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Translation: Postcard from San Salvador

Postcard from San Salvador
Daniel Alarcón
17 minutes

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Daniel Alarcón: Welcome to Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

If you’ve read about the situation in El Salvador recently, you might have seen a headline like this one, which came out in the International Business Times. It said:

“El Salvador to become deadliest peace-time country in the world.”

That phrase is kind of strange, right?

There’s something there that I swear I don’t understand. Since last year, when the truce between the government and the gangs ended, the homicide rate has skyrocketed, growing over 50%. In May of 2015 there were more than 600 homicides, in a country with a little over 6 million inhabitants; numbers they hadn’t seen since the 90s. More than double of what we see in Iraq today. Over 35 police officers have been arrested this year. And it looks like things are getting worse. Last Sunday, August 16, was the most violent day of 2015, with more than 40 homicides.

So the question is this: if what’s going on in El Salvador is not a war, then what is it exactly?

Everyone has been touched, directly or indirectly, by this chaos and violence. And Salvadorans of all social classes have learned to deal with that constant feeling of insecurity. Many of the people I talked to told me that it doesn’t matter what foreign newspapers publish. “Here,” they said, “here we’re at war. And it’s going to last.”

So what is this war about? Like in other armed conflicts, there are deaths from both sides. In this case, the maras –or gangs– and the police. And like in other armed conflicts, the ones who often suffer the most are civilians, people who have nothing to do with the conflict. That’s because excessive violence in El Salvador affects all aspects of daily life. And not always in the way you expect it.

This is Iris. For safety reasons, we have decided not to use her last name.

Iris: I live in the outskirts of the capital. It’s a semi-rural area, you could say. And the area where I live is like a trifinio.

Daniel Alarcón: And that’s a word I’d never heard before.

Iris: A trifinio is a place with three borders. That’s how we use that word here. So the thing is that I live in a place where the area where I live is urban, and around it there are several rural areas that are communities led by two gangs, the main ones here.

Daniel Alarcón: The Mara Salvatrucha 13, and Barrio 18. Two of the most feared gangs in Latin America.

Iris: I’m in the middle, so when I go to my house, I go through a railway line every day. That territory is MS. At the end of my neighborhood there’s an area that’s led by the 18 gang.

Daniel Alarcón: It is estimated that there are around 500 to 600 thousand salvadorans involved in one way or another with the maras. About 10% of the population. That  number comes from the Secretary of Defense, David Munguía Payés.

Let’s put it this way: almost 10% of the country is dedicated to extortion, criminality, drug trafficking, and violence. Which means that a big part of the population, people who have nothing to do with that, still have to live with that evil. They don’t have a choice, or a way out.

People like Iris.

Iris: You always hear that if you don’t mess with anyone, they won’t mess with you. Partly true, partly false.

Daniel Alarcón: Iris, like many salvadorans, lives trying to avoid problems. And in general she’s been able to. She has a good job, she is doing well in her career. The gang members don’t pay too much attention to her, and she has a theory to explain why:

Iris: Maybe because in a way I’m out of the gang member’s market. I say that because they like girls who are 17, 15 years old. I’m 25, so I’m not as attractive anymore. Besides, I use glasses, so…and I’m a little bit chubby as well, so they already have a set profile.

Daniel Alarcón: She dresses well, takes care of her appearance. And since she was younger there’s been something that she really likes to do: color her hair.

Iris: I started with a color that they call chocolate brown. Then I went blond, then platinum blond, then blond with green. Then I went burgundy red, then cherry red, which is even stronger, and then to intense red.

Daniel Alarcón: It’s part of her look, part of her identity. And this story is about that. Because violence, the insecurity brought on by the maras, is not just about what you read in the headlines. A shooting here, a mugging there. No. It’s also about the details. Moments where evil shows up in front of you. Next to you.

Moments like this one.

Iris: I was riding a Coaster, a bus, and a girl sat next to me… The girl was a little heavier than I was. She had her eyebrows very thin, and her hair damaged, dyed.

Daniel Alarcón: Blond. Her lips outlined in red.… Leopard-skin tights. According to Iris, this type of clothing, in El Salvador, is a code.

Iris: And because of the way she started talking I knew she wasn’t a normal girl, that maybe she was a gang member’s girlfriend.

