Rodrigo (Photographer), 25 years of age from San Salvador, El Salvador
I agreed to meet Rodrigo who is also known to his friends as Toto at a march to remember the Archbishop Romero who was shot dead during a mass celebration on the 24th of March of 1980s in San Salvador.
Before we started to get going I asked him the typical questions, how are you? how’s life? just to kick off the conversation.
Rodrigo is a photographer as well as a musician and a devoted protestant christian.
He grew up in a friendly household where his family supported him and allowed him to be free.
As we chatted along my curiosity was placed in knowing why he, unlike many young people in this country, didn’t end up in gangs. Rodrigo said that he was never attracted to them. He notes,
“that stuff never caught my attention actually. I found a refuge in the church which protected me from falling into a negative path. The church has supported me all throughout my life”.
He is aware of the forceful gang recruitment procedure that happens to some kids in certain neighbourhoods. As a matter of fact, he knows the case of one guy in his early 20’s that refused to be part of them, hence, he had to run away from his house not to be seen again. After that, the gang started to intimidate and extort the Mom, forcing her to pay $150 then $200 and finally $300 if she wanted to be left alone. They finally warned her that if they located her son he would be killed.
Rodrigo thinks that the extermination groups, allegedly set by ex-soldiers and police officers are not bringing a solution to end the terrible violence that has shook the nation and made San Salvador fluctuate between the second the third position as the most violent city in the world according to some surveys. He adds, “In the end, gang members are human beings that also suffer and cry. It’s unfair that these extermination groups decide to take these kids lives away, regardless of the fact that they kill other people.
Some time ago, Rodrigo worked at a without a pay. His Mom used to be opposed to the idea that he worked as a photographer since she argued that no money was made by taking pictures but Rodrigo has proved her wrong and little by little he has managed to secure a living.
As a matter of fact, when he joined the newspaper company; he felt very proud of his new job but never showed off about it to his friends as he dislikes the attitude of competition and arrogance.
It’s risky being a photographer he says and adds, “ It’s not easy being a photographer here because anyone can rob your equipment at any point. It’s also tough in the sense that it isn’t t easy to arrive at a crime scene and see a family member cry in front of his/her murdered relative. It’s those situations he has encountered that have made him strive to be a better person every day. He also feels their pain.
On one occasion he was driving alongside a work colleague to locate a homicide scene in order to carry out an assignment. When they arrived at the community, a gang member forced them to stop, flashed a gun that was tucked inside his trousers and asked them why they were there. The gang member explained that they had nothing against journalists but that nothing had happened there so they had to leave.
In terms of his goals in life, he means to set up in the future a small photography school for kids from low income families to teach them how to see the world in a different way. He wished that photography would provide them with a vision for their future. “ I would prefer a million times more to see kids carrying cameras than guns”.
Overall he isn’t scared of speaking out against the State nor is he worried on whether police would try and mess with him as he sees it highly unlikely to happen. What he does fear, like most Salvadorans, is about speaking against gangs.
With regards to human rights, I ask him to give me his opinion on that topic, “It’s a very difficult one actually. I don’t believe that human rights actually exist in the country. Just check the case of Monseñor Romero, more than 36 years have gone past and impunity still prevails.
On a final note he adds that perseverance will help him to improve as a photographer and artist, “ I don’t regard myself as the best photographer but if I applying patience and perseverance to what I do, I shall slowly get better at my profession and will become a more humble human being too…
I recently had the opportunity to meet with a police officer in San Salvador who gave me a brief insight into his life as a police officer, the adversities the corporation goes through on a daily basis and his general perspective on life in El salvador.
Before Carlos ( not his real name ) became a police officer he worked as a cleaner. His parents opposed the idea that he became a police man, although for a long time he wished to join the forces and embrace the profession with passion ever since.
I immediately open up the conversation on the subject of gangs in El salvador, which is a hot topic here. Most crimes that occur in this nation are attributed either to the MS 13 or to the 18th St. gang.
Carlos informs me that there has been an increase in female homicides in recent weeks, many of which are allegedly related to the gang wars.
