Friday, November 28, 2008

Terrorists Striking At Will In El Salvador

Photo1: Bus Driver Killed For Extorsion In San Salvador

Gangs in El Salvador, and yes………. everyone is sick of hearing about the gang problem here….
gangs are waging war on the public transportation sector. In the past three days, they have torched two buses, killed 5 bus drivers (or the person who takes the money on the bus, known as the "cobrador"), and made attempts on the lives of many more. Just today, a security guard died in a shootout when gangsters were trying to kill a bus driver.

Photo2: Bus Burned In Apopa, On The Outskirts Of San Salvador

This year, close to 100 bus drivers on public buses have been killed here. This statistic is low, as it doesn't count the passengers, as well as security guards, who have also been killed. The gangs do this as intimidation for the bus owners to pay "La Renta", extorsion.

Photo3: Family of Slain Cobrador Identifying the Body, San Salvador
The president has called for the bus owners to resist the gangs, and yet the government has done nothing to stem the tide of this violence, nor to reshape public transportation to prevent this tragedy. The reason is, the public buses are all actually privately owned, and the bus owners wield a lot of political power. For example, the bus owners, being the only source of transportation to voting centers, can simply refuse to transport people in one particular area if they are irritated by a political party. The bus owners evidently don't care if they lose a few drivers or buses, as they too have done absolutely ZERO to secure their routes.
Are the gangs terrorists? Max G. Manwaring, the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Military History at the US Army War College, has likened the widespread, organized criminal enterprise of MS-18 and MS-13 as a form of urban insurgency. More to the point, the effect of all the gang violence is the equivalent of a low intensity conflict (read: war) with the governing nation, here being El Salvador.

Photo4: Bullet Hole From The Shot That Killed A Bus Driver, San Salvador

Consider: in the United States or any other country in the world, if there were coordinated attacks on public transportation and targeted assasinations (one every three days in the city here) by an organized group with a defined agenda (here it is simply to gain power, money, and undermine the government), we would call the people who carried out these attacks terrorists.

Photo5: Passengers in Central Eastern Bus Terminal

In El Salvador, these attacks almost never make the front page, because people are so used to them. They are not news anymore. If people want to stabilize this country, fight terrorism, and prevent transnational crime, this would be a really good, cheap place to start.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Send In The Clowns.......

Some time ago, I promised to publish happy photos of life in El Salvador. Unfortunately, I am going to have to break that promise.

Photo1: Slain Clown in El Centro

This clown, 33 year old Geovanni Guzman, known as "Piecito", was shot 13 times in a place in the city center known as Parque San Jose, right in front of the old church there. I said to myself, "13 times, someone must have been really mad at this clown". And, I was correct. Witnesses told us that he was a robber and thief. Turns out, a number of the clowns that work on the public buses here are actually spotters for gangs, or else rob people when they get off. They come on the bus, do some schtick, see who has money or goods, and then call to the gang members. This clown was shot at about noon, three times in the face, and 10 times in the body.
As I left the scene, a group of what looked to be gangsters asked what I was doing. "Taking pictures of the dead clown" I said. They asked to see the photos, and as they were looking at them on my camera, one said "So somebody finally killed that clown".

Photo2: Brothel Floor

I have been working on a story about sex workers in El Centro for some time now, and it is because of this that I haven't been publishing much on the blog. The stories of these women are fascinating, horrifying, and sad. This is a photo of the floor of one of the rooms of the brothel, with a prostitute (almost certainly underage) in the process of buying drugs, surrounded by used condoms. I asked the owner why they didn't clean it up, why there were used condoms all over the place. She told me that when the women go on drug binges, they basically can't wait to buy drugs, so they take the used condoms off the men, drop them wherever, and hustle out to buy crack. Another lovely aspect to prostitution and sex tourism. The bright side is, at least they were using condoms. I guess.

