Come down the rabbit hole into the nihilistic world of El Salvador’s gang culture, via this chronicle of a little death foretold; Oscar Martinez’s menacing tale of the assassination of an assassin: Miguel Angel Tobar, killer, police informant, father of two, predator and finally prey.
Miguel Angel Tobar knew since November of 2009 that he was going to be murdered.
He himself had doubts about who exactly was going to murder him. Sometimes he believed police officers from the east of El Salvador would do it. Sometimes he believed he would be murdered by members of the Barrio 18 gang. But most of the time when he thought about his death, he was convinced he would be murdered by members from his own gang, the Mara Salvatrucha.
Miguel Angel Tobar, a man of 30, was convinced that he would not die of a heart attack or a fall from the heights or of old age — he never thought he would die old. Sometimes he thought he would die massacred on some dusty sidewalk in the province of Santa Ana or out in the province of Ahuachapan. Ever since I met him in January 2012, he always kept in mind that “The Beast” was following him. He said it all the time. That is why Miguel Angel Tobar last year went and retrieved the 12-gauge shotgun he had buried in a vacant lot after robbing it from a security guard at a gas station in El Congo during a robbery that the police had asked him to carry out. Miguel Angel Tobar’s life was complicated. That is why, at the beginning of this year, he got a .357, but the police confiscated it while he was out walking near his house in the neighborhood of Las Pozas, the municipality of San Lorenzo, the province of Ahuachapan. That’s why — because The Beast was following him — at the beginning of this year, Miguel Angel Tobar snuck across the border into Guatemala and paid $20 for a trabuco — two pieces of metal tubing which, when clapped together, fire a 12-gauge shotgun shell. Miguel Angel Tobar knew he would be murdered, but sought to avoid being dismembered, tortured, hung. He preferred a gunshot.
He knew so well that his death would be by murder that he could talk about the issue openly. I visited him on Tuesday, January 14, 2014. I usually visited him once a month after we met in January of 2012. That day he felt his death was closer than usual. The night before they told him that some kids had arrived in the neighborhood where he lived and asked around about the Mara gang member there. That day we talked inside the vehicle with tinted windows that I drove there to visit him in. The motor was never turned off.
“There’s a problem, Miguel. Because you change phones all the time, it’s hard to get ahold of you. I need you to give me numbers for your family in case I need to call them,” I said to him that Tuesday.
“Oh yeah, in case something happens … Or more like so they can let you know when they kill me and say to you: Hey, they killed El Niño,” said Miguel Angel Tobar, who was always called by the nickname he had in the Mara Salvatrucha. El Niño [the Kid]of the Hollywood Locos crew of the Salvatrucha of Atiquizaya.
Last Friday, November 21, none of his relatives called me. El Niño’s neighbor from Las Pozas called me. It was he who told me, at 3:43 in the afternoon, that what we all knew was going to happen had happened. “Hey, bad news. They got El Niño in San Lorenzo.”
Miguel Angel Tobar was a killer.
If you asked him how many people he had killed, he would answer:
“I’ve taken down… I’ve taken down 56. About six women and 50 men. Among the men I include faggots, because I’ve killed two faggots.”
Miguel Angel Tobar was a killer.
In police files there is evidence of 30 homicides that the man participated in as a member of the Mara Salvatrucha.
Miguel Angel Tobar was a killer.
He was a ruthless one. Back in 2005 he, along with other gang members, killed a 23-year-old kid nicknamed Caballo. In an act of stupidity, Caballo had decided to tattoo a “1” on one thigh and an “8” on the other, but he also had two letters tattooed on his chest: MS. Who knows how he did it, but for a time, Caballo passed for a gang member from Barrio 18 when he needed to, and a Mara Salvatrucha when that was better for him. Miguel Angel Tobar discovered his secret, and he and other MS gang members lured him with lies into the forests of Atiquizaya. They killed him. Suffice to say that Caballo died without legs, without arms, and without tattoos. And when he no longer had any of that, they were still able to torture him for a few minutes more. It was that day that Miguel Angel Tobar, who was known in his crew as Clown thanks to his long, Joker-like face and big mouth, changed his nickname to El Niño, because when he took Caballo’s heart out he had an epiphany and the extraction seemed to him the birth of a baby. Of a child. De un niño.
