ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Voters in El Salvador go to the polls later this month to elect a new president. 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. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN: 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 scurrying 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 is the new director of the facility.
Dr. JOSE ERNESTO FLORES (Director, Villa Mariona Health Clinic, San Salvador): (Foreign language spoken).
BEAUBIEN: There were anonymous calls, Dr. Flores says, demanding money from the staff and threatening to kill them if they didn't pay. He says gangs have been demanding la renta, extortion payments 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. Eventually, Flores, along with a few new employees, were brought in to reopen the clinic.
Dr. FLORES: (foreign language spoken).
BEAUBIEN: When we began to come, Dr. Flores says, nobody wanted to come here because of the same fear. The clinic's operations were disrupted for months. A few blocks down the street at the local police station, officers bang out reports on aging typewriters. Police Inspector Jose Eduardo Martel says extortion is a huge problem in El Salvador, and he says it's the biggest crime problem for his district right now.
Police Inspector JOSE EDUARDO MARTEL: (foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Businesses, stores, beauty salons, barbers, any type of business, Martel says, has to pay la renta to the gangs. And with the extortion rackets comes violence when the gangs fight over territory, or people, for some reason, don't pay. The dominant gangs are Mara Salvatrucha and Diez y Ocho, or 18, but Martel says there are other, too. He says the gangs demand small, daily payments from almost everyone.
Police Inspector MARTEL: (foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Generally, he says, large businesses, Coke and Pepsi distributors pay $5 a day. Shops pay $2 or $3 a day, on average. Shopkeepers don't go to the police because if they do, even this police officer acknowledges, the gangs will kill them. As El Salvador's presidential election approaches, both candidates have vowed, if elected, to crack down on the bandidos. Mejicanos is a gang-ridden section of San Salvador that straddles a ridge on the north side of the capital. Even in the middle of the day, shopkeepers peer anxiously out from behind iron bars; twitchy police officers clutching assault rifles man road blocks in the narrow streets. The facades of houses are mainly steel doors, cement walls, razor wire.
(Soundbite of a bus)
One of the groups hardest hit by the extortion rackets in San Salvador are the local bus drivers.
Unidentified Man: (foreign language spoken).
BEAUBIEN: At the bus depot of Mejicanos, this man says the situation is getting worse every day. He used to be a driver, but he quit three months ago. The night before, two bodies were found here in the bus lot, and he says a friend of his was shot just down the hill a few days earlier. He doesn't want his name broadcast out of fears for his safety. He says he paid la renta for seven years on his route, sometimes as many as three times a day. As he talks, his hand curls into the shape of a gun; his index finger jabs at his temple.
Unidentified Man: (foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Hey, hey Chogi(ph) give me the money, he says, recounting the unending robberies. 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. Father 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.
Reverend ANTONIO RODRIGUEZ LOPEZ TERCERO (Priest): (foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: We had a civil war, and now we're having a social war, the Spanish priest says. The causes of the conflict endure in El Salvador. Some things have changed. The 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 Father Antonio says the system hasn't really changed. Half the population still lives in poverty, and he says until the government can tackle this, in his view, it's never going to get control of the crime problem.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, San Salvador.
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