El Salvador Comes to Grips With Gangs

Times Staff Writer

Minutes after hooded commandos stormed his tiny shack in the middle of the night and hustled him off to jail, Juan Carlos Diaz was smiling.

Had he shot a bus fare collector in cold blood before 25 horrified commuters, as the police said? The 18-year-old high school dropout grinned before answering: "Not even close."

But he acknowledged joining the M-18 gang four months earlier and proudly looked down at the 10-inch-high "18" tattooed on his chest and abdomen. "For me," he said, "that number is everything."

That appeal has attracted an estimated 30,000 Salvadorans to M-18 and its rival, Mara Salvatrucha, twin armies whose reign of terror has left this country -- urban and rural areas alike -- paralyzed with fear. The gangs claim an average five homicide victims a day.

On the October night Diaz was arrested, the teams of heavily armed police nabbed 15 other gang members, all suspected in killings, in this warren-like slum bordering the capital, San Salvador. The raids were part of Operation Super Firm Hand, a controversial anti-gang campaign -- praised by a shattered public but criticized by human rights activists -- that gives El Salvador's police sweeping arrest powers to combat the increasingly sadistic violence.

Government officials, including Deputy Citizens' Security Minister Rodrigo Avila, blame the violence at least in part on the deportation of nearly 12,000 Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States since 1998. Many are prison-hardened former gang members in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities who were sent back here as illegal immigrants.

"The deportations are at the core of the problem," Avila said. "Gangs here now copy the whole L.A. gang culture, the way they talk, the clothes they wear and the absolute ruthlessness."

Many deportees simply join their counterpart gangs here upon arrival, often gaining leadership roles because they are generally the most violent in the ranks, National Civil Police Chief Ricardo Menesses said in an interview.

Deported gang members have little choice but to rejoin a gang, said Eric Henriquez, 37, a former M-18 member in East Los Angeles who was deported here in 1998. Henriquez now heads Homies United, a group that provides rehabilitation counseling to gang members. Most of its clients arrived here with no money, no support group, no job prospects and knowing little Spanish, if any.

"Typically, they've spent most of their lives in the States. So they are dumped in a foreign culture and immediately face discrimination," Henriquez said. "Employers see those tattoos and close their doors. You can die of hunger here. So you look for any network you can find."

The bloodletting has risen to such levels that the gangs' methods resemble those of Mexican drug cartels. To deliver a threat to Avila in October, one group of thugs made its point by randomly gang-raping a teenager and forcing her mother to call the official with the warning, an incident Avila discussed in an interview.

The brutality of the gangs' crimes is increasingly horrific. Homicide victims, including many women and teenage girls, often are found so mutilated that Spanish priest Jose Maria Morataya, who runs a San Salvador rehabilitation and job training center for former gang members called Poligono Don Bosco, suspects that some gang members practice satanic rituals.

In September, M-18 members attacked a teenage girl in San Salvador, stabbing her in the neck and abdomen before beheading her, police said. Gang rivalries were at the root of the killing of a 16-year-old mother here last year. Gang members also killed and dismembered her 5-month-old daughter.

Most of the gang killings are committed by members who exact lethal revenge on rivals, their girlfriends and family members for daring so much as to set foot on their territory -- or for just belonging to an enemy gang. But ordinary Salvadorans are routinely touched by the gangs' power.

Money is extorted from residents and businesses in exchange for protection, and refusing gangs' demands can mean a death sentence like that meted out to Diaz's alleged victim, 21-year-old bus worker Yamil Hernandez, who was unwilling to turn over the day's receipts.

"He was a good person. He never drank. All he wanted to do was work," said the victim's grandmother, Maria Eulalia Hernandez, who was interviewed in a neighboring barrio the day after Diaz's arrest.

Her grandson, a high school wrestler, had steered clear of gangs and was saving up to go to university or take courses to become a chef. She said the family was too frightened of the gangs to file a criminal complaint after the killing. In fact, the victim's brother, 18-year-old Luis, fled to the United States in October after receiving gang threats.

Most Salvadorans, sickened by spiraling violence instigated by the gangs, which control more than half of the capital's streets, would tell you that Operation Super Firm Hand is working, and President Tony Saca, who took office in June, wins approval ratings up to 80% for his tough stance.

The government claims a 14% drop in homicides this year and sharper reductions in carjackings and kidnappings.

"Before Firm Hand, taxis wouldn't even drive here. It was too dangerous. But now you don't even see the gangs," said Rafael Guardado, a mechanic who lives in Ilopango's San Jose barrio, an area where gang members' rule was once sovereign. "It's working, and they should tighten it even more. Bring in the army to patrol too."

But many academics and human rights advocates are deeply critical of the campaign, saying it is merely repressive and fails to attack the root social causes -- family disintegration, joblessness and a legacy of violence after decades of civil war that ended with a 1992 peace accord.

Super Firm Hand has not eliminated gang members, critics say, just sent most of them into hiding.

"Gangs are a problem that will not be solved until leaders find a way to deliver education and jobs, that's to say, a future, to youth," said Marcela Smutt, a program coordinator and an expert on gangs at the United Nations Development Program office in San Salvador.

Dagoberto Gutierrez, an environmental lawyer and former rebel commander in El Salvador's civil war, said gang violence was a predictable outgrowth of family disintegration caused by the exodus to the United States of 20% of the population as political and economic refugees over the last 25 years. Many youths here lack male authority figures, often living with mother, aunt or grandmother if not on the street, he said.

"The problem needs intelligent policy to address the social causes, because it's the society that is producing the problem of gangs," Gutierrez said.

The overwhelming majority of gang members come from broken homes, have dropped out of school, can't find work or are living on the street, the U.N.'s Smutt says.

In gangs, they find the sense of belonging unavailable anywhere else.

Avila, the security ministry official, agreed that the gangs' strength derives from the sense of solidarity they offer youths.

"The problem is, the gangs are getting organized. Being a member is all about social motives and drive," Avila said.

"A common thief knows he is doing wrong. With gangs, it's not the case. It's not the money that's the motive, but a way of life."

Complaints by rights activists that police sweeps deprive gang suspects of their civil rights have had an impact.

In August, the government was forced to modify its anti-gang law to require police to obtain arrest warrants before grabbing suspects.

During the first phase of Super Firm Hand last year, police arrested suspects merely for appearing to be gang members by virtue of their tattoos or clothing. As a result, 95% of those arrested last year were set free by judges within 72 hours for lack of evidence. Now, only 28% go free before being formally charged, Police Chief Menesses said.

Police say they have a solid case against Juan Carlos Portillo, a 23-year-old member of Mara Salvatrucha who was deported from Los Angeles three years ago.

He was among the 16 suspects arrested by SWAT officers, accused of being the triggerman in the revenge killing of prison guard Mario Santos Carpio on Oct. 6.

"I didn't do it. I have a family to maintain," Portillo said. "This is the result of a bad investigation."

Asked why he was given a criminal deportation order from Los Angeles, Portillo smiled and said: "I went a little crazy there."

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