Gangs Demand That San Salvador's Buses Stop Running, But Why?

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The mother of an assassinated bus driver buries her son at a cemetery on the outskirts of San Salvador. (Encarni Pindado for NPR)
The mother of an assassinated bus driver buries her son at a cemetery on the outskirts of San Salvador. (Encarni Pindado for NPR)

On Monday morning around dawn, a bus driver was shot and killed in El Salvador.

It was the opening salvo in a new gang tactic: a call for buses on some 40 lines in the capital city of San Salvador to get off the road.

Gang warfare is nothing new in this country of 6 million. The local gangs were actually born in the U.S., when El Salvadorans fled the civil war in the 1980s and settled in cities like Los Angeles. They formed gangs to protect themselves from other gangs. When many of the El Salvadorans were deported, they took the gang culture back home with them. Today there are an estimated 60,000 gang members on the streets of El Salvador, and perhaps another 10,000 in prison.

The gang known as Barrio 18 — 18th Street — is believed to be the mastermind behind the transit shutdown.

What is the gang demanding? It's hard to say. It's not like the gangs have official spokesmen. Theories include: pressuring the government to ease up in the crackdown on gangs, better treatment for gang members in prison, pressuring bus companies to pay "renta" — extortion money — to gangs. In addition, the government has accused the right-wing opposition party of being behind the gang gambit as a way to destabilize the country.

Military vehicles patrolling the streets of San Salvador.
Military vehicles patrolling the streets of San Salvador.

Whatever the reason, the result has been tragedy and chaos. Nine bus drivers have been assassinated for driving in defiance of the gang-ordered ban. And getting around the city has been impossible for commuters and schoolchildren. Some private drivers are taking passengers — and charging high fees. And many people decided to drive, leading to nightmarish traffic.

Late Tuesday night, the police reportedly captured the gang leader who is behind the transit shutdown, but as of Wednesday, the buses still aren't running.

The president has made it clear the government will not negotiate with gangs and is willing to send out the entire military force to ensure that the streets will be safe.

If and when the bus situation is resolved, El Salvador is still facing a bloody year.

There were 677 homicides in June alone. That's an average of 22 a day.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

'On 28 of July 2015, Salvadoran the police announces the capture Cesar Vladimir Montolla. A member of the 18th St. gang is accused of engineering and executing the attack of several bus drivers in San Salvador. Photo Encarni Pindado'
'On 28 of July 2015, Salvadoran the police announces the capture Cesar Vladimir Montolla. A member of the 18th St. gang is accused of engineering and executing the attack of several bus drivers in San Salvador. Photo Encarni Pindado'

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Even if you know about extreme violence in Central America, this week's news is startling. Gangs have ordered much of the traffic in the capital of El Salvador to stop. They've told buses to stop driving on transit routes and killed at least eight drivers to make sure of it. This is only the latest development in one of the world's most violent countries. NPR's Kelly McEvers is in San Salvador and on the line.

Good morning, Kelly.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what is it like being on the street in San Salvador at a time like this?

MCEVERS: You know, this is a city of about a million people, and many of those people take the bus to get to work, to get to school, to do most anything. And so when 40 or more bus routes have been effectively shut down, that is affecting people's lives.

INSKEEP: Well, who are the gangs that have imposed this ban on public transit for the moment?

MCEVERS: OK, so the officials in this country estimate that something like 60,000 people are members of these gangs out on the streets, and there's another 10,000 or so gang members who are in jail. And this is in a tiny country of just 6 million people. The two main groups are Mara Salvatrucha, MS13, and another group called 18th Street, or Barrio 18. And this is the group that the government accuses in this bus shutdown. A few hours ago, officials actually said they'd captured the mastermind behind the shutdown and the killings of the bus drivers. And originally, these gangs actually came from the U.S. Salvadorans, back during their civil war, who fled the country and came to the U.S., went to cities like Los Angeles and formed gangs as a way to protect themselves from other gangs, then were eventually deported back to El Salvador and continued the gang activity there. Now, these gangs are all over Central America. It's even reported that the Mexican drug cartels work with them to expand their business here in Central America.

INSKEEP: So how did they go about ordering that the transit system should be shut down? What's that been like?

MCEVERS: Right, so on Sunday, a couple of empty buses were burnt. Then bus operators got a letter saying you have to shut down these routes or else. And then on Monday around dawn, the killing started. Bus drivers were assassinated while driving. We went to one scene on Monday night. The victim was still sitting in the driver's seat when we got to the scene. Police had, you know, cordoned it off and were still investigating. The driver had been shot while he was driving the bus. The bus ran off the road and ran into some trees. And he was one of, you know, eight drivers who were killed in this way.

INSKEEP: What is the gang behind the shutdown demanding?

MCEVERS: Well, it's hard to say. I mean, it's not like these gangs have spokesmen, you know. They're not coming out and saying exactly what they want. Officials say what they want is to pressure the government to ease up on its crackdown on gangs and that they also want better treatment in prison. Another theory is that the gangs want to pressure bus operators to continue paying, you know, the so-called renta, which is - this is the extortion money that bus companies have to pay the gangs. And then there's another theory out there that this is political, that both the ruling party and the opposition party are accusing each other of using the gangs as a way to destabilize the country - and this, of course, in a country that did have a long and brutal civil war.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned in passing there that the government has been trying to crackdown. This is obviously a long-running problem. How has gang violence affected El Salvador?

MCEVERS: I mean, we're seeing numbers that haven't been seen since the civil war ended in 1992. I mean, something like 700 people were killed last month. The gangs were in a truce, but that truce broke a couple years back. And since then, the government has really been cracking down. But most people we talked to say it hasn't been working.

INSKEEP: You know, I want to be clear on something else, Kelly McEvers. You mentioned the Salvadoran civil war. Of course that was part of the Cold War. There was some ideology involved. Is there any ideology involved in this gang war, or is it all about money and control?

MCEVERS: You know, it's funny. People will tell us the civil war actually made sense, that it was about ideology, and that this doesn't make any sense at all, that there's - these gangs don't have any politics, that all they want is money. And they take that money from poor people and terrorize poor people.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelly McEvers is in San Salvador. Thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.