El Salvador’s Gang Violence: The Continuation of Civil War by Other Means

El Salvador’s Gang Violence: The Continuation of Civil War by Other Means

El Salvador’s Gang Violence: The Continuation of Civil War by Other Means

Poverty, the politics of impunity and the long history of US-funded oppression are creating a new wave of refugees.


San Salvador—On a dizzyingly humid Tuesday in mid-May, a friend and I walk to one of the entrances to Nuevo Israel, a marginal community located just northwest of central San Salvador.

We approach a walkway lined, on either side, with champas (tin shacks) and houses with cracked walls painted aquamarine, yellow, sky-blue, and other faded pastel colors. Suddenly, a thin, dark-skinned, teenager in a loose white T-shirt stops us. “Esperen,” he says (wait). “Para donde van?” (Where are you going?), he asks nervously, but with the authoritative tone of a border guard. He is a poste, a gatekeeper authorized to monitor and control traffic in and out of Nuevo Israel by the Mara Salvatrucha, the gang that controls this community.

Having already, on numerous occasions, dealt with police and military who have stopped us to ask similar questions during random stops in other parts of this tense and violent capital city, we know how to respond: quickly, directly, no BS, just as if we were traveling through El Salvador’s war zones of the 1980s and early ’90s.

“We’re here to see Santiago,” responds my friend, referring to one of the few people in this entire gang-violence-ravaged country designated to speak to the wider world on behalf of both of the two major gangs, 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, following a temporary truce brokered in 2012.

The young man eyes my friend’s buzz cut, which looks uncomfortably close to those used by one of the 7,000 regular army soldiers and three battalions of the special forces rapid-response units recently deployed throughout the country to fight the gangs. As a result, tensions in Nuevo Israel and throughout the country are escalating to record levels. The gangs have started targeting police and military personnel when they’re off-duty, killing them on buses, in the streets, and near their homes.

I show the poste my new journalist’s credential for the beatification just last month of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was shot through the heart by a death squad assassin while giving mass back in 1980, at the beginning of the country’s twelve-year civil war, before the poste or many in the Maras were even born. I do so in the hope that the picture of the smiling archbishop will act as a talisman, releasing some of the positive and peaceful messages of Romero-mania that slowed El Salvador’s gang violence for a few days.

“Lift up your shirt,” says the young man, a precautionary measure to make sure my friend is also not with a rival gang. He proceeds to grab his shirt. “Hey,” I exclaim, “he’s helping me with my work here. Please stop.” The poste looks over my friend’s exposed, tattoo-free torso and nods his approval.

Charging the humid air in Nuevo Israel is the murder, a few days earlier, of Oscar Armando Galeas, a 21-year-old shot in the head for allegedly being a member of a rival gang. Some here believe he was yet another one of the exterminados, the extrajudicial killings that gang members and some human rights activists suspect are being carried out by government security forces. Last week, El Faro, by far El Salvador’s pre-eminent news organization, broke a story about four soldiers and a sergeant charged with the forced disappearances of three men in the town of Armenia. Echoing the country’s wartime past, the judge hearing the case called the alleged action of the soldiers a “crime against humanity.”

Galeas’s murder sent ripples throughout the neighborhood. In the month of May, according to government sources, 635 ripples like these were registered in morgues, police reports, and communities throughout the country—carnage not seen since the civil war in this country of 6 million that’s smaller than the state of Massachusetts.

“Wait,” says the white-shirted young man before pulling out a smart phone and calling someone. While we wait, I think about how aspects of our visit to Nuevo Israel—the clandestine meeting, the territorial lines of demarcation, the ever-present possibility of violence and death—post-traumatically trigger and trick the mind and body into war mode. But one major difference between the current situation and the war is that, instead of having to maneuver between two warring factions, you’re now caught in a three-dimensional chess game of potential violence: violence between gangs, violence between gangs and the rest of the population, and violence between the government and the gangs.

“OK,” says the young man, after hanging up his phone. “You can come in.” He never breaks a smile. After walking down a narrow street, we enter a beat-up concrete house. We go into the back, where an older man stands up from a table near an almond tree and extends his hand. “Welcome,” he says, with a smile and an unexpected breeziness that contrast radically with the demeanor of the nervous and dour young poste.

