Agustin Portillo knew his son Jose was headed for trouble.
He came home in November after four years in the United States, defiant, tattooed with gang symbols--and deported as an undesirable immigrant.
"I am going to change," the 24-year-old promised his father. But he did not have time.
By April, Jose Portillo was dead.
The teen-agers who honored the young man as a veteran of the Salvatruchas--one of three major gangs in this city of 1 million--say they saw uniformed police shoot down Portillo as he ran from the scene of a rumble.
The police report blames his murder on unknown assailants who dragged Portillo from his home, shot him through the chest and left his body on a riverbank in the style of the Sombra Negra, the Black Shadow, the most feared instrument of El Salvador's new terror: the killing of people deemed social undesirables.
Under the cover of anonymity perfected in the 1970s by political death squads, vigilante groups have killed more than two dozen known gang members and threatened lawyers who defend them, judges who sentence them too lightly and politicians who advocate human rights.
The spate of killings has added El Salvador to a growing roster of Latin American countries chilled by vigilante justice. Rising crime in Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras--as well as El Salvador--has left citizens frustrated with police, leading some of them to take the law into their own hands.
In a lawless form of crime prevention, they have undertaken what they call "social cleansing," killing gang members, the homeless--especially children and drug addicts--and others considered likely to commit crimes. In Colombia, the targeted victims are called desechables , disposable people.
"Because we are poor, they do not care," says a gang member in Soyapango, a working-class suburb of San Salvador, where nine young men, ranging in age from 14 to 22, have been killed since April. "If one of them had been the son of a congressman, you better believe they would investigate the murder."
Emboldened by impunity, some vigilantes have expanded their list of victims to include prostitutes, gays and political activists, in a reminder of the days when paramilitary death squads routinely murdered anyone suspected of opposing right-wing Salvadoran governments and those in some other Latin countries.
"This is a return to a past we want to forget," Salvadoran Police Inspector Ever Manzano says.
However, even Manzano, who works with gangs, says he has been given no information about investigations into vigilante groups. The dearth of information, much less arrests, in the murders, combined with conflicting accounts of killings such as Portillo's, and reports that vigilantes sometimes use military-style weapons like 9-millimeter pistols, fuel speculation that police may be working with--or may even be--the vigilantes.
"How can a group of people armed to the teeth move from one side of the city to the other without someone noticing?" asks Kirio Waldo Salgado, president of the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party and one of the politicians threatened by the new death squads.
"No one can do this without contacts in the government intelligence structure," he continues. "They also have tentacles in the National Civilian Police, although I do not believe that the police are involved as an institution."
In some countries, the ties to police are clear.
After a private security guard shot 21-year-old Oscar Rene Marroquin in the restroom of a Guatemala City bar called El Shute in January, witnesses said, he called his supervisor, who then called police.
"The national policemen apparently received about $200 from the private policemen to dispose of the youth," alleges Bruce Harris, director of Covenant House, which operates shelters for street children in Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Hollywood.
"His body was found the next morning close to the Mateo Flores Stadium," Harris says. "He had several bullet holes in him--more than the two shots that were heard in the bar."
The police director told representatives of Covenant House that the police officers accused of the crime had been protecting the attorney general that day. The attorney general denied that they were with him, according to Harris' account.
A former police officer in Rio de Janeiro, who identified himself as Marreco, openly admitted to being a member of the vigilante squad Justica Final (Final Justice), according to Human Rights Watch.
"There's no way that the police can guard all the neighborhoods, all the streets," he told investigators of the watchdog agency. "Meanwhile, crime increases and criminals multiply."
Such frustrations are common among police trying to combat the crime waves that have enveloped their countries as their economies--never strong--have deteriorated even further in recent years.
"Families are breaking down because, in this economy, they cannot function," Harris says. "They expel children out onto the street, where they turn to petty thievery to survive. What else do we expect them to do?"
But their impoverished victims--themselves struggling--quickly lose patience with the constant street-corner thievery and the sight of glue-sniffing urchins.
In the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, Carlos Geovanny Medina, 21, was shot to death for trying to steal a piece of cake, according to witnesses. His death has not been investigated, Harris says.
Those like Portillo, who are known gang leaders, inspire even less sympathy. Portillo's mother abandoned the family when he and his four brothers were children. With the war raging in their home state of Usulutan, Agustin Portillo decided to bring his sons to the capital.
There, he found a new wife and began a new family. His oldest son and namesake moved to Texas.
Encouraged by his stories, his father ventured off to the United States as well. But soon his wife wrote complaining about the extra work of cooking and cleaning for Jose, her teen-age stepson.
