Saturday, March 26, 2022, was the most violent day in the recent history of El Salvador: the day closed with 62 Salvadorans murdered, according to the preliminary balance presented by the National Civil Police.
To measure the seriousness of what happened in the small Central American country -a regular at the top of the ranking of the most violent places in the world-, it is enough to point out that since the beginning of the year and until that fateful weekend, there had been on average 19 murders per week.
No one has claimed responsibility for the massacre, but in El Salvador few doubt that the maras or gangs, which have been killing, extorting and dominating territories for decades, are behind it.
After what happened, the administration of President Nayib Bukele unleashed against these criminal structures what may be the most intense legal, media, police and military offensive since they took root in society in the early 1990s.
On March 27, the government managed to get Congress to approve a state of emergency, which among other things limits the freedom of the media to broadcast messages or communications from the gangs, a measure that has been harshly criticized by Salvadoran journalists who see it. as an attempt to impose the official version as the only possible one.
See in the following video what measures were imposed, how Bukele justifies them and the reactions they have provoked.
More than a month later, the Salvadoran state claims to have detained around 20,000 gang members.
A recently published survey states that 9 out of 10 Salvadorans support the measures that Bukele took after March 26.
But many questions remain in the air.
Why did such an explosion of homicidal violence occur on March 26? Was it a coordinated action between the three main gangs (Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, Barrio 18-Sureños and Barrio 18-Revolucionarios)? And until that day, was the Bukele administration negotiating with the gang members, as different journalistic investigations and even the US government have pointed out, something that Bukele flatly denies?
On April 1, just four days after the Legislative Assembly approved the emergency regime, a spokesperson for the Barrio 18-Sureños gang contacted Basque-Salvadoran journalist Roberto Valencia via social media, indicating that they wanted, as a structure, to share a statement to distance himself from what happened on March 26.
Since the Bukele administration began in June 2019, the command structures of the three most widespread gangs in El Salvador have been elusive with the press. You have to go back to April 2020 to find a journalistic interview granted by the heads of any of the three groups.
Valencia, based in El Salvador since 2001, has been investigating the gang phenomenon for more than a decade. His works have been published in media such as the BBC, the Washington PostEl Faro, Telemundo, Vice and international and he is the author of the book ‘Letter from Zacatraz’ (Libros del KO, Madrid, 2018), on this subject.
Chronicles of his authorship such as ‘I raped’ or ‘Who killed Christian Poveda?’ have portrayed the pain that the gangs inflict on Salvadoran society, but in order to try to understand the phenomenon and its complex roots, and the potential role of the gangs at a negotiating table in search of peace, he has also interviewed on different occasions gang leaders.
From that first contact of the 18-Sureños gang, 10 days passed until they agreed to answer a questionnaire, given the refusal to publish a one-way statement.
Communication has been slow and delayed because it does not depend on a particular leader, but on a circle of leaders scattered throughout El Salvador, and in a context of massive arrests by the State. After the yes, they were sent 62 questions grouped into 25 items.
What follows are the answers received 11 days later in 20 audios sent through the Signal messaging application, and recorded by different men, all of them members of the national circle released from the Barrio 18-Sureños gang. (the unanswered questions, including those we asked after receiving the recordings, are included at the end of this article).
BBC Mundo has repeatedly tried to find out the version of the government of El Salvador and President Bukele. In the month of April 2022 alone, on three occasions we have requested interviews through an official letter by email and by WhatsApp messages to the Secretaries of Press and Communications. We have not received a response.
Mbelow you can find other artArticles that provide context about the gangs and the Salvadoran government’s offensive to stop them.
What happened the weekend of March 26? Why? Did 18-Sur know that what happened was going to happen?
We do not know and we disassociate ourselves and we lament and condemn that bloodshed.
As an organization and social group, Barrio 18-Sureños has never been coordinated with any of the other organizations in the country.
If it had been coordinated by the three gangs, it would have been a different situation, more critical. We, as Barrio 18-Sureños, have maintained the search for dialogue.
No to violence for a better country.
What commitments did the government break so that the gangs would send that message of death?
We do not know the commitments that the government has or has had with the Letters [la MS-13].
As 18-Sureños, the only commitment we have asked of the government is an open, transparent dialogue. We continue to maintain the same position of the last three years: stop crime.
Two years ago, in April 2020, there was a similar brutal spike in murders and Bukele ordered gang members from different gangs to be brought together in the same cells. When was that measure reversed?