Photo3: Slain Bus Cobrador (Fare Collector), El Centro
Photo4: Bullet That Killed The Cobrador
Photo5: Child In Front of Bus With Slain Cobrador

Another round of bus driver killings have been occuring here, with the government doing ABSOLUTELY ZERO to prevent it. Here, a 24 year old assistant to the bus driver, the person who collects money and is known as the cobrador, was shot in the afternoon in El Centro. The casing of the exact bullet that killed him is shown in the next photo. The motive for the crime was supposedly extorsion, as it always is. He was shot in the city center from outside the bus, and the bus driver attempted to drive to the hospital, but the cobrador died after a couple of blocks so the bus driver stopped the bus........and fled.
For whatever reason, this is the 5th murder in two weeks that hasn't made any of the papers, not a note.
The last photo is a child watching the scene unfold. The bullethole from the shot that killed the cobrador is to the right of his eye, in the doorway of the bus.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Murder, Prison, Masked Guys with Baseball Bats

Pic1: Murder in Soyapango

I promise, the next post, I will have some happy images and stories. I promise. There really is a lot of beauty and wonder in El Salvador. I love the people, and pretty much everything about the country. But when I want information, I don’t want to see what's obvious. I want to see what's under the surface.

Today our tour of El Salvador takes us through a couple of exotic locals. The first was a murder in Soyapango. There was another fairly spectacular murder(s) a couple of days ago, but I don't have the pictures for that handy. Trust me, you're lucky. It's easy enough to describe, however, but instead, I prefer a riddle similar to that the goddess Hera asked of Oedipus (who solved it):
"Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three? "
Well, the answer to this classic riddle is "man". There is an El Salvadoran version, however:
"What in the morning walks on two feet, at noon doesn't walk at all, and then in the evening, uh, is missing an appendage?"
The answer to that, of course, is "a woman decapitated by a gang". The other morning, they found a bag containing a body in the city, without the head. Then, a few blocks away, they found a head in another bag. But here's the kicker: they don't match! They're from different bodies. Oops. Still no word on either one.
Anyway, I continue to document my personal problem with parents bringing their kids to murder scenes, like this one in Soyapango. This woman was shot in front of a school in the middle of the day.

Pic2: Josie, Mariona Prison
This was in Mariona prison, locally known as "Miami", at some total bullshit event for the press to show they care about the inmates. Anyway, this inmate, "Josie", wanted to show me his tattoos. He also has three teardrops on his face (he's killed three people, at least). When I asked him about his face tattoos and what they meant, he smiled at me and said "I've been bad". They provided water and refreshments for the press, and many of the inmates asked me for a bag of water (in El Salvador, water is often sold in 500ml sealed bags). They said the water in the prison is very contaminated, and they couldn’t remember what fresh water tasted like. After really seeing the inside of the prison, I am very confident I will never, ever, break the law again.

Pic3: Inmate, Mariona Prison
Here's another inmate at Mariona behind an isolation door.

Pic4: Street Vendor at Protest, San Salvador
Yes, the vendedores are up to their old tricks, and they aren't happy. This time, the city municipal police (CAM), tore down their stalls in the middle of the night in front of the Maternity Hospital. Now, I'm going to be honest here: the press was really, really looking forward to the vendors mixing it up with the police. Things have been boring here (relatively speaking, of course) since the last time they tore things up in El Centro, and nothing makes the news like an old fashioned riot. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and things were calm.

Pic5: Street Vendors destroying police barricades
Well, things weren't totally calm. The police had set up barriers to prevent the vendors from protesting; these barriers were against the law, and city workers helped the vendors destroy them. They burned a few tires afterward, but no one was hurt, and nothing much happened. The city has been pushing hard, however, to clear the vendors out of certain parts of the city, and the vendors are steadily losing patience.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Losing Your Mind In Mejicanos, or: "And I thought my day was bad..."

One great thing about running around El Salvador and taking photos is that, no matter how bad your day is, or how bad your mood, you're bound to see something so colossally fucked up that it makes your situation pale in comparison.

