Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Image
Members of El Salvador's National Civil Police guard suspected members of the notorious Diez y Ocho, or 18, gang during a raid in the early hours of Feb. 13 in Ciudad Delgado, Santa Tecla, a suburb west of San Salvador.
Members of El Salvador's National Civil Police guard suspected members of the notorious Diez y Ocho, or 18, gang during a raid in the early hours of Feb. 13 in Ciudad Delgado, Santa Tecla, a suburb west of San Salvador. Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Image
Graffiti of the Mara Salvatrucha, one of El Salvador's dominant and most notorious gangs, is seen in Mejicanos, a gang-ridden section of San Salvador.
Graffiti of the Mara Salvatrucha, one of El Salvador's dominant and most notorious gangs, is seen in Mejicanos, a gang-ridden section of San Salvador. Jason Beaubien/NPR
In Guatemala, the killing of bus drivers is common as local gangs extort fees from drivers.
Voters in El Salvador go to the polls March 15 to elect a new president, and one of the biggest issues in the heated campaign is crime.
The tiny country has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas. Street gangs dominate sections of the capital, and extortion rackets are rampant.
Fear Paralyzes Hospital
On the outskirts of San Salvador, the Villa Mariona Health Clinic is a bland, single-story government building centered around a small courtyard. Patients line the walls under the awnings. Mothers scurry in with sick children in their arms. Staff in medical scrubs rush between the rooms.
But late last year, all activity here came to a halt. The clinic shut after gangs threatened to kill the employees.
Dr. Jose Ernesto Flores, the facility's new director, says the staff received anonymous calls demanding money and threatening to kill them if they didn't pay.
He says gangs had been demanding extortion payments, or la renta, of $20 a month from the clinic's 36 employees for some time. Rather than continue to pay or report the problem to the police, the staff fled.
The clinic is the only medical facility for a community of almost 40,000 people. It shut entirely in September. Eventually, Flores and a few new employees were brought in to reopen the clinic.
"When we began to come, nobody wanted to come here because of the same fear," Flores says.
The clinic's operations were disrupted for months.
Extortion Plagues Businesses Big And Small
Jose Eduardo Martel, a subinspector at the local police station, says extortion is a huge problem in El Salvador, and he says it is currently his district's biggest crime problem.
All types of businesses — stores, beauty salons, barbers — have to pay la renta to the gangs, Martel says.
Accompanying the extortion rackets is violence — which breaks out when gangs fight over territory or when people for some reason don't pay. The dominant gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha and Diez y Ocho, or 18, but Martel says there are others, too.
He says the gangs demand small, daily payments from almost everyone.
Generally, large businesses — such as Coke and Pepsi distributors — pay $5 a day, while shops pay an average of $2 or $3, Martel says.
Shopkeepers don't go to the police because if they do — even the police officer acknowledges — the gangs will kill them.
Martel adds that residents don't want to go to the police over the relatively small daily extortion demands. What he doesn't say is that many Salvadorans also are afraid that the gangs have contacts inside the police, and any denunciation would immediately be reported back to the criminals.
As El Salvador's presidential election approaches, both candidates have vowed, if elected, to crack down on the gangs.
Bus Drivers Targeted
Mejicanos, a gang-ridden section of San Salvador, straddles a ridge on the north side of the capital. Even in the middle of the day, shopkeepers peer anxiously from behind iron bars. Twitchy police officers clutching assault rifles man roadblocks in the narrow streets. The facades of houses are mainly steel doors, cement walls and razor wire.
One of the groups hardest hit by the extortion rackets in San Salvador are the local bus drivers.
At the bus depot in Mejicanos, one man says the situation is getting worse every day. He used to be a driver, but he quit three months ago. On a recent night, two bodies were found in the bus parking lot. A few days earlier, he says, a friend of his was shot nearby. He doesn't want his name broadcast out of fear for his safety.
The man says he paid la renta for seven years on his route, sometimes as many as three times in one day.
As he talks, his hand curls into the shape of a gun. His index finger jabs at his temple.
"Hey, hey, give me the money," he says, recounting the unending robberies.
Violence Rooted In Civil War
From 1980 to 1992, this tiny Central American country was torn apart by a brutal civil war. The conflict killed more than 70,000 people, and there was no clear winner.
The war is over, but now El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas.
The Rev. Antonio Rodriguez Lopez Tercero, who runs a program in Mejicanos to reintegrate gang members into mainstream jobs, says the current violence in El Salvador is related to that conflict.
"We had a civil war, and now we are having a social war," the Spanish priest says. "The causes of the conflict endure in El Salvador. Some things have changed, but people are still dying."
For generations before the war, a small elite wielded power in El Salvador, while the masses were trapped in poverty. Now, people can vote, but Rodriguez Lopez says the system hasn't really changed. Half the population still lives in poverty.
And until the government can tackle this, he says, it is never going to get control of the crime problem.