As gang violence hits El Salvador, a new wave of disappearances

El Salvador is experiencing disappearances linked to the gang violence hitting the country, mostly of young people and teens, with a frequency not seen since the country's civil war, which ended almost 20 years ago.

El Salvador is suffering a new wave of disappearances, mostly of young people and teenagers, who go missing without explanation in a phenomenon linked to the gang violence hitting the country.

Thousands of El Salvadorans disappeared in the country’s civil war. Some were children who kidnapped and sent abroad for adoption, and some victims of death squads or the military who were buried in mass graves. Now, almost 20 years after the conflict ended, online newspaper El Faro says that disappearances are as much of an everyday phenomenon as they were during the war.

The police received more than 1,200 reports of disappearances between January 2007 and December 2008, and in the first four months of this year they registered 179 – double the number in the same period in 2010. This is likely an under-representation of the true number of disappeared, as many families will not report their relatives missing, for fear of reprisals. Many of these are young people, with the average age of the missing being between 15 and 25. There is no official body in El Salvador that keeps reliable and complete records of the disappeared, according to El Faro.

Some of the victims are likely to be found in the mass graves which are being found more and more frequently around the country, according to El Diario de Hoy. In August a mass grave containing more than 10 bodies was discovered in Sacacoyo, just outside San Salvador. While one government official said that these contain old corpses buried during the civil war, the Attorney General’s Office said that all of them had died since 2009. Forensic scientist Israel Ticas has been excavating the bodies, which are among more than 500 that he has been involved in removing from their clandestine burial grounds in the last five years.

Mr. Ticas attributes the killings to criminal groups, and notes the extreme cruelty of some of the killings, with one man appearing to have been buried alive. According to the scientist, some 95 percent of the bodies in these mass graves are aged under 17, and a majority are women.

El Faro has produced a photo essay which catalogues the spaces vacated by these missing people, many of them teenagers, and the stories told by their relatives point towards a gaping hole in knowledge about what happened to the victims. In some cases, relatives point to local branches of gangs like the Barrio 18 (M-18) and Marasalvatrucha 13 (MS-13), while in many they are at a loss to explain what happened to the victim, who simply left the house one day and did not return.

El Salvador had one of the highest murder rates in the world, at 64 per 100,000 according to some measures, and much of this is driven by gang violence.

The following are InSight Crime’s translations of a selection of the texts accompanying El Faro’s photo essay, selected for their mention of criminal gangs.

David’s family saw him for the last time when he was leaving his house to go to study. This was part of the route he took each day to get to class [see photo, top of three below]. One hypothesis is that he was taken when leaving school by some classmates who were gang members, who thought that he was a member of a rival gang because he lived in a community dominated by it. He had already been threatened. The police say they do not know the cause of his disappearance.

This is the room where Carlos slept on a matress. Now it has been converted into a dining room. “The house is so small,” explain his relatives. There is nothing certain about his disappearance other than the date when it occured. The police think that the gang that dominates the Montreal community disappeared him because he had only lived a short while in that area and it could have generated mistrust. This year, in this area, by August five people had been murdered for alleged links with a rival gang.

Ernesto Mendez’s passion was playing football. He spent his afternoons in the community field, in Jardines de Lourdes, Colon. The day he disappeared he was going to a pitch in El Botocillal, also in Lourdes. According to the police, Ernesto lived in a neighborhood controlled by MS-13, and on July 1 he went into one controlled by Barrio 18, and this fact could be an explanation for his disappearance.

See photos corresponding to these stories in the original post.

--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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