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Nelly remembers the day she first went to kill someone as if it were yesterday.
She was in Ilopango, a poor neighbourhood of San Salvador, and a light drizzle was falling. She did not want to get wet but her fellow gang members had given her orders. Besides, unless she did it she would never earn the tattoo they had promised her. “I really wanted that tattoo,” she recalls.
She took a 9mm pistol and went in search of a victim. It was 1992 and she was 12.
Nelly is a member of the Mara Salvatrucha, the biggest of several gangs that are turning the poor urban areas of El Salvador into a battlefield barely 14 years after the country emerged from a long and bloody civil war.
The country’s murder rate has climbed to about 10 a day, 60 per cent of which are caused by gangs, according to the National Police. As a proportion of the Central American nation’s population of just 6.8m, that makes El Salvador the most violent country in Latin America and one of the most violent in the world.
“This is not under control at all,” says Wim Savenije, an investigator with the El Salvador programme at Flacso, a Latin American think tank. “The government is not controlling this.”
Most Salvadoreans agree. In Suchitoto, a picturesque colonial town about 60km north-east of the capital, there are no gangs but the agricultural community worries just the same: the town’s meagre banking facilities force many people to make the dangerous trip to gang-ravaged San Martín nearby.
Marcela Smutt, at the United Nations Development Programme in San Salvador, says the cost of the violence in 2003 was equivalent to 11.5 per cent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product (GDP) – more than double the combined annual budgets for health and education. “Since then, the violence has got a lot worse,” she says.
The government has responded with repression. In late 2003 the former administration of Francisco Flores introduced the “firm hand” policy, which led to the killing and imprisonment of many gang members.
But José Miguel Cruz, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at San Salvador’s Central American University, says the impact was only temporary. Since then, the murder rate has more than doubled and the number of gang members has grown to between 10,000 and 15,000.
“The gangs responded by organising and becoming more united,” he says.
More recently, the administration of Tony Saca, the current president, introduced the “very firm hand” policy to control the spiraling violence. He also established two parallel programmes: a “friendly hand”, aimed at prevention; and a “helping hand”, which tries to rehabilitate repenting gang members.
Yet experts say the “very firm hand” policy has had a similar effect as the previous one, while the rehabilitation programme is too small to make any difference.
The government’s response to a recent outbreak of gang-led extortion of small businesses was to form the Special Police Operations Group (Gopes), an elite force of 60 armed men.
Nelson Romero, a Gopes inspector, says the force has had success since it was set up in February. “We have arrested 150 delinquents, 80 per cent of which are now in prison.” Of those, he says, about half are maras.
Statistics like these have persuaded Mr Saca that current policy is working. “Crime is totally under control,” he told the FT in a recent interview.
But many experts argue that policy should concentrate on the social context in which El Salvador’s children join the gangs in the first place. Unsurprisingly, most gang members are from poor, urban areas. “These kids see people who have wealth and opportunities they know they will never have themselves,” says Mr Savenije.
The gangs, which were formed by Salvadoreans and other Hispanic groups in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and moved to Central America when US authorities began to expel the leaders, provide kids with companionship and affection that is often lacking at home.
They also provide an unparalleled sense of identity, employing a complex system of codes and symbols, including tattoos, hand gestures and even a different alphabet. Members swear unconditional allegiance; desertion is punishable with death.
Nelly earned her tattoo that day in 1992. She found a member of the rival Mara 18 gang, and from a distance of just over a metre, shot him in the back.
She fired several more rounds into him as he tried to flee, and when he fell, she fired all but one bullet into his chest. This last she saved for his head.
Today, she has a lot of tattoos. Some are drawn with skill. Others look like the work of drunken friends. At 26, the last five spent in prison, and with 30 killings behind her, she says her violent days are over.
But she says there are plenty of adolescents waiting to join. “The police can attack the Salvatrucha but they’ll never get rid of it. It just gets stronger.”
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