Miguel Angel Tobar was a killer.
Everyone has known it for a long time. The police, when they approached him in early 2009 to ask his help to solve homicide cases involving the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha, knew they were approaching a killer. They never thought anything different. In fact, the police corporal who arrived to his home in the Las Pozas neighborhood to look for him that afternoon when Miguel Angel Tobar decided to betray his gang, had to take precautions. The gang member was armed that day with a .40 and .357 and under the influence of crack, but he accepted a visit to the investigators’ police station in El Refugio.
El Niño felt surrounded. His crew had started to suspect he was the killer of three fellow gang members, from the crew the Parvis Locos Salvatrucha of Turin (the town next to Atizquizaya), men who had killed his brother. That is the way gangs look on the inside, a tangle of intrigue and conspiracy among the members themselves. El Niño’s brother, nicknamed El Cheje by his crew, was assassinated in 2007. El Niño, little by little, took discrete revenge for his death without announcing it to anyone in his crew. He killed Chato, Zarco and Mosco with gunshots to the head. The only survivor is a gang member known as Coco, who fled to the east of the country after seeing his partners in crime fall one by one with their craniums perforated by their victim’s brother.
However, Miguel Angel Tobar was much more than a killer. He was the key the police used to jail more than 30 gang members from the Hollywood, Parvis and Angeles crews, from the towns of Santa Ana and Ahuachapan. It was this man’s testimony that allowed a judge to hand down 22-year sentences to the two leaders of the Hollywood crew. One was Jose Guillermo Solito Escobar, known as El Extraño, the thirty-something leader of the gang in the area of Atiquizaya. The other is more famous, and was even cited by the former justice minister, Manuel Melgar, as one of the gang members who had launched organized crime in the country. He is Jose Antonio Teran, known as Chepe Furia, in his forties, former national guardsman, owner of the garbage trucks in Atiquizaya, one of the first members of the MS in the United States, founder there of the Fulton Locos crew of the Salvatrucha and in El Salvador the founder of the Hollywood Locos crew of Salvatrucha of Atiquizaya. Today, thanks to what Miguel Angel Tobar said at a courthouse in San Miguel, Chepe Furia and El Extraño are serving 22-year sentences for having killed a police informant in the [eastern]province of Usulutan on November 24, 2009. The kid was named Samuel Trejo. He was 23 years old when they killed him and he was known by his gang as Rambito.
Miguel Angel Tobar was a killer.
However, without his help, 30 other killers would be loose in El Salvador. And probably — very probably — he was killed for helping the Salvadoran justice system. And he might have locked up 11 more, but now he can no longer testify in the trial against the gang members accused of throwing cadavers into an abandoned well on a lot in the town of Turin.
On Friday, November 21, not only was a killer killed, but a witness protected by the Salvadoran government was killed. He was a man the government had even given aliases. Liebre or Yogui. That is what they called him in the court records or in the trials, when he appeared in a ski mask and a police uniform that was too big for his small but strong body. Miguel Angel Tobar was a man who was killed while the government was taking care of him.
The bicycle and the pool of blood that came out of his head are 30 paces apart here on the street in the town of San Lorenzo, behind the police station. Here everyone knows this as the road to Portillo. It is Friday, November 21, 2014. It is eight o’clock at night.
San Lorenzo is a town that you access by heading through the city of Santa Ana, entering the town of Atiquizaya, leaving behind the central square and going 12 miles (20 kilometers) up a two-lane road that cuts across a plain surrounded by hills. I am here with my brother Juan, who has visited El Niño with me since January of 2012.
The police station is a little house which is almost at the end of San Lorenzo’s city limits. At this early hour in the evening, the town is dark. Only a few city lights illuminate the street. People go to sleep shortly after dark and only a small group of kids chats in the street. They find it strange to see a truck passing by.