Santiago tells us to sit down, pointing to the table, which has three phones, a pack of Marlboros, a lighter, and a book on it. After he tells us about the book (one of the Hunger Games trilogy), he shares what it was like growing up, “many times without food,” in a champa, the kind of upbringing, he says, that lies at the root of the gang problem.

“All during my childhood, I grew up without light,” he says. “My main escape was books, books that I had to read under a candle. My kids won’t live like that.” Santiago is a father of two who, like all gang members interviewed for this story, lives a great contradiction: He does all he can to protect his kids from violence, while at the same time living a life in which violence or the threat of it provides him with camaraderie, extortion money, territorial control, and other forms of power.

I ask him, “What do you think of Monsignor Romero’s beatification?” Caught off-guard, Santiago bows his head in respect for the slain archbishop. “We identify with him.… He was criminalized, he was persecuted, and he was exterminated by the government, like we are now,” he says.

Santiago’s response disorganizes my sense of things. The idea that an admittedly violent gang member actually identifies with Romero—the moral center of the Salvadoran universe and a man of peace—is baffling. We are far from the simpler time during the civil war, when I interviewed or met with nuns and priests influenced by Romero, US-trained death-squad operatives, refugees, and many leftist guerrillas fighting to overthrow the US-supported Salvadoran government. One of those guerrillas, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, went on to become the country’s current president. When I first met Cerén, in one of the zonas de control (guerrilla-controlled territory) during the war, his nom de guerre was Leonel González. Then he was the soft-spoken and much-admired AK-47-carrying top comandante of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), a key faction in the FMLN’s guerrilla army.

The beatific break of the Romero moment quickly gave way to visible tension in Santiago’s face after I asked him about Cerén’s decision to deploy soldiers to fight the Maras. Referring to the so-called “heavy hand” of severe anti-gang police and military operations that were first launched by the right-wing ARENA party more than a decade ago, Santiago asks, “What do I think about this new Mano Dura?” Irony drips from his every word. “I would ask the president to remember that he used to be hunted by those same rapid-response battalions, when he was a comandante guerrillero,” a visibly bothered Santiago says. “His own men and innocent people were killed by those units, and now he is using them against us?” His face is filled with scorn. Santiago makes a good point: the heart of the government’s counterinsurgency strategy during the civil war was deployment of the notorious rapid-response battalions, which were responsible for massive human rights violations against the civilian population in FMLN-influenced areas.

Referring to previous anti-gang strategies by the government, Santiago says, “All their Plan Mano Dura and Plan Super Mano Dura did was make us mutate more. This new one will only make things worse. The president and all the politicians know that they have to enter here with our permission. Here the owner of the circus is another. Many think we lack the political maturity to play the political game that they are playing. But the day is not far off when we’re capable of playing that game.”

* * *

Though Santiago’s bravado is somewhat overstated (the police and military enter Nuevo Israel frequently), Mara Salvatrucha and El Salvador’s other maras, as the gangs are generically known, do exercise what can be described as hegemonic control over portions of the country (some experts consider them a serious threat to sovereignty). In the exoticized, Heart of Darkness narratives constructed by the likes of National Geographic and other mainstream media and US-government officials, one often hears that residents of communities like Nuevo Israel “live in chaos.” In fact, there is order here—an alternative order, one governed by the gangs.

Mara law is unwritten but deeply felt on the bodies and in the interactions of these residents. Mara law affects their daily decisions as much as or, in some situations, more than the law of the state: It affects educational decisions like where and whether to send children to school; housing decisions like where to live; economic decisions like if and how to run—or shut down—a business or how and when to pay the local gang tax; lifestyle decisions like how to dress; and travel decisions like when and whether to visit certain neighborhoods or whether to leave the country altogether and brave the dangerous journey to the United States, as the children and mothers jailed in the Karnes City, Texas, immigration prison told me earlier this year.

El Salvador’s estimated 70,000 gang members speak as a power because they do not act alone. Like the FMLN in its day as a guerrilla army, the maras operating in city shantytowns and, increasingly, poor rural areas have a social base, people whom they live among and receive support from.

But unlike the all-volunteer FMLN during the war, which was one of the Western Hemisphere’s most formidable revolutionary organizations, gang members are the primary or sole source of income for their family members, an estimated 500,000 people—about 8 percent of El Salvador’s population.

