Portraits of El Salvador Police: Premonitions of Collapse

Cops living like refugees in police station storage closets, hiding from teenage gangsters who might shoot them or their families; or casually shooting gangsters in the back, beating down their families in the street; or marching en masse and hooded on the presidential palace to demand a better bonus on their ludicrously pitiful salaries, while above them parliamentary deputies jet-set to pointless international conferences. In Carlos Martinez’s unsettling portraits of junior-grade policemen in El Salvador, a premonition of collapse:

The two detectives start our chat by complimenting each other.

“Everyone around here knows this guy,” says Fidelino, and Santana smiles underneath his mustache before returning the compliment.

“No man, this guy is the crazy one. Those pieces of shit are terrified of him,” and Fidelino leans back smugly, trying to hide the effect of his colleague’s flattery.

We are sitting on a bench in a park, trying to keep ourselves in the shadow of an almond tree, defeated by the heat and sweating. It is a park in an insignificant town, still too small to be called a city and which seems a little closer to the sun than the rest of the world. Santana and Fidelino are explaining to me what it is like to be a police officer in El Salvador and they start by defining the types of police officers: you have the pussies, the good cops, and the ones with balls. They themselves, of course, form part of the group of police officers who have balls. Their chief, on the other hand, is a mix of the first two groups.

Santana is wearing a long coat that goes below his waist and I tell him he is crazy to be dressed like that in a place like this. But he slips his hand under his coattails, cowboy style, and I start to understand why.

“This one is part of our police gear,” he explains, patting his standard issue pistol which he carries in a holster on the right side; “And this is one is for things”, he says, fondling the gun on his left hip. ‘What are things?’ I ask. Santana and Fidelino look at each other complicitly and grin their mysterious detective grins, then launch into never-ending explications.

“Today we finished at 3am…” “The chief doesn’t know that we go on these missions…” “There is a man who is a farmer and the Mara gang members take money from him. He filed charges with the attorney general, and what do you think happened? Nothing! So the man looked for help to fix his problem…” “The anti-gang forces only show up for the photo. They’re pussies. The Policia Rural are the ones with the balls to take people on…” “Sometimes, without the chief knowing, we dress up like rurales, enchicharados (with shotguns), ennavaronados (with ski masks) and we stay out with them all night…” “Since we have access to protected witnesses, the rurales like to go out with us, because we know exactly where (the gang members) are and we only go out to beat them up…” “Sometimes when we can arrest them too…” “Hey, you’re not going to print this, right?”. And they never talk about it again.

Santana and Fidelino live in areas controlled by gangs. Santana’s oldest son wanted to be a police officer, like his father, but some gang members threatened to kill him and Santana assumed an unthinkable debt of $7,000 so a coyote could guide his son along the path of the undocumented. The kid left the police academy and negotiated Mexico’s lethal pitfalls and made it over the metal wall and into the United States. Sixteen days after leaving he was caught by US immigration officials and returned to El Salvador. Santana went to pick him up at the airport and after a week sent him away with the same coyote.

Fidelino says he threatened to kill the gang leader who stole his daughter’s cell phone, that he went after him with a gun in each hand and gave him a couple hours to make the phone appear. It appeared.

Santana is never without his guns, not even on his days off when he is working in his corn field. On those days he leaves a gun — unregistered, of course — with his youngest son so he can keep watch while Santana works. He has a video on his phone of his younger kids shooting a pistol and later a shotgun. His daughter is 15 and his son is 10.

A few days later we meet up again in this scorching park and while we talk Santana eyes a few teenagers who are selling coffee: “They are not here to sell coffee. They are gang members who collect fees from all the businesses around the park,” he says to me. He calls one over, and the kid serves him coffee staring at the ground. Santana looks at him like he is going to eat him, spits at the kid’s feet. “These kids know that around me they can’t fuck around because I will mess them up.”

“Santana, if you know they are extorting people, why don’t you arrest them?”