At the police station there are two officers. They do not show any sign of fear. If a truck with tinted windows approaches a small police station in a rural Salvadoran town at night, it is very probable the officers will greet it with a gun in hand. If they do not, like here in San Lorenzo, it is because they do not think they are in a critical spot in the country. And they are not. San Lorenzo, with a population of about 10,000 inhabitants, had, according to police records, zero homicides in 2013; in 2012, two homicides, and in 2011, zero homicides. In fact, this year the two officers at the station can only remember one homicide, the one that happened just hours ago, that of Miguel Angel Tobar, El Niño. This is the first murder in San Lorenzo since June 2012. This makes San Lorenzo a lucky little sliver of this country.
After a brief chat with the police, it is clear they consider (El Niño) to be a mere byproduct, someone who was destined to die. “He was problematic”. “He was a criminal”. “This year he also had a problem when he wounded our colleague from the Santa Ana DIC (Criminal Investigation Division) who was drinking on his day off in the kid’s neighborhood.”
El Niño was known throughout the area. San Lorenzo, as the numbers showed, was not a town with a serious gang problem. El Niño himself described it as a place of thieves and members of bands that hijacked trucks, but not gangs. It was a place where gang members passed through to cross the [adjacent]border with Guatemala and Atiquizaya, but not a place where they lived. When El Niño arrived here the middle of last year, the rumor began circulating that a gang member, or a gang traitor, or more like a gang leader, was living the neighborhood of Las Pozas. Some people said one thing and others said another. The first time I visited him at his house, one of the times we talked inside the car with the motor on, several curious onlookers showed up to see who was visiting the famous Niño. Street vendors, neighbors and students from the little school of the dusty neighborhood of Las Pozas showed up.
The police hated him at first because he had been a gang member. He spoke like a gang member, was problematic like a gang member, an impertinent pot smoker.
Many of the police in the area hated him because he was a key witness in the prosecution of two police corporals down in Atiquizaya. They are Jose Wilfredo Tejada, of Atiquizaya’s homicide division, and Walter Misael Hernandez, of the extortion division. On the morning of November 24, 2009, those two policemen asked the public safety division if they could detain, in the local market, a 23-year-old kid because they had to talk to him. That kid was Samuel Trejo, the one known as Rambito. That kid was killed by Chepe Furia. In the police logbook for November 24, 2009, it is recorded that those two corporals took the kid from the station in Atiquizaya and never returned him. Hours later, El Niño saw him in a truck that was driven by Chepe Furia, and in (the truck) were also El Extraño and another gang member deported from the United States in 2009 after serious assault charges. In Maryland, according to his deportation record, this other gang member was known as Baby Yorker. Here he renamed himself Liro Jocker. His real name is Jorge Alberto Gonzalez Navarrete and he is 32 years old. Chepe Furia, El Extraño and Liro Jocker took Rambito away in a truck, and El Niño saw them do it.
The kid, Rambito, who was riding in that truck hours after being taken out of the station by the policemen, showed up dead 13 days later on a highway in the province of Usulutan. Putrified. He had his hands tied behind him with a blue cord — the same blue cord El Niño testified he saw in the truck. The forensic report said he had been assassinated on the same day the policemen took him out of the station, on the same day the gang members then took him away in the truck. The report also says they tortured him and later put three bullets in his head. Police investigators affirm that Rambito was a police informant and he was helping in an extortion case against Chepe Furia.
Before getting to Chepe Furia’s truck, when El Niño was walking toward the meeting spot, he had seen the policeman pass by with Rambito in another truck. That is what he said at the first hearing of the policemen’s trial.
On Wednesday, January 15, 2014, more than four years after Rambito’s murder, the policemen were absolved. Their colleagues in the police department did not want to testify. They said they did not remember what they had said at earlier trial hearings. They said they didn’t remember if those policemen had asked to have Rambito arrested the day of his assassination. The attorneys showed them the logbook where those same police officers had written, with their own hand and handwriting, that the corporals had taken Rambito away. Later they showed them their previous testimony, where they had remembered the events of that day with complete clarity. Later they reminded them they were under oath. The police officers, the three times they declared, said they recognized their handwriting, but did not remember anything, that they were confused. They dropped their heads, the three of them, and repeated the same thing: I don’t remember, I don’t remember, I don’t remember.