Responding to the need to build an alternative tejido social—the social fabric whose absence creates and sustains gangs and their communities—President Cerén convened representatives from across the social and political spectrum and launched the Council on Citizen Security and Coexistence (CNSCC) soon after his presidential inauguration last year. This past January, the council proposed a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the escalating gang violence: a $2 billion, five-year plan that centers on judicial reform, violence prevention and rehabilitation programs, support for victims, and community-based policing.

But a direct and, to some, shocking contrast to the integrated approach of the CNSCC is Cerén’s decision to continue the hard-line tradition of the Salvadoran state, acting unilaterally to deploy the army and rapid-response units and rejecting any possibility of a truce like the one brokered in 2012 under the presidency of Mauricio Funes, the first FMLN candidate to win the office. All parties agree that the 2012 truce reduced homicides by almost 50 percent from the time it was brokered in March 2012 to when it ended in 2014. Critics of the truce decried it as a ploy allowing the gangs to reorganize and build strength—a not implausible theory, given their subsequent growth and expansion. Cerén ended the support for the truce begun by his FMLN predecessor, declaring that his government could “not return to the scheme of agreeing with and negotiating with gangs because that’s outside the margins of the law.”

At the one-year mark of Cerén’s administration, the defining issue of Salvadoran politics and life has become the violence in poor communities where maras exercise influence. The president and his party, who declined numerous requests for interviews, find themselves under enormous pressure from numerous interests (the political opposition, the private sector, the United States, and large sectors of the public) to escalate the hard-line approach.

“This is not a phenomenon that will be resolved overnight…it requires time, and we are going to be working during that time,” said Cerén last week, in tones reminiscent of the patience that defined him as an FMLN comandante.

Patience may be a virtue in a country that saw the government and military slaughter some 95 percent of the 80,000 killed during the war, according to a United Nations Truth Commission report. But Cerén’s decision to deploy that military, which remains rife with perpetrators of major human rights violations, against the maras is a high-stakes gamble—one that has already drawn criticism from his left and, especially, from his right.

* * *

“Army battalions will be created.” An FMLN television ad.

“Look at that. Just look at that!” exclaimed in perfect English Rodrigo Avila Aviles, a legislator and former presidential candidate of the ARENA party, as he pointed to the television set up in the legislative offices of his party. On the large flat-screen was a commercial, titled “One Year Governing With the People,” with multiple action shots of helicopters and trucks filled with heavily armed police and military.

Played throughout the period leading up to the Romero beatification, the spot was designed to highlight Cerén’s deployment of the military to fight the gangs as one of the major accomplishments of his first year. The ads are a response to sentiments expressed in some polls that show a majority of Salvadorans are frustrated at the violence and reject any truce between the government and gangs (these same polls also show that 90 percent of the public believe a purge of the police is an “urgent priority”). As he watched the spot, Avila, a two-term former chief of the National Civil Police (PNC) and a private- and public-sector consultant on security issues, saw a government divided between the carrot of social programs and the stick he and his party think should be used much more forcefully.

“The CNSCC is proposing the creation of bullcrap,” said Avila. “On the one hand, they’re proposing community policing, and on the other the government is deploying anti-gang military battalions.”

It was disorienting, to say the least, to sit, on the eve of Monsignor Romero’s beatification, with a member of the ARENA party—founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, perhaps the most important leader of El Salvador’s notorious death squads and the man widely credited with organizing Romero’s assassination—and hear him criticize the former FMLN guerrillas for deploying the military.

“There’s a lot of talk about gangbangers being a product of ‘social exclusion’ and crap like that,” said Avila, whose party’s approach to violence and gangs de-emphasizes social programs in favor of initiatives strengthening the hand of the police, reforming the judicial system, and clamping down even harder on the gangs, Mano Dura style.

Because of his international experiences, including, he said, learning from former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former LA police chief William Bratton, whose widespread and controversial “broken windows” program is now at the center of the policing crisis in the United States, Avila thinks Cerén and the CNSCC’s proposals are DOA. He also said he is “not opposed” to the deployment of the military, but thinks the battalions alone will not solve much. He also rejects making overtures for a truce, something ARENA and the FMLN now agree on.

