In a country overwhelmed by the violence of organized crime and gang warfare, one small city perched in the crater of an extinct volcano seems oddly immune, with no criminal gangs, and a murder rate more like a place in peaceful Costa Rica than El Salvador. El Faro’s Roberto Valencia travels to Berlin and finds a place which takes a Germanic attitude toward crime:
Berlin is not Germany, but it does not seem like El Salvador either. That is where my uneasiness comes from when, on the 354 bus, after snaking around the Tecapa-Chinameca mountains, arriving to its destination and stopping a block from the central square, the first thing I see are three policemen with bulletproof vests and rifles putting a lanky and obedient young man up against a wall with his hands behind his head. One officer takes his wallet from his bag and looks through it openly. Another messes around with his cell phone. A little while later they let him go, unscathed.
It made me uneasy because Berlin, in the state of Usulutan, is a quiet place in Salvadoran terms. Over the past decade, the town has registered homicide rates more like those in Costa Rica than in El Salvador. Even in the last two or three years, when violence in surrounding towns (Santiago de Maria, Tecapan, Mercedes Umana) has skyrocketed, here it has remained low, with a homicide every three or four months. I am here, in fact, to find out why it is so peaceful.
The search of the lanky young man is the beginning of the paradox. The entire central square is filled with policemen with serious faces and long guns. They are waiting for the end of a funeral mass at the brightly-lit San Jose church, located at one end of the square.
Inside the church, in a grey casket, is the body of Roberto Carlos Alejo, 31 years old, a former employee of a local bus line, number 140. Some gang members had killed him three days earlier in the community of Los Olivos, in San Martin, the metropolitan area of [the capital], San Salvador. His mother, a native of Berlin, thought it would be convenient to bury him in the hometown he had escaped long ago. And in around town a rumor is circulating that the mass is for a Mara gang member.
“The locals told us that some young people that no one knew came,” deputy Francisco Perez will tell me two days later.
When Father Candido finishes with the stuff about ‘going in peace’, the casket is carried out by a group of men, followed by about 30 mourners, most of them women. At the door of the church is an old Nissan Frontier pick-up truck turned into a hearse and a bus for the 140 line. But police officers get in the middle of the group, pick out three young people and separate them against a wall, their hands behind their heads. The scene is strangely natural.
Bells toll for the dead man: two rings, long silence, two more rings. Some of the relatives grumble, but they are compliant. “They are from the neighborhood,” says one woman. “They are harmless,” says another. “It’s for your own good: If there’s no problem, we won’t arrest them,” says an officer, all friendliness. “He’s a cousin of the deceased, the other one too … The three of them are cousins!” says one lady. But there is no tension. The officer invites the group to make their way to the cemetery on the bus and the three men will catch up if they are cleared. “They are doing their job,” says one mourner. “They brought the deceased from there, and it’s best for people’s peace of mind,” says another. The strongest criticism I wrote down in my notebook was this: “The police are acting without taking people’s pain into account”. Ten minutes later, after checking by radio that the men have clean records, they give them their documents back and let them go in peace. Little by little the town square returns to normal.
I approach the officer who seems to be in charge. “When we see people who are not from Berlin, as authorities we’re obligated to identify them,” he tells me, “And they brought the deceased here from there… People always let us know about any kind of situation”.
It does not seem like El Salvador.
Legend has it that Berlin is called Berlin because of a shipwreck: A mysterious German from Berlin named Serafin Brennen was traveling from Costa Rica when his boat sunk off the Salvadoran coast in 1884, they say.
Brennen settled in the valley of Agua Caliente, then part of Tecapa (now Alegria). He got along so well with the locals that in October of 1885, when President Francisco Menendez signed a decree to authorize a town in the valley, the beneficiaries approved the name Berlin because it was the birthplace of the foreigner, who was a citizen of the new town.
With coffee as its economic motor and a mild climate owing to its 3000 feet of elevation, the town grew quickly and prospered: It only needed two decades to be named a village, and a decade more to be named a city.
Today, the German flag (horizontal black, red and gold stripes) is the official flag of this municipality, located in the Usulutan province, which is 70 miles from the capital and has a population of around 17,000, a number that is declining year to year despite the influence of LaGeo, a state-owned geothermal company that has El Salvador’s most active fields in and around Berlin.
Berlin today is a friendly city in which razor wire is scarce, stores do not have bars on the windows or guards, and people leave their doors open. It is a city where one can sit down outside in the evening and chat with the neighbors, and where people greet a stranger as if they knew him. But what really sets Berlin apart is that here there are no crews or turfs or gang graffitis or forced silences. There are no gangs in Berlin.
