One murder every hour: how El Salvador became the homicide capital of the world

El Salvador crime scene

On the deadliest day of the century in the world’s most homicidal country, a gang leader and convicted murderer sits quietly in a vegetable farm and ruing what he calls a disappearing opportunity for peace.

Marvin, is a senior figure in the Mara Salvatrucha, one of El Salvador’s two biggest gangs. They have been at war with each other for two decades and now find themselves under attack by the state amid a bloody escalation of violence.

Last Sunday was, briefly, the bloodiest day yet with 40 murders. But the record was beaten on Monday with 42 deaths, and surpassed again on Tuesday with 43. Even Iraq – with its civil war, suicide bombings, mortar attacks and US drone strikes – could not match such a lethal start to the week.

For the 31-year-old gangster, such statistics are further cause for pessimism that his country is being sucked deeper into a culture of death – one that he has been part of for most of his life.

Marvin, the name he wishes to be known by, joined the gang when he was 14. Four years later, he was jailed for shooting and killing a member of the rival gang Barrio 18 because, he said, “You are crazy when you are young. You want to be important in the gang. You want to be noticed.”

After 10 years in prison, he claims he was determined to overcome the cycle of revenge attacks, territorial battles and police repression that made his country a byword for violence.

“When I came out, I saw that nothing had changed. My story was repeating itself in others that I saw with weapons, drugs and not having enough to eat,” he says.

In 2012, he was part of a 15-month truce involving the gangs, the government, police and army, that cut homicide rates by about half and even led to a handful of days with no murders at all. The vegetable and chicken farm in Ilopango is part of an outreach project that aims to take gang members off the streets.

But the tranquil setting is at sharp odds with the carnage on the streets now that the national truce is long past and a new police offensive is under way to try to stem crime that has long been out of control.

‘This country is bleeding’

It started innocuously enough in February with the relocation of jailed gang leaders to high-security prisons with fewer visiting rights and reduced privileges. Since then, the conflict escalated rapidly.

The statistics are awful

More than 3,830 people have been murdered in El Salvador this year. With one killing on average every hour, August is on course to be the deadliest month since the 1992 peace accord. On current trends, the homicide rate will pass 90 per 100,000 people in 2015, overtaking that of Honduras as the highest in the world (not including battlegrounds like Syria). This would make El Salvador almost 20 times deadlier than the United States and 90 times deadlier the UK.

“This country is bleeding and it urgently needs a tourniquet,” says Raul Mijango, a former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla, who was a key mediator in securing the truce. “Now we have a war between the state and the gangs.”

But this is no failed state, no dictatorship struggling with an insurgency, no rubble-strewn target of suicide bombers.

At first glance, downtown San Salvador feels more like Miami with its traffic, shopping malls and American fast-food chains. The leafy suburbs appear quiet and more likely to showcase the work of local topiary artists than to provide a stage for gang wars. Further into the countryside, the main roads are decent, the whitewash on the churches often freshly painted and democracy seemingly alive and well in the banners and flags of the FMLN and Arena parties.

But look more closely and you notice schools are protected by barbed wire and often patrolled by soldiers; private security guards carrying shotguns man the entrance to major businesses and police, armed with rifles, conduct random checks on the highways. Even in the morning rush hour, it is not uncommon to see soldiers in balaclavas riding on the back of flat-bed trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Few people pay them a second glance.

To some extent, violence has been normalised. For much of its history, this small country has suffered levels of murder unimaginable almost anywhere else outside of wartime, primarily due to turf battles and revenge killings by the Mara Salvatrucha (better known as MS-13), and Barrio 18, which is split into two factions.

These “mara” have their origins in the gangs of Los Angeles. When El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, the US deported thousands of illegal migrants back to their home country. Many brought back the violent street culture and mutual hatred that had shaped their existence in California. Over the past two decades, they have grown, evolved and wreaked more carnage in El Salvador due to the weak government, dire inequality and a historical national tendency towards violence both in institutions and households.

In financial and political terms, El Salvador’s gangs are disorganised small fry compared to the mafia, the Yakuza or the narco-cartels of Colombia or Mexico

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Source: islamicnewsdaily

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