Today was such a day.

Let's dive right in!

Yes, yes, I know, and so does everyone: presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila announced his vice presidential running mate today, blah blah blah, that's all over the news. Here are some things that weren't in the news.
1. (photo above) This was a homicide in Mejicanos, one of the more crime ridden areas of El Salvador. It was, to say the least, weird and gruesome. Yes, the man is naked, yes, that is his entire brain laying by his right knee, yes, there were no witnesses. This did not make the news. And a special shout out to officer Garcia who offered to let us into the crime scene to view the brain. As they say here: Gracias!

2. These photos were part of a story about the rains here, which have been intense. Baby Isaeil, a little over 1 years old, is sitting on the construction waste "donated" (read: dumped) on this poor community so they can rummage through the waste to recycle metal at 13cents a pound. How gracious. His mom, age 14 and not pictured, was laboring below Isaeil looking for the aforementioned metal. The Greek historian Thucydides wrote, in his History of the Pelopennesian War, "the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they have to". 

3. Here a little girl is crossing the river that has sprung up in her front yard from the heavy rains.

4. This woman, Elizabeth Mata, was explaining to me how she lived in San Miguel, but got kicked out of her house after she couldn't pay rent, and now lives in a house of cardboard, bamboo, and plastic bags on the outskirts of San Salvador. I could prattle on about the total and complete lack of social safety net here, but that would be redundant, yeah?

5. This is a sex worker, Reina, who works in a red light district in San Salvador. She told us she has three kids, and works here a few days a week, where she earns about 50$ a day. She was working in the rain, near a sight we were at that was suspected of flooding. It never did flood, but I can't say how lucky Reina felt for it.

So, as you can see, no matter how bad things are, they could always be worse. I think the Irish first said that. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dying For Lack Of Care

A few days ago, I was at the main children's hospital in El Salvador, Benjamin Bloom Children's Hospital, taking another few hundred pictures of sick children that the paper would not print, even though I was on assignment.
After I was finished, some women approached and asked for my help. It turns out that there are a number of children in the hospital who have had intestinal resection surgery, i.e., a large part of their intestines were cut out.

Here are three of the children.

The scars on Daniel's chest are from infections from the IV that he must constantly wear.

The hospital cannot provide even near full time care, even though the children are all under 1 year old, so the mothers have to stay in the hospital. And, of course, the mother's can't work, and………big surprise………. the husbands are out of the picture. The hospital is also threatening to cut off more essential care, i.e., pretty much everything. The children cannot eat solid food, and total liquid nutrition costs a great deal. The hospital has said that only 1 child of these three are eligible for surgery, and unless someone ponies up $300,000 even he won't get the transplant. The likelihood that these three children will live throughout the year, without additional care, is very low. This is why the women approached me, to help get attention for their children's cases.

The bag hanging in this photo contains the liquid total nutrition that she will be fed (by tube, directly into her stomach), for the rest of her life, if she does not receive help. In the background is a bible her mother preys from.

I see the daily headlines here have just come out, and they are all about the ex-president of Guatemala (Alfonso Portillo) being extradited from Mexico back to Guatemala on corruption charges. He embezzled around 16 million dollars (that they know of). There was also some news about Amy Winehouse and drugs, and some cops that were arrested today for helping drug smugglers.
So because of more corruption in Guatemala, some fucked up English singer's drug problem, and dirty cops, these kids have been relegated to the backwaters of the news today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Barely Legal System

There are a lot of really crazy things happening in El Salvador right now. One fairly majorish item is that there appear to be sweeping disagreements between the FMLN leadership, and the FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes. A number of times, Funes has appeared to be in conflict with the ideology of his own party; while Funes squarely disagrees with both of these plans, the FMLN has reiterated their support for war crimes trials, and changing from the dollar back to the Colon, the old Salvadoran currency. I leave the analysis of these utterly disasterous ideas to the pundits. This news is out in the open, for all to see and comment on. I like to focus on everyday life here, things that are not entirely obvious or available to the casual reader. Like the legal system.

