The Supposed Miracle of Acajutla
Editor’s Note: The truce referenced in this article was abolished in 2014. Many point to the government’s new hard-line stance as the cause for the increased levels of violence raging throughout El Salvador.
I expected to see a bunch of gangbangers with their hands in the dough, but here I see only two bakers, submission in their eyes, bewildered to see an outsider among them. All of the props set the stage of a bakery: the smell of freshly baked bread, the flour that dusts the floor, the instruments, the aprons. But at this bakery, owned by the Mara Salvatrucha, one thing is missing: the homies.
“‘Morning. I’m looking for Cristian. I know they call him the Tremendous.”
The bakers shyly raise their gaze. They exchange glances, and go back to their work. They seem more afraid than me. I explain what brought me to the neighborhood of La Coquera of Acajutla, that is, aside from the moto-taxi.
In Acajutla, a miracle is happening. Since the turn of the millennium, the city has gained fame for being one of the most violent in El Salvador: in 2005 there were 52 murders in a population of 55,000; in 2008, there were 59 murders, in 2011 the number rose to 75. But in 2012 the figure dropped to 20; and in 2013 it dropped to 4. Nationwide, the murder rate dropped due to negotiations between the gangs and the government, but the national decline was only 43%, here homicides plummeted by an astounding 95%. It’s as unbelievable as if El Salvador’s national soccer team, La Selecta, was suddenly on par with Germany’s Eagles, or as if the minimum wage suddenly quadrupled. The miracle of Acajutla deserves to be explained, and so I came to the city to speak with those who had pulled so many strings to make this all happen: municipal employees, victims, church pastors, policemen, businessmen. The Mara Salvatrucha must know something or other, and in order to talk to them I was told to come by the bakery in La Coquera, and ask for El Tremendo, the face of the gang known as the Acajutlas Locos.
One of the bakers breaks the silence, and points to a path beside the bakery. “The boys are over there.”
After walking thirty yards down the sidewalk and fifty down a dusty road, a homie shows up and stops at the sight of me. He has the look and gait of a cock in a fighting pit.
I say: “Moisés Bonilla from City Hall told me to come here around nine and ask for the Tremendous.”
Behind him, under the shadow of a cluster of trees, there’s a group of eight to ten gang-members. After a sign from their lookout, three of them approach me. I repeat the reason for my visit, emphasizing my interest to know their version of how the miracle came to be.
“No one’s called the Tremendous around here,” says a fat, tattoo-headed gang-member.
If you have faith, the miracle of Acajutla is easy to understand.
“In September of 2011, God told us to pray,” says Mario Alas, pastor of the Church of the Sea of Galilee. “And every Sunday at five in the morning we pray for the crimes to stop.”
Reyes Sermeño, also a priest, says: “We go to the edge of Acajutla and scold the demons that are trying to get into the city. With prayer, we tie up the demons of promiscuity, of murder, and of violence…. God has our back, but I know it’s difficult to understand this in any humanly way.”
If you don’t have faith … then it’s a little harder to understand.
Before it was a city, Acajutla was a port. The verbs “embark” and “disembark” have shaped these lands since they were ruled for the glory of foreign kings. In 1961, recognizing its longstanding maritime tradition, the Salvadoran State opened one of the most modern port complexes in Central America. Thousands of people in search of work flooded the small port settlement. The hasty urbanization gave way to a network of streets, neighborhoods and roads so messy that the city lacks even a park or central square. In this human conglomerate, it’s difficult to bump into even one senior who is native to the area.
The port generated prosperity, yes, but also prostitution, drugs, crime. In the 1980s, alienation and poverty encouraged an upward migration to the United States, and with the deportations that marked the 1990s, gangs proliferated. Nationwide, two gangs monopolized this phenomenon: in the neighborhood of La Playa, the Barrio 18 grew strong through their chain of brothels and taverns, which were coveted by sailors; and the Mara Salvatrucha took hold of the older, traditional part of the city.
Prostitution, alcohol, drugs, maras, drug trafficking, money…. The stars aligned for everything to happen just as it did: Acajutla became the national benchmark of violence.