El Niño entered the courtroom that day at the sentencing court in San Miguel with his face covered. That day, the prosecutor had assigned him the name Yogui. That is what they called him in his capacity as a protected witness. A little after entering that oven, he took the mask off. He said his face itched. He did not care if the defense lawyers for the accused corporals — who were already behind a partition, praying — saw him. He said they already knew him anyway. Everyone knew El Niño was Miguel Angel Tobar. After an order from the judge, he put the ski mask on again and behaved exactly like the policemen who were testifying as witnesses. He said he did not remember anything of what he had said before, that he did not remember seeing Rambito in the truck or anything about anything. The lawyers defending the corporals laughed in the courtroom. The prosecutors exchanged disbelieving, frightened looks. The corporals prayed behind the partition. The corporals were absolved.
The sentences are nonsense under any standard logic. The absolved corporals took Rambito from where he was being held. The subject ended up in the hands of gang members who are charged with killing him. In between the one thing and the other, everything is vague.
The prosecutor’s office was nothing in that courtroom without El Niño. It was two scared attorneys looking ridiculous. It was a funny spectacle for two private defense lawyers to laugh at.
I left the courtroom confused. I thought for a moment El Niño had misled me. Later I remembered that he himself had told me that some investigators from Atiquizaya and El Refugio had asked him to make a mistake in the first session of the trial that would throw the investigators off. They offered him $5000 to make a mistake, El Niño told me. Later they asked him to commit a homicide in the forests of Atiquizaya, but they told him they would give him the gun when he got there. El Niño, with hatred, laughed at their childish scheme when we talked about it during one of my visits.
“Assholes, suckers, fucking rats, they wanted to trick El Niño. The Beast, assholes.”
When the trial was over and the corporals were set free, I called El Niño on the phone.
“Niño, did you lie to me or did you lie to the judge?”
“I saw them with Rambito and I saw Rambito leave with Chepe and the others… The vibe is that… I just didn’t want to say it. I’m carrying too many crosses to take another one on.”
When that scene occurred in San Miguel, El Niño did not live in the Las Pozas neighborhood in San Lorenzo. El Niño was living in the town of El Refugio, very close to Atiquizaya. He lived in a small house with a yard that the police and the prosecutor’s office paid for. He lived across the street from the police investigator’s station of El Refugio. In theory, they had taken him out of Atiquizaya because the investigators themselves were convinced that Chepe Furia had infiltrated the police there.
In El Refugio, El Niño lived with his girlfriend, 18 years old, and their daughter Marbely, two. They lived off what El Niño could do, which was grow some marijuana and bring a little more marijuana in from Guatemala through his contacts and sell it in small amounts to the few users he knew that lived around there. Beyond that, the Justice Sector’s Technical Executive Department (UTE) sent him provisions every month, provisions they prepare for protected witnesses that do not live in UTE safe houses. The provisions are miserable.
The UTE attends to around 1000 people every year. Most of them are victims or eye-witnesses of some criminal event. Only about 50 are like El Niño, protected witnesses. Assassins, thieves, human smugglers protected by the prosecutor and the police so they can testify in court. The deal is simple: protection and support in exchange for betraying your group of co-criminals in court.
That’s how El Niño obtained from the government a little house with a yard, and monthly provisions: four pounds of beans, another four of rice, pasta, tomato sauce, salt, sugar, oil, toilet paper, soap, toothbrush. Period. That’s why, to buy more food, clothes and milk for the girl, El Niño sold marijuana.
What happened is that in January 2014, the provisions stopped coming. Without them giving a reason, the provisions stopped coming. El Niño still had to testify against the policemen and against the killers who threw the bodies down the well in Turin — where he himself participated in the heaving of two corpses. And it was not just the provisions. The $60 the police gave him from time to time stopped coming. When the police get witnesses with good information, they usually give them a small monthly stipend to keep them under control.
