SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A greasy 12-piece combo of fried chicken isn't always the smartest menu choice. But in this case, the double Promoción Súper Campero was all about preserving my health.
I was cabbing across San Salvador cradling two soggy-bottom boxes of chicken parts to make a prandial offering to the leaders of the Pandilla 18, one of El Salvador's two main gangs. I was told not to come empty-handed.
"We always start every round of peace talks by eating Pollo Campero," Salvadoran gang whisperer Raul Mijango told me after arranging the interview. "So bring eight pieces of chicken."
I brought 12. Plus a sizable side of soddened fries and 2 liters of Pepsi.
I was on a mission to talk to gang leaders about their country's spiking murder rate. El Salvador is lurching towards its worst levels of violence in decades. The gang truce that momentarily quieted the guns in 2012-'13 is now a fading memory as the army launches an aggressive military offensive with three new rapid response battalions.
The country's murder rate in the past few months has reached levels not seen in El Salvador since the darkest days of the country's civil war, which claimed 75,000 lives between 1980-1992.
For a country that fought so hard to implement an institutionalized peace process 25 years ago, the government's addlepated rush to find a military solution to the gang problem is baffling. It's even more befuddling when you think that the ruling FMLN came to power democratically, thanks precisely to the gains of El Salvador's peace process.
Violence is nothing new in Central America. But it's a worsening condition in the so-called "northern triangle," which has been bleeding people as fast as it can breed them. Nearly one in ten Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans has emigrated in recent years, according to government numbers. Most beat a path more or less directly to the United States, where President Barack Obama was forced to take executive action last year to respond to what he called an "urgent humanitarian situation" on the border.
Some people fear another exodus is in the works as El Salvador gears up for a fight unlike anything Central America has seen in a long time.
March was the country's bloodiest month on the books, notching 481 murders — a ghoulish feat in a country the size of Massachusetts. May is on pace to surpass that record. In short, Salvadorans are killing each other with a greater zeal than ever before.
"If this trend doesn't change, we could easily get to 100 deaths per day," said Mijango, whose former life as an FMLN guerrilla commander helped him win cred as a gang mediator. "This is much more complicated than the phenomenon of armed insurrection during the '80s and the beginning of the 90s. During the armed conflict, the military structure of the FMLN didn't even total 15,000 fighters. Now the gangs have close 70,000 members, and with a support network of more than half a million Salvadorans."
In short, he said, there aren't enough jails to hold all those gang members. And there's way too many people involved in the mess for the government to consider shooting it's way out of trouble. The only real solution, Mijango stressed, has got to be negotiated at the table, not settled in the streets.
That's what I wanted to talk to the gangsters about over lunch.
Oh shit, I forgot the coleslaw
When I arrived at Mijango's office for my gangsta picnic, I started to wonder if we were going to have some uninvited guests.
There were two white-helmeted, machine-gun toting Salvadoran soldiers standing outside Mijango's front door, looking like they had just stepped out of 1974.
I dutifully reported the situation to Mijango, wondering — a bit naively — if I wasn't being used as a Judas goat to lure the Pandilla 18 into a trap. Mijango assured me the militarization of his neighborhood is normal, but ordered his caretaker to go open the front gate so the pandilleros could enter the building without breaking stride.
Ultimately, only one gang leader showed up for my chicken giveaway. We'll call him "Santiago," because he warned me not to use his real name (which, incidentally, is not Santiago).
"This didn't come with a salad?" Santiago sniffed, looking at the greasy spread of poultry remains and listless fries that I had arranged lovingly in a heap on ceramic plates.
I looked inside the tattered remains of the Pollo Campero paper bag, knowing I had forgotten the coleslaw. I offered an apologetic shrug — the kind that makes everything better.
Luckily, Santiago came prepared. He pulled out a green, squash-sized fruit that he identified by an unfamiliar name that I forgot instantly, and deftly halved it with a knife. It tasted like the product of a brief romance between an avocado and an artichoke. I ate it gratefully.
I liked Santiago immediately. The 32-year-old gang spokesman was eloquent, clear-eyed, well-read, charismatic, and a good man to have at a saladless luncheon. He's part of the new easy-blend generation of gangsters who don't wear their ink like a tribal war mask, but hide tats under a shirt like businessmen.
For several years, Santiago's business has been that of peacemaker among the gangs. But recently business has been bad. The 2012 gang truce negotiated between the Pandilla 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) came unglued sometime around May 2013, when the government appointed a new minister of security who didn't share his predecessor's enthusiasm for a negotiated peace.
The new minister blocked the gang mediators from entering the jails and then suspended the meetings between the "ranflas" — or top gang leaders of the Pandilla 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, all of whom are behind bars. Despite the hurdles, the gang truce limped into 2014 hamstrung by restrictions to the flow of communication between the prisons and the streets.
The government felt that the gang mediations had foolishly given the incarcerated gang leaders too many privileges and too much power, allowing the ranflas to strengthen their vertical command structure and bolster their criminal empires from behind bars.
But former gang mediator Paolo Luers says the government's decision to change tack was mostly an electoral calculation. The ruling FMLN, Luers says, was trying to defang the opposition's campaign criticism by "blocking and delegitimizing" its own gang truce and getting tough on crime.
El Salvador's rightwing opposition has long been suspicious of the former guerrilla party's perceived ties to the gangs. To assuage those concerns, the FMLN went to extremes to distance itself from the gangs by taking an iron-fist approach to dealing with the problem. In doing so, says Luers, the FMLN has "become more rightwing than the rightwing itself."