Portillo sent Jose to the boy's brother in Texas, where he stayed for four months before heading to Los Angeles. There he got a job at a Subway restaurant and joined a gang called Salvatrucha--a slang word for Salvadoran.
Constantly in trouble with U.S. authorities, he was deported late last year. As a courtesy, U.S. officials notified their Salvadoran counterparts. Such notifications make gang members like Portillo easy targets for vigilante groups, human rights organizations say.
Like many deported members of Los Angeles street gangs, Portillo set about organizing his own gang in his old Villa Mariona neighborhood.
"He was the one who created the gang," an 18-year-old called Puma says. "He was a veteran. He was our homeboy."
Police admit that they have been largely ineffective against such hardened gang members.
"Many times, we make arrests and the witnesses do not appear," says Assistant Police Commissioner Cristina Fernandez, a psychologist who works in community relations, including working with gang members.
In addition, the Salvadoran criminal code specifies that juveniles can only be arrested if they are in the act of committing a crime. "We have to catch them red-handed," Inspector Manzano says.
Vigilantes, in the short run, appear to have provided a solution.
The young men who used to hang out, drinking and talking, by the wood-plank community center in the modest Salvadoran neighborhood of El Pepeto go to bed early these days.
The reason is clear from the "Memorial to Our Homeboys"--Casper, Joker, Curly and a fourth illegible name--spray-painted on the side of the simple building.
The youths, ranging in age from 15 to 22, were socializing on an unlighted corner when a utility vehicle pulled into the dusty, unpaved parking lot. Four men got out, grabbed the youths and threw them on the ground. One of the men, wearing a ski mask, shot three of the youths in the back of the neck.
They forced the youngest, Braulino Antonio Castillo, into the truck and sped away. His tortured body was found the next day beside a river.
"We are afraid to go out of our houses," said one of the neighbors after the killings, echoing the words of gang members across the capital.
As a result, the vigilantes have received overwhelming support from anonymous callers to radio talk shows, both in El Salvador and Colombia, even though organizations from the Roman Catholic Church to human rights groups have condemned their activities.
"They are making the police look ineffective," says Anne Manuel of Human Rights Watch.
Human rights workers, political activists and gang members agree that advocates of"social cleansing" have not fully considered the implications of their support for the vigilantes.
"If they decide to kill me while we are standing here talking, they are going to get you too," says Psycho, 23, a gang leader in Santa Tecla, one of the Salvadoran neighborhoods targeted by death squads.
Opposition politician Salgado foresees even more ominous consequences.
"Right now, the Black Shadow is a very appealing movement, given the increase in crime in El Salvador, because they have started by killing criminals," he says.
"But now there are other groups going after judges and politicians. They will take advantage of the confusion to relieve themselves of social activists who are opposed to the government" of President Armando Calderon Sol of the right-wing National Republican Alliance.
That has been the pattern in other countries, says George Vickers, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a private organization.
"By targeting the gangs, they establish a certain popular support," he explains. "As they move toward more political targets, some of that popularity carries over."
Meanwhile, the vigilantes create a climate of fear and insecurity in emerging democracies with long traditions of military rule.
"It is a battle over who should control the police," Manuel says. "The more bodies there are in the street, the more people believe things are out of control and believe they need the army to come and take control."
And, in the end, "social cleansing" has proved to be ineffective.
Vigilante groups first emerged in the Colombian city of Pereira in 1979 and a year later had spread to the capital, according to Carlos Eduardo Rojas, a researcher at the Center for Research and Popular Education in Bogota.
Today, Rojas estimates that Bogota has more street children than any other Latin American city, with the possible exception of Mexico City.
As gang leader Psycho notes, "They can kill me, but there will be someone to take my place. This problem is never going to end."
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The Spread of "Social Cleansing"
The activities of vigilantes began in South America more than 15 years ago and have spread to Central America in the 1990s.
El Salvador: 1995
Source: Times staff
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A Roster of Vigilante Groups
Some examples of groups operating in Latin America:
* EL SALVADOR
La Sombra Negra (Black Shadow)
La Nueva Mano Blanca (The New White Hand)
El Comando Ejecutivo Antidelincuencial Transitorio (Transitory Anti-delinquency Executive Command)
Mercado Colon (Columbus Market)
Escuadron 13 (Squad 13)
* COLOMBIA (by city)
Toxicol-90 (name of insecticide)
Escuadron de la Muerte (Death Squad)
Muerte a Gamines (Death to Street Children)
Bandera Negra (Black Flag)
Servicio Popular del Pueblo (People's Service)
Defensa Popular (People's Defense)
* BRAZIL (by city)
RIO DE JANEIRO
Justica Final (Final Justice)
Cavalos Corredores (Galloping Horses)
Escuadrao da Morte (Death Squad)
SOURCE: Times staff