SAN SALVADOR — Antonio Garcia knows the San Salvador detention center well. As a member of the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, the 28-year-old has been in and out five times in the past two years, adding new graffiti to the walls each visit.
"I always get back to my homeboys at the end," says Mr. Garcia, hitching up his baggy white pants and shrugging. He is here, this time, charged with aggravated assault. Other times it has been robbery; once, it was murder.
But by the end of last week, Garcia was already back on the street, one of thousands of examples of the revolving door that is El Salvador's energetic but so-far ineffectual system of cracking down on gangs. He hopes to travel soon to Virginia or Miami, he muses, to spend time with fellow gang members.
"We are dealing with the same gangsters," says Kevin Kozak, a US Homeland Security agent, in El Salvador to work on antigang measures between the two countries. "They carry out a crime in El Salvador and come to the states to ... commit a felony in L.A., and then head this way to cool down." MS13 members have been found in 31 states, linked to more than three dozen homicides over the past two years in North Carolina, Virginia, and California.
Salvadoran President Antonio Saca took office last year pledging to make his country safe from the likes of Garcia by locking up and isolating the gang leaders for extended periods of time, and scaring the rank-and-file members into toning down the violence.
Seven months ago he launched his "Operation Super Hard Hand," a program that expanded the already broad police powers - simply sporting a gang tattoo is now reason enough for arrest - and netted more than 4,000 alleged gang members in police raids. And yet homicide rates are soaring.
January saw 295 killings in this small country of 6 million - a rate of nine per day, according to Violeta Polanco, spokeswoman for the National Civil Police, and up 55 percent from the previous January, before the plan was launched. By comparison, New York, with a population of 7.4 million, had just over 550 murders all last year.
The problem, say officials, is that the police are unable to make proper cases against the arrested gangsters, and they quickly end up back on the streets, increasingly defiant and violent. Of the 4,000 young men arrested, less than 40 have been prosecuted, says Ms. Polanco. Similarly, under former President Francisco Flores's 2003 "hard hand" plan, the precursor to the current program, 19,275 gang members were arrested, with less than 1,000 of them jailed.
"We can capture them hundreds of times, and they are being let out hundreds of times," says Inspector Carlos Ernesto Romero Laza, director of this center, where gang members picked up by the police are held for 72 hours before being arraigned. "And while they used to just kill one another, now they are increasingly coming out of their neighborhoods and attacking innocent people with impunity."
At a joint US-Salvadoran conference here last week to discuss combating the gangs, several reasons were put forward to explain the difficulties in getting convictions: Individuals and communities are afraid to testify against the violent gang members. Forensics work is weak due to lack of training and money (there are, for example, only eight fingerprint experts in the entire country and 30 homicide detectives). And intelligence sharing - among different authorities within El Salvador, as well as between Central American countries and the US - is insufficient.
Two months ago the FBI established a new task force, based in Washington, to battle MS13. The two countries are laying plans to exchange police officers, pool information, and improve tracking methods.
Judge Romeo Aurora Giammattei, who presides over gang trials weekly here, stresses that he would be satisfied with the bare minimum of proper evidence. "I am not asking for a videotape of a killing," he says. "A fingerprint would be fine. Something more substantial than tattoos and body language."
Javier Ernesto Martinez, a wisp of a 22-year-old with a gash above his left eye and tattoos up and down his body, was brought to the detention center at the same time as Garcia. Mr. Martinez, part of rival gang 18th street, has been in and out more times than he can remember. The only reason he would even think of quitting is for his 4-year-old daughter. He takes her to the zoo most Saturdays, and she is, he says, the delight of his life. Her name, "Ana Lizbeth," is etched across his left shoulder in faded green and red.
"But I can't really leave," Martinez says. He's "in" he says, "in for life."
By the end of the week both Garcia and Martinez have been released for lack of evidence. They can now be found, most likely, hanging around the street corners of Soyapango, on the outskirts of San Salvador. Or perhaps they have already been picked up again.