SAN SALVADOR —It is difficult for there to be someone in El Salvador who does not know what La Campanera is. Not because everyone has ever been there, but because the newspapers or documentaries have left nothing to the imagination when they spoke of that community as an emblematic place of the Barrio 18.
It is January 30, 2023. El Salvador has been living a exception regime that began after the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs murdered 87 Salvadorans in one weekend.
A few years ago it was unthinkable that El Salvador would stop being one of the most violent countries in the world. Today, with a rate of 7.8 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2022 it is among the countries with the least homicidal violence in the Americas.
La Campanera lives it like this. In its narrow alleyways you can no longer see the ‘postes’ —which in the gang’s jargon means people who keep watch. Nor are there young people running from the police or walls with messages of devotion to the neighborhood. La Campanera is militarized.
The colony is located in the municipality of Soyapango, the second most populous city in El Salvador and the second city surrounded by the exception regime. That someone who does not live in La Campanera can enter has become possible because of this.
While the military checks the documents and cell phone of a middle-aged man, I approach one of the neighborhoods that for years was the home of Ernesto Mojica Lechuga or ‘El Viejo Lyn’ as the gang calls the national leader of Barrio 18 in El Salvador.
La Campanera has also carried the label of violence left by the documentary Crazy lifewhose Franco-Spanish director Christian Poveda died from the bullets of members of the neighborhood that he portrayed one day.
Entering La Campanera is like entering a hole. The main street has a slight descent towards the 958 houses distributed in long and narrow passages. You enter and exit through the same street. Before, the gang members who inhabited the neighborhood had other methods to get out of it, such as crossing the ravine at the end of the street to reach neighboring communities.
“That ravine is a clandestine cemetery,” says a policeman. In the distance, the screams of a woman greeting him can be heard. She is Griselda. She is 51 years old and has lived in La Campanera for 22 years. “For my sake, let the regime stay like this,” she says as she tells the officer that a slice of bananas was stolen from her. “Although you may not believe it, before he couldn’t even be here being the authority,” she says, pointing to the officer. “If the military or the police leave, they scour us. We find comfort in that they are here, ”she adds.
As of January 30, the government of El Salvador had captured 62,975 people accused of being gang members. The government says it is missing. That there are at least 118,000 enfilades in the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, and that it will continue to extend the emergency regime until they are all captured.
The gang members seem to have left La Campanera in those raids and, with them, their symbols. The walls of some houses replaced the Barrio 18 messages with verses from the Bible. There are also artistic murals. And the abandoned houses that were full of leaves and garbage begin to have another aspect.
Lorena has lived in La Campanera for 15 years. And although she may have gotten used to hearing the footsteps of gang members on the roof of her house at midnight, she couldn’t assimilate that she couldn’t see her family because the ‘boys’ —as she calls gang members – they prevented it.
“Before, I couldn’t go see my family because they live where there is MS,” she says shyly. “Today it is calmer. I’m going to see it even though I don’t know how long this is going to last,” she adds.
The work of the police and the Armed Forces in El Salvador is applauded by some and censured by others. In the midst of denunciations of human rights violations and arbitrary arrests, the government destroys the gangs that have been entrenched for years in the neighborhoods of El Salvador.
“Here we are in what used to be their bakery…”, says a policeman who was on duty that day at the La Campanera police station. The bakery he refers to appears countless times in the documentary Crazy life. In 2008, the gang was looking to show their social side by working on it; but after being arrested one by one, the project died, and the bakery ceased to be a bakery and became a ‘destroyer house’ —a place where the gangs plan or carry out their crimes.
“My partner Víctor Nolasco was killed here in 2017,” adds the policeman. For whom the fact that this place is now the police station is a triumph.
But not only in that house was murdered. ‘The intermediates’, as they call spaces with rusty swings and cement slides in the middle of the passages, were also crime venues.
“When they caught a person, they took him there to beat him, beat him, and sometimes kill him before throwing him into the ravine. See today. There is no one who dares to do it again, ”the policeman says as he goes through the intermission.
On the way back, a boy of about 10 years old approaches with a warm greeting.
– Hello!, he says.
– And where do you live?, the policeman asks him without answering the greeting.
– Back here. Do you want a cool (drink)? The policeman smiles at him.
– The people here are already more empathic with the uniformed man, he says.
Pedro, 71, crosses the main street with a bag of brooms and plastic. He is a street vendor. “He’s already pretty here,” he says as a Pizza Hut motorcycle delivers an order. “There is a big difference now that there are police officers. I have been able to enter to sell ”, he adds. As he, about ten people confirmed to the voice of america the new reality in place.
The stigma of La Campanera is not easily erased. But life goes on… and within the community you can see women making corn tortillas for the day’s lunch. The children are already leaving school without there being a death around the corner. The men improvise mechanical workshops in the entrance of their houses.
La Campanera is almost the same as a few years ago. The difference is that today, instead of the boys, there are policemen.
(The real names of the inhabitants have been changed for security reasons)
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