  GO BACK
Share this issue of the Magazine:
SEE ALL ISSUES
Contents
Your weekly briefing on the state of 
humanity
SEE ALL ISSUES
EDITOR'S LETTER
{{magazine.editorsLetter.title}}
Feature
{{article.title}}

Barrio 18 Inc: How the Central American street gang is starting to look like a multinational corporation | The World Weekly

The Barrio 18 has decided there will be no discount. The gang will not negotiate the price of the extortion fee, and will not yield to the pleas of a woman that sells chicken and claims she cannot pay the $400 “rent.” They know she is lying because they have “posted” her business, observing a good number of clients coming and going on a daily basis, and noticing the woman has enough money to hire private security. The gang has learned accounting, and therefore considers the woman's offer -- “two pounds of the small ones ($200)” -- a joke. No, there will be no discount. Instead, they have decided they will collect the money either with more threats, or lead bullets.

"Look, look! The situation is… Bitch! Now you’ve crossed the line, they’re gonna kill this old bitch… Hit her! In the legs!"

"Ah?"

"Little Boy’s orders…"

"Ah?"

"Uh-huh! In the legs!"

"Ah, well then… Wherever you say is best."

"And you have to take all the kicks that come."

"That's nothing! Haha."

"Haha, yeah alright."

The previous exchange is part of a phone conversation intercepted by the Telephone Intervention Center at the Attorney General’s Office on March 24, 2014. The person who made the call is the talkative Juan Carlos Martinez Amaya, alias “the Smurf,” a Barrio 18 member from the Sureños faction. At the time of the call, he was in Izalco prison, but he has since been transferred to “Zacatraz,” a maximum-security prison. Receiving the call was a gang member from the Hoover, which is a “cancha” (territorial division) that extorts businesses in and around the Colon market in the city of Santa Ana. Among these businesses is a butcher who asked for the discount; a plea only one of El Salvador’s most famous gangsters could approve.

***

In the Cojutepeque prison, a man serving a 45-year sentence for murder and illegal arms possession looks like an accountant displeased with the accounts. The list of extorted businesses and the prices charged by the gang do not match reported incomes. This prompts troubling doubts: What business is not paying? Or, if they are all paying, which of his accomplices is not reporting the money? This man’s name is Carlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga, known as Viejo Lin, and he is considered by police to be one of the national leaders of the Barrio 18’s Sureños faction. Viejo Lin grabs the phone and starts asking questions.

"What happened?" Viejo Lin asks. 

"What’s up? They’re arriving now, they didn’t give it to him because two cops were in the street, but they’re going to hand it over now."

The man answering Viejo Lin’s call is incarcerated in the Izalco prison, and is known as the Smurf. He is a leader of the Hoover, the “cancha” that extorts various businesses in Santa Ana. With the phone call, Viejo Lin intends to demonstrate that he knows what is happening in the streets; that he knows the extortion business by heart, and that someone is not reporting money. Something doesn’t add up. The Smurf realizes the seriousness of the suspicions and begins to explain:

Barrio 18 spread south from the US into Central America and Mexico largely as a consequence of changes to US immigration policies in the 1990s, which dramatically increased the number of criminal charges for which foreign-born residents could be deported to their country of origin. The new policy was applied aggressively to gangs in California, where many of Barrio 18’s members are not US citizens and subsequently found themselves deported to Central America and Mexico. As a result, some believe that US policy inadvertently helped the gang to spread. It is believed to have over 30,000 members internationally.

"Shit! Look, no, don’t think we’re not being honest, especially if we’re sending every day. We’re in hot water too, but sometimes this shit gets accelerated."

"You guys are yanking me from one side to the other. You guys tell me: yesterday they picked up this, the next day this and all that. Yeah? You get me? Do you copy?"

"Yes, I understand."

"Well, don’t believe that I … ignore things. You get me? Yeah? Because in reality I don’t know who they are and I’m not going to track down some shitheads. Alright?"

"Uh-huh?"