The years of 2009 through 2011 were the most violent in our history—with 68, 63 and 75 murders. And yet a chorus of polyphonic voices coincides in pointing out that it was during these three years that the seed of our miracle was sown.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) spent substantial resources to analyze the phenomenon of violence; the local clique of the Barrio 18 was defeated; evangelical churches began to pray in the open air of parks; Darío Guadrón of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was elected mayor; the mayor welcomed mediators to work with the gangs; and, on a national level, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 signed an agreement that became known as the Truce.
Moisés Bonilla, a key figure in the making of the miracle, explained the power of the Truce. “With all the commotion that came with the Truce, the mayor established a code of conduct. His code was simple: we are different, we take care of our business with discretion.”
Let’s refer to the series of events that followed the Truce as the Process. Promoters and organizers of the Process want to distance themselves from the Truce, and they passionately reject the word. And yet both of these initiatives were built upon the same foundation: communication with gangs. The main difference between the two is that the Process successfully solicited the participation of private businesses, and the local government took the reins and assumed the job of organizing social inclusion projects for gang-members, like the bakery we saw in La Coquera.
No one’s called The Tremendous around here,” says a fat, tattoo-headed gang-member.
It’s a made up alias, but from now on this gang-member will be referred to as Stocky. He’s 34 years old and is father of a 16-year-old who Stocky works hard to keep away from the maras. Stocky was jailed in Apanteos and Chalatenango, and is now high up in the ranks of the Acajutlas Locos of La Coquera. He’s not very tall and gained some weight in prison, but he’s still someone you’d never want to fight. He’s sporting long shorts, a dark colored American football jersey and expensive, shiny tennis shoes that look very new, as if he were wearing them for the first time that morning.
He listens carefully. His first response is that they never speak to reporters, that they’ve drawn the line, but it’s clear he wants to talk and without much prodding he takes me to the rest of the group.
“This journalist wants to know why the murders have dropped in Acajutla, and if the Mayor is helping us.”
It is as if he has opened the floodgates.
“We’ve gotten no help,” one of them exaggerates. “We’ve spent years asking them to bring us AstroTurf for the school playground,” another chimes in. “The city hall clerks are so rude!” “We’ve been trained, so why won’t anyone hire us?” “Those cold fish have lined their pockets with money from the Truce, but nothing trickles down.” “The mayor said he’d buy us a boat.” “The old shit (Mayor Guadrón) has only given us one oven.” “That’s nothing for how hard we’ve worked to lower the crime rate!” “And now we’re forbidden to rob tourists.” “A good business here would be selling tortoise eggs, but no one has helped us set that up.”
“A guard! A guard!” shouts one of the lookouts.
The group vanishes. Most of the gang-members run to the schoolhouse. I run behind it. On the small playground with no AstroTurf, a group of boys and girls play soccer, some of them barefooted. They barely flinch. The stampede of gang-members is routine here in La Coquera.
The National Civil Police has absolutely nothing to do with the Truce of Acajutla.”
The sub-inspector, Gustavo de León, is one such Salvadoran who loathes the word “truce.” Since April 2013, when he was assigned to the police sub-delegation of Acajutla as second in command, there has only been one murder. He knows that the Process relies on the Truce but either by weariness or real ignorance he steers clear from the connection.
“Yeah, I’ve heard they have a bakery in La Coquera and that they were given fishing boats,” he says, “but, how they got all that? I don’t know. I don’t know how other institutions are handling the issue. But here we don’t exempt gangsters from the law.”
This morning there was a police crackdown in San Julián, one of the neighborhoods with the strongest gang presence. This is one of the neighborhoods most affected, but in Acajutla no neighborhood is left unmarked. The marero is your neighbor; he is not a mere character in the news. The gang here is something you can touch.
“The problem,” says Sub-inspector De Leon, “is that they develop this sense of ownership. They believe the neighborhood is their turf, and that’s it. If a young man visits the neighborhood, they’ll stop him at once, they’ll take off his shirt to see if he has any tattoos and they’ll question him. If he’s from the cities of Nahuizalco or Izalco, which is the turf of Barrio 18 … then his life is at risk.”
“What about the neighbors who aren’t gangmembers?”
“When we crackdown dads, moms and friends come out just to try to stop us.”
“But … what about the rest? Those who have no connection to gangs?”
“The problem is that 90% of the population of Acajutla either belongs to the mara or has a relative whose a mara or is somehow connected to the mara. That’s why they want us out of here.”
