There are no Maras in Berlín – by Roberto Valencia (El Faro)

~ This article was originally published by El Faro on October 5, 2015 ~


Berlín (in the district of Usulután) is not one of those mountain villages of Chalatenango or Morazán that the media tends to present as immune from the phenomenon of the maras [gangs]. Berlín has more than 17,000 inhabitants and it is in the middle of a zone that has been among the most violent since the end of the gang truce, but since 2005 its homicide rate more resembles that of Costa Rica than El Salvador. There are no maras in Berlín, and that deserves an explanation.


Berlín is not Germany, but it does not look like El Salvador either.

That was the source of my unease when, after snaking through the sierra of Tecapa-Chinameca, arrived at its destination, my bus halted one block from the central park, and the first thing I see upon descending are three policemen, with bulletproof vests and shotguns, pressing their hands on the neck of a slender, docile young man, holding him against the wall. An officer removes the youth’s wallet from his pocket and shamelessly rifles through it. Another fusses with his cellphone. A little while later they let him go, unharmed.

I am unnerved because I came to Berlín (Usulután) with the belief that it was a tranquil place, in Salvadoran terms. During the last decade, this municipality has had homicide rates more like Costa Rica than El Salvador. Even during the last couple years, when violence in the surrounding area (Santiago de María, Tecapán, Mercedes Umaña…) has shot up, here it has remained down, with a murder every three or four months. I came, in fact, to discover the reason for this tranquility.

The frisking of the young man was the beginning of the paradox. The entire central park is a sea of police with stern faces and serious rifles. They are waiting for the conclusion of a funeral mass at the glowing Church of San José, located at one edge of the park.

Inside, in a gray coffin, is Robert Carlos Alejo, 31 years old, a former employee of bus route #140. Gang members killed him three days ago in the community of Los Olivos, in San Martín, in the metropolitan area of San Salvador. His mother, a native of Berlín, thought it best to bury him in the land he escaped a thousand years ago. And in town, rumor has spread that the mass is for a mara.

“Locals told us that young men had come, and nobody knew who they were,” Sub-Inspector Francisco Pérez would tell me the next day.

When Father Cándido drops the concluding “go in peace,” the coffin is carried out by a crowd of men, and followed by a flock of mourners, the overwhelming majority of them women. At the door waits an old Nissan Frontier pickup that has been repurposed as a hearse, and a Coaster bus from Route #140. But the police slip into the group, select three young men, and put them against the wall. The scene has a strangely normal air about it.

Friends and family take the coffin of Roberto Carlos Alejo out of the Church of San José. Photo: Roberto Valencia.

Friends and family take the coffin of Roberto Carlos Alejo out of the Church of San José. Photo: Roberto Valencia.

The church bells toll the death knell: two peals, a long silence, two more peals. Some relatives lament the police, but submissively. “They’re from a hamlet,” one woman says. “They’re healthy,” says another. “It’s for your own good; if there’s not a problem, they won’t be detained,” an officer replies in a friendly tone. “He is the cousin of the deceased, the other too… the three are cousins!” an older woman insists. But there is zero tension. The officers invite the group to board the Coaster bus, which the three young men will also do if they are clean. “Do your job,” says one mourner. “The victim came from outside, and for the town’s peace this is best,” says another. The strongest criticism I jot in my notebook is this: “The police are acting without taking people’s grief into consideration.” Ten minutes later, after a radio check confirms that the men are clean, the officers return their documents and, today, they can indeed go in peace. The park returns bit by bit to normality.

An officer, who had seemed to be in command, approaches me. “When we see people who are not from Berlín, as the town’s authority we are obligated to identify them,” he tells me, “and since they brought the deceased from outside… people always report every situation to us.”

It does not resemble El Salvador.


Legend has it that Berlín is called Berlín because of a shipwreck: a mysterious German named Serafín Brennen was traveling from Costa Rica aboard the vessel when it sank off the Salvadoran coast in 1884, they say.

Mr. Brennen set up shop in the valley of Agua Caliente, which was part of Tecapa (today called Alegría). He became such a part of the local community that when, in October of 1885, the president of the republic, Francisco Menéndez, signed the decree authorizing the creation of a town in the valley, the residents took up the name of Berlín since it was the hometown of the foreigner, who served on the first town council.

With coffee as the motor of the economy and a pleasant climate a thousand meters above sea level, the town grew quickly and well: it only took two decades before it received the title of “villa”, and a decade later was declared a city.

The current German flag (horizontal bars of black, red, and yellow) is the official flag of this municipality in the department of Usulután. It is 110 kilometers from the capital, and has around 17,000 inhabitants, although it is losing population year after year despite the influx from La Geo, the state geothermal energy company that has in Berlín and its surroundings among the most productive fields in El Salvador.

Today, Berlín is a friendly city where there is little barbed wire, few stores with barred windows and security guards, a place where doors are open, a city where you can sit on the curb in the afternoon and talk with your neighbors, where people greet a stranger as a friend. If the broad strokes of that description are exaggerated, what does in reality stand out here is that there are no gangs, no turfs, no graffiti, no ‘see, hear, and keep silent.’ There are no maras in Berlín.


