City, Interrupted: How Gang Killings Brought San Salvador To A Halt
This story is part of NPR's podcast Embedded, which digs deep into the stories behind the news. Warning: Some of the images in the story are graphic.
Gang violence is commonplace in El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in the world. But the capital city of San Salvador was brought almost to a standstill when gang members began murdering bus drivers one by one in July 2015.
It started when a bus driver was shot and killed early one morning. Gangs issued a communique telling Salvadorans not to take public transportation. A few hours later, several more bus drivers were dead. Businesses and schools closed. Bus lines stopped running. Ultimately, eight drivers and one other transit worker were killed.
On this episode of Embedded, Kelly McEvers travels to San Salvador to explore the dynamics behind these killings.
On gangs' hold in the country
Two big gangs — Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 — control much of the territory in El Salvador.
Residents who live in one gang's territory cannot cross into another gang's territory. Business owners in a gang's territory must pay renta, or protection money, to the gang. Those who cannot or do not pay might have to offer something else — a teenage son to work for the gang or a daughter as a bride for one of the members — or risk death.
The government has been cracking down on the gangs, leading raids of known gang havens and placing gang leaders in maximum security prisons. Some Salvadorans say that hasn't been working, though.
Why gangs targeted bus drivers
Driver Mauricio Rendero was killed at 5 a.m. on a Monday morning while driving his bus last July. At his funeral, attendees sang. Relatives and some cemetery workers shoveled dirt onto a mound and hammered a cross into the dirt.
"What hurts me more is the way in which they have taken away my son," the mother of the deceased driver says.
Some local reporters speculate the gangs were killing bus drivers to assert control. Previously, the reporters say, imprisoned gang leaders were kept in a common prison with the general population.
There, they could recruit new members and give orders to the outside.
But the government placed the leaders in a maximum security facility, and some reporters say the gang leaders want to be returned to the general population.
"We don't know why this happened, but we can tell you there's a pattern," says a police officer, addressing the press after another killing. "You, too, have seen this pattern."
How one father copes with the violence
"I'm a very spiritual person, honestly," says Roberto, a local reporter.
Roberto cries, hitting the steering wheel of his car as he tries to stop the tears. He says being part of a Catholic community has filled his heart with faith, hope and the belief that God is with him.
"We live in an area full of gangs," he says. "We try to live with them. We don't mess with them. They don't mess with us."
He says it's the only way he carries on.
"It's hard living surrounded by so much violence," he says. "To get home at night and for my daughter to say, 'How did your day go?' And to say it was a good day because I got back home."
When his daughter asks him what he saw each day, Roberto says he lies.
"I can't tell her I saw five dead bodies today," he says. "I can't tell her, and so I lie to her. I say we went to the beautiful beach and we saw a beautiful mountain, even though she sees the television."
Editor's note: A pseudonym was used to identify "Roberto" because of the threat to his safety. This is an exception to NPR's standard practice when anonymity is required. The exception was made because of the seriousness of the threat.
Want to dive deeper? Listen to Kelly's conversation with WBUR's On Point .
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