Ninety percent of Acajutla doesn’t want the police around. Even if the sub-inspector’s figure is exaggerated, it’s a crushing perception.
On the morning of August 20, 2014, a group of Mara Salvatrucha who were dressed in police uniform “arrested” Doroteo Marroquín Tello. They handcuffed him, took him to a vacant lot they call La Planada, and burst through his head with a storm of bullets. In Acajutla, it is said that with him died the last eighteen.
Because of its symbolism, the murder of Tello may forever remain engraved in the people’s history of Acajutla, but Barrio 18 actually ceased to exist in the city by late 2011. That year, which was by no small coincidence marked by 75 murders, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 warred like never before. This ended with the exile of not only the few surviving eighteens, but also their families, their friends and anyone who, without being affiliated with one gang or the other, thought they had little future in Acajutla due to the fact that they’d been raised in the neighborhood of La Playa, the former epicenter of the tumultuous nightlife of prostitutes, sailors, murderers and drug dealers, the former stronghold of the Barrio 18.
The neighborhood of La Playa has an infinite potential for tourism, as it fans out from both sides of a road running from City Hall to the port, along 500 yards of sea. But even today, three years after the exodus of the Barrio 18, La Playa looks like it has been ravaged by a tsunami. Countless houses are abandoned, dismantled, crumbling. It is empty of life, proof that a war was waged.
“It took years to drive away the eighteens,” Stocky says, “and the blood of so many gangsters. And that’s the reason we feel that change came less from the Truce and more from the blood. It was the blood that showed us we had to calm down. Either way, we’ll never be on good terms with the eighteens.”
The Process made possible the miracle of Acajutla. But in order for the Process to work, we needed a lot of help from the United Nations Development Program, we needed prayers from the church, we needed Guadrón to be elected mayor, and we needed all those guidelines that came out of the Truce. But none of this would have worked, or its effects would have been much weaker, without first eliminating the Barrio 18, which ultimately left the town in the grip of the Mara clique known as the Acajutlas Locos.
As if by choreographed routine, the gang of La Coquera vanishes at the sight of the guard’s Nissan Frontier. I watch him pass the playground, as I chat with a pair of fourth and sixth grade students. Minutes later, one by one, the gang-members reappear and gather under the shade of the same trees.
“Can you show me the bakery?” I ask, without a glimmer of hope.
The bakery is made up of two rooms with unevenly plastered walls. The back room, the smaller of the two, is dim-lit and houses three bikes equipped with baskets, though one gang-member tells me that the pastry delivery network consists of five people. In the large room, alongside the bakers with submissive looks, there are two sacks of flour, metal shelves with trays of stacked loaves, a scale, a wheat mill, a table, multicolored plastic containers and three ovens, two of which were donated by a priest, and the third donated by City Hall as part of the Process. “That’s the one that bakes the best bread,” says a gang-member.
The Mara Salvatrucha sells $200 dollars worth of French bread and pastries on a daily basis. From that figure you have to subtract production costs and the salaries of two bakers. You don’t need to get a business degree to see that, even though this gang wanted to stop extorting people, the bakery is not a real economic incentive.
“Let’s go to the beach to talk,” says Stocky.
Acajutla never wanted to be a sanctuary town,” says Moises Bonilla, “the Mayor refused it.” Bonilla has been working with the local government for years. The fact that he’s survived four mayorships in this country is impressive. He leads various programs but it’s his role as Executive Director of the Process that is most relevant to our story.
“Mijango came to Acajutla with a lot of new ideas, but no one supported him. Why? We thought he only cared about making a name for himself.”
The mediator, Raul Mijango, and Stocky both describe the first weeks of 2013, when promoters of the Truce tried to persuade various mayors of the most violent neighboring cities to create what were first known as “Sanctuary Towns,” and after facing much criticism, were renamed as “Violence Free Cities.”
Mijango tells it a bit differently: “No one wanted the Process to be made public. Why? Because everyone could see that the media, instead of mobilizing support, criticized any mayor who joined it.”
Acajutla has managed to keep itself far away from the press, which is generally too lazy to investigate anything taking place outside of the capital. But that didn’t stop the wave of local criticism.
“A lot of people criticized the mayor’s growing relationship with the maras,” says Moises Bonilla.
