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El Salvador's Police Kill and Lie Again

The official story of El Salvador's police department fell apart again in the face of testimony from direct witnesses. The police say they killed four pandilleros (gang members) in a shootout in a house in Villas de Zaragoza. Two witnesses say that when they left the house, the four were alive and had surrendered. One of the dead is a worker who was sleeping when three pandilleros, fleeing from the police, entered his house from the roof. Even one of the police agents on the scene refuted details of the official version offered by the Deputy Police Chief.

 
 

Minutes before the police killed him, José Armando Díaz Valladares was sleeping in his house. Armando, as he was called by family members, had worked all night in a plastics factory. He had begun work Sunday night and returned home, tired, at 8 am on Monday. He had something to eat, put on an orange-colored pair of sports pants, and went to bed. His life partner, Dayana, and their three-year-old child, Aaron, were also in the house, along with Sofía, Armando’s thirteen-year-old sister.

Dayana was frightened when, around midday, she heard shots. She ran toward Armando. Judging from the shouts she heard outside, it seemed to be a shootout between pandilleros and the National Civilian Police (PNC). Dominated by the Barrio 18 Sureños gang, the neighborhood is surrounded by others controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha. Police raids are frequent, and Dayana figured that perhaps the people she heard running across their roof were police agents. “Armando’s sleeping, they won’t do anything to him,” she thought.

But the first ones to enter the house from the roof weren’t police agents but three pandilleros, all of them minors. Dayana saw that at least one of them was wounded. The racket had awakened Armando. Still in bed, he asked the pandilleros several times to leave. But then “the police got to the door, and they (the pandilleros) couldn’t leave,” Dayana recalls.

Policías custodian la casa 33 de Villas De Zaragoza, donde ocurrieron las cuatro muertes. Foto:Fred Ramos
 
Policías custodian la casa 33 de Villas De Zaragoza, donde ocurrieron las cuatro muertes. Foto:Fred Ramos

* * *

On Monday, February 8, a communiqué on the PNC’s website said that five pandilleros had been killed in two armed clashes in the town of Zaragoza, in La Libertad province. Deputy Police Chief César Baldemar Flores Murillo spoke about the incident while the crime scene was still being processed. In 1991, in San Miguel province, Flores Murillo was tried and acquitted of having covered up for La Sombra Negra (The Black Shadow), a death squad which targeted pandilleros.

He said that on the morning of the killings, “subjects” had attacked “a vehicle with merchandise" at a place in the town center known as “La Fuente”. When agents of the local police station intervened, the pandilleros fired at them. One pandillero died in the exchange –some agents say he was 15 years old, others say he was 24, or 18– and “the rest fled.” He also said that a sergeant had been wounded. According to the official version, the police were told that the pandilleros who fled had taken refuge in a house in the Villas de Zaragoza neighborhood, about five minutes from where the shootout took place. When the police went to the site, the pandilleros tried to flee over the roofs to the neighboring house, where another “exchange of fire took place, in which four members of the criminal structure died.”

This version said that the operation was carried out by members of the regional Police Reaction Group (GRP) and the local police precinct.

The police said they found a shotgun and a 9 mm pistol at the scene. Flores Murillo told reporters they also found “military knapsacks, telescopic sights, and other items which, it can be presumed, they were going to use in their criminal acts.”

The police at the scene of the crime only gave reporters the alleged names and nicknames of three of the dead: Carlos Vladimir Nerio Andrade a.k.a. Queco, 13; Edwin Manuel Lemus Aldana a.k.a. Pinki, 16; and Miguel Ángel Ponce a.k.a. Gazú, 17.

They said nothing about Armando, who was 23.

Un policía sin identificación ni número de ONI se paseaba entre los espectadores y los periodistas. Foto:Fred Ramos
 
Un policía sin identificación ni número de ONI se paseaba entre los espectadores y los periodistas. Foto:Fred Ramos

* * *

“Mom, they’re saying that four people were killed. Armando was in the house. He stayed there, they took us out,” says a girl to a woman who has just arrived at the crime scene.

She is far from the journalists when she says this, and does not realize that I’m overhearing her.

It’s 4 p.m. on February 8. The police say they clashed with some pandilleros and killed four of them in this neighborhood in Zaragoza. The girl is Sofía. She’s 13, and lives in the house where the bodies are. She says that when the police removed her, Armando and the other three were alive. The woman is Ana del Carmen, mother of Armando and Sofía. Holding her daughter’s arm, she walks toward the police line which circles the block around the house. But the police, wearing black ski masks, aren’t letting anyone –even the people who live there– approach house #33. The woman breaks down and cries out, “They’ve killed him!” The press films her. The girl moves her away from the cameras. Mockingly, a police agent shouts, “Oh, my little boy, he was taking a bath!”

La madre y la hermana menor de José Armando Díaz esperan que la policía las deje entrar a su casa, donde están los cadáveres. No las dejaron entrar hasta pasadas las 9 de la noche. Foto:Fred Ramos
 
La madre y la hermana menor de José Armando Díaz esperan que la policía las deje entrar a su casa, donde están los cadáveres. No las dejaron entrar hasta pasadas las 9 de la noche. Foto:Fred Ramos

The woman receives a phone call: “I don’t know. I don’t know. They say they’ve killed four, and Armando was in there... I don’t know. I don’t know.”

The girl sits on the sidewalk, the mother holding her arm. Four other mothers have arrived, asking about their sons, but from the other side of the yellow line, no one answers them.

“They killed them in cold blood,” says the girl, when I ask her what happened. She and her mother have again moved away from the reporters and the police. The girl weeps. “There were lots of them (those who entered the house). They (the three pandilleros) jumped in from the roof, and the police were right behind them. They pointed their guns at us and took me and Dayana and the child outside. Armando stayed inside. It was around 1 p.m.”

After that, the girl only recalls that “every minute there was another gun shot.”

The mother receives another call. It’s her other son, Armando’s brother, calling from the United States, where he’s living without papers. “They went into the house, son. I don’t know anything... They took the others out of the house. Armando stayed inside.”

Employees from five low-cost funeral homes, who’ve arrived before the press, are trying to convince the mothers, who don’t even know if their sons are among the dead yet, to buy their services. The lowest price is $200: “It’s not a luxury service, mother, but it will be dignified. Others will try to take advantage of your pain. All we want to do is help. So, Christian or Catholic?”

It’s 5 p.m. The police don’t let the mother enter the home until 9 p.m., when, without the press being able to observe it, the bodies have been removed in white bags and taken to the morgue in Santa Tecla.

* * *

2015 was the year when the pandilleros and the police confronted each other. Sixty-three agents were killed last year, most of them while they were off-duty. So far in 2016, more than 15 family members of police agents or soldiers have been murdered. The agents and soldiers have gotten the message; more and more, they are acting as if they were parties to a conflict, and not as government authorities. In 2014, 40% of the complaints received by the human rights ombudsperson were against agents or soldiers; in 2015, it was 74%.

The scene in Villas de Zaragoza is similar to what happens every week in El Salvador today. The police report a shootout in which two or three or eight pandilleros died. They say a police agent was injured but is out of danger or, in the worst –and less frequent– case, that the agent died. The report says weapons were found, but says nothing about ballistics examinations or other information about where the arms came from. They don’t let anyone see the crime scene, except in cases where there’s no way to hide it. The police Internal Affairs Department doesn’t go to the scene, nor does it, in most cases, do an investigation if the press hasn't mentioned the case. As members of the Attorney General’s office have informed El Faro, their office doesn’t provide more information on the case. The police report is regarded as true, as happened after the massacre at a farm in San Blas –just three kilometers from Villas de Zaragoza– on March 26, 2015. The police killed four people who were labeled as pandilleros. La Prensa Gráfica reported last October on the case of five alleged pandilleros killed in Panchimalco. Again the police and army claimed the deaths were the result of a shootout, but the forensic evidence and the testimony of witnesses suggested that the victims had been murdered.

Nevertheless, rather than questioning the official story, the press tends to accept what it’s told when it reports on such stories. In the case of Villas de Zaragoza, La Página reported that “the police were able to end the lives of four more antisocial types;” El Diario de Hoy said, “Five pandilleros die in shootout with police;” and Diario1 wrote “Four pandilleros of the Sureños wing of the 18th Street gang died Monday afternoon in a confrontation with the police in Brisas de Zaragoza.”

* * *

The financial officer of the plastics factory where Armando worked answered the phone. “He was very friendly. He didn’t have anything to do with the gangs. He worked Sunday night; he came in at 7 and left at 7 in the morning. There’s no instance of misconduct in his personnel file. He began working here about four years ago; he was recommended by a sales executive who’s been working here for 35 years.”