"You get me? And you know I keep track. With me this is nothing new, everything has already been invented. You understand?"

"Look, you three are picarazos."

"Dude."

"I need to give you what I told you about the other day… Yeah?"

"We haven’t dropped this. It’s safe there. It’s the only place with reliable people. That chicken lady has a broomstick up her ass. That’s why I trust the old bitch. We won’t take anything anymore unless the Ston finds out there is something to take."

"Not like the other place. You know that's not the only place the sun shines."

"Hahaha."

"Well, listen, it's time to go, the question is whether or not you have everything taken care of by tomorrow."

On March 24, 2014, the Barrio 18 refused to reduce the rent of the woman who sells chicken in Santa Ana. She has to pay $400, not the $200 she offered. What she does not know is that, in the event she doesn’t pay, an order has been given: “Put a hit on her!”

***

He’s fat, dark-skinned, and has black hair. He is wearing jeans and a purple shirt with white stripes. He’s wandering around a bus terminal, waiting for someone to give him a white envelope with $1,400 inside. Once he receives the envelope, the man boards a bus for the Santa Ana terminal. He sits close to the driver, guarding the money in one of his pant pockets. When he arrives at his destination, he goes to a shop where phone cards are sold. Fifteen days later, he repeats the routine.

The anti-extortion police are aware this man is responsible for collecting the extortion rent paid by businesses in Santa Ana. The investigators started to follow him in April 2013, after a victim reported that gangsters had demanded he pay $1,400 every other week. If he didn’t, the gang members threatened to kill his employees. The businessman had been paying extortion money for over 13 years, and finally decided to report the abuse in April 2013 after the extortionists increased his fee by $500.

The fat money collector does not know about this business owner’s complaint. Nor is he aware that three police teams have been following him. Or that they took a photo when he dropped the money off at the store that sells prepaid phone cards. They also photographed him after he received extortion money from a store. Sometimes, the man would go to a cake shop. And he regularly visited a restaurant run by a woman in a beige blouse, blue skirt, and red apron. It was here that he turned in the extortion rent.

An alleged Barrio 18 gang member gives a goodbye kiss to his wife after being detained in 2013

What she does not know is that, in the event she doesn’t pay, an order has been given: “Put a hit on her!”

In order to identify who own the businesses frequented by the money collector, investigators pretended to make routine patrols. They spent days and months doing this, filling dozens of pages of paper with names -- none of which provided any leads. One day, however, the police came across a name that led them to the jails: Silvia Maribel Martinez Ayala. Silvia is the wife of the Smurf, a gang "palabrero" (spokesman or leader) who is currently imprisoned in Izalco. Silvia also owns a restaurant in the Santa Ana bus terminal that makes fast food, which the fat extortion collector frequented. With this evidence, prosecutors ordered her phones to be tapped, and her involvement in the extortion operations became immediately apparent:

"There are police in the terminal. This phone is in my name so I’m not going to say much. Have you asked for it from the little shop?"

"Yes, Maria is going to get it," responded the Smurf.

Maria is not a gangster, but rather a Barrio 18 “collaborator.” A collaborator serves two purposes. First, if they have another job, they have access to the names and phone numbers of their bosses, as well as information on employees and company vehicles. In exchange for this information they receive a cut of the extortion rent. Second, collaborators can help reroute illicit money flows. For instance, the routing of extortion money can go as such: the gang selects an employee of the victim to receive the money, and this employee then gives the money to a gang collaborator. A collaborator can then give the money to the gang in one of two ways: by personally handing in the cash or transferring it via cell phone using the Tigo Money money-transferring system. These were the Smurf's orders to Ernesto, also a gang collaborator:

"One part of the remittance [goes] to the (Tigo Money) account, and give the other [portion] to Carlitos."

Carlitos is the son of the Smurf. So, what does Ernesto gain by sending money to the gang? The answer is simple: money. When a victim hands over extortion money the gang will determine the “cost of business,” and will typically include a “salary” of $50 for collaborators. Another $10 to $20 is put towards the “money transfer,” or the cost of a taxi to go collect and transport the money from one place to another.

