Investigating allegations that private security companies are being hired to murder organised crime gang members.
With a murder every one and a half hours, El Salvador is counted among the world’s most dangerous nations. Awash with weapons and torn apart by the internecine struggles of rival criminal gangs, the country is experiencing violence at levels unseen since the aftermath of its long and brutal civil war.
While the state struggles to find an effective law enforcement and judicial solution to the problem – the Salvadoran authorities have tried the iron fist of military force, prosecuting gangs into oblivion and even, briefly and unsuccessfully, negotiation – things have become so bad that others have started taking matters into their own hands by forming vigilante groups and tracking down and murdering gang members who are threatening their community
In this first episode of Latin America Investigates, an uncompromising and compelling new series in which we team up with some of the continent’s best investigative journalists, reporter Bryan Avelar and filmmaker Lali Houghton travel to the western province of San Miguel to find out more.
There the notorious MS-13 gang rules the roost through fear and terror. With an estimated 60,000 “soldiers” nationwide – many of them bearing distinctive tattoos to mark their allegiance – and more than half a million affiliates, from lookouts to family members, MS-13 claims to both protect its own and look after the interests of the economically marginalised.
However the reality for the public is a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence, intimidation, extortion, kidnap and murder. Most people are too terrified to stand against them or even speak out, let alone help the police.
But now a vigilante death squad, called Los Exterminio, is fighting back. Accredited with at least 40 murders of gang members, it first came to prominence last summer when seven bodies were found on a country road. The dead men had all been executed with a bullet to the head and all were thought to have belonged to MS-13.
So what’s driven the shadowy figures who operate under Los Exterminio’s banner to take such drastic action? And what truth is there to rumours that they are funded by local businessmen and benefit from a collaborative – if secret – relationship with the police?
by Lali Houghton
I had never been to El Salvador before and the thought of venturing into unknown waters both fascinated me and drew shivers. When I first spoke to local journalist Bryan Avelar, it immediately became clear that the story was not going to be easy. We were setting out to investigate death squads killing off local gang members, specifically the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, in the western province of San Miguel.
We had all heard of how dangerous El Salvador was – the highest homicide rates outside of war; a mafia born out of poverty; a country crippled by murder and fear. I had also heard of the French filmmaker Christian Poveda who got too close to MS-13 and paid the ultimate price.
Life in El Salvador is cheap and murder is sewn into the fabric of society. There was almost one every hour in the first three months of 2016, according to the official Instituto de Medicina Legal.
At my side was my guide and go-between, Bryan Avelar, aged only 23. I wondered what all these dark murder stories must be doing to his psyche. He was just as fascinated as I was but with a level of wisdom far beyond his years; he was able to see beyond the sensationalist rhetoric of the media and banal statistics fed by the government.
A relentless investigator, he was risking his life to try to shine a light on the complex mess his country finds itself in.
According to online digital newspaper El Faro, 70 percent of businesses in El Salvador have to pay extortion money to MS-13 or the Barrio 18 Gang.
Their tentacles stretch across all aspects of society. And yet with access to the gangs so difficult to achieve, few are able to articulate quite how they have expanded and taken control of the country. The closest I’ve seen was a book written by anthropologist Jose Martinez D’Aubusson, who spent a year living in a shanty town controlled by MS-13.
Ultimately, it is social and historical factors that trap large swaths of the population in poverty creating a breeding ground of new recruits for the gangs.
And then appear Los Exterminators. A legion of town vigilantes killing off gang members in order to stem the violence that is affecting the local economy. Allegedly assisted by police and financed by local businessmen, they want respite from life under the shadow of MS-13.
Desperate and defiant people who have lost all faith in the authorities, they are filling the lawless vacuum created by a lack of police response. They have taken matters into their own hands and fight fire with fire, ultimately causing yet more death.
The closer we got to them, the more perilous the situation felt. Bryan was told in a veiled threat not to pursue the story further. We managed to get the interview with the Los Exterminio group from a separate source.
My own role was fleeting, a tourist’s eye fascinated and trying to make sense of the mayhem. It is Bryan, in the end, who has to live with the ghosts and the constant fear that tomorrow may be his last story.