An older woman sees us talking on the park bench and pretends she has not seen us, quickening her pace. Santana gets up in a hurry, puts down his coffee and catches up with her. The woman panics and, in a whisper, begs him to not talk to her anymore, to forget that they ever talked and she leaves as fast as she can. She had once promised the detective she would be a witness in a case that involved Barrio 18 gang members, but they started to suspect her and threatened her at her home.

“You see?” Santana says, giving his explanation, “without witnesses we don’t have shit.”

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Perros by Carlos Canas. Detail.

The police chief in question heard a rumor that a local Mara Salvatrucha leader had been bragging in public that the gang would kill many police officers in the town. So he decided to arrest him, without any other cause than “being ugly”, and he sat him down at his desk.

“Listen, asshole, you kill a police officer and I’ll kill two of your men.”

“An eye for an eye,” the gangster responded without looking away.

“An eye for an eye, you son of a bitch! But touch a police officer and you don’t know what you have coming.”

And after they had threatened each other, the police chief ordered him set free so the gang leader could spread the word on the street.

“I worry about my men. I take it as something personal,” he explains to me, “Look, a few days ago some mareros broke the arm of one of my guys with a metal bar, but he was able to run after them. And I asked him: Why the fuck didn’t you kill them if you had a gun?… Don’t you think that’s enough justification to kill them?”

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Perros by Carlos Canas. Detail.

The day draws to an end for Ignacio, a police officer who works in administration, and he walks over to the time clock. He punches out and returns to his office: He makes room between the chairs and desks, rolls out a sleeping pad and lays down to watch movies, to kill time in the office which right now is his bedroom. Ignacio has been living at the office for 11 months.

Ignacio was raised in his family home in the Santa Ana neighborhood where he lived with his mother and siblings. The Mara Salvatrucha gang knew he was a police officer from the day he started, eight years ago. The police academy usually sends investigators to look into the past of aspiring police officers and in Ignacio’s case, the investigators interviewed two brothers who had joined the gang. But in 2008 the eye-for-an-eye policy was not in complete effect and that meant things were very different than they are today: The living situation between the cats and mice was tense, but the gangs thought hard before they got involved with the police.

But things changed over time and the gestures became more aggressive, and later things continued changing and there were threats and later threats at home and his mother took his younger brothers and left for the United States and Ignacio ended up living alone in his childhood home. And things kept on changing until Wednesday April 1, 2015 at 11:30am.

In Ignacio’s memory, seven young gang members approached him while he was taking his briefcase out of the trunk of his car, and they said they were going to kill him. There were two guns in the briefcase: his standard issue pistol and a “hot” gun that he had kept for himself after confiscating it from some gangsters. Right when the gangster who was speaking reached for his hip, Ignacio put a bullet in him from the illegal gun and the kid fell to the ground, wounded. The others were surprised by the officer’s reaction and he was able to kill two more before the survivors fled. He got in his car and left. He never reported the incident to his superiors and to date does not know what happened in the investigation of those cadavers, or even if there was an investigation.

“What didn’t you tell your superiors?”

“Because if you tell them they start an investigation.”

“And?”

“You don’t even do that with your standard issue gun and they weren’t going to support me because it was with the other gun. But even if you do it with the standard issue they still arrest you. I would be in prison in Metapan. You pretty much have to wait until they shoot at you before you can shoot at them. And if they come after you with a knife and you shoot them they also arrest you because they say it’s not proportional. The institution lets you down.”

“Why didn’t you report the threats?”

“If you report them to the public prosecutor, you get in line. They put your complaint underneath a ream of papers this thick… In the time it takes to investigate your case and provide you with protection they have already killed you or you’ve gotten into a firefight with them. Besides, if you report them you have to put where live, and that’s fucking stupid! Or they ask you for a different address. And what the fuck are you going to put down? Your family’s address? And what happens if that information leaks? They kill your family. And then you go out to look for them and put an end to them.”

Ignacio lives at the station’s administrative wing full of offices. The bosses approved it for two months after arguing he was unsafe in his neighborhood, but he has just ended up staying and staying, silently extending his stay, bringing in a little refrigerator, a stove, a television, to make it seem like a house… at least at night.

