Prince Vlad, a pseudonym the author of this post uses to protect his identity, shares an account of how he interviewed an El Salvadorian gang member after earning his trust, only to learn soon after that his informant had been murdered.
By Prince Vlad
In the first two months of this year, 234 people were murdered in El Salvador. Several dozen young male gang members are among the dead. “Ramón,” whom I interviewed last year, is one of the them.
The unconventional lifestyle of gang members makes them suspicious of strangers, particularly those interested in their lives and their semi-clandestine social groups, which were declared terrorist organizations by the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 2015. I met Ramón through a gang contact who had a strong personal relationship with Ramón, his gang mates, and neighborhood residents. These intimate ties gave Ramón the confidence to meet with me and to record an oral history interview.
Our conversation took place in Ramón’s home, where he would later be killed, and lasted almost an hour. In addition, my gatekeeper and an evangelical pastor were both present throughout the interview. Several gang members stopped by, listened in, and then departed. I interviewed five of these individuals later that day.
I started by asking Ramón about his early childhood. He explained that his mother and father separated when he was young; neither wanted custody. “My dad was with another woman elsewhere, and my mom in Guatemala, who never came back.” “I never had a family,” he said.
Custody of Ramón was awarded to his paternal grandmother, whom he described as “a good Christian” and “advanced in age.” He said, “She gave me a lot of freedom [mucha pita]. I did what I want.” What he wanted was a family. “I never had a family, that is, I never had paternal love.” He described this “as causing you a psychological trauma you feel in loneliness.” Ramón’s grandmother was unable to handle her emotionally troubled grandson.
After learning to read and write, Ramón dropped out of school in fourth grade and began hanging out on the streets. At age thirteen, while hanging out with members of the 18th Street gang, at a neighborhood far from his own, Ramón nearly lost his life when members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang entered the territory of their rivals undetected. A street battle ensued and a grenade was thrown in the direction of Ramón and his friends. “Four friends died. Ten of us were injured. I almost lost my life,” he said.
Ramón’s vagrancy and street lifestyle led his father to place him in the service of the Salvadoran military; he served eighteen months. “And after that I got into drugs, womanizing, gangs and all that,” Ramón explained. He joined the Barrio 18 gang after running into friends of his from this gang while incarcerated for theft. “From there I left for Cojutepeque [prison] and, from there, I started my goings as a gang member.” He was eighteen.
I wanted to explore these lived experiences in-depth but our conversation shifted to more recent events after I asked him about prison life.
When we spoke, tensions between the recently inaugurated administration of Nayib Bukele and the country’s gangs were high. Twenty-three police officers, three soldiers, and a prison worker had been murdered by gang members across parts of the country; a similar number of male gang members, were killed by joint police and military patrol forces.
As he is wont to do, President Bukele responded via Twitter. He declared a state of emergency in the country’s prison and ordered inmates locked in their cells “24/7, nobody leaves for any reason,” reads his tweet. It ended with: “To the gangs: if you want your ‘homies’ to see a ray of light, end the homicides immediately. There is no other negotiation.”
“We didn’t know how [Bukele] was going to react,” said Ramón, “because imagine that fourteen days after becoming president, the deaths of the police began. … The truth, what he brought was a large bar of iron upon us.” Ramón acknowledged he didn’t blame Bukele for his hardline approach; he understood its origins. “[E]verything is part of what we have done,” he said. “We have stolen family of theirs, we have murdered family of theirs, and even them.”
Ramón, however, decried government policies and practices that violated his human rights, such as being arrested for his tattoos. Law enforcement should “not pursue tattoos but pursue the crime,” he bemoamed, “because…if they catch me [doing something], I need to pay for it.” Once incarcerated “I have rights as a human being. But he’s going to put me in jail for a lot of years, and he is going to have me there, that I have no right to anything, like I was not a human being.”
I asked Ramón why his human rights mattered when the gangs had ignored the human rights of the people they had “raped, killed, and extorted.” He deflected my question by mentioning the atrocities committed by the leftist guerrilla forces and the Salvadoran military during the country’s civil war. “Who was the first one to bring extortions here to El Salvador? It was President Sanchez Cerén when he was with the Frente Farabundo Martí.” “Therefore, what we’ve done is learn from what he did, though we haven’t committed such great massacres as they did of one hundred, fifty.”
I asked Ramón what good had come from his being a gang member. “Nothing,” he said. “The only good that it has brought me is to teach my son that he doesn’t need to be like I am. Because remember: to hang around the streets, sleep on the streets, to be in the prisons wanting something is complicated.” He acknowledged gang life had brought him “only problems, social discrimination [señalización], and all this ink that I don’t want anymore.”
I was given permission to return for follow up interviews. However, two weeks after we spoke, Ramón and his gang mates attacked a nearby rival, wounding, but not killing. several of their intended targets. Due to safety concerns, my return trip was canceled. “Next year,” I thought.
Prince Vlad is a public school teacher who vacations from his little monsters by interviewing active and ex-gang members from El Salvador. He has recorded nearly 150 life histories with men and women from several different Salvadoran and U.S. formed gang identities that are found across El Salvador. Portions of his research have been presented at multiple national and international conferences.