So far in San Salvador I have heard of over 20 female homicides in 3 weeks, a shocking figure indeed. In fact, as I was chasing pictures yesterday night, a friend of mine informed me that already 5 female murders had taken place, and that is not adding the male murders that occurred.
Carlos reveals that in most cases, women in gang-controlled communities end up in the hands of these groups who can dispose of them whenever they want. Gangs have no respect for human life nor age, so for example, when you become a part of a group you must follow the orders or else you will be severely punished.
It’s pretty common to live in an area controlled by one of the two main gangs though in Carlos’s case, his neighbourhood is controlled by a narco group. He actually prefers to have that rather than the MS or 18 st. because narcos don’t interfere with peoples lives, all they care about is in making money and mind their own business.
Carlos assures me that no gangs operate in the area where he works, although on my way to the police station I noticed a few gang signs on the walls.
On a side note, Carlos disclosed to me that he once saw the previous head of the police station where he currently works meeting up with one of the drug leaders from his local area. He never found out why they had both met behind closed doors at the police station…after that, doubts about the credibility of his previous boss emerged…
As we jump back on to talking about the police policy to tackle crime, Carlos tells me that the force should not be undertaking prevention tasks to tackle criminals. ‘The reason why a staggering amount of police officers have died is because we don’t have authorisation to act aggressively against gang groups’, he comments. Last year a shocking figure of around 46 police officers and 22 soldiers were killed in confrontation with criminals or while they were off duty.
Carlos argues that an element that obstructs the police work is the fact that they need to look after the human rights of each gang member every time they confront them. He also sustains that police repression is the only way forward to correct this society. ‘As soon as the police assume control once again, we could gradually move back to applying a preventative policy but for now repression is the only way forward’, he adds.
I can hear a fair bit of anger and frustration in his words when he talks about his job. Carlos tells me that the main reason he feels that way is because he has to follow top official’s orders to undertake his police duties but that is not the way to act. Nevertheless, his anger against gang members has forced him to keep proceeding in a repressive way to combat the problem. If he needs to kill a gang member he will do it with no remorse and will show no pity towards him/her.
He tells me that a fellow parent of his once forgave a gang member’s life and let him live. As time passed on, the gang bumped into the police officer and shot him dead. For that reason he will kill if the opportunity turns up.
Carlos confesses that he has a young cousin who belongs to the 18 st. He is opposed to his cousin’s involvement in the group though there is nothing he can do to correct change his ways. Carlos is also of the belief that change is not possible in peoples lives. In other words, he has no hope in positive change…
After I hear him mention that he is willing to kill a gang member no matter what, I ask him if he would be willing to kill his own cousin and he responds that if he had to kill his cousin for a mistake he made he would do it without pity, regardless of whether he is family or not.
He feels powerless that he could not do anything to avoid the murder of his friend and police partner Yamileth, the first female officer to be killed by the 18 st. gang in El Salvador in 2015 on her way to the shop.
I am curious to know why Carlos never ended up involved in gangs. He explains that he was never interested in drugs and he always held a strong passion for football. His Mom and Dad were role models in his life and imposed a set of rigid rules while he was young. They provided him with love and understanding. Those are the reasons I did not end up in gangs, ‘Carlos says’…
I finalise our conversation asking him for the definition of a few concepts.
‘Optimism’ to him means being positive, to try and accomplish your dreams. ‘Family’ is everything that one fights for to keep going in life, ‘politics’ is nothing but corruption, people that live off of the rest. “Freedom’ means to be independent though nobody can be totally free.
I thanked him for his time and asked him what the best way to get to the bus was. On the way out I noticed a young person standing right by a lamp post. I did not think anything of it but as he saw me, he started to intimidate me by shouting, ‘gringo, get the fuck out of here’ several times. I then turned towards a wall and spotted another 18 st. mark on the wall. I carried on walking until I found my way to the bus…
Daniela, 29 years of age from Soyapango, El Salvador
I recently had the opportunity to meet up with Daniela who lives in Soyapango, a municipality just outside San Salvador.