“I was told he’ll even meet with them in his office.”
“It’s true. Sometimes they come looking for work. And because he’ll see them, there are people who call the mayor a friend of the gangsters.”
“How does the mayor justify himself?”
“The UNDP did a study that found there are over 600 gang-members here. And regardless of whether or not they’re criminals they’re also human beings, they’re our fellow citizens. Add to that the fact that we all know each other here. I live in the Acaxual and I know all the maras in my neighborhood.”
“Do you think that explains why businesses also support the Process?”
“We met with small business representatives, we explained the situation to them, and some said: ‘If we are going to solve this problem, I’ll donate an oven or whatever it takes to help out the Process, I only demand that all this gets supervision.’ And that’s exactly what’s being done. The great thing about support from businesses is that all they do is dole out money, that’s all. They don’t create any legal problems.”
“Why do you think there are less murders?”
“Because, unlike the rest of the country, we decided to pay attention to our problem of violence. That’s the good thing about Acajutla. If you go to one of the schools, you see these little mareros talking about how the Mayor has taken them into account. There is no other way…. Gang-members are citizens, it’s just that until now no one would even talk to them.”
Just as there are people who still believe that men never set foot on the moon, or that Elvis is still alive, there are many that deny the miracle of Acajutla. They say that the murdered have disappeared from the streets but are now buried in unmarked graves. They say that the only ones who stopped dying are gang-members, that for the “honest people” nothing has changed.
But something has changed. In 2014, the murder rate in greater El Salvador is rising, while Acajutla has suffered only twenty murders. There are other positive indicators: there isn’t a single ‘Mara Salvatrucha’ tag in the bathroom of the National Institute School, and the vice principal, Victor Manuel Alfaro, confirms that enrollment has risen from 450 to 560 students.
All this is not to say that when talking—off the record—with cab drivers, vendors, employees, officers, teachers or policemen, it’s not all too easy to detect fear about the growing power of the Acajutlas Locos.
Many complained of Mayor Guadrón allowing gang-members to sell beer on the streets during neighborhood celebrations, or of making it excessively easy for their families to open businesses. It’s also been rumored that some port companies have hired gang-members, offering them generous salaries, or even putting them on the payroll without actually employing them. Criticisms of this kind are heard often, but, in general, people of Acajutla seem to feel safer than they did five years ago.
There is, however, one crime that is unanimously thought to be rampant: extortion. Payment to gang-members under threat of death has been common since the middle of the last decade, but it seems that the Process made extortion something to be expected. Maybe that’s why the problem has barely been recorded: from January to August of 2014, the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) processed only eight complaints.
Sub-inspector De Leon admits, “we’ve heard rumors of people being extorted but they’re afraid and never report it.”
Unless someone has the connections and power to stand up to them, the moto-taxis, buses, minibuses, shops, market stalls, and the beach huts in Acajutla continue to pay rent to the Mara Salvatrucha. Even the migrants, when they visit from States, or the crew, which is what we call those who are hired by a shipping company, spending months sailing from port to port, even they have to pay.
Let’s go to the beach to talk,” Stocky tells me.
We walk from the bakery to the beach that sprawls to the south of the river Sensunapán. The initial hostility Stocky showed towards me has now disappeared.
“I was made in ’98,” he says.
What he means is that he was recruited in 1998.
Stocky looks at the ocean, calm and bright, and tells me that his brother is now at sea, with a boat his family bought on loan. His brother is not a gang-member, but is part of the half a million Salvadorans that make up the social buffer of the gangs. He left for the sea early this morning alongside his two teenagers who do flirt with becoming Maras. Fishing pays well these days, at $1.40 a pound, and if you’re lucky you can reel up to a thousand pounds from the sea.
“Why do the Maras continue to claim rent?” I ask. “I’ve heard they even charge sea crews.”
The first time you work on a sea crew you may earn up to $700 a month. But once you get experience, your salary rises to $1,000 or more. Sea crews spend five, six, ten months at sea, spending little, and daydreaming of the fat check that awaits them when they arrive to the Acajutla port.
“What’s the problem in giving a hundred bucks to the neighborhood?” Stocky asks. “It’s nothing to them, and it helps us a lot.”
