Hello guest! Please register or sign in (it's free) to view the hidden content. A 20-year-old former gang member, El Cholo, shows satanic imagery on his T-shirt.
El Cholo, as we call him here, is 20 years old. He has been a member of different gangs — or maras — and says he's killed 10 people. Following as excerpts from an interview with NPR's John Burnett.
I've been in maras since I was six. I grew up in the streets. My first gang was Bikingo. I grew up with them, they taught me arms, fighting, drugs, communication, contraband. I grew with this mentality. When I had learned it all, I went my own way, surviving alone. I went to the 13 gang, then the MS-18, then with a gang called Braker, then with Black Star, the Saldiver gang, now I'm a Roquero.
We listen to satanic music and do satanic rituals, and we play the Wuija, a game of the devil. It's how one comes to know the devil. To know him you have to give him your soul. You need money, food, you want to be rich. The devil comes and he says, "Okay, I want something of yours and I'll give you everything." You come and give him your soul. "Here's my life, it's all yours, but I want you to give me money, I want you to make me famous." He comes, gives it, and you're better for it.
But there are dangers, such as death. If you die, you lose everything, including your family by means of these satanic games.
My mother is Costa Rican and my father is from the U.S. I was born in the U.S. They had problems with drug trafficking, and they decided to come here to Guatemala. They decided to leave me here in an orphanage because of their problems. I grew up there, then I was adopted by foster parents. But I didn't like life with them, so I chose the life of the streets when I was six.
I started to grow up in the streets, I slept in the streets — the streets became my home. There's a saying that those who grow up on the streets will only be respected on the streets.
When I joined the Bikingo gang, they taught me how to use weapons and be in a gang. Later, I joined Mara 13, the Salvatrucha. I was with them. I learned how to survive there.
There are lots of gangs and how they survive is asesino al sueldo, kill for a paycheck. A person who needs money has to kill another person. They come, kill a person, take his money and that's how they survive. Or they survive violating people, kill them, kidnap them, assault banks, rob people in the street, and sell drugs. That's what gangs to, and I did it too.
I was 10 years old when I entered Mara 18, I learned how they dress and how they live in the streets. But there's a problem between 18 and Mara 13, they can't be together. They're not the same gang. If a 13 arrives at the house of an 18, the first thing is there's a massacre. Thirteen and 18 are rivals.
I've killed 10 people, all adults. I killed six gang members and four victims of crime. I killed the last one four months ago. He was causing problems in my gang. They paid me to eliminate him.
I also sell candy and cookies in the streets, and in buses. Now I've left the gangs. Now I'm a Roquero. Of all the Roqueros in the world, 75 percent worship the devil. The other 25 percent don't. I don't worship the devil. I left all that satanic stuff. I'm on my own, I don't mess with the devil anymore.
To dedicate your soul, you have to make a mark of the three 6s. I have them on my chest. There are women who get involved in satanic rites. They make a star of six points: salt, ash, cemetery dirt, bone dust, black candles and blood. Through magic, when the fire comes the devil is present. They have to do this ritual in the cemetery. Lots of people need money, they need protection, and that's why they do it.
I've done human sacrifice twice. I sacrificed a family of 13 through black magic. We made a voodoo doll, we stuck it with needles, and the person it represents dies easily.
There's a satanic game called Pedro, it's a computer game. How are you dressed? What color is your shirt? Your shirt is black. He responds as if he's in the computer. If I lose, Pedro wins, and he takes my life. Pedro is the devil.
There was this woman who threatened my life. I wouldn't permit it. I said before you get me, I'll get you. I made a voodoo doll with a piece of her pants. I went to the cemetery. She sacrificed herself on her own. She cut her own veins with a machete.
We came, we did our work. She died, we took out her brain, heart, lungs — the most valuable parts. We cut the heart into 14 parts — one piece for each of 14 of us. Our objective was to eat the heart raw. If we didn't eat it, the devil would kill us or harm us, or our families. We had to do it. She was 38 years old. We dumped her body in a river. This was when I was 15, in 2003. I was with the Braker gang then.
Do I feel any guilt for the people I've killed? No, if I committed an error, then sooner or later I'll pay for it. That's why I don't feel guilty to have done it. I feel normal. To survive in this world you have to do everything, including even taking the life of another. You have to do everything in this life in order to survive. That's what I did.
In one sense, they're right (referring to the rise of vigilantism and the targeting of gang members for death). There are many innocents who've died at their (the gangs') hands. The people are tired of the gangs. Many people are tired of me. I'm now an ex-gang member. Two years ago, I left the gangs when I was 18. Today I'm a street vendor. People respect me.
There've been lots of deaths from the gangs. You find bodies in the rivers, mountains, barrancas. Many women have died because they belong to gangs. There are women who get killed during rapes. There are gang members who like to rape women and then kill them. There are women who because of their marital problems end up dead. Also they kill prostitutes. I know lots of prostitutes. Lots of them work by the train tracks, in Zona 6 and Zona 3 and along 18th street there are lots of prostitutes. Some are killed for giving a disease to a man.
Here in Guatemala, lots of gang members have tattoos. You put on 18 or 13, the Sorro, the name of your family, the name of your woman, the name of your son. Some people are famous for their tattoos. Some people have the three points of the vida loca — jail, death, cemetery. For the Roqueros it's sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.
I wanted to get out of the gangs to save my life. You have to fight to stay alive. Now I believe in the world of God. I have my Bible. That's why I left the gangs.
I met a Jehovah's Witness in the street. He told me everything I was doing was an error. Now I believe in the word of God and I decided to change my life. I know that I've caused much grief to families. They'll celebrate Holy Week and Christmas without their loved ones who I killed. The families of the 10 I killed are sad. I did it for amusement, money or drugs.
I know I was wrong. Now I start to tremble when I think that I killed someone. I could go to prison or somebody might want to kill me for revenge. Today, I'm afraid. I could pay with my life for my errors, as we say, pay with the same money.
I know lots of people the sicarios (hired gunmen) have killed — Scrappy, Carlos Bran, El Diablito, Cholo, Scooby Doo, Pantera, Flaco, Guzman, Magoo. I've known 50 people who've been killed by sicarios this year. More in years past. They were all in gangs. They were famous. It's an honor, a medal of gold for all they've done with us. They helped form the gangs. They were our leaders.
The mistake the sicarios make is to think killing the leader will make a difference. Another leader comes up. His right hand man moves up.
Today a lot of gang members do (fear the backlash of community vigilantes.) It's not the same as before. They know well that, sooner or later, they can be eliminated. Gang members who have piercings or tattoos know they should hide them. Or leave this place, because they know the sicarios won't give 'em a second chance. The sicarios are there to clean up the community.
In my case, when I go out the first thing I do is take out my piercings and cover my tattoos, to look like a decent person. For the fear of being eliminated. Thanks to God I've been a street vendor for two years. Now I like to earn an honest living. Hello guest! Please register or sign in (it's free) to view the hidden content.
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’
Hello guest! Please register or sign in (it's free) to view the hidden content. 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.”
Hello guest! Please register or sign in (it's free) to view the hidden content. 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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