Such area is known as one of the most highly populated areas of the country, where delinquent groups control most of the territory and inhabitants of the area live under constant threats.
Daniela has lived there all her life and even though the place is highly dangerous for anyone, it’s certainly much more for a person like her. When I ask her if she has considered moving elsewhere she responds that there is no point in moving to another part of the city as it could complicate things more. People already know her in her community which makes it ‘safer’ in some respects.
People in El salvador must be very careful where they go, what they see or what they say due to the gangs which are constantly monitoring people’s lives. There are unwritten rules that dictate for instance where one can go and where not to be. If one step into the wrong neighbourhood it can mean the end of someones life, and that is said with no exaggeration whatsoever. Due to such reason, Daniela takes many security measures before leaving her home and when she returns.
A typical day in her life is to go from her house to University and back. She must make sure that she gets home before 6pm as that is when things can get a little more violent; she also avoids leaving her house after 6pm.
When she walks towards the bus to University, she quite often gets insulted and worries that one day it could lead to physical violence.
She is currently in her 3rd year of a 5 year degree in educational healthcare at the National University of San Salvador.
As we are chatting, I suddenly think to myself how hard it must have been for her to get to where she is today. Having been able to finish her basic education, knowing of all the obstacles that it involves, Daniella proves much courage, determination and passion, qualities that not every person carries along.
One of the few areas where she actually feels safe and free to hang around is at the University campus. Having said that, she has also been discriminated due to her sexual preferences. She has received threats and insults from students and staff. She has been threatened with a knife once by a member of staff, she has been spat at, etc…
Nevertheless, she remains strong and sticks to her beliefs in that she is confident that by working very hard, one day she will be able to change things for her community. Besides the adversities, a few things have been gained along the way like the fact that she is now recognised as a woman in certain departments of the institution but the work carries on.
Throughout her long standing battle as an activist seeking justice, due to discrimination against her she has filed around 300 complains so far at the attorney generals office. Daniella is determined not to stop until her rights are fully respected and protected by the law.
As we chat I suddenly touch on the topic of prostitution and wish to find out why Daniela did not end up immersed in that life like most transexual women who do. She explains to me that due to a lack of love, understanding and education, transexual women recur to working as prostitutes to earn a living as it’s the ‘easier’ way out of poverty. In her case, she didn’t get trapped into that world thanks to the love that her parents have given her. The most important things for her family is to see Daniela succeed in her career and be happy.
I am interesting in knowing if, besides the fear that is generated regarding criminal groups that operate in the country, she has any worries of being hurt, disappeared of killed by the State due to her daily activism. She responds that she is worried, as the government is pretty corrupt and her complaints are hardly ever investigated. Notwithstanding, she is adamant to carry on with her struggle and will not allow any intimidations or harassment by anybody..
I shift the conversation towards asking what ‘freedom’ means to her which she responds that it is being authentic, being true to yourself. It also symbolised tranquility and behaving optimistically towards life.
Daniela portrays herself to me as an independent person who transmits strength, who is not scared of what she does in life or who she is, on the contrary, she is proud of herself in all senses.
She defines the concept of family as love. It’s a group of people who will be there to support you no matter what.
I had the urge to know her impressions about religion knowing that it has acted traditionally as an agent that condemns sexual diversity as demonic and whatnot. Daniela tells me that religion to her means superficiality, it is something relative that is not so important. People in her community are highly religious, yet they are the ones who have discriminated her mostly. Religion destroys life and breeds hatred as far as she is concerned.
Another interesting element to denote regarding peoples perception on human rights in El Salvador is that such basic elements obstruct a process of peace. They think that the police cannot properly work to eradicate violence if human rights are applied to protect criminals all the time.
Human rights to Daniela is just a concept, it doesn’t have value. In several ocassions she has been denied the protection of her rights from the State. She argues that the attorney general’s office is the institution that least has respect of people’s human rights, especially those of the LGBTI community.
Due to the violence that has spread throughout the country over many decades, people have normalised the situation. Daniela says that she would love to become a promoter for social change.
