I’ve been tempted once or twice to just risk it—what’s wrong with a little adventure when it might even result in a story to tell? Of course, that’s the selfish man’s perspective, because as a foreigner, it would put a lot of pressure on those in whose care I’ve been put to extricate me from whatever situation I’d gotten myself into.
To help put some perspective on things, my Spanish teacher told me a few stories today about some of the “current events” in his part of Santa Ana (which I understand to be fairly well off, as far as Salvadoran cities go). I have no doubt that we was trying to scare me (for my own good).
- A man was shot yesterday just blocks from his house in the business district. We walked by the site just days ago when I stayed with him and his family. Cause unknown.
- Two street vendors were killed a short distance away a few days ago. They sold coffee. Cause unknown, but probably was the result of their refusal to pay “rent,” which how “protection” rackets refer to what they force from the pockets of businesses in their “territory.”
- A schoolteacher was told it was his day to die by two thugs on the street. When they demanded his cell phone and wallet, he informed them that he’d been robbed only 3 days before and didn’t have anything.
- A schoolteacher received a phone call late one evening that went something like this: “Is this Don __? Listen, and don’t talk. I am going to speak, and you will not interrupt me until I am done. I am a bad man. I have bad friends. One of them killed too many people and the police are after him now. We need money to get him across the border. You will give me three hundred dollars by 10 a.m. tomorrow. We know where you live and where your children go to school. –But I don’t have 300 dollars. –We know you are a teacher with a salary and own two cars. You will get the $300. –I cannot get $300. –You will bring $50, then. –I could probably scrounge up $25 from the things I have in the house.
At this point, the connection broke, and the schoolteacher loaded his revolver and sat in the kitchen all night, terrified for his family (two of whom are studying at the university in town). It's tough to know if these people are just leveraging fear or whether they really have the means to carry through on their threats. He called the police that night, and told them what happened. They assured him they could take his deposition in the morning. As to dealing with the threat, they advised him to “be careful.” At the police station the next day, they checked the phone number, and found that it was from Guatemala. This was outside their jurisdiction, and it meant they could do nothing. A colleague at work informed the man that the criminals had probably bought a phone chip in Guatemala and put it in the cell phone they were using to call him from across the street.
- A schoolteacher was approached by a man on the street who had a cell phone in his hand. He said, —It’s for you. –For me? Who is it? —Just talk. TALK NOW. –Hello? —Are you the man with dark pants and a baseball cap? —Yes… —With your right hand in your pocket? —Yes… —We are watching you. We know where you live, know your family, and where your children are right now. If you do not give the man that handed you the phone all your money, and your cell phone, someone you love will die.
- The owner of a corner market (a cross between a grocery and a convenience store) was approached by a lady (who was evangelical, he mentioned—not sure what that had to do with the story) who asked for the number to the store. She had tried to shop there a number of times but had found it closed, and she would prefer not to make the walk if she didn’t have to—to be able to call would be nice. The owner, of course, agreed. Within a few days, another lady came with a cell phone and told the owner that the call was for her. The caller claimed to be calling from prison. He said that the owner must give the woman who brought the phone (his mother) $50 every week or else he would put her in touch with his thug friends on the outside (clearly claiming to belong to a gang). The woman who brought the phone said that half the money was for her and half was for the gang, and if she didn’t comply, they would come after her, too.
- The most common perpetrators of such threats are neighbors, co-workers, or even family members. However, there have been a few spectacular cases of corruption as well. A police captain was caught threatening members of his family. A bank owner had been selling loan information to people who would call the night someone had received a large loan for a significant purchase (a car, business renovation, whatever) and demand thousands. However, gangs are very active here, as well. Most of them have spent some time in the US and learned some of our own techniques to bring back with them after jobs fail and there’s no reason to stay.
- The current regime is contemplating negotiating payments to gangs as a form of welfare—if the members had jobs, they wouldn’t be in gangs, so we can cut them a deal to stop committing crimes in exchange for a check. This seems pretty bad until you know about how the previous governing party handled crime. Thieves and burglars would get a slap on the wrist for 5 or 6 offenses, but periodically the police would send out death squads in the middle of the night to execute repeat offenders in their homes.
Compound this with the political situation. The newly elected president, Mauricio Funes, is a candidate of the FMLN, the party of the “left” that won its first presidential election in decades. Upon news of his election, businesses from other countries began closing and selling their assets as fast as they could, convinced that soon the government would be nationalizing numerous industries (though Funes does not appear to march in step with the rest of his party). This cut many, many jobs, and people found themselves without income and no way to support themselves. All of this has conspired to create a violent cauldron of extortion and vengeance that would send me packing if I wasn’t as safe as I am in NPH.
And they’re saying that Central America is only beginning to experience the severity of the effects of the US’s economic woes. For most of the people I know in the US, their troubles come nowhere near to the situation your average Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, or Nicaraguan has to face each day as the result of this global downturn.