Armando’s boss, the production manager, also spoke about him by phone. “He was one of the best workers. We’ve had suspicions about some of our workers, but he was young and really wanted to work. We played together on the soccer team. There’d been an opening, and he was hoping to be promoted. When he got home, he hadn’t slept. I believe what his mother says. He has workmates who live in that area and they confirm what she said.”

***

A police inspector who was at the scene answers the phone: “At first, they (the pandilleros) weren’t in the house where they were killed. They only went there when they saw the police coming.”

An investigator who gathered evidence at the scene said by phone, “I never saw those military knapsacks that the officials say they found in the house. And the telescopic sight they’re talking about was like a toy; it wasn’t something you’d use with a gun. We didn’t even take it with us.”

On Tuesday at 3 p.m., some questions were sent to the PNC’s head press officer. He was asked, if only two guns were found, how can you claim that all four had participated in a gun battle? He was also asked if the dead had records, and how the police knew that Armando was a pandillero. A few minutes later, he answered: “This case is now in the hands of the attorney general’s office. They’re the only ones authorized to provide information about it. I suggest you ask them.” The attorney general’s spokesperson said that, for the moment, he had nothing to say.

Estudiantes y vecinos de la zona esperaron para poder entrar a sus casas en la colonia Villas de Zaragoza. En la tarde del crimen, la Policía acordonó toda una manzana para procesar la escena./ Foto: Víctor Peña
 
Estudiantes y vecinos de la zona esperaron para poder entrar a sus casas en la colonia Villas de Zaragoza. En la tarde del crimen, la Policía acordonó toda una manzana para procesar la escena./ Foto: Víctor Peña

***

It’s midday on Tuesday, February 9. The families are waiting for the bodies of their sons outside the morgue in Santa Tecla.

“They had surrendered. They killed my son with so much hate that parts of his face are missing,” says one mother. She doesn’t deny that her son was a pandillero.

I asked her, “Was Armando a pandillero?”

“He wasn’t part of that. He was simply resting in his house.”

“All he did was work. He was resting,” said Armando’s father, an electrician. Later, during the wake, he had to lie down because he has heart problems and began to have strong palpitations in his chest.

The first corpse emerges from the morgue. It is Armando. His life partner, Dayana, gets on the microbus and goes to the low-cost funeral home that will prepare the body.

The document that the forensics office gave the family says Armando died of “gunshot wounds in the thorax and abdomen.” But when his body was examined at the funeral home, another entry wound was found. He had a hole in his right ear, an abrasion on his neck and a hole in the collar bone, as if a bullet had broken, caused a wound and then broken again. It appeared to be a gunshot fired from above.

As she awaits the body at the funeral home, Dayana is weeping. Nevertheless, she says she’ll answer a question.

“What happened yesterday?”

“I don’t know how they turned up on the roof... The police entered and I don’t know what they did to the other boys... The police pointed their guns at us. Armando threw himself on the floor like this (she puts her hands on her neck), and said to me, ‘Be calm. Be calm.’ The policeman said to me, ‘Come over here right now.’ I said to him, ‘Look, he (Armando) isn’t involved in all this, he’s just come home from work and he hasn’t slept. I don’t know how these other guys got here. Here’s his wallet, take it.’ He said, ‘We’ll look at that later. Go over there.’ I said, ‘Look, here are his papers, look at them (his I.D. card from the plastics factory).’ He said, ‘Go outside,’ and pointed his gun at me... Sofia went running to where my mother was, with the child. I said to them, ‘He isn’t a gang member. Please, just look at his papers.’ There were lots of police there... The policeman said to Armando, ‘Get over there,’ beside one of the youths who was bleeding, I suppose from bullet wounds... Then I went running to where my mother was. And then I heard the shots. I felt badly, my heart hurt when I heard the shots, the last shots.”

The testimonies of the two direct witnesses coincide. They say not only Armando but also the other three alleged pandilleros were on the floor, some of them wounded. Dayana doesn’t remember if they were all bleeding. “I was looking at Armando. I was thinking about him. He put his hands on his head and threw himself on the floor,” she says. She’s certain that there was no armed clash inside the house; rather, there were three alleged pandilleros, 17, 16 and 13 years old, sitting on the floor, and her husband lying there face down. There were no shots when she was trying to negotiate with the police. There were no shots when Sofia and Aaron, Armando’s sister and brother, went running out of the house. There were no shots when the police finally forced Dayana to leave.

The gunshots came later.

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