by Federico Vespignani

"If they do not find her by the end of the day she will be lost forever. I am sorry for her mother”, says the anthropologist and forensic criminologist Israel Ticas while he observes the impenetrable vegetation surrounding him. He is digging in the woods within an area under the control of the Mara Salvatrucha to find Reina Isabella Sanchez, a young 20 year old woman who disappeared in 2013. Reina was the girlfriend of a policeman. She will be never found.

In the last forty years – in the so called Northern Triangle, including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – violence is part of the daily life, as well as the recurring eruptions of the active volcanoes in this part of the world.

Here, where the number of murders is the same of that in a war zone, people are not just killed. They disappear. In Latin America the verb “desaparecer” has got a sinister meaning. Indeed they say “lo desaparecieron”: they made him disappear. The passive use of the verb recalls the brutal technique used by the authoritarian governments to suppress the dissent and intimidate.

The clandestine networks already present in the Central American wars have transformed and got more radical becoming criminal organizations. Gangs or Pandillas, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (Ms13) and the Barrio 18, reign using fear and they determine people's lives: ver, oir y callar (observe, listen and stay quiet) is a motto appearing on the walls across the whole country.

The Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 come from California and are an American product. They were born during the Eighties in the marginalized communities of the young immigrants of Central American in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco and then they spread into the major part of Central America and Mexico after the high number of deportations from the USA to the young criminals’ countries of origin.

Today the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 are transnational gangs, present also in European territory.

Following a sort of utopia where violence is the solution against violence, in the last decade Central American governments have been facing this kind of criminality with the so called “Mano Dura”, that is to say by sending assault units in the marginalized areas. In this context, the Northern Triangle was hit for more than ten years by a systematic use of forced disappearances by both criminal organizations and law enforcement.

A battle for control over the territory through fear has brought confusion about the roles. While the previous conflicts in Latin America were defined by a specific model that allowed the identification of victims and executioners, today the violence obscures every kind of comprehension. It is like feeling the presence of a creature we can only hear breathing: it instills fear. A paralyzing fear that nourishes the beast itself.

The Commando

There was a red car parked outside here. It was 8.30 pm when my daughter and her friend went out. I heard someone shouting 'Carmen'! And four men wearing balaclavas and bulletproof police jackets got out of that red car. My son saw everything and ran into the house chased by one of the hooded men, who stopped at the entrance holding a gun and then went back”.

“It turned out it was for my daughter, they took her away”, explains Marìa Del Carmen Baron. “I have been waiting for five months and I got nothing. Now I have stopped searching because I am scared. They threatened a friend of mine, who was helping me and I also have a son to protect”.

Carmen is 29 years old and from that evening of January 2016 she disappeared. “After these five months a Dic detective told me that sometimes they killed the kidnapped girls, they chop up them and throw the body parts away in different places... last year I had a heart attack”.

It is not possible to know exactly how many recent desaparecidos there are in Central America. A document provided by an agent of the Dpi, the investigative unit of the Honduran police, mentions 436 disappearances in the first three months of 2017 only in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital that has a little more than one million inhabitants. Officially the Honduran government does not provide numbers, but El Salvador esteems 15,000 desparecidos from 2008, while in Guatemala an independent investigation determined the existence of 28,909 disappearances between 2004 and 2015.

These numbers only tell a fragment of the story. “There are hundreds of families too scared to complain to the authorities. These people are like zombies, especially the mothers, their hearts went away with their children”, explains the only Salvadorean criminologist, Israel Ticas, whose job consists of searching for the missing people. In this context the desaparecido is systematically ignored by governments and institutions. They stop existing and stay in limbo: for the economic and social system they are not there, for the institutions they vanished and the easiest way to deal with this problem is to forget them.

The hired assassins

The modus operandi of the violence in Central America is a continuous evolution to reach for power. A sort of competition at the highest levels of psychopathology. The role of the “sicario”, the hired assassin, in this situation becomes a key element. This term comes from the Latin word “sica”, which was a kind of dagger.

“Roll down the window: they must see us clearly”. Two guys at the entrance of the street give a disinterested look at our car. There is nobody except for them. I am with a local journalist in a barrio in the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, the industrial capital of Honduras, known by the international press as the reign of the murders. We park the car in front of a house. All the windows are blacked out. As we get out of the car a man in his mid-thirties welcomes us and invites us into his house.

“It is a little bit dark inside but, given the situation, I have to use some precautions”, explains P. He is a member of a group of hired assassins, he started at the age of fifteen to revenge his brother and he never got out: he has committed 136 murders. “The problem is that there are no jobs here, especially for those coming from a marginalized area like this. They consider us criminals. That is why, now more than ever, gangs and groups like ours are recruiting a lot of young people. In our group we have people with qualifications who cannot find a job and who, in one way or another, must provide for their family”. P. goes on and talks about the complete absence of the institutions in these places: “Here the police is paid to do nothing, they work with us, so that we can make people disappear”.

In Guatemala a former hired assassin, only 17 years old, of the gang Los Zetas confides to me: “Everyone tries to protect their loved ones, but I had a lot of hate in my heart and I left many corpses in my wake. I felt good. Now things have changed for me, I think it is possible to have a better Salvador, a better Guatemala and a better Honduras. Nobody can change all of this today, but I hope that those coming after us will find some love and can change something”.

That is how these people face the idea of simply vanishing out of nowhere: trusting in the future.
Defending everything they love, even if they know that it is destined to disappear.

by Federico Vespignani

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