Daniel Alarcón: Iris made it clear that she doesn’t think of herself as someone prejudiced who judges others according to their appearance. But, she said, once you’ve learned to read these codes, it’s hard to ignore them. So Iris was very alert, tense, even more than usual.

And here’s another detail to consider: buses in El Salvador are dangerous, because gangs have infiltrated transportation. Passengers run the risk of being mugged, robbed. Sometimes the gangs demand money from transportation companies. And if they don’t pay, the maras can kill the drivers. In other cases, the drivers are accomplices of the gang members. It’s a very complicated situation.

So a girl, who looks like a gang member, sits next to Iris. And of course, she starts to worry.

Iris: Little by little she started talking to me. And she asked me if I was someone’s jaina.

Daniel: What does that mean?

Iris: A jaina is a gang member’s girlfriend. And I told her no. Then she asked me where I lived. I didn’t answer. Because one of the ways a gang member tries to tell if you are in a rival gang or not, is by territories, right? So a year ago, I didn’t know that.

Daniel Alarcón: But since Iris started riding a bus every day, to travel for one hour and a half to the capital’s downtown, now she has to understand these codes. And well, if there was any doubt about the identity of the girl next to her…

Iris: She showed me a scar she had on her stomach. And she said, ‘‘Look, these are war wounds. This shows people on the streets the courage we have,” she said.

Daniel Alarcón: We. Meaning, the mara. And then, the girl said this:

Iris: She said: ‘‘Hey, change your hair. Because if I see you again, or if any of the drivers see you again, we’ll know it’s you. We all know each other here. And since you don’t want to tell me where you’re from, just be careful. And change your hair.’’

I froze.

It was was like…Oh, God, what do I?

At that time, there were rumors that if you went around with red hair you were this gang; if you were blond, it was another.

Daniel Alarcón: Something Iris had not considered when she decided to dye her hair. She didn’t respond to the girl. She didn’t ask why, she didn’t try to explain.

She didn’t say anything.

Iris had a newspaper in her hand, and she was looking at it, nervously,

Iris: “Give me that newspaper,” she told me. And she took it out and the first thing it said, on the front page: “Police Officer Dead in…” I don’t remember what. And she starts laughing. She says to the driver: ‘‘Hey look,” she said. “How original! They killed another one.’’ And she went on like that. I was so cold, and regretting that I had gotten on that bus.

Daniel Alarcón: She was a girl who wanted to intimidate her.

Iris: “How do you like the eyebrows?”, she said. “I like them”, I told her, “they go with your face.” “You should wear yours like this,” she said.

Daniel Alarcón: And then she asked her where she was getting off. “La plaza”, Iris said, although she was going home. She was referring to a mall, full of people. She thought, “I’ll be safer there.” And she added another detail: “I’m going to meet my boyfriend there”, Iris said. “To go to the movies.” But…

Iris: I don’t have a boy friend

Daniel Alarcón: And the girl said, “I’ll go with you.”

Iris: When she told me, “I’m getting off with you”, I lost my breath. I lost my breath.

Daniel Alarcón: Iris put her hand in her purse.

Iris: And I dialed my mom’s number. I dialed my mom’s number because I thought, “if she doesn’t let me get off, or something, at least she will hear…at least she will hear what’s going on.”

I felt… stalked. Because the driver was a gang member. I mean, they were talking like equals. So I dialed my mom’s number, and I couldn’t hit send. I couldn’t hit send. Maybe I was too nervous. And she told me, “what are you looking for”, she said. I said, “nothing, I’m just looking for coins,” I told her. “I’m just looking for coins.” And she says, “ok, so we get off at La Plaza,” she said.

Daniel Alarcón: They were coming down the boulevard. It was very congested. The woman told the driver:

Iris: “Hey man, I wonder what happened there,” she told him. “Don’t pretend! remember that we saw that a while ago?”, he told her. “Oh yeah”, she told him. “The beheaded guy,” she said.

Daniel Alarcón: That day a gang member had killed a driver from another bus line, from another route. The girl told Iris about it, proudly.

Iris: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “No, look, look out the window. Up ahead over there they shot a driver. I know the guy who shot him,” she told me. “Oh ok”, I said, “yeah, that’s right.” So we drove through the scene, and I looked at the bus, and yeah, the guy was there, under the window -the driver- and below him a big puddle of blood. Red, red, red.