Pic1: This group of youngsters, all MS18 gang members, murdered some people and did some other not really nice things. Here, one of the gangsters, who has misspelled "gangster" in the tattoo on his head, is getting ready to be set free because of a technicality in the trial proceedings. Something about a witness disappearing or some silly thing like that.

Pic2: This is the alleged leader of 28 gang cliques in San Salvador, captured in a night raid. He claimed to not be involved in gang life, and only a humble seller of frijoles and wheat. We all had a good laugh at that one. The scary thing is that he was very well spoken, and with his shirt on, like most gangsters here, looked exactly like everyone else, and not someone responsible for ordering scores of assassinations, mutilations, extortion, rapes, and kidnappings.

Pic3: Further along our trek today of the legal system, this is in the women's prison in Ilopango. Here we are in the maternity ward, where, right now, about 18 women with newborn babies live, like Kevin-Marjorie (that's her name) and her son Alfredo. There are a number of children living in the prison, and by "a number", I mean there are kids all over the place; in past visits, I thought they were only visiting, but I was wrong, they actually live there with their mothers. They have full access to the entire prison while with their mothers, and live there full time. This is a relatively new program for the prison system here. I'm not sure about the effects of growing up in a women's prison, or how it would compare to the children growing up in an orphanage under state care.

Pic4: this is a woman in the prison communicating down a hallway using a mirror.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sex Workers in San Salvador

When I went to the murder in a red light district (see 9-9-08 entry), I talked with some of the ladies working in the area. Some,not all, very kindly agreed to have their photo taken, as long as it didn't appear in a local newspaper. Another photographer was there, said the same thing, but did publish their photos locally and said some not very nice things about them.
I talked with the ladies again, they were impressed that I kept my word, and so allowed me to come back and photograph inside the brothel. I spent about a half a day with them; it was very illuminating, and sad. Here are a few photos from that day of one of the women at the club, Danielle, and there is another short photoessay on my website from the same session at
I hope to, one day soon, do a photo book about their lifestyle and others like them.
Pic1: This is Danielle, on the street in front of the club. It is midday, and the streets are fairly crowded with people, mostly young to middle aged men, walking around looking at the women (and men) trying to decide who to go with.

Pic2: Danielle, going in to see a client in one of the bedrooms.
And here she is, after her client has left.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Savage Realities of Murder in the Capital

Every day I think I've seen it all, I see something new and horrifying. In this case, it was a man shot 5 times in broad daylight in front of a little food stand in the city center. No, that's not the horrifying part. The horror set in when the woman (who has the food stand) had to clean the crime scene herself, and then………here comes the horror part……….had to cook for the late-lunch crowd using the same pot she used to clean the blood away, only a few minutes after.

Here, let me show you:

Pic1: 22 year old Amilcar Moreno was a taxi driver. Evidentally, he was being extorted by gang members and refused to pay. They shot him 5 times in the back at about 10:15am. I am constantly harping on the fact that the gangs are waging war against public transportation, and the police are doing not a lot to prevent it. To be fair, it's not the police, they do what they can. It's the governmental policies toward regulation of public transportation that have to be fixed. But there I go again, proselytizing.

Pic2: A little girl watches the police bag the body to haul it away. At every murder scene I've been to, there are always squads of little kids checking it out, which, to me, fits squarely in the "that's not cool" category. If any parents are reading this, if you happen to stroll by a homicide, please do yourself a favor and don't put your kids on your shoulders so they can see better. Thank you.

Pic3: Also a common, depressing side effect of crime scenes, the friends and family coming face to face with the death of a loved one.

Pic4. Here, the food vendor is rinsing the blood and, uh, whatever else ended up on the sidewalk after Amilcar Moreno was shot 5 times in the back. I would also remark in passing that there are no suspects for the crime, and it will probably go unsolved. News of this, also, was barely mentioned in the press, because it's so common.