The Ministry of Education has registered 32 educational centers and a single institute in the city: the National Institute of Berlin, the INB.

–This is a quiet city—says Saúl Flores González, don Saúl, the director for more than a decade.

In El Salvador, secondary education is a reliable thermometer for measuring the temperature of the maras. You only have to enter the men’s bathroom to gauge their influence. In those of the Berlin Institute, here and there are scratches and doodles that say ‘MS13,’ ‘NLS,’ ‘XV3’… but they are few in number, poorly done, and furtive: they have the feel of pranks. What is more, to enter the INB, at the gate are no police or soldiers or private security, none of the habitual measures found in many areas of the country. Even so, don Saúl is worried. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of youth enrolling who come from other municipalities. Many come from outside, from Apopa, from Soyapango, from San Miguel, and some of them, who are coming at 11, 12, or 14 years of age, have the alien inside them.

–On Monday we have a general assembly—don Saúl says—and I ask them to please treat us respectfully, that we respect their use of free time, but that we are trying to keep the institute free from the markings of the maras, that the institute is a neutral zone, and that here nobody is the owner of anything. I tell them that someday their children will study here and we have to take care of what we have.

Next to the basketball court, where the assemblies happen, there is a prominent mural with large letters reading “Your parents invest time and money in your education; do not cheat them.”

–Does it work, saying that on Mondays?

–Yes. I say it to them with complete respect.

–One speech a week? That is all?

–No. The key is the social projects, and there are various institutions involved in that. For example, we have from 60 to 80 youth in the peace band. They come from 4 to 6 or at 7 in the evening, every day. If they were not here, they’d be at the pool hall. The vitamin is that the young person is kept busy, but to do that, you need resources.

Keep the youth busy, says don Saúl. So simple and so complicated.


Located on one edge of the central park, the Church of San José is the iconic reference point for Berlín, a city where gangs have not been able to take root. Photo: Roberto Valencia.

Located on one edge of the central park, the Church of San José is the iconic reference point for Berlín, a city where gangs have not been able to take root. Photo: Roberto Valencia.

Berlín’s town market would not win a prize for cleanliness, order, or decoration, but it has a priceless virtue: no band of Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18 has imposed—through death threats—a tax on the vendors.

Sitting in a cubicle that aspires to be an office, Salvador Peña, the market administrator for the past four years tells me that “little things happen, but you could say that it’s calm.” He knows about stands and businesses that they have tried to extort, but in Berlín, those abuses are generally denounced. “All the residents are alert, almost everyone knows each other, and the police acted rapidly,” he says.

Peña’s denial of gang activity was convincing, but it does not rule anything out: if there was a threat, he would not confide in a reporter with the recorder running.

One block from the market, on Avenue Simeón Cañas, you find Berlín’s courthouse. The secretary, Ana Margarita Bermúdez, lets me review the booking record, a weighty manuscript where all of the open process that year are registered. The articles of the Penal Code that appear most frequently are 346 – possession, carrying, illegal or irresponsible use of firearms; 142 – assault; and 367 – trafficking or smuggling of people, working as a coyote.

Extortion is the principal source of income for Salvadoran gangs, and Berlín seems like liberated territory. There have been scattered cases of gangs established in neighboring municipalities who extorted by phone, and even of delinquents who tried to pass as maras, but it seems as there is no protection racket.

It can be repeated: it does not look like El Salvador.


The National Civil Police registered a single homicide in Berlín in all of 2014. In Mercedes Umaña, there were 15. In Ozatlán, 10. In Alegría, 11. In Tecapán, another 10. All are in the department of Usulután, and all are towns with fewer inhabitants.

–Is it as calm as the numbers seem to indicate?

–Yes, responds Sub-Inspector Francisco Pérez, who has spent 22 of his 43 years in uniform. He has been sent here for seven months as interim head of the subdelegation, and he is nearly halfway through the term. Before, he was in the delegation of Usulután, at the 911 system. And before that, in Santa Tecla, in San Marcos, in La Libertad… he knows what it is like to work in areas with a high degree of mara penetration.

–Here it is calmer because of the level of coordination, both between municipal organizations and with the population. People tell us if a kid gives marijuana to our young people. And here we find out.

–Are there a lot of youth coming from outside?

–Today yes, a lot of kids who are in trouble with the law in other municipalities are coming here, above all from the hamlets. But when we become aware of someone suspicious, we start watching them immediately.

The most conflictive neighborhoods are La Chicharra, Bográn, and Primavera. In the last of those, near the fields, appeared a Mara Salvatrucha graffiti.

–Members of criminal groups do come—he says—but we do not let them get established.

Sub-Inspector Francisco Pérez mentions, every chance he get, the collaboration between Berliners and their police. They have implemented the “good enough” philosophy of community policing, which requires mutual trust between citizens and officers, a trust that is impossible to build if there are arbitrary detentions, if searches are done violently or with prejudice, and if there are summary executions.

But the institution rotates police from one delegation to another. And it happens that if one is sent to Berlín from the hot zones, from outside, they carry within them the alien of unrestrained repression.

–But in Berlín one immediately observes that the incidence of crime is different, and we ourselves adapt—Pérez says, elusively.

The relationship between police and citizens in Berlín is not as rosy as Sub-Inspector Francisco Pérez paints it, but it exists, it is cultivated, and, in general, it is valued by both sides. In the Salvadoran context, it sounds revolutionary.


The cities of Santiago de María and Berlín are separated by 13 sinuous kilometers of highway. Both places are tucked into the sierra of Tecapa-Chinameca. They have 19,000 and 17,000 inhabitants, respectively, and a single national institute. The two were founded at the end of the Nineteenth Century and evolved hand-in-hand, with coffee as a motor. Since the 1980s, they are a departing point for migrants. They even share the weather.

But in Santiago de María the phenomenon of the maras began to germinate eight years ago, and the city is today one of the strongest bastions of the southern Barrio 18. During 2014, crime scene coroners collected 25 bodies from its streets and sidewalks.

Since I arrived in Berlín yesterday, I have not had a single conversation in which the example of Santiago has not been mentioned as a warning of the tragic consequences of letting your guard down in the face of the maras. Tomorrow, the mayor of Berlín will tell me that an adolescent from his town cannot safely take a bus and go to Santiago de María, that the boy’s life would be at risk just because of his hometown. The regional office of identification [where official IDs are issued] is in the barrio of Concepción in Santiago de María, and because of the fear of attacks by gang members, a municipal microbus has to make special trips, guarded by the municipal police force, so that the youth of Berlín can, as a group, obtain their IDs.

Santiago de María does look like El Salvador.


The morning of September 8, 2000, Berlín took to the streets. The day before, by orders from San Salvador, the small jail near the municipality had been emptied. In town, rumors flew that they were planning to fill it with some fifty minors affiliated with Barrio 18 that the government needed to take out of the Ciudad Barrios prison after a violent riot there left one dead and dozens injured.

A large group of residents, convinced that the insertion of Barrio 18 youth one block from the central park was a bad idea, mounted the opposition, blocking streets, burning tires, and forming human barricades. Judges and priests tried to convince them, but to no avail. The police intervened, again to no effect. Their determination was such that the transfer was suspended.

–Everyone was stunned, because the entirety of Berlín had demonstrated in protest, says Héctor Alvarado, a 47 year-old Berliner. He wanted to, but did not participate in the protest that night. He worked for the General Directorate of Penal Centers, as head of security for the same mini-jail that they wanted to fill with mara members.

–I did not demonstrate—he says—but I was with them in spirit, because I knew that if they let them enter, everything was going to fall apart on us.

Héctor is today a sports coach at the Berlín location of the government’s National Institute of Youth. He works with young people. He thinks that the spirit that led residents to demonstrate against gang members that early morning of 2000 is still alive in some form.

–But as a community we cannot fall asleep. This is a virus, and we have it nearby: in Santiago de María and in Mercedes Umaña.

–Why in those towns and not in Berlín?

–Here the citizenry has been more aware, and all the local actors work together in prevention. That is why we are still not contaminated.

–How is the relationship with the police?

–In Berlín everyone knows each other, if not by name, by nickname. And if suspicious people come from outside, someone always calls the police. They have a very important job in all of this, and we ensure that officers take care to identify those who are not from Berlín.

He admits that there are officers who cross the line, above all those who are coming off a rotation. The issue has been taken up in the Municipal Committee for the Prevention of Violence.

–It’s true that there are youth here who are not in the gangs, but they wear caps with flat brims and baggy clothing. They do it because they are unaware, because they do not realize the problems that they could have if they left Berlín dressed like that. I know that some of them have been searched by the police, they have taken their hats and fixed them up so that they don’t look like gangbangers.

In Héctor’s telling, police excesses sound minimal, something bearable in the face of a threat like the maras.


They have killed someone in Berlín!

I found out when, after three days here, I entered the subdelegation office to request an interview with the police chief. The officer behind the desk in charge of reception told me that the interview was not possible at the moment, since the Sub-Inspector had gone out because there had been a murder in the hamlet of Los Cañales. He did not give details. Perhaps he did not know more. It had just happened. I left like a shot, stopped the first motorcycle taxi that passed, and tried to explain where we had to go, using the few pieces of information the officer had given me. But the motorcycle taxi driver already knew. The victim was his coworker.

The turnoff for Los Cañales is on the street that descends to Mercedes Umaña, some two kilometers from the central park. It took us less than five minutes to get there. The police had cordoned off the area with yellow tape around an inexplicable metal gate, some 200 meters up the street. It was a few minutes before 4pm. Counting curiosity seekers, family members and work colleagues of the 23 year-old victim, Víctor Mauricio Sigarán, there were about forty people.

A woman who had just arrived started to cry. “It cannot beee, lord Jesus…” Next to her, a youth of 17 also tears up. Her: “Why god? Whyyyyyyy?” More and more people approach to try to calm her. “My nephew, my god…” The young man cries silently, as machismo dictates. Her: “Oh god, goddddd.” