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el salvador : maras : mara salvatrucha : mara salvatrucha

[Roberto Valencia, Letter from Zacatraz. Libros del K.O. Madrid, 2018. 384 pp]


RESE��A / Jimena Villacorta

Letter from Zacatraz

The story of El Directo - a young Salvadoran who at the age of 17 was attributed with 17 murders, was in and out of jail and was finally sentenced by his fellow gang members - serves as a canvas for an even bigger picture: the serious social problem posed by violent gangs in Central America, particularly in El Salvador.

Roberto Valencia, a Spanish journalist who has been living in the Central American country for almost twenty years, has dedicated time and effort to tackle this problem in depth as a reporter for "El Faro", portal , a Salvadoran news outlet that has won awards for its investigations. Letter from Zacatraz (as the local media call the maximum security prison of Zacateoluca) is a journalistic account that, through a concrete story, exposes the broader picture of a truly complex reality.

September 11, 2012 was the first time Valencia sat down to talk with Gustavo Adolfo Parada Morales, alias El Directo, someone who for years had captured the attention of the media, despite the existence of thousands of other young people involved in gangs. That contact staff encouraged the journalist to look for other testimonies, until fill in a book that gathers the direct voice of Parada and that of people who knew him, from interviews with those who loved him, such as his mother or his wife, and with those who confronted him, such as some judges.

The result of an unwanted pregnancy, El Directo was born on January 25, 1982 in the city of San Miguel. Barely two decades later, he was already the most dangerous and feared man in El Salvador, or at least that is how the media portrayed him. A member of the Pana di Locos, a clique of the Mara Salvatrucha, he became the main public enemy. From the age of 17, accused of as many murders (of which he only admitted to six) and various other crimes, El Directo was in three juvenile detention centers and nine prisons. He had the opportunity to start a new life in Costa Rica, but he blew it. He did not make it to the United States. He was free for several months, but it wasn't long before the police recaptured him.

Through Parada's life, the author projects the phenomenon of gangs in El Salvador. He emphasizes how this phenomenon affects mainly the lower classes, while the rest of society does not realize the full magnitude of the problem and, therefore, is not interested in seeking a solution. How is it possible, Valencia asks, that a society like the Salvadoran one, with 6.5 million inhabitants, tolerates an average of 10 homicides per day, not to mention numerous other crimes, in a country where 1% of the population are gang members.

The repressive measures applied by the right-wing (ARENA) and left-wing (FMLN) governments have not improved the gang problem. Gangs have been growing, both outside and inside detention centers, many of which are in a deplorable state. Precisely the condition of the prisons aggravates the status: the infrastructure is damaged, there is great insalubrity and overcrowding is extreme. In most of the prisons, gang leaders have a large part of the control and from there they dominate their respective organizations. "El Salvador's prison system is the most overcrowded in the hemisphere, a statement certified by the Organization of American States," says Valencia.

El Directo was imprisoned several times, where he was seriously wounded on multiple occasions, sometimes by the Mara Salvatrucha, who declared him a traitor and threatened to kill him, and other times by police and prison employees. After a few months in jail, he decided to reform and renounce his activity in the MS. This brought him various opportunities, but he returned to prison. He was finally killed in 2013, at the age of 31, by members of his new gang, La Mirada Locos, because he had been accused of ordering the murder of someone in the organization whose wife he had been having an affair with.

It is interesting to note how in a country where a large number of crimes are registered, for at least ten years the case of El Directo had absolute priority in the media, which often exaggerated Parada's criminal record. "We live in a country where big murderers have been granted amnesty. Drugs circulate with relative freedom and, in spite of the fact that police officials have said that there are important names from the business, the state apparatus and the army involved in drug trafficking, we have not seen any arrest at that level", declares to Valencia the President of the Central American University, José María Tojeira. And he adds: "Income tax evasion is a widespread vice among the wealthiest sectors. The police is still managed with a significant corruption Degree . Deputies are pardoned or investigated for acts in which the life or honor of other citizens have been severely threatened". For his part, Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, Archbishop Emeritus of San Salvador, regrets that journalists, commentators, analysts and politicians repeat over and over again, "like a church choir, the false refrain of 17 years, 17 murders". In his opinion, "perhaps they went too far in exhibition and arrogance", according to Valencia.

Roberto Valencia concludes that the problem with the media is that at first they were benevolent towards the gangs, and then they magnified the phenomenon, without talking about the repressive measures and policies used to combat them.

Carta desde Zacatraz is not a condescending book, but the critique does not stifle all hope. It warns that Salvadorans have become accustomed to living with this problem. Today it is more common to avoid certain places that are known to be dangerous than to try to fight for the betterment of the country. But he encourages confidence that shattered lives like El Directo's will serve to make new generations want something better for themselves.

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