“El Negro”: “We are part of the solution”

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My third post about gang-members, in honour of their battle for peace, and recently celebrated 2nd anniversary for the truce, is on Guillermo, or “El Negro”, whom I met exactly a year ago (Read the previous posts here and here).

The gangs now need more encouragement than ever. The future of the truce hangs by a thread. Murder and violence started going up a year ago, when Minister for Security, Ricardo Perdomo, was appointed. In April this year murders were on almost the same level as before the truce of 2012. Gang-members have recently even been involved in killing police-officers, something they had committed themselves not to do as part of the peaceprocess.

The gangs, and the peace-mediators – Raúl Mijango, the guerilla-leader, and Fabio Colindres, the military chaplain – mainly blame the Minister for Security for this. Perdomo has since the very beginning opposed the truce creating obstacles by not letting gang leaders meet and interact, and has also hindered contact between the mediators and the gangs. Communication was also limited in the sense that journalists weren´t any longer allowed into the prisons.

I just made it. Shortly before Perdomo came into power, I visited the Chalatenango prison, in northern El Salvador, the 8th of May 2013.

In MS-land
“Welcome to MS-land,” says a sign at the entrance to the prison, and on the wall in the courtyard  MS is painted in foot-high letters.

The prison is exclusively for members of the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha 13). The government’s heavy-handed attempt to curb gang violence through the so-called La Mano Dura policy led to overcrowded prisons, where members of different gangs literally were killing each other. To avoid civil war-like conditions inside the walls, the authorities separated the gangs and placed the groups in prisons of their own.

But new instalments weren´t established, and the Chalatenango prison, which has capacity for 400 prisoners, now houses 1,256 . In all, the prison system has capacity for 8,300 prisoners, but in 2012, 27,000 people were cooped up. It is even worse with the detention centres that have the capacity for 600, but 3,400 waiting for a verdict. Here people in many cases are confined in small cages.

In MS-land, from the small, dark cells, many pairs of dark eyes look out from shaved heads, tattoos dance across faces and bare torsos in the shadows. I try to talk to a couple of the prisoners. But the conversations are brief, and they turn away when I take out the camera.

Out in the courtyard the bright light dazzles me. Some prisoners are busy with their girl-friends – the truce has brought along concessions regarding visitors. Others are just hanging out. A small group is busy with mural paintings. Roses. They are beautifying the prison up to Mother´s Day. There are some well-tended, seemingly newly planted plants.  I exchange a few words with some guys. The information is rather scarce, though.

Knowing your rights
Then a young man comes up to me. He has friendly and lively eyes under a bandana and a cap.

– Can I help you with something?

Without waiting for an answer, he starts talking to me.

He, Guillermo, or “El Negro”,   is 28 years old and sentenced to 20 years for extortion. That’s twice of what a non- gang member would get for the same crime, according to the anti-gang-law. His son, four years old , was born when  Guillermo was  in prison. The mother and son visit him about once a month – if they are able to. Because there is not always enough staff to handle the guests. And if somebody gets ill, there are not enough guards to accompany the patient to the clinic.

– Being able to receive guests, or visit the clinic may sound like small things, but it means a lot to us, says Guillermo.

The prisoners were promised education and training, but so far they have not received anything, which Guillermo thinks they have the legal right to.

– And it doesn´t help having good behaviour or an unblemished record, he adds.

Guillermo, who is one of the few prisoners who has completed high school, dreamt about continuing at university. But he couldn´t afford it. In prison he has considered studying law:

– To understand our rights and obligations better. The system often exploits those who don´t know their rights, he explains.

Bridge to the outer world
But the opportunity is not offered, and Guillermo wouldn´t have much time to study anyway. He belongs to the prison´s 4 or 5 internal leaders. They coordinate visits from the outside, communicate with the prison director and try to make sure that everything is done within the ” limits of normality”, as he puts it:
– I am the mediator between the prisoners and the outside world so that people better can understand how we live, he explains. (And that can also explain why he walked up to me, I think!).
– And in this is the best way for me to help  my brotheres, he continues, smiling.

Part of his work is also to coordinate the painting of the murals, for instance:
-We fix almost all infrastructure, repair damages, paint, and we ourselves finance most of it.

Double punishment
Because improving the prison conditions is necessary:
-We are squeezed completely together here, the conditions are not suitable for humans. During the rainy season the whole thing collapses, he explains.

But the conditions have improved after the truce. According to Guillermo the best part was that the military, which previously operated inside the prisons, were removed:

-They violated the human rights all the time, it was unbearable.

Guillermo hopes that the truce will lead to the improvement of prisoners’ rights, changed laws and more lenient penalties. If you are convicted under the anti- gang law, introduced by President Mauricio Funes in 2010 , the sentence is twice as high compared to the general criminal law.
– I am aware of the fact that I made a mistake and I’m paying for it; therefore, I am in jail. I don´t ask to be freed, but I would like a little more merciful punishment, says Guillermo, who still has 16 years left on his sentence for blackmail.

Part of the solution

– As gang members we’re marginalized and don´t count as real people, he considers.

– And as marginalized you become frustrated and lose the ability to look ahead, he continues.

He wishes that the world got more confidence in him and his comrades:

-Think more of us as human beings, we can contribute of the solution, do great things that not only help El Salvador, but also other countries.

Guillermo didn´t want to have his picture taken and does not figure among the photos above.

See a Danish version of the interview here.

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