Terror in El Salvador despite gang truce

May 29, 2013, 4:16 PM EDT
A masked member of the 18th Street gang peers from behind a window of a prison door as other gang members give a press conference inside the San Pedro Sula prison in Honduras, Tuesday, May 28, 2013.
(AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

ILOPANGO, El Salvador (AP) — Young men come around once a week to collect $20 from store owner Carlos Tevez, the "tax" he pays to continue operating his business and to keep his family safe.

The routine hasn't changed, despite a truce between Salvadoran street gangs that officials say has caused a dramatic drop in killings in the country.

While there may be more peace for gang members, average Salvadorans such as Tevez still live under a reign of terror. It's a cautionary example for people in neighboring Honduras, where a similar truce was announced on Tuesday.

"They still come to collect rent, demand things without paying," said Tevez, who runs a small convenience store in the town outside of the capital of San Salvador. "All of a sudden they've started asking for rice, beans, whatever they feel like. If I don't give it to them, they will kill me."

Officials say murders have dropped 52 percent in El Salvador, where an average of 14 people a day were killed before the March 2012 truce. The same gangs announced a similar agreement on Tuesday in Honduras, where an estimated 20 people die daily in what is called the most dangerous country in the world. The experience of their neighbors gives Hondurans little hope that their everyday lives will suddenly change.

"We won't believe it until we see it," said Honduran Roberto Zelaya, 32, among the countless taxi drivers forced to make extortion payments just to work. "They come to the taxi stand, leave a telephone and then call to let us know what day they will come by to collect their rent ... no one is going to let go of this gold mine very easily. It's us who need help, not them."

The gangs acknowledged on Tuesday that the truce will not immediately end to extortion in Honduras.

"Let's go step by step," said a Mara Salvatrucha spokesman who gave his name only as Marcos. Talking to reporters on Tuesday from his Honduras jail cell, Marcos noted that for now there still is no legitimate work or rehabilitation for thousands of gang members.

Gangs in El Salvador, too, openly admit they will continue to extort and threaten residents of the areas they control. The groups now count about 70,000 members in El Salvador alone, mostly young men, with about 9,000 of them in prison, where they continue to serve as leaders and run gang activities outside.

The Salvadoran community of Ilopango was declared the first violence-free zone in January, with eight more following since then, the most recent being Nueva Concepcion in northern El Salvador on May 8.

In Honduras, the gangs committed on Tuesday to zero violence and zero crime in the streets as a first-step show of good faith to the government, which has yet to officially respond.

Adam Blackwell, Organization of American States undersecretary for security who helped negotiate both truces, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that a commission will be named in Honduras in the coming days to follow the truce and establish dialogue between gang leaders and the government. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has said he supports the effort.

In one recent incident in Ilopango, three gang members shot up the auto shop of a mechanic who refused to make a protection payment. The owner and his spouse were both injured, and police found 20 bullet casings at the site.

"We agree that extortion has to disappear, that's not an option. The same for violence. But we have to create the conditions so that our members can have access to jobs, education," said Carlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga, leader of El Salvador's 18th Street gang.

"The family has to eat and our salaries come from extortion," acknowledged a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang who spoke without giving his name for security reasons.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes two weeks ago announced a $33.3 million investment to boost social programs and job training for gang members in six of the nine municipalities declared as "violence free" under the truce. The first allocation of nearly $19 million will go to create jobs, training and entrepreneurial ventures, with allocations for education and health to follow.

In Honduras, however, the dynamic is different.

A 2010 U.N. crime report said only 30 percent of the killings are the result of gang-on-gang violence.

The 18th Street gang says much of the killing is part of a war between the gang and police death squads, masked and heavily armed men who commit extrajudicial killings to fight the gang problem. An AP investigation found at least five gang members have been killed or disappeared since January after last seen in police custody.

Honduran Roman Catholic Bishop Romulo Emiliani, who started the negotiations, told a local television station on Wednesday that he has rehabilitated 150 gang members. Still, 66 of them were killed in the last two years either by rival gangs, or what he called undercover armed groups that are more "effective and organized than the gangs."

"It could be strategy for organizing their territories," street vendor Alexis Villanueva, 20, said of the Honduran truce. "Also, the problem is not between the gangs but with police. And this isn't a solution for that."

El Salvador's Ilopango is a heavily populated city, where about 20 members of the Mara Salvatrucha hang out in the central park every day, watching the movements of students on their way to and from school. They control the area. To avoid problems with the gangs, students make sure they wear their uniforms and carry backpacks made of transparent material so the gang members can see that they're not carrying arms. The students travel in groups as protection, and even then some have disappeared.

The government has urged business owners to help create jobs for gang members so they can be reintegrated into society.

In one such effort, Ilopango Mayor Salvador Ruano used city funds to establish a bakery in a small house without windows or a roof where gang members can work legally. Members of the 18th Street gang run the bakery without electricity or running water, eight bakers and 12 sales people.

Maria Garcia, a 65-year-old housewife, calls the bakery a miracle.

"I saw a lot of killing in the war. That was terrible. But these young men, when they want to be bad, they are really bad," she said.

Ruano said he is encouraged by the small experiment.

"But everything depends on whether we get the money or support they promised," he said. "All we have to do now is wait. We've taken the first steps."


Associated Press writer Alberto Arce contributed to this report from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.