San Salvador, El Salvador – ‘Santiago’, as he prefers to be called, joined El Salvador’s 18th Street Gang when he was 17 years old.
“I had few options. My family was poor. They made me feel like I belonged,” he said.
Santiago is now one of the gang’s leaders.
He admits his 15-year career has included committing serious crimes, like murder. But in one of his most proud acts, he played a role in the negotiations which led to a truce in 2012 between his gang and its fiercest rival MS-13.
These negotiations resulted in a decline in the rate of murders from around 70 per 100,000 people in 2011 to almost half that number in 2012 and 2013.
Santiago looks at the gangs in political terms – poor, deprived communities which are ignored by the state and which must be given a better deal.
“There are no football teams, but there are gangs. No boy scouts, but gangs. Nothing, just gangs,” Santiago told of the communities during an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera.
“They don’t understand our culture. They have never taken the trouble to understand the phenomenon of the gangs,” he said.
He questions why the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) , the party now in power sees the gangs in such simple terms. FMLN was once a leftist guerrilla force and took on the government during the bloody civil war.
“It may not be the same as the civil war but it’s similar,” Santiago said. “They called the FMLN terrorists and negotiated with them. Now they call us criminals and terrorists.”
The 2012 truce was brokered by intermediaries like the church under the last government, which included Salvador Sánchez Cerén who was vice president at the time.
But this agreement did not last.
“We will not return to the scheme of understanding and negotiating with the gangs because this is at the margin of the law,” Cerén stated.
Since then, the death rate has risen again to dramatic levels.
In June there were almost 700 murders , the most in a month since the civil war ended in 1992.
In demonstration of their ability to defy those charged with the nation’s security, p olice officers, soldiers and their families have also been targeted in these murders. At least 36 police have been killed so far this year.
“The gangs know that these actions demonstrate their willingness to attack the state, to attack the country and to show how strong they are,” El Salvador’s Deputy Police Chief Howard Cotto told Al Jazeera earlier this year.
In the latest demonstration of their power, the gangs have paralysed the transportation network not just in the capital but throughout the country.
Gang members warned bus drivers not to work and killed at least nine transport workers.
In response to the incidents, Communications Secretary Eugenio Chicas said during a press conference on July 28: “We’re not going to negotiate, communicate or make any pact with these groups. This is terrorism, sabotage.”
Vice President Óscar Ortiz said military patrols would be deployed alongside police for “a lengthy period until the situation is under control”.
Roderigo Avila, the 2009 presidential candidate for the ARENA party which ran the country for the previous 20 years, told Al Jazeera the government still doesn’t recognise the magnitude of the problem: The gangs are organised criminal groups.
He also questioned how gang leaders are able to give orders to create chaos from prison.
“What the government has tried has not worked,” Avila said. Those in power must show “humility” and discuss strategies with their political opponents, Avila believes.
But Derek Spranger, who heads the El Salvador mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has first-hand experience with the gangs.
He regularly meets with gang leaders in prison. “They recognise that they are part of the problem and they want to be part of the solution,” said Spranger.
“They want the government to do what governments should do – invest in the poor neighbourhoods, repair roads, repair and equip health posts and schools and provide vocational training for youth, with start-up capital for small businesses. They also want an end to indiscriminate repression by the authorities,” Spranger told Al Jazeera.
Spranger said gang communities are much like they were when he first visited them 25 years ago.
They are “poor with some functioning state services. Many inhabitants earn the minimum wage”, explained Spranger.
“For many youngsters living in these areas it is difficult to obtain a job as prospective employers shy away once they learn where the candidates live, such is the discrimination. Teachers and health staff are often subjected to pressure from gangs as well,” told Spranger.
The vicious cycle of these communities is well-known to one 18-year-old girl who asked Al Jazeera not to use her real name for fear of repercussions.
Sitting in a classroom at El Salvador’s only juvenile detention centre for young women, she said gangs have always been a big part of her life.
Her brother is a member of the 18th Street gang. So, too, was her boyfriend, who was killed a year ago.
She began working for the gang when she was 14, and was eventually arrested for participating in extortion. Sometimes she collected up to $1,000 a week for the gangs.
In prison, she has learned how to sew and dreams of becoming a scientist one day.
But she’s afraid to go home. “I’m worried my options will close. If there’s nothing I’ll get frustrated and could make another mistake.”
The murder rate in July has been lower than in June.
Santiago indicated this was a message from the gangs – that they have the power to reduce the murders and that they want to talk.
At San Salvador’s main morgue, Juan Miguel Fortín oversees forensic work both on the hundreds recently killed and to identify the remains of those who died and went missing during the civil war.
He said it’s impossible to assess what will happen next, “we’ll end up with around half as many deaths this month compared to last month, which is still terrible”, explained Fortín.
“But something is happening. We can only guess. Maybe there is a new truce between the gangs or maybe they’re forming one super gang.”