El Niño decided in March to leave the little house in El Refugio with his pregnant wife and Marbelly. At first, El Niño left his family in the house in Las Pozas and went to live in a nearby forest in an abandoned house that some farmer in the area had built years ago. He lived guarded by a 12-gauge shotgun that he had hid after the robbery of the gas station. That robbery of the gas station in El Congo in 2009 was a police operation. El Niño was a mole in a group of gang members when the gang still had not found out he was a traitor. He was going to give up-to-the-minute updates on the robbery so the police could get there. That is what he did. He sent messages, but the police never appeared, so he decided to fully participate in the robbery and walk away with a shotgun and some money. El Niño recovered his shotgun when he left El Refugio, and took with him three kids from Las Pozas whom he called ‘the stoners’, because they all used marijuana, and in one way or another they all had problems with the MS gang members who came to Las Pozas every once in a while to make sure Barrio 18 had not taken over that no-man’s-land of a town. In Las Pozas, there is graffiti for both MS and 18. It is a place where both gangs pass through.
El Niño and his crew, there in the forest, took turns sleeping: Two rested and two kept lookout, and they went alone if provisions were necessary.
The first time I visited him outside of El Refugio, El Niño told me to wait on a sidewalk that branches off from the highway leading to San Lorenzo, where there is big, leafy fig tree. It is Barrio 18 turf. A few kids from a service station were already very unsettled by the presence of a truck with tinted windows parked in the middle of nowhere. All of a sudden, El Niño came up the sidewalk walking fast. He had a machete in his hand and in his pants a trabuco and five 12-gauge shotgun shells. He was wearing the ski mask he wore at the trials like a hat, halfway on. He got in the back of the truck — my brother Juan was in the front. He was scared, breathing hard. He was looking all around. He said: “Let’s go, let’s get out of here, step on it!” When we went through Atiquizaya, he sunk into the seat as much as he could and covered half his face with his hand. We went into a motel on the highway that goes to Santa Ana. We closed the door and chilled out. And then we could talk calmly.
Little by little, he went along gauging the risks in Las Pozas and decided to return to his mother’s house, where he was born and raised. He lived on alert. He had a network of stoners that kept an eye out for any strange movements.
When he was no longer in El Refugio, it was much more difficult to find him. He changed cell phones every week. He went through the forests to Guatemala to buy ounces of marijuana to sell in Las Pozas. He was arrested several times by soldiers and police. They seized guns. They arrested him while he was going to the river to fish and found two blunts he was going to smoke to relax a bit. The took him to Atiquizaya and threw him in the Mara Salvatrucha cell. That happened last October. El Niño had said he was retired from the Centrales Locos crew of the Salvatrucha from San Salvador. El Niño told me that a police officer walked by the cell and said: “This is El Niño of Hollywood. He put Chepe Furia in jail.” El Niño, luckily, was able to hide a razor in his sock. There was a riot in the corner of the cell, but the gang members — very young, El Niño remembers — did not dare attack the famous ex-gang member. Finally, the order arrived to get him out of the cell, because he was, while he waved his razor blade in front of the Maras, under government protection. Supposedly.
El Niño was what he was, a man with a hard life, a criminal. And, on the outside again, he started to live like it. He fought in bars. On one occasion, he even knocked out a policeman who lived nearby, and one day drunk had gone into El Niño’s house after he had left the door open to bring firewood in, and started to insult him, saying “faggot, traitor of the Maras, queer”. El Niño pounded him. Hours later, the policeman was shot twice with a 12-gauge shotgun. He accused El Niño. Three witnesses from the area assured me it was two unknown kids who were passing through the neighborhood. At that point, El Niño did not have the shotgun anymore. He assured me it was “a couple little 18 year olds” who, according to his hypothesis, were passing through and saw the policeman from the Criminal Investigation Division of Santa Ana drunk and decided to attack him. It was very common for El Niño to sign off in the same way after one of my visits.
“Alright, then, let’s see if I’m still alive the next time you come.”