I tell him that even with his name changed in the story it will be easy to identify him, and he starts to laugh: “There are more than 100 of us, many more. It’s like this everywhere in the country.”

I ask him to prove it to me, to introduce me to another police officer who also lives like a refugee, and introduces me to Guillermo.

Guillermo also lives at a police station, in a dark little room next to a pile of rusty metal. Here he bathes in the mornings and keeps all of his things, which basically consist of a spartan closet with his clothes, shoes and not much more. He has lived here for six months and it is obvious he does not want to talk to me.

I am able to get just basic information from him: that he lived in a community in San Salvador. That the gangs that controlled his community knew he was a police officer. That he thinks they knew because of some of his colleagues, who he thinks were colluding with the gangs. That the night he was supposed to die he heard his assassins talking on the telephone in the street: “Should we go get him? What the fuck?” That he was not armed. That he was scared. That the following day he left with the understanding that the problem was with him and not his wife and kids.

Guillermo has not reported the case to his superiors, nor has he returned home, and every weekend he can he goes to his mother’s house, where there are also gangs but fortunately they do not know him. He washes his clothes and, if he is lucky, he sees his kids, who are just infants. Then he comes back to this dark room to hope the week passes without any bad news on the telephone.

It is already afternoon and Ignacio’s police station exudes melancholy. We sit and smoke in the middle of a parking lot. I have few doubts that he is a hard man and that his co-workers consider him a man of few words. Ignacio makes a little over $300 a month and no longer has family in the country, or at least no one who could provide him with a roof over his head without putting themselves at risk. His girlfriend lives in a neighborhood inhabited by gangs and Ignacio is afraid he will contaminate her if he visits or spends the night with her. His childhood home, which is his only inheritance, is destined to become a memory, a good one, maybe…

“What’s it like living where you work?”

“I wake up here. I cook here… and when my co-workers show up I’m showered and dressed. Haha… for example, I spent December 24 and 31 here, man. My girlfriend came here with lasagna and we were together…”

Then Ignacio breaks down crying, ashamed to look like such a mess in front of a journalist who cannot even imagine being in his shoes.

“It’s fucking rage, man,” he tries to justify the weakness, “You can’t imagine how mad you get. It’s fucking rage, man, and you want to shoot them in the back of the head. What the fuck else are you supposed to do? You get into this situation… It’s psychotic… You’re never calm. You always have to have your gun on you.” … And in his eyes rest an anger similar to that of the illegal gun he used to kill his assassins.

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Perros by Carlos Canas. Detail.

A police inspector who is in charge of several officers in a municipality in the middle of the country speaks with ideal clarity for a journalist writing a story like this one. Without mincing words, he says it is “normal” to keep firearms confiscated from criminals: “We use them to leave at crime scenes when we kill an unarmed gang member.” Like that, like talking about the weather.

When he was patrolling a rural area early in 2015, a group of unarmed gang members ignored an order to stop and ran away. He decided not to pursue them and pointed his gun. He killed one while he was running, shooting him in the back, of course. Later they threw a couple guns at the scene; case closed.

* *

A thief was running as fast as he could near the “Black Market” in downtown San Salvador and behind him was Officer Juan, who was yelling at him telling him to stop, an order the thief had no intention of obeying. But he did not count on the athletic ability of Officer Juan who, once he was close to the subject, gave him a well-practiced leg swipe that knocked the thief fell to the ground where he was ready for Officer Juan to bind him like a rodeo steer. Everything was going well up to that point, until Officer Juan looked up and there she was, looking at him, frightened.

Officer Juan is a young and very ill-tempered man who was in the military and peppers his speech with words like “homeland” and “loyalty”. He is an entry level officer and makes just enough to live in Soyapango, a neighborhood controlled by the faction Sureños del Barrio 18. Five gang members live on his street alone, he says, among them the head of the faction, who has a mother, who has a stand downtown where she sells things, who was shocked when she discovered her neighbor Juan was a police officer. Officer Juan wished he had had his face covered, but he had no other option but to face the situation and politely say hello to the woman. He told his wife about it and since that day she only lets him leave the house when it is necessary. Officer Juan’s family, with a 5-year-old girl and 6-month-old boy, live on the police salary, $424 a month, which is why he got a job as a supervisor with a private security firm on his days off. He is rarely home and he knew he had to take steps to protect his family. He showed his wife the basics of how to use the 12-gauge shotgun he has at home… unregistered, of course. And he instructed her that the day she shows it to someone, that shotgun must be the last thing that person sees.