Pic5: here the food vendor, who declined (wisely) to be identified, prepares lunch and dinner. The pot on the stove is the same used to clean the blood only a few minutes before.

Also taking place concurrently as the above unpleasantness, two blocks away the chief of the police force (Tobar Prieto) and the Minister of Security for the country (Rene Figeroa) were meeting with members of the press, presumably about the little old gigantic homicide rate. Yes, that was a bit of irony, and for that I am sorry.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Death and Prostitution at "The Child's Park"

clicking on a photo will enlarge it
Picture 1
: As usual, when I post a photo of a person laying prone on the ground, there's a very high probability that they are not asleep. Unfortunately, this was the case today. This woman was shot three times, including once in the eye (ouch!), in front of the "Parque Infantil", near the Mayor of San Salvador's office. This park, despite being named "The childs park" (depending on your translation), the only resemblence to a child park is that some the sex workers in the brothels surrounding the park are shockingly young (see later photo). Anyway, this unidentified woman was shot for unknown reasons at 2:30 today.

Picture 2,3: As I mentioned, the park is surrounded by brothels staffed by women and men of all ages and, unfortunately, states of pregnancy. This young girl was sitting outside a brothel, watching the murder scene evolve and chatting with friends. She is, obviously, underage, also pregnant, and still a sex worker. She, and her friend "China" (next photo), were kind enough to let me take their photos after I asked them and their co-workers. Ms China, by the by, I think may be more of a he than a she, in case you're wondering. S/he still had lovely eyes, though, whatever was going on there.
If you happen to live in or visit San Salvador, and decide to cruise by this place, I would strongly, strongly advise against trying to take pictures. This goes for any prostitution zone. I would say the people in these places take a rather……"active" role in not having their pictures taken. There was a woman selling shrimp ceviche (essentially, shrimp marinated in lime and onion, with tomatoes and chilis) who had gang tattoos on her face, including two teardrops (she's killed at least twice) and a three point "la vida loca" tattoo on her other eye. When the person who sells shrimp cocktail in your neighborhood is a killer, you've gotta be pretty tough to be there.

In any regard, these photos are sad, and, as usual, the presence of underage pregnant prostitutes is taken for granted; I would point out the presence of a major police station within 200 meters of the brothel where this girl works, as well as the roughly 25 police officers working the crime scene and chatting with girls.

Picture 4: to give some idea of the politics surrounding this area, there was a dummy strung from a tree with a Rodrigo Avila ARENA party t-shirt (and tie: classy!).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Losing your head in San Salvador. Literally.

Hello again. Against my better judgement, I'm cranking up the blog again, and I hope you enjoy the photos and words. Anyway, to business: If you click on a photo, it will appear larger.

1. This is a young crack addict named Arenyo who begs in the street on Calle Juan Pablo II. It was raining hard that day, making it particularly not fun. This is in a neighborhood known as Tetunichapa, a haven for the drug business. Typically, they will beg for change on the surrounding streets, and then go to a crackhouse located next to Hospital Rosales for a little "afternoon delight", as it were. Arenyo didn't know how old he was, but guessed 17 or 18. He looks older, but then as they say, it's not the years, it's the miles. Except here it's kilometers, I guess. Whatever. This photo will be part of a kids at risk photo essay I'm doing.

2. And speaking of kids at risk, this youngster, Jorge Miguel Perez Menendez AKA "Chino De Hoover" is a member of the Mara Salvatruch-18 gang clique Hoover Vatos Locos Surenos. He is wanted for, well, let's just say a lot of things, and I'm not talking about Good Samaritan awards.

3. This is the view down the alley of an MS-18 controlled neighborhood known as Don Rua, a barrio in San Salvador. Around the corner, where the kid is covering his face, they found a decapitated young girl. We helped them look for the head for a while, but my reporter quickly grew bored so we took off for another assignment. Still no word on the head. The police said 22 gangsters from that area had recently been captured and sent to jail, and they thought it could be retribution for that. And they still haven't identified the girl.