Some gang collaborators are crucial for keeping the money flowing. Their importance is such that, instead of their salary being taken from the rent they collect, they are given the money paid by a specific business. El Faro had access to more than 5,000 pages of information from judicial investigations -- one conducted in Santa Ana and the other in San Miguel -- which details the path extortion money takes.

“The response of Central American governments to the rise in gang activity has also proven to be largely counterproductive,” notes Steven Dudley, co-founder of Insight Crime and senior fellow at American University's Centre for Latin American and Latino Studies. “In the early 2000s, beginning in El Salvador, the governments began passing more stringent laws that criminalised mere ‘association’ with gangs. These so-called ‘mano dura’, or ‘iron fist’ policies only encouraged gangs' growth by concentrating many members in prison, pushing them to reorganise and regroup. In Central America, the space created for extortion rackets and kidnapping gangs by weak police forces and a relatively open criminal landscape was filled in part by the Barrio 18 in the 2000s.”

El Chory was determined to convince his gang to invest a large portion of the extortion money in weapons, because he felt the end of the country's 2012 gang truce was near.

In Santa Ana, the Attorney General’s cases against the Hoovers can be summarized as such: 13 people were directly responsible for collecting rent from the victims. They then gave this money to five of the gangs’ family members (wives, mothers, and sons), who were in charge of receiving part of this money in cash for the purposes of buying phone cards and moving the money via Tigo Money. A portion of this money would remain in the bank accounts of the family members, and the other part went into the gang’s coffers.

Furthermore, in the case of the Hoovers, intercepted phone calls suggest the Barrio 18 had a list outlining the distribution of extortion payments, as follows:

The milk business pays $50 per month.

The "RB" company pays $1,040 every two weeks.

The "EC" store pays $500, which is for the Smurf, Viejo Lin, Belcebu, and Little Boy (no pay schedule specified).

The "R" business pays $20 (no pay schedule specified).

The rent from a mini-agency is for Danky’s woman (no amount specified).

The "EN" business pays $60, which is given to Sandra.

The "R" business pays $50, which goes to Ernesto, the gang collaborator.

The rent from workshop "ES" is for the Little One, Snayder, and Helen (no amount specified).

The "DP" business pays rent to the Smurf (no amount specified).

A bakery pays $1,500 monthly.

At 4:10 in the afternoon on Saturday, February 8, 2014, Herbert and El Polo are on their way to negotiate for a submachine gun in the illicit arms market in La Union. They are not the buyers, bur rather the intermediaries of someone who wants an Uzi but is unable to verify the quality or negotiate the price because they are in jail serving a 30-year sentence for homicide.

Gang members languish in one of the three 'gang cages' in the Quezaltepeque police station in San Salvador in 2013

"Is this shit good?" they ask Herbert.

Asking the question is Jose Timoteo Mendoza Flores, alias “El Chory,” spokesman for 32 canchas of the Barrio 18’s Sureños faction. These canchas are scattered throughout eastern El Salvador, mostly in La Union. When he made this phone call in February 2014, El Chory had a large say in what the money earned from extortion was used to buy, as well as who lived or died. In short, he had the final word. El Chory was determined to convince his gang to invest a large portion of the extortion money in weapons because he felt the end of the country's 2012 gang truce was near. That Saturday was relatively calm, however, with police only reporting seven homicides, a low figure compared to most days. El Chory took the phone and asked:

"And that son-of-a-bitch went on ahead?"

"Yeah, I stopped to pee. In El Carmen I called him and he didn’t answer," answers Herbert, his interlocutor.

"The dumbass has to go through Carmen and it’s probably best if I shoot him there. How is that gun looking?"

"It’s beautiful, hardly looks used. It has a large clip too, with 45 rounds, and you can shoot all of them in a single burst."

"They’re expensive because the truce is about to end. Man, this gun is about to spray lead all over the place. Who is going with you?"