One day, while he was out with his wife at the local grocery store, she made a joke when someone asked them where their baby was: “My sister-in-law spoils him and she kidnapped him for the day.” Officer Juan, whom as I mentioned has a bad temper, saw his chance. He decided to make a loud public declaration: “Don’t make a joke like that again,” he yelled, his wife surprised at the sudden outburst. And then he rolled out a threat against the five gang members on his street, or maybe in the entire neighborhood, or all of them everywhere: “The moment someone hurts my family I’m going to pull them out by the roots, him and his entire family.”

That threat did not fall on deaf ears and a few days later Officer Juan got a visit during one of the rare weekends when he was not working. From his hammock he recognized the voice of the neighborhood gang leader and bolted upright with his rifle. Before the gangster could finish asking to see him, Officer Juan was showing him the business end of the rifle through the window.

“I tried to make a terrifying face,” he says. But the kid’s survivalist instinct kicked in and pulled up his shirt to show he was unarmed: “Calm down, man, I’m not looking for trouble,” the gangster said, his naked waist exposed, spinning around like a dancer. “That’s why that bug isn’t squished on the pavement,” Officer Juan says happily.

That day they came to an agreement something like this: We do not get involved with you if you do not get involved with us, a kind of pact of coexistence he clearly does not trust. And Officer Juan clenches his teeth and curses, because he knows the pact is fragile and because, in his case, being a good father means never being home.

“I’m going to explain it to you,” he says, “If they try to kill me on a bus, I’m going to open fire and if I have to kill civilians, I’ll kill civilians. Because if not who is going to look after my kids?”

And he pulls a gun from his belt right there in the booth at the hamburger place where we are eating. Officer Juan tucks the gun back into the waist of his jeans and finishes off with a sentence whose intent I am still trying to understand: “So much blood has been spilled by the corruption in our government, don’t you think?”

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Carlos Canas.

Nine out of 10 police officers in El Salvador form part of a group known as “entry level”. Almost all Salvadorans who have to deal with the police — for better or for worse — must come to an understanding with a member of this group.

Agents, corporals and sergeants make up the entry level. These officers start making a salary of $424 and a few cents. After taxes, their monthly take-home is around $380. If one of the agents gets a promotion by passing exams and keeping a clean record, he can reach sergeant and, after 20 years of service, can make up to $692, of which he keeps $581.

Entry level police officers are granted six percent pay raises every five years. Or rather, the dubious luck of having their salary go up from $25 to $41 every five — five — years.

The Finance Ministry explains that El Salvador is not experiencing its greatest moment financially and being responsible means being taking austerity measures and, to sum up, there is no money for raises, or at least no raises for police officers.

At the same time, there are trials going on that involve the country’s last three presidents, suspected of corruption and embezzling. The total the three are being investigated for exceeds $20 million. The last president, Mauricio Funes, spent more than $7,000 on shoes with one swipe of his credit card, and on another spree spent $5,900 on perfume in couple days of shopping in Miami, even though his monthly salary was just over $5,000.

The driver who makes the least in the Legislative Assembly gets $870 and the one who makes the most, $2,000. The administrative assistant that makes the least in the Assembly receives $700 a month. Each year, the Legislative Assembly gives their employees a Christmas bonus equal to an entire salary. This, of course, includes the 84 representatives. This bonus, which is paid on top of the the normal salary and another monthly bonus, costs the country $2.4 million every year.