The ARENA party first set the country on the course of deploying the military in 1993, when then-President Alfredo Cristiani used it to clean and patrol streets just months after the peace accords. ARENA is also the party that started using the military to fight gangs back in 2003, when Francisco Flores, a former president from ARENA now jailed for massive corruption, established the first Mano Dura plan.

“Do you know what really helped the maras consolidate, what really strengthened us?” asks Santiago, the gang diplomat. “Mr. Avila’s hard-line anti-gang policies. That’s what obligated us to cross the line we hadn’t crossed, because they tried to close off all space for us. And then we grew. He failed in his totality and strengthened us. Now the [FMLN] government is acting like an ARENA government because they need us to continue their failed policies.”

* * *

“The great evil here in El Salvador is impunity,” said Benjamin Cuellar, researcher and former director of the Human Rights Institute of Central American University (IDHUCA), whose office is located not far from the flower-filled, grassy lawn on campus where six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by soldiers of the infamous Atlacatl rapid-response battalion in 1989 in what is, along with the Romero assassination, one of the most high-profile—and unresolved—crimes in recent Salvadoran history (the battalion had been trained by US Special Forces at the School of the Americas in Fort Bragg, North Carolina).

“Impunity is what’s causing the gangs to perpetuate many of the same problems and violations of rights that we saw during the war: summary executions, massacres, tortures, forced disappearances, mass migration inside the country, and the mass migration of people fleeing to the United States.”

Cuellar and lawyers from IDHUCA are pursuing cases against those they consider to be the intellectual authors of the 1989 UCA murders. “We pursued a case against members of the military and Alfredo Cristiani, who was [ARENA] president when the murders took place. The judge hearing the case said that they did not qualify for the amnesty law because it falls under an exception. What happened? [FMLN President] Funes said he wasn’t going to revoke amnesty. If you have a legal system that can’t pursue justice in these cases, how do you expect it to pursue smaller cases [involving gangs]?”

When asked about the current deployment of the army and rapid-response units to fight gang violence, Cuellar refers to the 1992 peace accords, which among other things called for, in his words, “demilitarizing public security; reducing the size of the military; and the dismantling of the Belloso, Atlacatl, Bracamonte, and Atonal rapid-response battalions.” The military was supposed to be used for public security, he said, “only in exceptional situations.” But, he added, “this exceptional situation has lasted 22 years.”

While laying most of the blame for the wartime violence on ARENA and other governing parties, Cuellar does not hesitate to give the former guerrillas their share of blame for the current crisis. “The FMLN is showing its hypocrisy,” he said, “presenting as a salvation what they used to say was the problem. They’re not going to defeat gangs with the military, just as they were not defeated militarily. The ex-guerrillas are not betting on the ideas with which they won the peace. Instead, they appear to be betting on the ideas of those who were their enemies.”

* * *

Aside from ARENA, say Cuellar and others here, no force exerted—and exerts—as powerful an influence with respect to impunity, poverty, and migration as the United States, which backed the Salvadoran military to the tune of more than $1 billion in its attempt to destroy the FMLN during the civil war.

On its surface, the Obama administration’s recently announced $1 billion aid package for Central America, known as the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (APNT), which includes Honduras, Guatemala, and the FMLN government of El Salvador, appears to signal a new day in regional relations. Announced in response to the migration to the United States of more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in the triangle, the widely touted program, led by Vice President Joe Biden, sounded like an attempt to reverse the devastation left by decades of failed US economic and militarized security policies under cover of Cold War anti-communism and, more recently, the drug war.

But looked at more closely, the package contains little new thinking. Just this past April, 80 human rights and other NGOs from El Salvador and other countries sent a letter to President Obama, Cerén, and other Central American presidents raising concerns about both the economic policies and the “militarization of citizen security that has contributed to systematic human rights abuses.”

* * *

In late May, people in El Salvador woke up to morning papers with pictures of some of the 280 camouflaged US troops being deployed on logistical and “security cooperation training exercises” in the Northern Triangle, including El Salvador. Such images, which stirred memories of the 1980s, increased tensions in cities as well as in more rural and suburban areas like Ilopango.

“I say with love and with respect to the United States government,” said Ilopango Mayor Salvador Ruano, “take responsibility!” Ruano was speaking to a crowd gathered near a small but very polluted creek beneath bamboo trees at the inauguration of a nursery and a gardening project for current and former members of the Mara Salvatrucha, the dominant gang in the area. The crowd included some 200 local families; religious, civic, and NGO leaders; and gang members. Ilopango and its surrounding areas had been, until recently, one of the most violent regions in El Salvador.