The Education Ministry has 32 schools registered here and only one institute, the National Institute of Berlin, or INB.
“This is a quiet city,” says Saul Flores Gonzalez, Don Saul, who has been the director of the institute for over a decade.
In El Salvador, secondary education is a reliable thermometer to take the temperature on the gangs. It is enough to go into the boys’ bathroom to get a read on their influence. In the bathrooms at the institute there are a few graffitis with gang insignias like ‘MS13’, ‘NLS’ and ‘XV3’, but they are scarce, poorly-done and hurried, with the air of a prank. More significantly, at the entrance gate to INB there are no police or private security, unlike in many parts of the country. Even at that, Don Saul is worried. Over the past years, the number of students from other towns enrolling has skyrocketed. Some come from Apopa, from Soyapango, from San Miguel, and some of those who arrive at 11, 12 or 14 years old already carry the seed of the gangs inside them.
“On Mondays we do general training,” says Don Saul, “and ask them to please try to respect each other, that we respect what they do with their free time, but that we try to keep the institute free of gang graffiti, that we make the institute a neutral place, and that no one here is the owner of anything. I tell them that one day their children will study here and we have to take care of what we have.”
Next to the basketball court where they do the training there is a mural with large letters reading: “Your parents invested time and money in your education; Don’t let them down”.
“Does it work, just talking to them on Mondays?”
“Yes. I treat them with respect.”
“A speech once a week? Is that all?”–“No, the social projects are the key, and there are several institutions involved in that. For example, we have 60 to 80 kids in the band for peace. They come from four to six or seven in the evening, every day. If they weren’t here, they would be at the bar. The defense is to keep them busy, but do that we need resources.”
To keep them busy, says Don Saul. So simple, yet so complicated.
Berlin’s market would not win a prize for cleanliness, order or decor, but it has one priceless virtue: No Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18 crews have used death threats to establish a fee system for the vendors.
“Little things happen, but it can be said that it’s calm,” I’m told by Salvador Pena, the market’s administrator for four years, from his cubicle with aspirations of being office. He knows about booths and businesses that have tried to charge extortion fees, but in Berlin these abuses are reported. “The residents pay attention. We mostly all know each other, and the police act quickly,” he says.
Pena is convincing when he denies the presence of gangs, but one cannot be naive: If there were a threat, he would not divulge it to a journalist with a recorder turned on.
One block from the market, on the Simeon Canas Avenue, is Berlin’s Primera Instancia Courthouse. The secretary, Ana Margarita Bermudez, lets me check their record book, a voluminous manuscript where all those processed this year are registered. The criminal offenses repeated most often are #346, possession, carrying and illegal or irresponsible sale of firearms; #142, assault; and #367, human trafficking.
Extortion is the main source of income for Salvadoran gangs, and Berlin seems like an extortion free zone. There have been isolated cases of crews in neighboring towns making threats by phone or even criminals that pose as gang members, but paying quotas to gangs does not seem to exist.
To repeat: It does not seem like El Salvador.
The police registered only one homicide in Berlin in 2014. In Mercedes Umana there were 15. In Ozatlan, 10. In Alegria, 11. In Tecapan, another 10. All these town are in Usulutan, and all of them are smaller than Berlin.
“Is it as calm here as the statistics indicate?”
Answering the question is deputy Francisco Perez; 43 years old, 22 years on the force. They have sent him here for seven months to temporarily head up a sub-delegation, and he is halfway through his time. Before he was part of Usulutan’s delegation, a 911 responder. And before that, in Santa Tecla, in San Marcos, in La Libertad… He knows what it is like to work in places with high levels of gang activity.
“Here it is much calmer because of the level of organization, on the level of municipal organizations and with the residents. People tell us if a kid is giving marijuana to our young people, and that is where we come in.”
“Do a lot of young people come here from other places?’
“These days there are kids coming here who have problems with the law in other places, especially those from the neighborhoods. But when we hear about someone suspicious we immediately pay them a visit.”
The neighborhoods with the most conflict are La Chicharra, Bogran and Primavera. In the latter, a Mara Salvatrucha mural appeared.
“Subjects from criminal groups arrive,” he says, “but we don’t let them get established.”
Deputy Francisco Perez highlights the collaboration between the people of Berlin and the police every time he can. The philosophy of citizen policing has been implemented “rather well”, and demands mutual respect between the people and the police, a respect that would be impossible to build if there unwarranted arrests, violent and judgmental searches, or if they carried out summary executions.