"El Polo. He’s from Conchagua and slings dust."

"Who is buying it for you?"

"I think Santa Rosa is going to bring it."

They continue talking for a little bit longer about the restaurant, but we’ll come back to that later. For now we’ll say two gang representatives were trying to buy an Uzi. The buyers did not specify a price, but they know that in the current market there will be no price breaks. The gangs and weapons smugglers sense the end of the truce is near, causing the price of guns to spike.

In March 2012, Barrio 18 leaders in El Salvador and their rivals in the MS13 gang agreed to a nationwide ‘truce’, which was mediated by local NGOs and the Catholic Church and facilitated by the government. Although the homicide rate in the country subsequently plummeted, the gang’s leaders proved adept at using their heightened political profile to their advantage. This fuelled concerns that the initiative could provide a means to increase their criminal sophistication and influence in the country - fears that mounted as the number of extortions and disappearances continued to rise. In 2014, the truce broke down shortly before President Salvador Sanchez Ceren took office. His government has created a new security council to combat crime and violence, whose members have been emphatic that future negotiations with gang members are off the table. Gang violence and homicide rates have rapidly increased throughout 2014 and 2015.

Some palabreros have decided to increase the extortion quota in order to buy weapons, provoking some victims to ask the Barrio 18 leadership to maintain the current quota. El Chory grabs the phone and begins to investigate what is happening. He talks with Jose Luis Guzman, alias “El Chiky,” a gangster imprisoned in Izalco.

"Why are you asking for more money from people?" he asks.

At first, El Chiky denies they have increased the rent quota. The denial does not satisfy El Chory, who demands an explanation. Cornered by the questions -- and remembering he is speaking with the Barrio 18’s top leader -- El Chiky conceded the extortion quota had gone up because they wanted to buy two grenades.

El Chory objected to the purchase of grenades, saying this money was needed to buy an Uzi. At the moment, the gang needs to invest in priorities, and in the long run an Uzi is a more worthwhile investment than two grenades. The gang only has enough money to buy a submachine gun, however, because “they have borrowed the money” set aside to pay a lawyer in El Tamal.

***

On April 10, 2014, barely two days after the debate over whether to buy an Uzi or the grenades, a gangster calls El Chory and tells him the “other hammer” they want to buy is ready.

"It’s ready, but you have to take it downtown, to the terminal."

That day, the Barrio 18 had collected $475 in extortion money. But this money was not enough to buy a gun (the price was not specified in their conversation).

The gangster -- identified as El Chainy -- also says certain deductions had to be made from the collected money in order to cover operating expenses.

"There’s $475. Out of this, $20 was given to the guy who collected it, and $5 for the taxi."

El Chory tells him to wait and hold onto this money for a few more hours until they receive enough money to buy the gun.

"Keep it there. We’re short around $1,000."

Until this money arrives, El Chory takes the time to make certain “the dogs” have not lost the weapons entrusted to them. The palabrero asks El Chainy to send him a photo of his 9mm pistol. He also wants a picture of the 357 Smith and Wesson revolver Meme has. “Also, who has the 3.8?” asks El Chory.

***

Some workers rest the entire day, while others wander the streets of San Salvador. There are also three small shopkeepers that, to celebrate international workers’ day, will have to pay $280 in extortion fees to the gang.

"Hey, we’re still missing 280 from Marielos, Miramar, and El Chino. El Chino gave 80," El Chiky says, a Barrio 18 palabrero (gang leader), to a gangster known as El Jocker.

The phone conversation was intercepted at 8:10 pm on May 1, 2014. El Chiky and El Joker were doing accounting. El Chiky speaks:

"Until now they have collected $1,380, apart from the $120 they are using for the gun. Including this 120 that’s 1,500. Another 100 from Mapala (another gang leader imprisoned in Izalco) makes 1,600, and the 50 they are moving to you (El Joker) is 1,650. Not included are the $280 they (Marielos, Miramar, and El Chino) owe. And next month is double because we’re behind on the bus (they’re buying a bus). With current expenses there is only 460 left for the other ammo."