Between 2012 and 2014, the representative Sandra Salgado had to go to a conference that was called “XXV Feminist Meeting: Gender and Other Inequalities”. Other inequalities. The conference was in Cadiz, Spain. In five days, the representative blew $9,297. And that was just one of 20 trips.
Amongst his 30 trips, Sigfrido Reyes, the former president of the Legislative Assembly, had to make a courtesy visit to the representatives in Vietnam and do that he had to spend $12,798.

Either of these two representatives spent infinitely more on their trips than any police officer or soldier is going to be able to save in a lifetime of work. And they are just two representatives, who made just 50 trips. Between May 2012 and December 2014, the representatives traveled 642 times for a cost of $1,000,310.

It might seem odd that there is a group of government employees who work in public safety who envy the fabulous work conditions and salaries of the police as if it were an impossible dream: The soldiers who patrol the streets alongside the police make between $250 and $310 a month.

***

There is a group of soldiers in a large room. They are mostly young, shy-looking men wearing very humble clothes, more than one still looks like a teenager. They have volunteered to speak to me, but they look like they are lined up to be executed.

“No, no, no. No recording,” says one when I put the recorder on the table.

Scolded, I put it away again and the soldier goes on the offensive: “We can’t even trust the officers. We don’t know what you’ll use this for.” It is not natural for a soldier to give opinions without official mediation and it takes a while before the meeting starts to bear fruit. They all live in rural areas, are all fathers, all feel persecuted, all know that wearing a uniform is an affront to the real authorities in their communities. Little by little, they let their guard down to tell me what it is like to work in public safety in the Armed Forces of El Salvador.

One soldier is a thin young man with a voice so quiet it is barely audible. He narrowly escaped death at the hands of what was once his best friend. During his childhood, this soldier had a friend who was like a brother, but life took them in different directions: He finished ninth grade and went to work in a factory, then to police academy. His friend ended up being a Barrio 18 gang member.

“He insisted I work with them and because I said no, he tried to kill me, but all he did was get one of my shoes,” he says.

He had to move as far away as he could afford with his wife and first child.

Another: He lived in his neighborhood with his wife and children. The gangsters told his wife that they had found out what her husband did for a living, but they would look the other direction for $3,000. Neither he nor his wife have ever had $3,000 in their lives. They left their house and built another shack in a different area of the same neighborhood. Some kids he had watched grow up showed up there to tell him “he was in debt with the gang”. And his eyes light up with an evil twinkle and he stands up and grabs his testicles and raises his voice: “I’ve got balls! It wouldn’t be hard for me to kill them… but my family is in the middle of it.” And his bravado wanes as he tells me he has been living at the station for over a year and a half; that he sneaks home for a handful of hours every few days to see his kids, or to give his wife money and to make sure they are alive, and then he goes back to the military base. He never sleeps at home nor is his family authorized to sleep at the barracks.
“There is never an intimate moment for couples,” he says, calmer now, and then asks me if I can tell the Defense Ministry to help them get temporary work visas in the United States.

Another: This kid was working installing drywall ceilings in houses that happen to have that detail, until the company he worked for went out of business and he had no other option but to approach the military: “When I started to serve my problems began.” One day he went to the neighborhood tortilla stand and two gang members showed up on a motorbike. Both were armed and they let him know how unhappy they were to have a “pig” living in “our” territory. He had been living in the house he built with his own hands for four years but it only took him one night to pack up everything he could and leave the following day with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. He went to a different neighborhood where his parents had a little mud brick house that was partially abandoned; but he had leave there too when months later some kids showed one night with machetes in hand, not daring to kick the door down. He did not wait for them to become emboldened and he abandoned the house to live with his mother in a community in San Salvador, in a tiny home that shrunk even more when he arrived, and would continue shrinking as time went on. His sister and niece and nephew — an infant boy and a 3-year-old girl — continued living in the first house he left behind. Two days before I spoke to him, the gangsters had gone there to look for him and, when they did not find him, they took his sister out of the house and put her on her knees. They threatened to kill her with a machete, kicked her 3-year-old and tried to rip her baby from her arms. His sister is okay, he says, “just a bruise on her face and scrapes on her knees”, and now she lives with them along with the baby and 3-year-old, who still has not digested the scare.