She is happy with who she is today. She has changed what made her feel unhappy in the past and finally feels free…
Lastly, I ask her what is her own definition of ‘love’. She responds that it means satisfaction, passion, caring, understanding. She finds love in her family and her friends though she agrees that at times it’s difficult to find it.
I boarded a bus last week in order to head over to the Soyapango district to search for more clues for the work I am doing. The bus was jam packed of course as it was peak hours. Right beside me I had a police officer carrying a large rifle like the one shown in the picture. It’s normal to see all sorts of police units and the military to carry weapons at all times as a result of the high levels of insecurity in the country.
After a few minutes I started to feel something pressing against the lower part of my leg, just below my knee. I looked down and it was the head of the assault rifle the police officer was handling.
I believe it’s the first time I ever feel a gun being pointed at me, though this time it was unwittingly, luckily . I thought, ‘what the fuck!!’ What if the police officer shoots the rifle by mistake? It was pretty shocking to be honest…
As I was hanging out in the heart of San Salvador the other week I noticed many people resting around the plaza. Some were enjoying a little rest from the intense heat while others were selling food or coffee, and so on and so forth. I briefly spoke to a man who told me that he used to live in Mexico. He loved it there and said that Mexico offered many more opportunities than over here. He is now planning to go back there to improve his life since El salvador is quite unsafe and hardly any opportunities exist. Another man selling coffee told me that he is married to a Mexican lady from Atlacomulco. Both men shared the opinion that Mexico is a place with more chances to succeed and they will both be migrating to Mexico quite soon.
After my quick chat with both of them I noticed another man further down. He was a religious devotee, passionately reading chapters from the bible and explaining them to passersby, etc.
I stuck around to listen and try and understand where he was coming from with his beliefs. I wished to understand this man’s passion. I had to admire the strength and devotion he had when spelling out each sentence in defence of God’s actions. I got the impression that Manuel truly believed in what he was sharing with everyone around the plaza who literally seemed to be ignoring him.
Later on, I approached him and introduced myself. I told him my name and praised him for his hard work under the intense sun. I eventually asked him if he felt disillusioned at the fact that nobody seemed to be paying attention to him. He responded that although it might look that way, people were subconsciously listening, the word of God is seeping into their minds without a doubt he said…
Manuel explained his reasons on why he started to share the word of God with people. He told me that he was close to dying at least 10 times throughout his life. Thanks to the respect he has for God is that he is still standing straight. Although this is not a job he gets paid to do, he is very happy to spare a few hours of his time on the weekends etc… to making this world a better place.
Apart from being a dedicated religious devotee, he works as a bricklayer most days for a living and to provide food for his family. As we kept speaking, my nose perceived the fresh and pleasant perfume aroma he was wearing. Subsequently that projected a perception to me that Manuel is a person that cares about himself and likes to feel proud of who he is.
Without wanting to manipulated any uncomfortable topics, he touches on the feeling of insecurity in this country. Manuel recalls an episode when used to travel to a community in the outskirts of the city without permission of the gang that operates there. One day, the gang approached him and warned him not to come back as he was unwelcome. A gang warning in any area of this country could mean that if you break the rule the chances of being killed are very high.
Regardless of the waring, he decided to return to the community since he had a mission with god and he could not let him down. Manuel was inside a house when a sudden knock on the door occurred. Some members of the gang group had located him and were interested in finding out more about who Manuel was. They were basically investigating him in order to either grant him full permission to the community or something else…
Finally, the gang was able to check on Manuel’s legitimacy regarding his relationship towards God so they let him come back.
After that anecdote I could notice how Manuel’s eyes drifted in different directions. I identified that he was getting a little anxious or nervous. A man who was sat behind me was looking in Manuel direction. Such man was taking pictures with his phone and I immediately felt a little uneasy with the situation. It must be mentioned that a common thing for gangs in various parts of the city is to have ‘postes’ (informants) placed in areas in order to notify them of any strange activity. The level of fear and paranoia that exists in this country as a result of the violence makes many people feel this way and I don’t blame them at all.
Manuel decided to say goodbye to me and walked off…