“You brought the gangs from the United States when you deported them,” said Ruano, talking about Washington. “So we now ask you to give your support directly to local communities, despite our differences—because Salvadorans need peace.”

Raul Mijango (second from right, with beard), along with representatives of religious groups, NGOs, and the European Union at the inauguration of a new nursery in Ilopango. The screen reads “The Path to Peace in Ilopango.”

The ceremony showcased what happened as a result of the 2012 tregua, the gang truce brokered between 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha. “We have many programs to help the young people—and we’ve paid a price,” said Ruano, his tone rising. “I have been denied a visa to travel to the United States for trying to keep my community safe.” As a result of his participation in the truce, Ruano was ostracized by his own party, ARENA, as well as by the FMLN, whose president, Funes, he had advised as part of the truce process.

“The United States is having an unhealthy influence on the current government,” said Raúl Mijango, one of the main conveners of the gang truce of 2012. A former trainer and leader of the special forces of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), one of the politico-military organizations that formed the FMLN during the war, Mijango also views the US involvement with Salvadoran security with great trepidation.

“Those “trainers,’” Mijango told me, “are part of the elite troops they deploy for multiple actions. It’s the unwritten part of the Alliance for Prosperity. We’ve seen this before, repeating old interventionist schemes of the United States, militarizing public security to expand their power.” Like Ruano, Mijango was also denied a visa to visit the United States to promote the truce, an action he believes was “politically motivated.”

“From the beginning,” Mijango said, “the United States didn’t support the truce because it interferes with their very military approach to the gangs. They asked to participate in the dialogue, but they wanted the FBI to participate. We told them that would only complicate things, so they didn’t participate.”

Standing outside the crowd in front of the stage, Francisco and David, two members of the Mara Salvatrucha, were not as worried about the FBI as they were about the blue-uniformed National Civil Police, who had descended on the nursery scene clutching their M-16s.


“I have to watch out for them as much or more than I do 18th Street,” said David, a baby-faced 17-year-old who is participating in the new nursery project and the accompanying gardening project that allows them to grow and sell tomatoes. “They’ve picked me up, beat me, and left me in 18th Street territory to be killed,” he said. David’s story reminded me of the Los Angeles Police Department, which, by ending gang truces and handing over gang members to US immigration authorities who then deported them, sparked the gang problem in EL Salvador in the first place. “I have a wife and a 4-month-old son, and I’m trying to get straight so I can support them. Working in the garden makes me feel good.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Mara Salvatrucha veteran Manuel, meanwhile, is “here to check out what this was about,” he said, striking a skeptical gangster lean. “It looks like something worth checking out, but I’m not going to join yet,” he said. “I have some issues to deal with,” he added, before admitting that he’s killed 18th Street members and would likely continue doing so, if he had to. “And maybe some police.”

* * *

“Violence is never turned off with more violence,” said Sol Yañez, a psychologist and researcher at the UCA’s department of psychology and social work. Yañez, who has investigated and treated the victims of massacres, including the one at El Mozote in 1981, in which more than 800 civilians were slaughtered by the Atlacatl battalion, was sitting next to a picture of Ignacio Martín-Baró, who before being assassinated in 1989 along with his five other fellow Jesuit priests on the UCA campus was one of the leading lights of social psychology in El Salvador.

For Yañez and others trying to find solutions to the violence in the country, the process of justice and reparation between and beyond gangs begins at the top; in the case of El Salvador, a country ravaged by layer upon layer of failed policies imposed from outside, the top means the US government.

“The United States did much to help destroy the social fabric, whose absence creates maras,” said Yañez. “Ideally, the United States would start a process of symbolic reparations, like asking for real forgiveness from the Salvadoran people for supporting such a bloody war. Of course, it has to be sincere and accompanied by serious contributions to repair the damage done to housing, education, employment, psychological well-being—everything that war destroyed.”