This is the second part of an article which originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Read the first part of InSight Crime's translation here. 

El Chiky had suggested buying a 9mm pistol. El Jocker agreed, but is not convinced they could increase their incomes via extortion, and asks El Chiky’s help. This help consists of making extortion calls to businesses. The gang knows of several brothels that will be extorted, and the money earned will be used to buy weapons. That is, some prostitutes will need to sell more sex for a period of time in order to meet the Barrio 18’s demands. The need for weapons is justified as such: “The 'cancha' [or territorial division] of San Antonio (in La Union) is fine, but the cancha of La Cañada needs to be reinforced because they only have a .22 and .12 shotgun.” (A protected witness told prosecutors the La Cañada cancha has three palabreros and 11 soldiers.)

The gang needs to have a variety of weapons because when one “is colored” (used to commit a homicide) it has to be hidden away for a while. Some gangsters, though, decide to bury or exchange them.

The truce involving the gangs and government of Mauricio Funes began in March 2012, when at least 30 leaders of the MS13 and Barrio 18 were transferred from the maximum-security prison to less-restrictive prisons. Following this, the homicide rate plummeted. In May 2013, the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional the naming of David Munguia Payes -- the architect of the truce -- as Minister of Security, and Ricardo Perdomo was appointed instead. Perdomo tried to continue negotiations with the gangs, using the Spanish priest Antonio Rodriguez Lopez Tercero -- known as Father Toño -- as an intermediary.

Father Toño tried to include NGOs and local mayors in a so-called pacification process. On one side, he spoke with gang leaders Viejo Lin, El Payaso, and El Chory. On the other, he spoke with prison director Rodil Hernandez and Minister of Security Perdomo. Nonetheless, the gangs sensed that Father Toño’s overtures were leading nowhere. As a result -- between February and May of 2014 -- they ordered that a large part of money earned from extortions be used to buy weapons.

In April 2015, the government of Salvador Sanchez Ceren sent gang leaders back to the maximum-security prison after the killing of seven police officers during the first 12 days of the year. The transfers, however, did not lead to a drop in gang attacks against police and soldiers; something the police responded to in kind. Yet the gangs had been anticipating confrontations with the state for least a year. In April, the Barrio 18 and MS13 told El Faro they were prepared for the worst, but did ask the police to stop hunting them. By May 1, 2014, the decision had been made. As El Chiky said from Izalco prison:

"We have to buy 10 guns and the large ones (rifles) because things are becoming dark…"

"Have they given the other 17 (thousand dollars)?" asked El Chiky.

"Yeah it’s here. There is 33 some (thousand dollars)" responded El Chory, a leader of the Barrio 18's Sureños faction.

"It’s 33,600 because they already deducted the 800 they gave you and him. They’re saying in Izalco that you have to put it to work…"

The phone call ends abruptly. It is 10:57 am on February 10, 2014. The call was between the Izalco and Cojutepeque prisons. El Chiky and El Chory had doubts about “the packet” they had been talking about. El Chory calls back and asks:

"Has the kid moved the money?"

"I don’t want to get involved in this," answers El Chiky.

"Lin realized this morning, but I told him not to get involved, to let others take care of it. Lin said that was fine, to just get this month's money."

El Chory continues explaining to El Chiky they have decided to buy one and a half kilos of cocaine, an investment that must be taken care of quickly. At the same time, they know this business can cause friction between the gangs and El Chory, who controls various gang “cliques” in La Union that he doesn’t want to get involved. The palabero emphasizes that trusted people must carry out the deal for one specific reason:

"Whoever oversees this operation needs to do it well because it’s all of the canchas," El Chory says.

"We’ve also talked about the need to buy two cars and three motorcycles," responds El Chiky.

"This wasn’t discussed, only the two kilos was talked about."

"Yes it was discussed," replied El Chiky. "If they’re going to buy two kilos, Cojute and Izalco will each take care of one. Those in Izalco said that El Ceja and Chagui would handle it."