No comment. As soon as we remember that, for those dates of 2020, as a Barrio 18 social group we also spoke out and disassociated ourselves from this rise in crime in the country.
Bukele came to The presidency on June 1, 2019, and the decrease in homicides was accentuated from the following month. The government says it was because of its ‘Territorial Control Plan’, but how does 18-Sur explain this decrease?
In June 2019 we made the government see our position in favor of a ceasefire and the search for peace.
At that time we were heavily criticized, but we demonstrated our commitment with facts, lowering all crime rates in all our territories, despite the repression and political propaganda.
This Territorial Control Plan bothers, because the government has been asking for transparent dialogue, supervised by international organizations, and it has not been fulfilled.
But so far we remain committed, proving that violence is not the only way out.
Journalistic investigations and even the United States government confirm that the three gangs have negotiated with the Bukele administration. When it started? Did it start before or after homicides went down? Who searched for whom?
Let’s be clear with this question, okay? As Barrio 18-Sureños there is no truce, do you understand me? What there is is a dialogue that started after homicides fell.
We do not know if it started with any of the other gangs before.
With which government representatives has the 18-Sur dialogued in this process? Carlos Marroquín, director of Reconstruction of the Social Fabric?
The government says that communications from the prisons are cut off. Does 18-Sureños maintain communication with its imprisoned members?
Yes, we have had communication with our colleagues in prison to follow this entire peace process.
The government’s dialogue has been with both [pandilleros libres y pandilleros privados de libertad] because just as violence can be unleashed in the streets, it can also be unleashed in prisons.
Are there conversations between the three main gangs outside the prisons?
In El Salvador there are other minor gangs such as Mao-Mao or La Mirada Locos, but the three main ones are the aforementioned Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18-Sureños and Barrio 18-Revolucionarios.
In the heat of the events of March 26, President Bukele himself tweeted that the number of active gang members in the streets amounts to 70,000, to which should be added those imprisoned. El Salvador officially has 6.3 million inhabitants.
The figures that Bukele gave poderthey were going read as a tacit confession that during his administration the gang phenomenon has only multipliedespecially if the numbers are compared with ua kind of census carried out in mid-2017 by the previous government that It estimated that there were just over 43,000 gang members who were then free.
The Barrio 18-Sureños gang emerged more than a decade ago, after the Salvadoran branch of Barrio 18, the descendant gang of the 18th Street Gang, emerged in Los Angeles (United States) in the middle of the last century, split in two. and that began operating in El Salvador in the early 1990s.
From the beginning of the year to April 23, the National Civil Police reported the arrest of 2,599 people whom it attributed to being members of the 18-Sureños. Of that number, more than 2,000 have been detained after the implementation of the emergency regime.
Prison visits for gang members have been prohibited since March 2016. What concessions has the government made to the gangs, apart from reversing the decision to put them in cells? There is talk of better nutrition, health…
What we want is that the rights of each prisoner be respected, as dictated by the Constitution.
Has the Bukele administration supported 18-Sur with money or aid (food, jobs…)? Did the 18-Sur support the Nuevas Ideas party in the elections of February 28, 2021? [partido oficial, impulsado por Nayib Bukele]?
As a Barrio 18 organization, it is a lie that we are going to make the same mistakes of the past, such as the disastrous truce under water [la de 2012, que derivó en la explosión de violencia que El Salvador vivió en 2015, cuando registró una tasa de 106 homicidios por cada 100,000 habitantes].
If we have lowered crime rates, it is for peace, for seeking an open dialogue; Otherwise, we reject any offer of an economic nature.
Second, we do help [en las elecciones] with votes and with security in our territories, so that no element of our organization caused disorder, and also so that the opposition could campaign calmly in our territories, without the danger of running into any kind of mishaps.
Different social actors assure that homicides have decreased but because disappearances have increased.
As we repeat, our commitment as Barrio 18-Sur is the ceasefire, and that includes everything related.
How do you explain that the ban on visits to prisons has remained firm for six years? How does this measure affect them?
We are not a mafia, we are a family.
As an organization, we are not affected by whether or not there is visitation in the prisons. What it does affect, emotionally and psychologically, is each person deprived of liberty, who have not seen their fathers, mothers, children for six years, and it also affects their relatives.