Though the gang members initially cheered the FMLN's 2009 electoral victory as a win for their brothers from another mother, the bloom faded quickly as the former revolutionaries stepped confidently into their new role as "The Man." After initially supporting the gang truce in 2012, the FMLN started to turn the screws on the gangs with a series of reforms intended to break the gangs.
"We, as the gang, felt we could identify with the Frente (FMLN) before they came to power. And when they became the government, we said: 'Hey! sonovabitch stud, the Frente won!" Santiago said. "We thought, Now things are going to be different, because in their struggle for power they too extorted people, and kidnapped people, killed people and stole. And, stud, now they are in power and they understand why many times people commit errors. Shit, they understand why people screw up sometimes. And they are going to understand us, man. ARENA (the rightwing former government) never understood us because they were born in cribs of gold. They never understood us, but these guys will understand us.
"At least we thought they would. Now we understand they didn’t understand us. They didn’t want to understand us."
The real issue, Santiago claims, is that the FMLN grew jealous of the gangs' nascent efforts to identify more with the poor and downtrodden — a population the FMLN claims as its own. But once the FMLN took control of the government, they started to lose touch with the poor, and didn't want the gangs moving in on their turf, Santiago claims.
"The government doesn’t want to allow any situation for the gangs to change their strategies and their logic. You know why? Because for 12 years the Fente was against the state. And during that time the poor, the unprotected, the marginalized, the humble identified with them."
But when the Frente become the government, he says, they could no longer play the role of establishment and opposition.
"When you use a $15,000 watch and when you put on a suit that costs $3,000-$4,000, you stop being the voice of the poor. Period. It’s that simple," Santiago says.
The FMLN’s move to government left a vacuum in the neighborhoods. And it was a space the gangs were starting to move into thanks to the truce, which helped the gangs evolve from warmongers to peacemakers, Santiago says.
Santiago says the Pandilla 18 started to embrace its new role, and even organized a Christmas gift handout, using some of its extortion war chest to buy presents for neighborhood kids — the gangster version of a tax refund on the "war tax." The ruling party didn't appreciate the gang's amateur populism.
Earlier this year, the FMLN government went fully on the offensive. It announced a new campaign to regain control of the prisons and break the gangs' extortion rackets. In April the government moved the ranflas back to a maximum-security prison where they're now held incommunicado. And this month the army rolled out its new rapid response anti-gang battalions, launching an aggressive crackdown that Santiago likens to "social cleansing."
El Salvador's ministry of security did not respond to my repeated requests for an interview.
Now, the voices for peace are having a hard time shouting over the "drums of war," Santiago says. The gangs feel trapped and that will-o'-the-wispish promise of peace in 2012 is dimming in the rearview mirror in the march to war.
"How can I tell people not to defend themselves, and to let someone kill them because if they defend themselves the media will spin that against us?" Santiago demanded.
I reminded him that I brought flan, and we made excited dessert preparations.
Will a super gang cometh?
One of the scariest possibilities of the government's offensive against the gangs is that the Pandilla 18 and the Salvatrucha will merge together to form a super gang. Well, sorta.
The formal unification of the gangs' command structures is highly unlikely. The two pandillas, both of which can trace their origins to the streets of LA, are already splintered into hundreds of cells — known as "cliques"—and are part of an international franchise. The Pandilla 18 is, in reality, two separate gangs in El Salvador, The Sureños and Los Revolucionarios.
Still, Mijango says it's not unreasonable to think the myriad gangs of different stripes could start coordinating on an operational level now that the government has all of them cornered.
The gang-on-gang violence is already diminishing amid the surge of state-on-gang violence, according to Santiago and the gang mediators. In recent weeks, gangs have attacked police posts and soldiers—sometimes with grenades — in retaliation for deadly raids on their neighborhoods.
Strangely enough, the violence in El Salvador is starting to look more like the asymmetrical, low-intensity warfare of the past, only without the ideological trappings of the cold war-era.
"Now we have a problem between the gangs and the state. And I think the more the state attacks the gangs, the more they are going to be forced to unite," Mijango said. "It's a simple strategy — the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Plus, Mijango says, the gang truce of 2012 opened new channels of communication between the gangs. And that's something that never existed before. Santiago confirms that he's regularly in touch with other street-level gang leaders, and with a quick phone call can verify who's responsible for what attacks, and when the government is lying by assigning false blame on rival gangs.
Santiago says he doesn't think the gang unification process will go beyond the current level of communication, but admits he can't explain who's behind a mysterious video published last month by a group that claims to be a united super gang of Salvatrucha and Pandilla 18 members. The armed, masked men in the video call for the release of of the ranflas held in the maximum security prison Zacatecoluca.
"We are ready for dialogue or war," the alleged "Pandillas Unidas" gang leader says on the video. "Dialogue or lead, you, the leaders of the country, must decide," the self-styled gang leader concluded, before misquoting Che Guevara.
Santiago thinks it's a fake made to confuse the public and justify a ramped-up military offensive. But his reason for dismissing the video seems a little flimsy (not that I'd say so to his face).
"We're not that good at social media," he said. "That's something we need to work on."
If the rumors of a super gang are true or not, El Salvador appears to be approaching a crucial crossroads — one that will determine its future for many years to come. One path could lead to a tragic escalation of violence, while the other path …well, leads to fried chicken. The gangs says they're ready to talk peace, if the government brings the drumsticks.
P.S. Don't forget the coleslaw.