The boy, gangly and pimply, is a fledgling member of the 18th Street Revolutionaries, a faction of the 18th Street gang, and he works as an extremely small-time roadside extortionist. He collects $ 15 monthly from each of three food trucks that rumble through his district carrying chewing gum, Pepsi sodas and Bimbo bread. He then turns over the proceeds to the leader of his clique.
“All the loot goes to weapons,” the youth said; he himself was awarded a 9-millimeter pistol and many nights takes it out on “patrol.”
Like so many young recruits, the teenager is an obedient soldier who risks his life to protect his territory without earning a penny from his organization. It is a bargain for the gang leaders who manage the gang economy: tens of thousands of grunts who are not seeking personal profit, only respect and a sense of belonging.
One of 14 children, the boy never went to school and does not know how to read or write. He probably could have found work in the nearby sugar-cane fields, where, even if conditions were miserable, he would have earned $ 100 a month. But, feeling bullied and vulnerable at 13, he believed that gang membership would give him something less tangible but more valuable at that age.
“I was a kid: I was stupid,” he said about joining. “A bunch of crazy guys were messing with me because I was a kid, smacking me in the head, knocking me around. It made me think: I have had enough. Since I joined up, nobody screws with me.”
The department of La Paz, with all its sugar-cane production, is fairly lucrative for the gangs. The Federation of Associations of Sugar Cane Producers said in June that its members had paid $ 1.5 million in extortion fees over a recent five-month period.
But none of that trickles down to the rank and file. So in order to survive, the boy runs his own little racket on the side: “private extortion,” gang members call it. His particular clique forbids members to extort their neighbors. Instead, he collects and pockets “rent” from a few poor businesses on the periphery of his clique’s zone.
He said he netted $ 40 a month — “only enough for what I’m going to eat.” Despite his age, he is mostly left to fend for himself by a hapless mother with too many mouths to feed.
While the teenage gang member talked, three of his little siblings circled the breakfast — scrambled eggs, beans and plantains — that waited in cartons on the floor. He gave his younger brother permission to open a carton. The little boy, who had matted hair and a dirty face, let out a squeal of delight, and proceeded to attack the meal with his hands.
In two years of gang life, the teenager has already witnessed and participated in significant bloodshed. He said he had been involved in two “collective homicides.” In both cases, members of a rival gang had dared to breach the invisible border that separates MS-13 from 18th Street territory. One man was looking to buy some marijuana; the other to meet girls at a village festival. They were killed for their defiance.
In the spring, the 26-year-old leader of the teenager’s clique — whom he knew as Shadow — died in what the police described as a clash between the authorities and gang members. The boy was not present, but he had witnessed the deaths of three other clique members in February in another encounter described as a clash, he said.
The boy said none of his homeboys had been carrying weapons that winter day. Hiding in a trash pile, he watched as the police killed his friends, teenagers like him, and then, he said, placed guns around their bodies to make it look as if they had fallen in crossfire.
Two neighbors who are not gang members supported his version of events in interviews, and it is not far-fetched: El Salvador’s attorney general for human rights has 31 open cases against the police for alleged summary executions of 100 gang members over the last year and a half.
The day of that interview and in follow-up conversations throughout the summer, the boy made it clear he was scared of the police. Since February, officers had been stopping by his house from time to time, and he had spent much of his time hiding from them in the mountains.
“I need to save money to get out of here,” he said. “If they catch me, they’re not going to let me live.”
They did catch him, in October, and arrested him for extorting $ 40 — his private extortion — from a local merchant. He was jailed, and faces up to 15 years in prison.
Failure of the ‘Iron Fist’
As violence peaked in 2015, reaching levels unseen since the aftermath of El Salvador’s long and brutal civil war, entire communities abandoned their homes because of gang threats. It became such a recurring phenomenon that television channels interrupted their programming to broadcast live the precise moment in which dozens of families fled, on foot or in pickup trucks tightly packed with suitcases, mattresses, chickens and pigs.
Having failed to guarantee them daily security, the police nonetheless supervised their moves. Pedro González, the chief of the anti-gang unit, showed up at one mass exodus, from a condominium building in suburban San Salvador. After imploring residents in vain to stay put, he led them in an alternate response.
“It doesn’t matter who here is Catholic or evangelical, let us raise a prayer,” he said. “That is the most important, let us turn to God.”
Over the years, the Salvadoran authorities have tried to quash the gangs with military might, to prosecute them into oblivion, to banish them with lengthy prison terms and, briefly, to negotiate with them. (The dialogue was corrupted by, among other things, the secret efforts of the two major political parties to court the gang leaders’ electoral support at the same time.)
When the government ratcheted up its “iron fist” approach last year, three gangs, working in coordination, responded with a show of force. On a Sunday night, they distributed written and oral messages to bus owners and employees: “He who takes out a vehicle tomorrow is going to end up glued to his steering wheel.” To underscore their seriousness, they killed a driver and burned three microbuses as a warning.
The next day, six drivers who had disobeyed their order were killed. The authorities sent soldiers and tanks into the streets, and deployed government vehicles to substitute for the buses, but the gangs succeeded in almost completely paralyzing San Salvador’s transportation system for four days. Some 1.3 million Salvadorans were affected; many high schools and universities suspended classes and the economy suffered an $ 80 million loss, according to the Chamber of Commerce. It was a ruthless show of force.