In their eagerness to convince their superior in Cojutepeque, El Chiky resorted to numbers: a kilo of cocaine costs between $12-13,000. With the $33,600 they have from extortions they can buy two kilos of cocaine for a maximum expense of $26,000. That would leave $7,600 left over. This money can be used to buy a vehicle and three motorcycles to be shared by the Cojutepeque and Izalco prisons to “spin” the neighborhood.

Why is the gang interested in buying vehicles? The phone conversations between El Chiky and El Chory provide the answer:

"I see there are canchas that don’t do neighborhood stops…"

A “nose” gives $840 in extortion money to Lalo, one of the Barrio 18’s palaberos in La Union. This money will be added to $140 the gang collected on December 5, 2013. The gang’s accountant, however, notices $350 is missing. There should be $1,300. From this total, $200 is to be paid to several gang collaborators: El Pepino, Break, Blin, and Afredo. Each receives $50.

December being the month of gifts, the gang decided some of the money collected over the previous month would be used to buy shoes. While the wiretapped phone conversations do not specify the quantity or brand of the shoes to be bought, when the Directorate of Prisons authorized the media into the prisons during the last days of the truce, the majority of the gangs were photographed wearing either white or blue Nikes.

"Have you told El Toro in Jucuapa who will receive shoes?" asks El Chory from the Cojutepeque prison.

"To those that Piolo says?" asks El Chiky from the Izalco prison.

It is not clear from the conversation if the person they’re referring to is incarcerated or not. The only other reference they make to him is that he works in “Shulton” in Usulutan, a department where El Chory controls some canchas.

Besides the shoes for some gangsters, the Barrio 18 spent their extortion money on guns, cocaine, and lawyer’s fees for arrested members. A phone call from the afternoon of December 5, 2013 revealed the gang also used money to invest in legitimate products with the hope of earning a return on their money. El Chory says to pass the phone to Wilo, who is responsible for keeping track of the investments.

"Are you selling the stuff?" El Chory asks.

"It’s been hard because people think it’s stolen."

Wilo’s response lacks the enthusiasm of a businessman intent on winning the market. Unable to make sales, Wilo suggests it may be best if the products were distributed among the gang’s members, with each person keeping track of what they sold. El Chory disapproves of this idea, and reminds Wilo the gang has invested $2,000 in these goods.

"That’s right," responds Wilo, later explaining why he thinks sales are bad. "There was a small mishap. The rice workers gave prices for each item, but in the La Union market everything costs less."

"And what did they give you?"

"White rice, pre-cooked rice, Scot toilet paper and Huggies diapers, and bottles of oils."

El Chory reminds Wilo they have contacts in the La Union market to facilitate the sale of the products, and can not only help recover the $2,000 investment but also turn a profit.

Wilo, perhaps in an effort to shed responsibility for the sales, tried to assure the palabero he had spoken with gangsters in Honduras who believed they could arrange for the free passage of drugs and weapons. “If they manage to get through five big ones ($500) for an AK-47, we can sell it here for $1,000.” El Chory was unmoved by this offer. By the end of their phone chat, Wilo still has to do what he had been told to do from the beginning: coordinate and control the sale of the rice, bottles of oil, and the bundles of Scot toilet paper and Huggies diapers.

***

Businesses that sell phone cards are important to the gangs because they provide an important logistical service. In Santa Ana, Elia Isabel ran one of these businesses out of a small stand near the Santa Ana bus terminal. Her and the gangs had a mutually beneficial deal: the gang would sometimes ask for credit and other times they paid in advance.

"We’re with the phone card lady. We are going to give her the 200 to finish the 400," a gang collaborator tells the Smurf, a palabrero imprisoned in Izalco.

The importance of communicating for the gang is such that Los Hoovers designated one person in the cancha of Santa Ana with the task of buying prepaid phone cards.