Another: This soldier looks older than his comrades and talks with the economy that country people reserve for serious issues. They also demanded he pay: the enormous, unattainable amount of $400. One gang member put a shotgun to his face to help him along. He had to leave his neighborhood and move to another one with his wife, son and elderly father-in-law. There, his son had the bad luck of becoming a teenager and appearing on the gang’s radar. They invited him to go out, and when he refused they tried to take him by force, but were turned back by boy’s grandfather, who was wielding a machete. The old man got into a sword fight with five gang members who left him on the ground, thinking he was dead. Fortunately, he did not die. And they left that second house behind, even abandoning two cows who had names and were a family treasure.

“Now I don’t even leave home. One has to live like criminal,” he says.

Another: The gang members realized he was a soldier and had participated in a police operation and he had to leave the neighborhood where he had lived his entire life with his parents and twin brother. But the gangsters thought he and his brother were only one person and they killed his brother while he was riding his motorbike.

“They killed my brother because they got him confused me,” he says with an unspeakable sadness, and tries, with all his military discipline, to not let his eyes betray him.

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Carlos Canas.

Jose Misael Navas was a member of the presidential battalion and worked as a bodyguard for the president’s daughter. As an under-sergeant for the Salvadoran army he made 414 precious dollars and 50 cents for the prized bodyguard job. Outside of the house he watched he was entitled to a plastic chair on the sidewalk, a box with cups and plates that he kept at the base of a tree, and not much more. He was not entitled to a bulletproof vest, for example.

On February 15, gunshots from a vehicle killed him. Two shots perforated his throat and abdomen and killed him.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren sent public condolences to the family via Twitter and no one, neither he nor his daughter, attended the bodyguard’s service. The presidential estate paid for the funeral, along with a bag of coffee, a bag of sugar and a flag to drape over the casket.

* *

Outside the office of David Munguia Payes, defense minister:

“Minister, when the gangs terrify and assault soldiers, is that not an affront to the Armed Forces itself, or to you, or even to the president of the nation?”

“Yes, of course it is, but we know that in this mission those are risks we have to run. Yes, it’s humiliating, but it’s nothing compared to our determination to arrive to the ultimate consequences of our duties.”

“The Armed Forces are the government’s last recourse, the strongest… the most feared. What happens in a country when the gangs threaten the last recourse, the strongest, the most feared?”

“Look, our strength lies in the collective, the army. Individually we are weak, like all humans. But when they attack someone we roll out an enormous operation so they don’t feel like they can attack without consequences.”

“I imagine the horrifying conditions your troops live in is no secret to you.”

“No, it’s not. We teach them to handle the pressure with training. I too have to handle it. Every day I have to weather slander and I’m not going to let them break my character or my professionalism. Not a day passes that I don’t suffer insults on social media.”

***

Commissioner Arriaza Chicas did not have to time to escape the mob of hooded men who surrounded him and offered him a loud chorus of obscenities: “Fuck off Arriaza Chicas”, “Alone in this fucking office like a housewife”, “Bunch of criminals”… The commissioner is the sub-director of special operations for the Salvadoran national police and that makes him one of the six most powerful police officers in El Salvador.

On January 27 more than 500 furious police officers marched on the presidential palace. The riot police were supposed to stop the march with razor wire barricades, but instead many of them peeled off and some even took selfies with the protesters. All of them had their faces covered with the same hoods the police use to hide their faces from the gangs. The march accomplished what no march had accomplished before: Rattle the gates of the presidential palace and hurl invective at the president outside his office without anyone stopping them. Only then did a delegation of police officers arrive and while some of the officers talked with the leaders of the march, others gave Arriaza Chicas the task of speaking with the mob to calm them down.

The police officers yelled at Arriaza Chicas, who tried to make himself heard, telling the men that they were a team, that they shared the same interests, but the men responded with a flood of insults and demands: “The president said we were going to get a bonus, where is it?” And the commissioner started to answer: “It’s being evaluated…”, and again the flood: “We’re sick of things being evaluated!” Again the voice: “Calm down”, and again the flood: “How are we supposed to calm down if they are killing our families?”

