IT’S one of the world’s most violently terrifying and murderous regions.
Everyone from commuters to store owners are extorted. Gangs control where products like nappies go and they threaten to burn down plantations if farmers don’t pay up.
They have so much control, El Salvador has become a nation held hostage.
It’s the violent core of Latin America, where a third of the world’s homicides take place despite accounting for eight per cent of the population.
Street gangs are at war — and not over drugs.
Where they once killed over drug cartels — selling marijuana, cocaine and heroin to foreigners — gangs have now become more chaotic and instead profit from extorting their own neighbourhoods.
According to drug enforcement officials, El Salvador’s gangs earn about $20 million a year from extorting their own people.
An estimated $3 million of that comes from the capital, San Salvador.
“Today, most violence in Latin America is the result of a new system that’s more diverse, harder to control, and much more local,” security consultant Alejandro Hope told The Wall Street Journal.
“We’ve left behind the era of the cartel and the kingpin.”
And it’s why people are fleeing. The United States is sending send an additional 5200 troops to help secure the US-Mexico border amid the arrival of the “migrant caravans” of thousands of Central American asylum seekers.
Officials believe one gang, MS-13, operates an extortion racket in 248 of the 262 of the country’s municipalities, fighting for neighbourhood control with a gang called Barrio 18.
MS-13 earns as much as $600,000 a month in extortion payments from locals businesses.
There is little intervention from authorities, who have little control anyway.
When politicians hold rallies or canvass the neighbourhood they ask permission of the gangs.
Even when gang leaders’ solitary confinement was extended, it didn’t stem the chaos.
Two reigning street gangs went on to kill more than 100 people over the next five days.
The violence has left El Salvador with the highest homicide rate in the world.
San Salvador’s homicide rate of 95.7 killings per 100,000 people makes it the world’s sixth-deadliest city.
Officials say MS-13 gang membership has grown by several thousand members over the past decade or so, stretching to at least 40 states and the District of Columbia.
The gang was founded in the 1980s in Los Angeles by El Salvador immigrants who fled their country’s civil war.
Surrounded by hostile gangs in their new neighbourhoods, they formed their own for protection, calling themselves Mara Salvatrucha.
They then formed an alliance with the Mexican Mafia for protection inside California prisons.
That’s when they became MS-13, with M the 13th letter of the alphabet and a sign of respect for their new partners.
When immigration cracked down in the 1980s, members of MS-13 were send back to El Salvador where they took further hold of their country and their influence grew.
Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, El Salvador’s minister of justice and security who oversees the national police force, said the gangs had became so prevalent “you don’t know where the state ends and the criminal organisations begin”.
Javier Simán is one of El Salvador’s most successful businessmen as a textile and department store magnate.
He said the highest cost of the gangs was human.
“We’re losing the best people we have,” he told the journal.
“They either flee the country, they get killed or they are constantly forced to move around. They have to pay the gangs just to enter the neighbourhoods where they live and work.”
Residents have to keep track of which gang controls the area they are in because a wrong move could mean death, or at least assault or robbery.
They won’t say gang names aloud.
As a result, nationals are trying to head north, too scared to stay in their own country.
Children have little prospects growing up, forced to choose between a life working in the market rife with extortion anyway or become a lookout for a gang.
Some children are as young as 10 when they are recruited.
People take three buses and endure a three-hour commute to avoid passing through areas controlled by rival gangs.
One man, René Del Cid, whose bus was stopped by MS-13 gunmen when he lived in Barrio 18 territory, pulled him from the vehicle and held him at a house for nearly three weeks, demanding ransom money and threatening his life.
“Everywhere I go I’m a target,” he said.
“If I join the gangs, I’ll die either by them or by the police.”
Originally published as The tiny country held hostage