Last Sunday, now a week and a half ago, a public microbus was taken hostage by alleged gang members and diverted from its route. As he pulled to a stop, the driver was shot and killed. All those aboard were threatened—“no one moves”—as the bus was doused with gasoline, the door was locked, and a match was lit. The bus, with over thirty passengers inside, was quickly in flames, those trapped inside literally burning to death. Anyone who tried to escape by breaking through a window was shot. Sixteen people have died, the remaining fifteen hospitalized with varying degrees of burns, some in comas.
I read today about a mother who was on the bus with her two children, ages eight and eleven. The three were returning home from a day in el centro, enjoying their Sunday together as a family, when the bus was lit on fire. To save her daughters from burning alive, she tried to break open a bus window with her elbow. The glass wouldn’t give, and in her desperate attempt, she completely shattered her elbow, and, as she kept trying, her arm. She finally broke through, throwing her girls out of the bus one by one. But the threat—no one moves—was serious: the girls were immediately shot at with a 9mm and M16s by assailants surrounding the bus. Miraculously, both girls survived their gunshot wounds, albeit with scars that will last a lifetime. Their mother is in the hospital in a coma; she went unconscious soon after launching her children from the window and was rescued when police arrived at the scene ten minutes after that attack. Her arm was amputated, sacrificed in an attempt to save her loved ones.
This barbaric event has people terrified. Understandably so. A society that already lived in fear of violence, delinquency, crime, youth with tattoos, young men with baggy pants or shaved heads, a society that never recovered from a brutal civil war that took the lives of some 75,000 innocent civilians in brutal ways, is now facing another episode of post-traumatic stress. The vast majority of people in the country depend on public transportation to get around. Before, attempts against public transportation have been aimed solely at drivers and cobradores, the guys that collect fares. Buses have been burned, but only once all passengers have been allowed off. It is hard to imagine the depths to which we can sink; it is hard to imagine what has happened in their lives that led these jóvenes to light a bus-full of civilians—men, women, children, elderly—on fire and shoot at them as they tried to escape.
It is hard, terrifying, to sit with that image. It is impossible to comprehend what people experienced as they faced death, either by burning alive on the bus or by throwing themselves into the gunfire on the other side of the flames.
There are lots of theories, all with merit. One is that this is another act in an escalating gang war for territory in Mejicanos, or in retaliation for the killing of a gang leader, or for rights to charge renta, extortion, of certain bus lines. Another is that this is a terrorist act, designed by the economically and politically powerful of the right to strike fear into the general population and paint the now year-old Funes administration as incapable facing the situation of insecurity and violence in the country, as well as in response to his administration’s efforts to crack down on rampant corruption, including the dismantling of drug bands in the Eastern part of the country with direct ties to high-level police. Names of leaders of the right-wing party are whispered as potential intellectual authors. Another hypothesis is that Mexican or Columbian drug cartels, under pressure from ramped-up US repression, are making their presence felt in El Salvador, marking their territory and instilling fear with acts reminiscent of drug-related violence in Juarez or Cali.
In a country where death is commonplace, where if a loved one isn’t home by a certain time or doesn’t quickly return a phone call, all the worst things—the nightmares—immediately enter your mind, all reasonable concerns, this barbarous act has everyone reeling. Shooting someone, dismembering bodies, leaving faces unrecognizable, raping women to instill fear, leaving bodies along the roadsides in a clear signal that life is not valued pale in comparison.
And all of the potential explanations make “sense:” if the right-wing and death squads could orchestrate El Mozote, where children were shot in cold blood as their mothers screamed for mercy and babies were bayoneted by soldiers, taking the lives of an estimated 800 innocent civilians, burning a bus and taking the lives of 14 people doesn’t seem so far-fetched. If drug cartels in Mexico have taken the lives of over 5000 people in this year alone in ways that make you nearly vomit thinking about and kept a civil war going in Columbia for over four decades—all with the US government’s support, of course—similar violence in El Salvador, a key country along the drug trafficking route and a place where drugs are woven throughout all levels of public office, a couple dozen more victims doesn’t seem a high price for territory. As gang youth are brutalized by police and further marginalized by society, forced into the shadows and painted as the root of all problems in El Salvador, the escalation of violence this year—in which the news started counting the number of massacres carried out beginning in May because there had been so many—may have paved the way for this extreme expression of power and control.
