El Salvador battles an epidemic of violence

Father Antonio Rodriguez keeps the image on his cellphone. A 12-year-old boy. Headless. His killers probably boys not a whole lot older than him.

When Josue went missing, his frantic grandmother sought the priest’s help. Rodriguez went looking for him and found the body. The crime chilled and disgusted him.

Somehow, he needed to document the loss of another young life in a dizzying spin of daily, casual death. And so the blurry photo, the thin, lifeless body in bluejeans and red shirt askew in a ravine, the head off to the side, remains on the priest’s cellphone.


“It’s the story of thousands,” Rodriguez said.

Though Mexico grabs headlines for its horrific drug war body count, El Salvador suffers a far worse homicide rate, one of the highest in the world.

Two decades ago, it was a civil war, with soldiers, death squads and guerrillas spilling the blood. Now it’s gangs (thousands of members originally from Los Angeles), drug-fueled crime, abusive police officers -- all the makings of a bloodletting that has terrified the population and contributed in recent elections to the unseating of the party that ruled for 20 years.

In the first three months of 2009, by official government count, an average of nearly 12 people a day were slain. This in a tiny, densely populated nation of nearly 7 million. (The homicide rate is roughly five times that of Mexico and 10 times that of the United States.)

Life is cheap in El Salvador. Throw in drugs and impunity, and a flawed judicial system whereby few if any killings are ever solved, and the death toll will continue to climb. With the lawless atmosphere, ordinary business disputes and personal vendettas are readily solved by physical attack.

Gun shops, which barely existed a decade ago, are common neighborhood features. You can hire someone to kill a rival for $50; for $100 if you want to see the body.

“It is an epidemic,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s parish is in the Mejicanos neighborhood of San Salvador, a jumbled working-class area where old women walk with live chickens tucked under their arms and pupusas stacked on their heads, and where guards with shotguns stand at pharmacies and bakeries.

The priest runs a violence-prevention program at his church. He’s helped about 1,800 youths, most of them active or former gang members, giving them job-skills training, psychological counseling and perhaps most important, the chance to have their tattoos removed.

Rodriguez says the gangs used to protect their neighborhoods, their turf, and attacked only outsiders. But with more and more members in prison, the result of an “iron fist” government crackdown, they now strike anywhere -- attacking, robbing, extorting, killing -- because they need money to support their incarcerated associates and families.

Not long ago, Rodriguez presided over the funerals of five homicide victims in a single day: two youths who were found half-buried in shallow graves, and two brothers, 26 and 28, who were visiting their mother when men wearing hoods shot them; the elder brother had recently gotten out of jail.

And Josue Pintin, the 12-year-old.

Like so many Salvadoran youths, with parents who are working, have emigrated or have died, Josue was raised by his grandmother. They lost their home in an earthquake, and the boy never really went to school.

“He was a bit of a rebel, always wandering the streets, looking for trouble,” said his grandmother, Hetelvina Clara, 75. A widow, she lives with some of her 20 grandchildren in a collection of cinder-block rooms that tumble down the side of a rock-and-dirt road. On a dank wall hangs a picture of Josue, near one of Monsignor Oscar Romero, the onetime archbishop of San Salvador, beloved by the poor and slain by a death squad.

With Josue’s photo hangs a medal he won in a kids’ running competition, the only evidence of normality in his short life.

Josue was keen to join a gang, his family says. He was courting danger, Clara says. She warned him to steer clear of an older youth who would cruise by from time to time, just whistling, as if giving a secret signal.

“He didn’t have any prospects,” said Rodriguez. Finally, Josue wandered off and didn’t come back. Neighborhood scuttlebutt was that he was trying to use information about one gang to ingratiate himself with another, and it got him killed. Dangerous ploys for a 12-year-old.

But Rodriguez and others say it’s easy to scapegoat gangs for all of the violence, and, in fact, a large percentage of the country’s homicides are committed by others.

One of El Salvador’s leading human rights organizations, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has analyzed homicides every year since 2004 and concluded that hundreds were committed by rogue police officers, private security guards and people hired to carry out “social cleansing” -- the elimination of undesirables through extrajudicial executions.

Whoever is doing the killing, youths are disproportionately affected. Half of homicides last year were committed by people 18 to 30, according to the National Civil Police, and 70% of victims were between the ages of 15 and 39.

Nearly two decades after El Salvador’s civil war, a new generation is experiencing what Rodriguez calls a naturalization of death. He says he’s seen the change in his own spiritual evolution since arriving here from Spain in 2000.

“Death has become natural to me. Ten years ago, this kind of thing was an inconceivable scandal to me. Now I live with death in a very natural way. If it happens to me, imagine those born into this culture.

“Death made natural.”