But the force rotates police officers from one delegation to another. And it can happen that they move someone from a conflict zone and that officer carries in him the problem of unmediated force.
“But in Berlin one immediately observes that the crime is different, and we adapt,” Perez says evasively.
The relationship between the police and citizens in Berlin is not as rosy as deputy Francisco Perez makes it look, but it exists and in general it is cultivated. The two sides appreciate each other. In El Salvador, this seems revolutionary.
The cities of Santiago de Maria and Berlin, both sitting in the Tecapa-Chinameca mountains, are separated by eight winding miles of highway. They have 19,000 and 17,000 inhabitants, respectively, and have one national institute. Both were founded towards the end of the 19th century and evolved in similar ways, with coffee as their motor. Since they 1980s they have seen people migrate out. They even share the same climate.
But in Santiago de Maria the gangs took hold around eight years ago, and the city today is one of the strongholds for the Barrio 18-Surenos. In 2014, forensics picked up 25 cadavers from Santiago de Maria’s streets and sidewalks.
Since I arrived in Berlin, I have not had a single chat where the example of Santiago de Maria has not come up as a tragic example of letting down the guard against the gangs. Tomorrow the mayor of Berlin will me tell that a young man from his town cannot get on a bus and take it to Santiago de Maria, that his life will be at risk just because of where he is from. The office to get identification cards for both towns is in Santiago de Maria in the neighborhood of Concepcion, and a city bus makes special trips, guarded by the local police, so young people from Berlin can get their ID cards without being attacked by gangs.
Santiago de Maria does seem like El Salvador.
Early in the morning on September 8, 2000, Berlin took to the streets. A day earlier, by an order from the capital, the small jail adjacent to town had been emptied out. Rumors circulated that it would be filled with around 100 minors from the Barrio 18 gang who had been taken out of the Ciudad Barrios jail after a violent riot that left one man gutted and dozens injured.
A group of animated residents, convinced that a detention center full of Barrio 18 gang members a block from the city park was a bad move, protested with roadblocks, burning tires and picket lines. Judges and priests tried to convince them but got nowhere. The police intervened but got nowhere. Their determination was such that the transfer of prisoners was suspended.
“Everyone was amazed because all of Berlin protested,” says Hector Alvarado, a 47-year-old resident of Berlin who wanted to protest but could not participate.
He worked for the prison system as the director of security for the same jail they wanted to fill with gang members.
“I didn’t protest,” he says, “but I was with them, because I knew that if we let them in, everything was going to fall apart.”
Now Hector is a coach at Berlin’s branch of the state-run National Institute for Young People. He works with students. He believes the spirit that led residents to protest that morning in 2000 against the gang members is still alive in some way.
“But as a community we can’t fall asleep. This is a virus and it is very close, in Santiago de Maria and in Mercedes Umana.”
“Why is it in those towns and not in Berlin?”
“Here the people are more conscious of it, and all the local players contribute to prevention. That’s why we’re not contaminated.”
“How is the relationship with the police?”
“In Berlin we all know each other, if not by name then by nickname. And if suspicious people come from outside, someone always calls the police. They have a very important role in all this, and we see that the officers are careful to identify people who aren’t from Berlin.”
He admits there are officers who get out of hand, mostly when they come here from other departments. The issue, he says, has been brought up in the municipal committee on the prevention of violence.
“But it’s that there are young people here who are not gang members, but they wear flat-billed hats and baggy clothes. They do it because they don’t know the problems they could get into if they left Berlin dressed like that. I know of some who have been stopped by police and who have taken over their hats and bent the bills so they don’t look like gangsters.”
In Hector’s discourse, excessive police force seems like a necessary evil, or something that can be can be dealt with in light of the threats from gangs.
They have killed someone in Berlin!
I find out first hand when, after being here for three days, I enter the police station to request an interview with the chief of police. The officer behind the desk who works as the receptionist says it is not possible, that the deputy is out because there was a homicide in Los Canales. He does not give me details. Maybe he does not know anything. It just happened. I run out, stop the first motorcycle taxi and try to explain where we need to go with the few facts the officer has given me. The driver already knows. The deceased is a friend.
The road to Los Canales is on a street that continues down to Mercedes Umana, less than a mile from the central park. It takes us less than five minutes to get there. The police have the area closed off with yellow caution tape at the height of an inexplicable metal catwalk, about 65 feet down the street. It is minutes before four in the afternoon. Between onlookers, relatives and friends from work of the 23-year-old victim — his name is Victor Mauricio Sigaran — there are already around 40 people.