Now, Elia Isabel is in jail. The Attorney General ordered her capture because she helped protect the gang’s money and carried out money transfers for the gang using Tigo Money. In October 2013, Minister of Security Ricardo Perdomo said Tigo Money -- used by both the Barrio 18 and MS13 to transfer funds -- moves 24 percent of all extortion money in the country. Tigo said the Attorney General asked for information regarding extortions 131 times between November 2013 and August 2014. An estimated two million transactions are carried out each month.

The Tigo money transfers combined with the phone tapped conversations confirm part of the gang’s money earned from extortion was sent to close family members -- mostly wives and mothers.

"They gave $100 to the Smurf's mother," someone said in one of the tapped phone conversations with the Hoovers cancha in Santa Ana.

The intercepted communications from Santa Ana do not detail how the gangs or their family members spent the money. The case of La Union is different. In addition to the investment in rice, toilet paper, and Huggies diapers, the gang leadership also set up a pupuseria restaurant for a family member of El Darky.

The “tabos” control the gang’s extortion activities from prison. They also approve or deny requests by victims to lower extortion fees, and can be considered a kind of accountant/auditor/administrator that estimates expenses and investments the gang is thinking of making. They are much more than just money counters, however. Their authority, for instance, cannot be questioned by those gang members that are free. An example:

Ying Yang is a gangster who spent time in the prison in Cojutepeque, and his wife used to go visit him. When Ying Yang was released, he returned to his home. But in the following months he realized his wife was still visiting the Cojutepeque prison. Ying Yang began to investigate his wife, and discovered she was being unfaithful. She confessed she had fallen in love with El Seco, another Barrio 18 member who was still in jail.

Ying Yang begged for permission from his palabrero to kill his wife. The palabrero made a telephone call to El Chory in the Cojutepeque prison to explain the situation, and Ying Yang received authorization. The police later found Ying Yang’s wife in San Alejo, La Union with 15 bullets in her body. After this murder, Ying Yang asked permission to kill El Seco, his wife’s lover, but was denied. El Seco was, however, given a beating.

This is how the prisons control the gang’s operations. From behind bars, punishments -- including the life or death of certain people -- are decided. A person’s relationship with the gang is a vital factor. The decision to murder a palabrero, for example, is something that must be agreed on by all the canchas that make up a “tribe.” For example:

On March 31, 2013, at 6:30 in the morning, Mapala, the palabrero from Conchaguita, La Union, began a phone call that soon grew into a conference call with various palabreros and Barrio 18 soldiers. The leaders from Cojutepeque and Izalco prisons, as well as some “free” leaders and soldiers, were in on the call. A protected witness told the Attorney General that 42 gang members participated in the conversation.

One by one they introduced themselves, declaring their rank and cancha. Later, the imprisoned leadership announced they were going to clarify “a point with respect to El Ruso.” The tabos had decided El Ruso had to die because he did not want to take “the coordinates” (orders) from the prison leadership. The imprisoned palabreros wanted to hear every canchas opinion regarding this, because to kill someone of this rank (a palabrero) required the support of the entire tribe. Everyone endorsed the killing of El Ruso, who was then the palabrero of Colonia Belen in La Union.

Five and a half hours later, at 11:30 in the morning, four gangsters arrived at El Ruso’s house. They told him he was urgently needed at a “party” in order to fix a problem. He went with them. A few minutes later, in a sector of Belen known as The Iron Line, four shots rang out. According to the medical report, El Ruso’s death resulted from “traumatic brain injury, trauma to the neck and thorax resulting from gunshot wounds.” El Ruso’s name was Carlos Alberto Guardado.

The police and Attorney General’s investigations did not find evidence extortion money was entering the prisons. Instead, this money was spent on logistics and the gang’s structure in the street. During the duration of the truce, however -- which saw gang leaders removed from the maximum-security prison -- they did ask their families and gang associates to bring them fans, TVs, DVDs, deodorant, shampoo, perfume, clothes, shoes, and hand-free cell phones…

A journalistic initiative
sponsored by:
  GO BACK