencia

When the priest finishes with, “go in peace,” the casket is hoisted up, carried by strong men. Behind them are some thirty mourners, most of whom are women. At the entrance to the church a Nissan Frontier pick-up awaits, accommodated to serve as a funeral car. But police officers select three youths from the group and put them against the wall, with their hands on the back of their necks. The scene plays out with a strange naturalness.

The death bells sound: two rings, long silence, another two rings. Some family members mourn, but are submissive.

“They are from a canton,” says one woman, referring to the three boys who have been stopped by police. “They are fine,” says another. “It’s for your own good; if there is no problem, we are not going to arrest them,” an officer kindly replies.

“He is a cousin of the deceased, the other one too… the three are cousins!” the woman insists. But zero tension. The agents invite the group to walk towards the cemetery, saying that the three will meet up with them if they have done nothing wrong. “They are doing their work,” says one mourner. “For the tranquility of the town it is better,” says another. The loudest criticism I mark down in my notebook is this: “The police act without taking into account the pain people feel.” Ten minutes later, after checking via radio that they are clean, the agents give back the boys their documents and, for today at least, they can go in peace. The park gradually returns to normalcy.

I approach an agent who has a commanding voice. “When we see movement of people that are not from Berlin, as authorities, we have an obligation to identify them,” he tells me. “And as [the mourners] brought the deceased from outside Berlin… the people always inform us of any situation.”

No, this doesn’t seem like El Salvador.

***

The Ministry of Education has 32 education centers registered in the town and one institute: the National Institute of Berlin, or INB for its Spanish initials.

“This is a tranquil city,” says Saul Flores Gonzalez, the institute’s director for more than a decade.

In El Salvador, secondary education is a reliable thermometer to measure the temperature of the gangs’ presence. It is enough to simply walk into the school’s men’s bathroom to calibrate their influence. In the bathroom at the Berlin institute, there are occasional scribbles that say “MS13,” “NLS,” or “XV3,” but they are scarce and poorly made. It is more noteworthy that at the entrance of INB there are no police, soldiers, or private security, as is common in many parts of the country.

Contaminate, he says. It is a verb that many of those from Berlin use to refer to the gangs. They also use “virus” and “scourge.”

Nonetheless, Saul is worried. In recent years, the number of youths from other municipalities that have enrolled in INB has skyrocketed. Many are from places like Apopa, Soyapango, and San Miguel.

“On Mondays we do general formation training,” says Saul, “and I ask them to try to respect us, that we respect their use of free time. But that we try to maintain the institute free of gang symbols, that we make the institution a neutral zone, and that here no one is owner of anything. I tell them that their children will study here one day, and that they have to take care of what we have here.”

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Next to the basketball court, where the students receive the training, stands a wall with large letters that spell out: “Your parents invest time and money in your education; do not cheat them.”

“Does it work, telling them this on Mondays?” I ask.

“Yes, and I tell them it with total respect,” Saul replies.

“A speech once a week? That’s all?

“No. The key is the social projects, in which various institutions are involved. For example, we have between 60 and 80 youths in the peace band. They come from 4:00pm to 6:00 or 7:00pm, every day. If they weren’t here, they would be in the pool hall. What a child needs is having something that keeps them occupied, but resources are needed for this.”

Keeping youths busy, says Saul. So easy and yet so complicated.

***

The municipal market in Berlin would not win a prize for cleanliness or decoration, but it does have one invaluable virtue: under threat of death, no “clica,” or “clique,” of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) or Barrio 18 has imposed an extortion payment system on the vendors here.

“Small stuff happens, but you could say that it is peaceful,” says Salvador Peña, a business administrator in Berlin for the last four years. He knows of businesses that have been extorted, but in Berlin these abuses are generally reported to the authorities. “All the inhabitants are watchful, for the most part we all know each other, and the police act rapidly,” he says.

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The church in Berlin’s central square. Photo: Roberto Valencia

Peña is convincing when he denies the presence of gangs, but we must not be too naive: if there was a threat put forth by the gangs, no one would trust a journalist with his tape recorder on.

Extortion is the principal source of income for Salvadoran gangs, but Berlin appears to be liberated territory. There have been some cases of established cliques from neighboring municipalities that make threats, or even criminals that try to pass themselves off as gang members, but it appears the extortion payment system doesn’t exist here. 

As I said: Berlin doesn’t seem like El Salvador.

***

They have killed someone in Berlin!

I find out about the act when, after three days here, I enter the police station to ask for an interview with the police chief. The agent behind the desk tells me that it won’t be possible, that the deputy inspector has left because there was a homicide in the hamlet known as Los Cañales. He doesn’t give me details. Perhaps he doesn’t know anything more; the murder just happened. I quickly leave, catching the first motorcycle taxi that passes by, and I try to explain where we have to go with the little information the police officer has given me. But the taxi driver already knows. The victim was a colleague of his.