4. These next two photos are really sad. Not like, uh, the others, I guess. Anyway, this was about a story of abandoned kids in the maternity hospital in San Salvador. A record number of babies have been abandoned in the Hospital Maternidad this year, and the El Salvadoran laws make adoption very difficult. This may seem like a bad thing, and in this case it is, but the goal is to prevent something like another Guatemala. I will bitch about Guatemala another time in more depth, but suffice it to say, Guatemala (population, about 15million) had only a few hundred less adoptions than China (population, uh, over 1 billion). Basically, it's a baby stealing factory.
Anyway, this baby is abandoned, and has HIV. The other two babies, twins, were abandoned as well. The nurse said the mothers will simply cut their ID bracelets and sneak out of the hospital. There were only a few nurses to care for over a hundred babies in the room, and when the bottles would fall out of their mouths when they were done feeding, they would just sit there and drip milk on the babies face, as the nurses were tending to others. When I see shit like this, and then I see the national police force is bragging about having bought another helicopter this week, it brings to mind the typical misplaced priorities of Central American governance.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

narcotrafficking, flooding deaths, commie students

There is a high ranking group of narcotraffickers in El Salvador, as well as Central America, known as "Los Perrones". They have infiltrated most levels of the government, and high ranking members of the narcotics police have recently been arrested. The "supreme" leaders of this group are rumored to be in Honduras, but this special forces police raid went after some leaders in El Salvador, in a town 2.5 hours outside of San Salvador, San Miguel.
The first pic is of a young agent, a fairly intense guy, while getting a mission briefing.

Here they are approaching the home of the number 2 leader of the Los Perrones, and in the the 3rd photo, arresting him. He had a nice house (by Salvadoran standards, super upper class), and drove a BMW. Upon being arrested, he said "a man can't make money to eat well?"

While we were on the raid in the middle of the night, we had the news that a bus had crashed, killing 30 people. The rain in El Salvador was extremely strong, causing 18 other deaths across the country by flooding, accidents, and houses collapsing.
We drove directly to the crash, arriving at 6:30am. The victims were on the way back from a church service, and the crazy amounts of rain had washed the bus off the road. The strong current washed the bus downstream and crushed the bus. Here, the Green Cross rescue squad is lowering to salvage bodies. There were bodies sticking out of the wreckage, and after I took some high-power zoom photos, family members lined up to look at my camera images to see if it was their husband, wife, mother, father, or child.

While all this was going on, some students blockaded the front of the El Salvador National University (UES), protesting this and that. They were strictly amatures, however, trying to block the road with sticks and pieces of junk, and became irritated when the media became tired with their antics and wandered off to eat breakfast. Here, one of the protesters is bored and sitting in the road.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Murder, kids in underwear, and clowns

El Salvador has a great tradition of theater, and clowns are integral to this. They are seen everywhere, from directing traffic, performing on the street, and even drawn into gang tattoos as representative of "La Vida Loca". If you see someone with a clown tattoo in Central America, they are almost certainly in a gang. Anyway, this clown on stilts grabbed a baby and walked around with it, so I wouldn't exactly call this a "safety clown".

The clown in the second picture, balancing on his crutch (his legs don't work), is famous in San Salvador as "El Hombre Arana" (spiderman), and performs on the buses for money.

This is another group of local clowns, Oscar, Giovanni, Oscar, and "El Negro" Nilton, all photographers for local papers waiting for the vendors (again, all fucking day, in the blazing sun) to riot.

While we were conducting an interview with a police commander about how things were improving in Apopa, a particularly violent district, a murder was called in. At the same moment, these two old boozers accidentally staggered into the police station. Dentistry is very cheap and excellent in El Salvador, however, apparently not in Apopa.

Here is the murder that occurred, a gang member shot in front of a church. One of my favorite things is to see kids in their goddamn underwear at murder scenes.