The reconstruction of the crime scene by the police suggested this: El Niño was riding his bike up the street toward Portillo, in San Lorenzo. It is a street that links up with dirt roads that lead to the Las Pozas neighborhood. In front of him, a mototaxi appeared with two fat men with shaved heads, around 40 years old. They charged him in the mototaxi. His bicycle ended up on the ground. El Niño ran. The first of six shots went in through his back. The first drops of blood on the pavement are just a meter from the bicycle. He fell face down. He rolled over to fight. The attackers approached and shot him three more times. Head and chest. The bullet casings are there, along with the blood painted on the pavement, smeared, like a wounded animal had drug itself along. The assassins took off not for the forest, but toward the town of San Lorenzo in one of those mototaxis that makes a thundering noise. The crime scene is 50 meters from the police station. The police arrived 20 minutes after the fact. There was no pursuit or anything of the sort.
I imagine him, most of all, writhing on the pavement, gasping blood. I know him. I know he fought like an animal up to the last minute. They had already tried to kill him before. He had already fought like a beast, with every inch of his body. He always said that a gunshot was surely in his future, but to have The Beast take him away, pick him up and take him someplace to kill him calmly… “Not that, that’s the worst,” he said. And he said it because he knew, because he had been that beast before.
On Friday, November 21, 2014, the day of his death, El Niño had gone to San Lorenzo to do the paperwork on his second daughter. He took his only ID and that of his girlfriend. He named her Jennifer, and she is three months old. She was orphaned from her father the same day her father acknowledged her as his daughter.
No one, not a police officer nor an attorney nor a judge nor an official from the UTE, did anything so El Niño would be protected again. No one even did anything to get him his provisions back. All the policemen I spoke to over two years about this case knew El Niño would end up murdered. They said it as if it did not represent a failure on their own behalf. In March, 2014, I published in El Faro a chronicle called “The Thorn in the Mara Salvatrucha”, a profile of El Niño that my brother Juan and I wrote for a book in 2013. More or less a month later, my brother Carlos, also a reporter for El Faro, told me that Raul Mijango had passed on a message to him from the national assembly of the Mara Salvatrucha. Raul Mijango is — boiling down as much as possible his extensive résumé — a former guerrilla commander who since March 2012 has presented himself as the mediator between the government and the gangs in a truce that came about that month and drastically reduced homicides for more than a year. The truce is now collapsing to the rhythm of rising homicide rates. Mijango is still recognized by the gang members as the go-between. The national assembly is the group of leaders that establish the general guidelines for the Mara crews. They are all inmates at the Ciudad Barrios prison. On that occasion, Mijango told my brother that the story had caused ill will amongst the leaders, that they did not like gang’s dirty laundry being aired. My brother Carlos asked Mijango if there was a solution for El Niño’s case, knowing that the publication increased his risk. Mijango’s response was: “No. There is no solution”.
We all knew El Niño was going to be assassinated. I was among those who knew it.
No one did anything to prevent it.
On one in occasion in early 2013, we had a conversation in the yard at El Refugio while we ate boiled pipianes.
“Do you feel like they used you?” I asked.
“Out of everyone, I’m the one who came out of my case with the least. The old guys on top, the high society, they all came out cool. How much was Rambito’s death worth? Chepe Furia paid $11,000 to set up Rambito. I’m the one who got the least out of it.”
“And what about us? What guarantees us that when the government lets you go you won’t be a hit-man?”
“They haven’t offered me a different path. There should be a work program. ‘We are going to give you a chance to sweep in some courtroom.’ I haven’t gotten rid of my tattoos because they haven’t offered me anything, and at least these protects me with respect if I go over to the other side. The information I’ve given is worth something. I said I did it, that I pulled the trigger, and the others did what they did. That’s worth something!”
“Do you rule out going back to your old ways?”
“I can’t rule it out. Just being here they have offered me opportunities.”
“And what do us Salvadorans owe you?”