A woman who just arrived begins to cry. “I can’t be, Lord Jesus…” At the same time, a young man around 17 years old also cries. She says: “Why Lord? Why Looooorrrrrd!” People approach to calm her down. “My nephew, my God…” The young man cries silently, as machismo dictates. She cries: “Looooorrrrd, Looooorrrd.” Someone says: ‘The motorcycle is still running, huh?’ And it is. Amidst the yells and murmurs and sobs you can hear, from the other side of the canyon, the purr of the engine and even the music. The woman faints. People call to her: Mercedes! Mercedes! They lay her out on the ground. A police officer approaches. “Calm down. Calm down.” Murmurs arise from the crowd. They fan her with a sweater. “I need you to work with me, ma’am.” Someone says she needs to be taken to the hospital. She comes around enough to move her head. ‘God is going to give them strength,’ someone says. ‘This country is fucked,’ says someone else. Someone offers their car to transport her. “Let’s get up, ma’am? Slowly.” With the help of several people we lift her up. “We are not going to carry you, but go slow.” Another murmur from the crowd. “Straighten your legs,” they tell her. She seems to be recovering. They try to tell her that she is not going to be able to see Victor, that the police will not let her go past the metal barricade.
Tomorrow all the motorcycle taxi drivers who work for the cooperative Victor worked for will have messages on their windshields that they will remember forever and things like that, but for now night falls and the forensics team has not arrived. It is all anger, mistrust and suspicion. His colleagues are convinced they killed because he drove a motorcycle taxi, not because he was Victor Sigaran. It could have been any of them.
They tell me that cooperative of drivers had received written threats and telephone threats from gangs, asking them to pay fees. They think it is the gang that operates in Mercedes Umana, the Mara Salvatrucha gang. But they have refused. Amongst the employees they had put in place some precarious safety measure, like not picking up strangers and avoiding the most remote neighborhoods.
Today Berlin does seem like El Salvador.
A big German flag attached to a six-foot flagpole marks the office of Jesus Antonio Cortez Mendoza, the mayor of Berlin. He is relatively young — he looks like he could be in his 30s — and just took over his position a month ago, but previously worked as a representative.
Mayor Jesus Cortez also oozes satisfaction from the fact that he lives in a city without gangs. He does not hide the current situation. With a government that has decided to confront the problem of gangs strictly with force, it could affect them by causing people to return from Apopa, from Soyapango, from San Miguel.
“We have some neighborhoods,” he says, “that are starting to have problems, with young people … shall we say … who are fans of gangs. Our youth is always in danger of being contaminated by people who come from other towns.”
Contaminated, he says. It is a verb that is repeated by people in Berlin while talking about the gangs. Also ‘virus’. Also ‘scourge’.
“We know we are at risk. Mercedes Umana is seven miles away and Santiago, eight. They are already wanting to collect money from our people. We have already seen what happens when the gangs come in, and that is why we’re educating our young people, the most vulnerable.”
“Work with the young people. That’s something any mayor in any town in El Salvador might say.”
“The advantage we have is that we know who are neighbors are and what they are doing. The people are united.”
The people are united, says Mayor Jesus Cortez. It may be a canned phrase, repeated endlessly by politicians. But maybe not. Maybe an idea that simple is the key to everything.
Three months after the murder of Victor Sigaran and, although in El Salvador these are the bloodiest times since the beginning of the century, in Berlin there has only been one more homicide reported: A 55-year-old woman was killed in the neighborhood of San Juan Loma Alta. It does not appear to be gang related.
In a hotel in Bogota, Colombia, I attend a seminar in which one of the speakers is Howard Augusto Cotto, the subdirector of El Salvador’s police department. He speaks with unusual candor about the terrible violence facing El Salvador, and at one point says this: “Our job is much is easier the more social organization we have, and begins much more difficult in place where the social fabric has broken down”. I feel like he is talking about Berlin.
The seminar is a close event. The agreement with Cotto is that what he says here, stays here; but tomorrow I will ask him if he will let me include the sentence I just wrote down in a story about Berlin. Yes, he will say. Later he will tell me that, a few days before, a dozen people from Berlin, headed by Mayor Jesus Cortez, had traveled to San Salvador to meet with him and tell him how satisfied they were with deputy Francisco Perez, and ask that he stay on when his seven months of internship were up.
Berlin is not Germany, no, but it definitely does not seem like El Salvador either.
Roberto Valencia Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard
07 Dec 2015