Asked about Cerén and the FMLN’s decision to deploy the military to fight the gangs, Yañez responded with a single word: “fatal.” Fatal, she believes, because it “feeds more violence and adds to the false sense of victory.” The problem, she adds, is applying the idea of war to gang violence. “Yes, there is violence, but this is not a war—and we shouldn’t be talking and acting as if it is.” The effects of again seeing the military on the streets of El Salvador, she says, are profound and widespread. “Beyond the increasing violence, I see the effects of the military presence in people’s daily lives: hypertension, diabetes, headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, lack of concentration, and, especially, lots of violence, because some people are not able to deal with conflicts in other ways.”

“Without justice and reparation,” she concludes, “people will continue living trapped by those on both sides who control the means of violence, trapped in traumas layered on other traumas.”

* * *

Tony Torres used to escape the feeling of being trapped in an unexpected way. “Pizza was part of the miracle that saved my life,” recalls Torres, a 29-year-old pizza maker living in Canton El Cimarron, a small seaside town in the department of La Libertad, where he was born to the same partera (midwife) who had brought his father into the world 39 years earlier.

His pizza love affair and odyssey began, he says, when he was 8 years old, after he and his sister put cheese and tomatoes on big tortillas. (“We didn’t have an oven so we basically ate uncooked masa. We loved it!”) From then on, pizza and dreaming went hand in hand.

Torres says he realized his pizza dreams after migrating, without documents, to Hayward, California, where he first tasted a cooked pizza at a Round Table restaurant that he ended up working at. After his grandmother died, Torres returned home to help his family in El Cimarron without knowing that he had left an infant daughter back in California, a daughter he felt obligated to get to know. He said he also “didn’t have many options,” and, as a tattooed young man, feared the violence. So he migrated north again in 2012.


“On my way back to the US, I was captured by the Zetas [drug cartel] in Mexico,” recalls Torres. “They threatened to kill me unless my family paid their ransom. I won their trust because they found out I could make pizzas for them.” A month and half after being captured, he was released.

On returning to El Salvador, Torres found himself trapped between the 18th Street gang and the National Civil Police. El Salvador turned his pizza dreams into a nightmare. “As soon as I got back, the police would harass me because of my tattoos,” says Torres as he pulls up his shirt to show the names of his daughter and grandmother on his arm and chest. “The police threaten me, beat me, tell me I’m a no-good gangster who better watch out all the time. But I was never involved in gangs.”

When I met them in late May, Torres and his family were still in shock because of the shooting death of their neighbor, who lived just across the cobblestone street from them. “He was shot 17 times by the police, and La Prensa newspaper reported that he was a marrero, which is a total lie,” exclaimed Torres. “He was an evangelical minister.”

Anxious to say something during my interview with his son, José Antonio Torres, a former member of the Belloso battalion rapid-response unit, which was dismantled after the peace accords, leaps up and chimes in angrily. “They will escalate the violence, hurt and kill even more people, because there’s been no accountability,” he says. The younger Torres says nothing in response.

Like many deported from the United States, Torres brought back skills that might be economically useful, which for him meant pizza. He was promised training by the government to re-integrate into his homeland; despite getting nothing, he started a business that went very well, selling pizzas to schools in and around El Cimarron.

“I was doing great, but that didn’t last,” he says. “A guy linked to the Mara came to talk to me and told me, ‘I’m selling pizzas here now. You better stop selling pizzas—or else.’ So, I did.”

Not one to be easily discouraged, Torres moved his oven and equipment to San Vicente, my mom’s idyllic hometown at the foot of a beautiful volcano in the south-central part of the country. Again, Torres’s pizza-making ability carried the day, bringing him orders that had him dreaming of opening a pizza chain.

“I was again doing really well,” he tells me, “but that ended when the Mara Salvatrucha came to me in San Vicente and told me I would have to start paying $200-$300 rent per month. I packed up and came back home.”

Since then, Torres’s pizza oven and equipment have largely remained fallow, except for the pizzas he makes for his uncle in exchange for the $21 in milk he gets for his baby daughter every two weeks, his only source of income.

“I spend almost all of my time here in the house,” says Torres. “I feel trapped, unable to exercise my officio [occupation], with nothing to do because of the gangs and the police.”

Asked if he would brave the Zetas and migrate again to the north, as thousands of Salvadorans—including unaccompanied children—facing similar situations continue to do, Torres responds philosophically.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But, at this point, what do I have to lose? How big is the risk? Is dealing with the Zetas a bigger risk than living here in my hometown? Maybe not. We’ll see.”

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