Journalistic information assures that MS-13 leaders were released in the second half of 2021. Has something similar happened with 18-Sur?
The control that 18-Sur exercises in its courts has decreased during the Bukele administration?
The control of our territories has not diminished. We remain strong and we will continue at the foot of the fight, nothing more than outside the acts of violence.
We do not want to make ourselves known by hitting the country with violence, but by seeking dialogue towards peace, as we have been demonstrating.
In terms of prevention and/or rehabilitation, is the Bukele administration putting into practice different public policies than previous administrations?
Which? That’s what we ask ourselves: which one? Do you get me? Because there is no functional base; on the contrary, with the actions of the government we have grown more, proving that repression is not the right path, [que la actual administración] It goes like past administrations.
Is it possible that a war against state security forces similar to the one El Salvador suffered in 2015 could break out?
Let’s be very brief and clear on this question: violence attracts more violence, evolved, you understand me?
We can stand up in the fight [responder al Estado] worse, more organized and advanced than the one that happened in 2015, in the Sánchez Cerén administration, but we repeat it: we are not in that position, okay? We want a better future for the country.
The path of government-gang negotiation, supervised by international organizations, was already tried in 2012-14 and failed. Why would it be any different now?
As Barrio 18-Sureños we believe that the only solution to this problem is open and transparent dialogue, without dealings under the table, and without money involved, do you understand me?
With reintegration programs, opportunities for work, health, study, respect for the rights of those deprived of liberty, and many topics that could be touched on at a dialogue table.
Why did it fail before and did not have such good results?
The first reason was money. Second, it was based on the political base and well-being, which is why it did not give good results. Because it was not a commitment from us to the people, as it is on this occasion.
That is why we do not want the same problem to happen again, with a failed dialogue, in favor of politicians. We want to be the solution, we do not want to serve as government toys to bleed and destroy the country.
After the massacre of March 26, the government seems more firm than ever in its repressive bet against the gangs. What can happen?
We are going to continue maintaining the national ceasefire, do you understand me? Believing that the only way out of this conflict is dialogue, not fire.
We want to be part of the solution to the problem.
The proposal of Barrio 18-Sureños is to keep our team in the shadows, to demonstrate the true and sincere commitment that we made visible in the statement in 2019.
We remain standing, in peace, leaving the option of fire, of war, as a last instance, as a last alternative, of survival, because we repeat it again: each one of us are human beings, Salvadorans, parents of families , and we want a better country for our present generations and future generations.
After receiving the audios from the members of Barrio 18-Sur, we sent their representatives counter-questions to the answers obtained, and insisted on some of thes unanswered questions.
We do not receive a reply.
On Saturday, April 23, communication was interrupted. Until the time of publication of this note, the number provided by the gang’s spokesman no longer shows signs of life, as if it were turned off or deactivated.
These are some of the questions that the BBC posed and/or restated to Barrio 18-Sureños. Due to the uniqueness of this interview, we share them under the premise that the reader deserves to know them.
1) They say that the 18-Sur calmed down as of July 2019 by its own decision, and that later it began a dialogue with the ggovernment. When exactly did that dialogue begin? Who searched for whom? With which government representatives has 18-Sur talked in these almost three years?
2) With no jail visits since March 2016 and no phones, how does 18-Sur communicate with their incarcerated homies?
3) Was the Bukele administration backtracking on the decision to bring together homies from different neighborhoods in the same cell as a consequence of the ‘dialogue’?
4) What opinion does 18-Sur have about extraditions to the United States? Is that one of the points discussed with the government?
5) Are rent and extortion still the main economic support of 18-Sur? Why do you think it’s normal for a bus route or a soda delivery guy to have to pay to enter their fields? Or that a Salvadoran cannot go to the health unit because he is on the court of the opposing gang? Or that, if a grandmother dies and her family wants to mourn her, they have to ask the gang for permission so that relatives from other neighborhoods can come? When is that going to end?
6) A survey was published this week that says that 9 out of 10 Salvadorans support the repressive measures that Bukele took after March 26. Isn’t that proof that the Salvadoran people reject the gangs?
7) They responded that “the only solution to the problem is open and transparent dialogue, without dealings under the table.” Why in these three years of Bukele have they tolerated that the dialogue with the government has been under the table?
ARTICLES FROM OUR ARCHIVE RELATED TO VIOLENCE IN EL SALVADOR AND THE ROLE OF THE MARAS