Daniel Alarcón: And then, it started to rain. Pringar, like the say in El Salvador. A light rain.

Iris: And I tell you, I love winter. I love rain. I think I’d never been more thankful for rain. Because she tells me, “Shit, look”, she said, “it’s raining.” “Yeah, it’s starting to pringar,” I told her. And she said, “I’m not going to get off with you anymore.”

Daniel Alarcón: They were close to their destination: La Plaza, the mall.

Iris: I don’t know how I got out of there without tripping over her or showing her my back.

Daniel Alarcón: And the girl had a last message for Iris:

Iris: “Take care of yourself, mami. Don’t let anything happen to you. And say hello to your boyfriend for me.’’ And I said, “have a good day.”

Daniel Alarcón: This happened a few months ago. When I met Iris, she had already dyed her hair black. I asked her if it had been hard for her to make that change.

Iris: It hurt. I mean, it hurt. It was hard to go back to seeing myself with black hair. I had wanted to dye my hair for so many years. But, oh well! I mean, it’s an external thing. It’s not even my style. But now, well, I got used to it. It’s like, ok I have to retouch it, I have to do it.

Daniel Alarcón: A small act of self-expression, snuffed out by gangs. And of course, when you compare this with what you read in newspapers, it seems like it’s not that important. But it is. When gangs impose themselves in aspects of daily life that are so instrasendental, it’s a way of telling the people: “Hey, we’re in charge here. Not you. Not the government. Not the police. We are.”

And it’s not the only time that Iris has had to understand this.

I asked her what she thinks about gangs. Iris is an educated woman, easygoing. While she was telling me the story of the gang member in the bus, she even asked permission to repeat the vulgar words that the girl had used. However, this was her answer:

Iris: Burn all of them. I mean, as Salvadorans, they’re not my brothers. I was raised under the gospel, under Christianity, and I don’t see them as brothers. I’m never going to see them as brothers. So if they can round them up in one single fire like a holocaust, do it, burn them!

Daniel Alarcón: It’s an argument I heard over and over again. Kill them. Kill their families, their girlfriends, their kids. Kill all of them.

It’s not hard to understand this rage. I heard many other stories, not just Iris’, and I confess that for a moment I also started feeling that anger. But can you really create policies based on rage?

Every time I heard how this solution was proposed, I felt completely discouraged. Leaving ethics aside, collective murder is simply not possible in political or practical terms.

I repeated this argument several times, and later, when I was alone, I would go back to the conversations on the issue and my role in them and get more and more depressed.

Maybe that’s what we have to understand about the situation in El Salvador today. A normal citizen, who is not even bloodthirsty by nature, proposes that the only solution is a genocide. And to dissuade her, we end up talking about why that solution is not practical.

This story was written by me, Daniel Alarcón, and edited by Camila Segura, and mixed by both of us with the help of Martina Castro.

A huge thanks to Iris for sharing her story with us. An English-language version of this interview was published in The New York Times Magazine. We’ll have a link to it on our website.

I was in El Salvador with Luis Trelles, a producer at Radio Ambulante, who helped me process a lot of what we saw and heard during those days. Thanks also to our great friends from El Faro, an excellent digital newspaper from El Salvador, and special thanks to Sergio Arauz, Oscar Luna, Jose Luis Sanz, Oscar Martinez, and Karla del Carballo. El Faro will soon launch a crowdfunding campaign, and they need all our support to keep doing their valuable work.

Apart from those I’ve already mentioned, the Radio Ambulante includes Martina Castro, Silvia Viñas, Clara González Sueyro, David Leonard, Dennis Maxwell, Diana Buendía, and David Pastor. Claire Mullen leads Unscripted, our interview series in English. Vanesa Baerga leads our blog, Alejandra Quintero Nonsoque and Caro Rolando are production interns. This week we welcome Barbara Sawhill, our Spanish Language Education Coordinator. And like always, Carolina Guerrero, is executive director.

Thanks again to our sponsor, Squarespace. The best platform to build a perfect website. You can start today, without a credit card, using the code Ambulante. Visit them at

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. To hear more, visit our website, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.


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