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.