In 2015, 64 police officers were killed, and over the first 64 days of 2016, ten officers were killed along with a number of mothers, siblings and spouses that is difficult to estimate… To boost morale, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren promised improvements, more bulletproof vests, more patrols and a bonus of an unspecified amount, without a timeline for payment.

The leader of the protests — Marvin Reyes, known as “Sinister” among police officers — warned a few days after the march that they would not tolerate a “paltry” bonus. When asked to quantify “paltry”, he said that a $150 bonus three times a year was unacceptable, was “garbage” and “offensive”, and he said instead of putting out the fire it would add gas, because he usually compares police officers to a barrel of dynamite, or a fire.

A triennial bonus of $150, “Sinister” thought, could prompt police to seriously consider a general strike or to take to the streets again or to stop arresting people.

“Can you imagine what would happen to this country if the police went on strike?” Sinister asked to anyone who was willing to answer the question.

He said the police needed to live with dignity and explained that he himself had been driven from his home by gangs, but that he would continue paying the loan he took out to buy his house. He is asking for a raise of $200 a month, plus two annual bonuses of $500 each.

Finally, after numerous financial evaluations, the finance minister and the head of police approved at the end of February a triennial bonus of $150.

***

“Marvin, I understand that to be a police officer is to live in fear. That potentially it’s a powder keg…”

“It’s a barrel of dynamite.”

“An armed police office under pressure is also a powder keg.”

“I read the messages that I get: ‘We have to get them’, ‘Eliminate (the gangsters)’… It’s a question of getting them out of a place. The solution is not wiping them out, but the police are under an incredible amount of pressure.”

“Are there psychologists that help the police officers?”

“There’s a group, but they don’t do anything. If you go there they will help you, but they don’t seek us out. One who is under stress is never going to accept that they have a problem, and even less a diagnosis from a psychologist who tells us we’re all crazy. I have a co-worker who takes medication to control his anxiety, and when he doesn’t take it he gets hysterical, turns violent and yells, yells at other police officers. If this guy doesn’t take his medication and goes out on the street, what do you think is going to happen?”

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Carlos Canas. Detail.

A group of police officers and soldiers goes into a community in Zacamil, in the dangerous town of Mejicanos. Before the officers enter the neighborhood’s labyrinth, the gangsters have disappeared. The only kid they come across is a 19-year-old whose mother has sent out to buy groceries. The officers tell him to stop and he does. They order him to take off his shirt to show his gang tattoos. He takes it off. There are no gang tattoos. They ask him if he is in a gang. He says no. They ask him where the other gangsters are and he repeats that he is not a gangster. Then they start to beat him.

When the boy’s mother goes out to look for him, a police officer has the boy’s hand pinned again a wall and he is stabbing it with a pencil. The mother tries to explains, tries to ask them to stop hurting him. So the police officers order the woman to go back to her house. She does not obey. So they point their guns at her and insult her. They call her an “old bitch”. Local residents come out in support of the woman. They try to explain that the boy is not into anything. But the officers are getting excited. They point their guns, insult, threaten to arrest everyone. They accuse them of harboring gangsters. Finally, they decide to leave the boy alone and they leave.

Maybe those officers on that day were just little more tired than usual of making a shitty wage. Maybe they saw in that kid a shadow of all the death threats that are closing in on them. Maybe they have abandoned a house they worked so hard to pay for, or maybe the night before they slept like refugees on the floor of a police station, which is now their home. It could be that they are suffocated by the anxiety of having to leave the people they love because of young man like the one they just beat up. Maybe they are, as Sinister says, a barrel of dynamite.

But on the flip side of their anger and fear, a mother saw her son being tortured and a son saw his mother humiliated. These flare ups, which that day were those police officers and soldiers, have just cost the government a boy and his mother who now fear the institution. And they have also made those gangsters who were not even there a little more powerful, a little more legitimate, with a little more authority. And all the while everything is a little more broken, and there are more and more lit fuses.

Carlos Martinez Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.