“I risked my life. I got off the streets and put away another group of assassins. That’s why there’s a group of people who want to kill me. Police, gang members. I don’t know who works for whom here. It’s a vibe that’s called organized crime. I don’t want to be in danger anymore. I have my girl. Society doesn’t care that I’m in danger. All they care about is that the witness already testified. If they thought about it and said: ‘Hey, things could go poorly for this guy, he’s got a daughter, a woman. Let’s at least give him a job’.”
The gang members who threatened him by telephone from the Ciudad Barrios prison in 2011 made a mistake. They told him that they were going to leave him smelling like pine. They were referring to the wood of the coffin. But El Niño also made a mistake. He told them he did not know what pine smelled like, and that the coffins in his area were made of mango and conacaste trees.
His coffin is made of teak. It was the cheapest at the funeral home. The mayor’s office in San Lorenzo donated it on request from El Niño’s father-in-law.
The wake unfolds without any surprises on Saturday, November 22. Some 30 people, friends of El Niño’s mother, sing evangelical hymns. One of the hymns says something like there are only two sides, one is the heavenly abode and the other the pits of hell. There is atol, coffee and sweet bread. El Niño’s mother is defeated, in a chair next to the coffin. She is not crying. It is not her first time at this. In 2007, the Mara Salvatrucha killed her other son, a gang member for the Parvis Locos Salvatruch of Atiquizaya whom they called Cheje. Today she is not crying. She just sits, defeated, on the chair without speaking. El Niño’s widow breastfeeds Jennifer in a corner.
Outside there is a party. In Las Pozas there is a party. There is a stage with a DJ stand that throws a few colored lights around and plays loud reggaeton in front of the school. The party is 100 meters from the wake, and the reggaeton and the hymns struggle to come out on top. The party was already planned. It happens every year on these dates, and is organized by the mayor’s office in San Lorenzo. They were not going to stop it because of a dead person.
It is Sunday, November 23, at 12 o’clock noon. It is the Atiquizaya cemetery. It is El Niño’s burial. The tomb is a hole next to a slope at the edge of the cemetery. The hole was dug this morning by El Niño’s father-in-law. Around 30 people show up. Most of them have been summoned by the pastor that preaches in Las Pozas. About five tombs down, a group of gang members plays dice. The gravedigger, sitting next to a city security guard for the cemetery, tells us that “(the gangs) control things here”. The area is dominated by Barrio 18. The presence of my brother Juan and myself is disconcerting for the gang members gathered around the burial. One appears on the slope. Two more arrive to the tomb where they are playing dice. One appears laughing, right when a few men throw dirt to cover the coffin. This last one is dressed like a gangster to point of being ridiculous: He is wearing a round fedora, a white oversized shirt tucked into black pants that are also too big, and white tennis shoes. He sits down loudly, laughs, walks around behind us, spits. He leaves. Another comes up the hill. Two women start singing hymns. El Niño’s mother screams and cries for five minutes. We decide to leave as the men throw the last shovel loads of dirt on. There is a feeling the gang members might do something. There are too many of them around. We tell the widow that we will see her at the entrance to the cemetery, that it is better for us to leave. We leave. Without saying it, she and her father have noticed the tension. They hurry the burial along. A man cuts a branch off a giant yucca plant, El Salvador’s national flower, and sticks it in the place where maybe someone will put a cement cross someday.
Juan and I leave up an alley and tall kid with dark hair, no older than 25, follows us. He asks us to stop. We do not obey him. Behind us all the people from the burial follow. A little parade of the poor. The kid posts up at the entrance to the cemetery along with another to make sure everyone leaves. We barely have time to shake hands with the widow and her father.
Inside the cemetery, without a cross, without a headstone, without an epitaph, is the ball of earth with the giant yucca branch stuck in it. Underneath is Miguel Angel Tobar, El Niño de Hollywood, a man we all knew would be assassinated.
Further Readings: Christian Poveda’s outstanding documentary on life inside the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs is available in full on Youtube. Poveda was murdered by a gang member not long after completing the documentary. Insight Crime has provided excellent coverage, in English, of El Salvador’s gang wars and truces.
Oscar Martinez Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard
10 Dec 2014