It takes us less than five minutes to arrive. The police have cordoned off the scene with yellow tape. It is shortly before 4:00pm. There are already roughly 40 bystanders, family members and colleagues of the 23-year-old victim named Victor Mauricio Sigaran.

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Family, friends and colleagues gather following the murder of Victor Mauricio Sigaran. Photo: Roberto Valencia

An elderly woman who recently arrived begins to sob. “It cannot be, Lord Jesus…” A boy also starts crying. The woman cries out, “Why, Lord? Why, Lord!!!” People approach her in order to calm her down. “My nephew, my god…” The boy cries in silence, as the rules of machismo require him to do so. The woman again sobs, “Lord, Lord.” She faints. The group calls to her: “Mercedes, Mercedes!” They lay her down on the concrete. A police officer comes over. “Easy, easy,” he says. They fan her with a sweater. “I need you to work with me, ma’am.” Someone else says they have to take her to a health center. She wakes up enough to move her head. God will give her strength, someone says.

The population has united, he says. Maybe it’s a cliché, an all-too-common phrase out of a politician’s mouth. But maybe not, maybe it’s an idea so simple that it holds the key to everything.

This country is messed up, someone else says. Someone offers to carry her away in their car. “Should we get you up, ma’am? Slowly.” They tell her to stretch. It seems to give her some strength. They try to convince her, saying that she won’t be able to see Victor, that the police don’t let anyone pass the yellow tape, that there is nothing more to see here.

Tomorrow all the motorcycle taxis that comprise the cooperative in which Victor worked will have messages on their windshields that say they will always remember Victor. But right now night is falling, the forensic authorities from Medicina Legal have still not arrived, and everyone here is angry, distrustful and suspicious. Victor’s colleagues are convinced he was killed for being a taxi driver, not for being Victor. It could have been any one one of them.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides

The tell me that the motorcycle taxi cooperative had received written and telephonic threats from gang members regarding extortion, but they refused to pay. They believe the threats came from the Mara Salvatrucha, which operates in the nearby municipality of Mercedes Umaña. Some of the members of the cooperative had taken security precautions, such as not accepting strangers and avoiding the more distant cantons.

Today, Berlin feels like El Salvador.

***

A large German flag distinguishes the office of Jesus Antonio Cortez Mendoza, the mayor of Berlin. He is relatively young; he could still pass as a man in his thirties. He just took up the job a little more than a month ago.

Mayor Jesus Cortez also takes satisfaction in Berlin being known as a city without gangs. He does not hide that the current situation, with a government that has decided to confront the gang phenomenon with repressive policies, could affect the town through the return of people from Apopa, Soyapango, San Miguel.

“We have some settlements that are beginning to get complicated, with youths… let’s say… becoming fans of the gangs,” the mayor says. “The youths are always vulnerable to being contaminated by people that come from other municipalities.”

Contaminate, he says. It is a verb that many of those from Berlin use to refer to the gangs. They also use “virus” and “scourge.”

“Our advantage is that we know who our neighbors are and what they are doing,” the mayor continues. “The population has united.”

The population has united, he says. Maybe it’s a cliché, an all-too-common phrase out of a politician’s mouth. But maybe not, maybe it’s an idea so simple that it holds the key to everything.

***

Three months after the killing of the taxi driver Victor Sigaran, an additional homicide is reported in Berlin: a 55-year-old woman was killed on September 3 in the canton of San Juan Loma Alta. It doesn’t appear to be gang-related.

I arrive to a hotel in Bogota, Colombia for a seminar in which one of the invited speakers is Howard Augusto Cotto, the deputy director of El Salvador’s National Civil Police. He speaks with unusual frankness about the terrible violence affecting El Salvador, and at one point he says the following: “Our work is much easier when there is more social organization, and it becomes more difficult in places where the social fabric has been broken.” I feel as if he were talking about Berlin.

The seminar is a closed event, and the agreement with Cotto is that what is said here, stays here. But the next day I ask him if he would permit me to include the phrase in this story that has Berlin as a protagonist. Yes, he says.

Later, he will remember that a few days before a half-dozen individuals from Berlin, led by the mayor, traveled to San Salvador to meet with him, and to tell him how satisfied they are with Deputy Inspector Francisco Perez. The group will also ask that Francisco Perez remain head of the delegation when his interim period runs out after seven months.

No, Berlin is not Germany, but it definitely doesn’t seem like El Salvador either.

*This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here

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