“Do you want someone to take fifty pounds of what your brother brings in?”
Stocky remains silent a few seconds, searching for an answer that could settle the issue.
“Rent has been charged in El Salvador for years,” he says, “we didn’t invent it. There was extortion during the wars. We do the same the FMLN once did.”
It’s 11:30 AM, and there’s a lot of movement at the offices of the Policía Nacional Civil. Two guys sit in a few plastic chairs near the entrance. One is 23 years old, he wears flip-flops and says he’s a baker. The other is 19 years old, he wears Nike shoes, a cap, and says he works with cattle at Hacienda Kilo 5.
A young agent that looks fresh out of school makes them the obvious questions: name, parents, address, tattoos yes or no, height…. But then Fredy, from the Investigations Unit, peeks in and asks more elaborate questions. Fredy dresses so sloppy he looks nothing like a policeman; he’s wearing beige pants a couple of sizes too big and a white t-shirt with the image of a doll stamped on it that says “Mom, I Love U”.
The baker and the cattle worker were riding their motorcycle down Boulevard 25 de Febrero, when they were stopped at a police roadblock and detained as undocumented immigrants. The police have confiscated their cellphones. Fredy analyzes them in a side room. He comes out every so often and asks them something new with a serious tone. He’s found no problems with the baker, he says, but on the phone of the cattle worker he’s found “mara music” and two of the numbers listed on his phone match those of active gang-members.
“The phone chip is yours?” Fredy asks.
“We have to keep it. You can go, but you have to sign these forms authorizing us to keep the phone. I’m busy with other paperwork now, but if you’re in a hurry, you can sign the forms now and I’ll fill in the rest later.”
“That’s fine,” says the cattle worker, with a natural calm that invites you to think that this isn’t his first arrest.
Fredy hands him his phone back. He immediately checks it and finds that, in addition to the chip, the memory card is also missing.
“What about the memory card! I saw the roadblock agents take it away!” He dares to complain to Fredy.
“Are you sure it ever had a memory card?”
“Yep … I’ve been listening to music on my bike!”
Fredy says that the agents at the roadblock should be identified. He’s yelling. He says he wants their names so he can question them. Five or six agents nearby cut Fredy off. “These insects lie continuously,” one of them says. “If it’s only worth two bucks, then why the fuss?” another asks the cattle worker.
“All right … Fine…No problem … I can buy another one,” the cattle worker back-peddles, aware that he’s outnumbered.
Fredy brings him the blank forms, the kid signs at the bottom, and he and his friend leave, dejected. Four hours later, the police chief tells me, surprised, that 90% of Acajutla does not like cops.
It’s almost noon when I say goodbye to Stocky. I walk down the beach to the neighborhood of La Atarraya. Stocky suggested I go there to photograph recent graffitis of the Acajutlas Locos. Some are bright and colorful, others old. They portray claws, tombstones, skulls. MS-13 is scrawled everywhere. And then there are the threats: “Death to the snitch.” “See, hear, and never talk.”
Between 2011 and 2013, the homicide rate dropped in Acajutla by 95%, but the terror remains.
I go, camera in hand, stopping often. Turning a corner, a boy of about 12 years, a lookout, stares at me, surprised. He calms down when I tell him I’ve been speaking with other members. In El Salvador few places are as safe as the turf of a gang when you have the blessings of the boss.
I hail a moto-taxi, it’s lunchtime and I ask him to take me to the market. We’ve crossed into the neighborhood of La Playa, which is flanked by the sea and dotted with countless abandoned houses, dismantled, crumbling, after the annihilation of Barrio 18.
“Three years ago we couldn’t be on this street,” explains the moto-taxi driver, already convinced that I’m a reporter. “The other gang wouldn’t allow it.”
“Is it better now?”
“Yes,” he responds.
“Don’t you have to pay rent?”
“No, because this moto-taxi isn’t mine, but the owner has to pay it. And that’s fine, because now I can work past nighttime, and move safely between neighborhoods. I don’t have to worry even if I’m driving guys with tattoos. It’s not like before.”
In my notebook I write one more example of the naturalization of violence. Given the weak Salvadoran State, the oppressed appreciate their oppressor for instituting a lesser evil. The Process in Acajutla has saved dozens of lives, but it also seems to be creating the perfect dictatorship.