From civil war to gang war: new violence drives Salvadorans to makeshift camp

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In the country’s first camp for internally displaced people since the civil war, 70 people are living on a basketball court: ‘We won’t go back’


People have dinner at the shelter for the displaced community of El Castaño. A total of 19 families left their community after receiving threats. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

A gloomy group of men and women watch in silence as a truckload of armed soldiers slowly drive past the basketball court where they are living in makeshift plastic shelters.

This encampment in Caluco, a small town 40 miles west of the capital, San Salvador, is home to about 70 people from a nearby farming community, forced to flee their homes after a recent escalation of gang violence.

It is El Salvador’s first camp for internally displaced people since the 12-year civil war, when an estimated one million people were forcibly displaced and 80,000 killed.

The war between the leftist guerrillas and US-supported military dictatorships ended in 1992, but peace never came to this small Central American country, where the social and economic inequalities which triggered the conflict remain unresolved. Social exclusion, state repression and gang violence have steadily grown worse, and in recent years, El Salvador has become the world’s most violent country outside a declared war zone.

Ironically, the region around Caluco was spared much of the civil war bloodletting, said the local mayor, Bianca Oriana, who set up the camp in the shadows of the Santa Ana volcano. “In this area, we were not badly affected by the war violence. For us, the gangs are much worse,” she said.

The Caluco camp serves as the latest stark warning that extreme violence is again displacing huge numbers of Salvadorans, forcing entire families to leave home in search of safety.

More than 1,000 people, including several entire communities, are known to have been internally displaced since the beginning of 2015, according to human rights activists in El Salvador. The actual number is likely to be much higher.

Tens of thousands more have fled the country altogether. In the past year, almost 40,000 Salvadorans travelling in family groups, and unaccompanied children, were apprehended by US border control agents.

While the worst violence was once concentrated in deprived urban areas, it has since spread to small towns and rural communities.

Caluco is a picturesque semi-rural district with about 9,000 inhabitants. About seven years ago, Barrio 18 Sureños – one of the three largest gangs in the country - started forming clicas, or cells, in the area.

“At first they didn’t cause any problems, it was just about belonging to something –but then came the drugs and violence,” said Oriana.

According to local people, around three years ago, the gang leaders suddenly started carrying high-calibre weapons and pressuring families to cooperate: providing money and food whenever demanded, or acting as lookouts for police or soldiers.

The murder rate inched up steadily, despite the presence of an army base in the district; one by one, families started to leave.

One of the worst-affected communities was El Castaño, where a 64-year-old man called Francisco Barrientos was killed after allegedly refusing to cooperate with a gang led by one of his nephews. His relatives responded by burning down the house of the gang leader’s mother.

“We knew this was a declaration of war, but I am happy we did it,” said a family member, who asked not to be named. “They had been doing bad things for a long time.” 

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 The military are in charge of the 24-hour security of the shelter for displaced people in Caluco, Sonsonate. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

In response, the gang ordered the entire community to leave – on pain of death. Within days, almost every family had abandoned their corn and yucca fields, and fled with only the clothes on their backs.

Since then, the national police have sent in reinforcements from the anti-gang unit, and 35 alleged gang members have been detained and paraded in front of TV cameras. Human Rights groups say El Salvador’s new mano dura – or iron fist – policy against the gangs has resulted in the indiscriminate targeting of young men.

The families in the camp have been told they must soon return home, but many are too scared – both of the gang members and the local police – and are considering fleeing the country.

“Those who are guilty should pay, but those who are innocent should be let go,” said one 53-year-old woman, whose eldest son was among those arrested. “We won’t go back; we can’t trust the police who have stained my son’s name. I don’t know where we’ll go, but maybe to another country.”

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