But while we can reason out all of these potential explanations, while they all make sense in our minds—they all likely played some part in this most recent case of horrendous violence—there is no explanation or reason that could potentially put us at ease, satisfy our need to understand, help us grasp the incredible dimensions of this act. One, we will never know the truth. The justice system in El Salvador is far too broken, far too corrupt, far too insufficient and ill-equipped and ill-prepared to solve even the most run-of-the-mill homicide (97% of all homicides go unsolved here). In addition, were any single one of these hypotheses true, the authors behind them would never let the truth be known. So we will never know why these people were so hideously murdered, made to suffer unthinkable horrors before being relieved with death.
But even in the case that the investigators could do their jobs and the truth was uncovered, I don’t believe that there is a reason that could ever suffice, an explanation that would allow us to understand. How could we? How could it be possible to even try to imagine why this happened, how it was possible for a group of human beings to design and carry out such incredible torment and suffering of others?
In response, because we have nothing to hold on to, absolutely no sense of security, safety, justice, normalcy, no way of understanding—on the head or heart level—knee-jerk responses abound. People clamored in the days after the massacre for the death penalty to be reinstated in El Salvador, and the newest right-wing party presented a bill in the Legislative Assembly to amend the constitution, admitting that they had not done the research to know if the death penalty was a good option for El Salvador, but that they were responding to the desires of the population. Funes, the supposed leftist President, asked the Security Department to present a bill declaring gang membership a crime. Asked in a press conference how gang members would be identified, the Vice-Minister of Security said, “the existence of tattoos or other kinds of evidence.”
In 2003, former President Flores passed the Mano Dura law (Iron Fist), which allowed police to sweep up youth who “looked” like they belonged to a gang, throw them in jail, inevitably beat and mistreat them, and then release them 72 hours later when charges failed to be presented. Declared unconstitutional for obvious reasons, a second law, the Super Mano Dura, was put into effect for a number of months before the Flores administration ended. Human rights organizations long criticized these measures as repressive and useless in the fight against violence. A law against illicit association and organized crime passed during the Saca administration (2004-2009) allowed police to pick up people whom they suspected of illicit associations, which in practice meant that three or more young people standing together on a street corner could be detained and taken to jail. Youth throughout the country faced serious repression and police brutality. In a recent article published about life in the Campanera, a neighborhood infamous in El Salvador for violence and gang presence, a mother was quoted as saying, basically, damned if you do, damned if you don’t—if they’re going to harass, abuse, repress, beat you anyways, you might as well join a gang and get some protection. Right?
These are not measures, in my opinion, that can even begin to address the deep-seated problems facing El Salvador. If anything, experience has shown us that responding with violence and repression only worsens the situation—with ramped-up repressive measures and prison construction as the linchpins in security policy, homicides have been on the rise since the end of the war, while prevention programs remain scarce, underfunded, are widely criticized and garner little support from government and civil society, and opportunities for poor, urban youth to improve their lives and earn a living do not exist. Potential solutions, which would involve a myriad of approaches and programs and education and awareness and challenging stereotypes and stigmas and battling corruption and economic incentives and… would be complicated and complex, and if possible, would take a very long time. It is hard to see, if the drug cartels really have entered El Salvador, how they fight can be won. It is hard to see, if the right-wing is involved and continues to employ war-time terrorism against civilians as long as their interests are threatened, how this violence will end. If it is an escalation of gang rivalry, how does it end if there is no leverage in negotiations, if there is nothing to offer, and when life seems to value so little?
I had planned to make my second entry more hopeful, to focus on a story of life and promise. They do exist; they’re everywhere. But they are too often overshadowed in El Salvador by inconceivable, unexplainable, senseless violence. I end with questions, because I have no answers. My only hope is that violence from all actors continues to be opposed, whether it be gang violence, drug violence, economic violence, state repression, police violence, military violence; that we continue to push for and demand government programs that help prevent violence and give youth who want opportunities the space to grow and participate in their communities and society; and that we continue to inspire in each other the hope and the desire to seguir adelante, llenos de amor.