Wednesday, April 04, 2007

El Salvador gangs push drug-fueled violence to record level

Héctor Tobar:

The list of martyred men and women of the cloth in this Central American country includes rural priests, U.S. nuns, Jesuit scholars and an archbishop.

Now, 15 years after the end of a civil war in which many of the religious workers were killed, a new name has been added to the list: a Roman Catholic priest, Father Ricardo Antonio Romero, beaten to death in September just outside this western city of 110,000 people.

Romero, a priest at a Sonsonate church, was one of several Catholic and community activists helping to organize a protest against a wave of violence that has swept through Sonsonate and other cities and towns since 2005.

Killing, extortion and kidnapping have reached record levels throughout El Salvador. U.S. residents with Salvadoran relatives have been roped in, as kidnappers in this country demand thousands of dollars from them as ransom.

"He was a very active person; he liked to organize people," a fellow religious worker said of Romero. The worker asked not to be named because he feared for his safety. "He spoke out against the situation…. They gave him a hit man's death."

Sonsonate and its surrounding province, which have a population of more than 500,000 people, have the nation's highest annual homicide rate: 77 per 100,000 residents, about six times that of Los Angeles in 2005. Once known as a relatively quiet corner of a war-torn country, Sonsonate is the stage for a violent drama that looks like war but lacks clarity as to who is on what side, or why so many people are being killed.

Unlike in the civil war, politics is clearly not behind most of the recent violence here. The violence, analysts and residents say, is the product of the growing power of street gangs and the large amounts of illicit cash and drugs flowing into the city, thanks to El Salvador's role as a way station in the transshipment of cocaine.

There has been no arrest in Romero's death, one of 1,372 homicides in Sonsonate province from January 2003 to September 2006, the last month for which figures are available.

The protest Romero and other priests had worked to organize went forward in October despite his death. But the fear lingers.

"It's hard to see a way out of this situation," said Gilberto Gallegos, a 55-year-old administrator here for the Catholic charity Caritas. "The police are useless, they are contaminated by corruption…. We have seen the loss of values in our society."

To mark the death of popular high school teacher Victor Castañeda last year, hundreds of students held an impromptu march through the streets of Sonsonate, carrying a painted portrait of the educator.

"He was a special person, beloved by many, and his death moved many people," Gallegos said.

But at the Thomas Jefferson Institute, the school where Castañeda taught, one administrator suspects that a group of students killed him.

"We can't discount that those who killed him were students, working as hit men for hire," said the administrator, who also asked not to be named because of security concerns. Castañeda, 37, had been involved in a dispute with another teacher, who was dismissed amid allegations that he had hired students to carry out illegal activities, the administrator said.

With few being prosecuted, scores often are settled, and rivals intimidated, with murder-for-hire schemes. According to one security source in El Salvador's federal government, a contract killing can cost as little as $1,000.

Guadalupe de Castañeda, the late teacher's wife, was standing a few feet from him when he was killed by more than 20 gunshots at a garage where the couple had gone to replace a dead car battery.

"People told me, 'We can't understand why anyone would hate him so much to kill him that way,' " said Guadalupe de Castañeda, who gave birth to the couple's second child six months after her husband was killed. "It's been more than a year, and no one has told us anything."

Police in Sonsonate say Victor Castañeda's killing was probably linked to a criminal gang known as the Baggers. This group — now broken up, police say — was made up of members of the Mara Salvatrucha, a Salvadoran gang founded in Los Angeles.

The Baggers made money protecting drug traffickers and as paid killers, said Juan Mauricio Alfaro Amayo, commissioner of the National Civil Police in Sonsonate.

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