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.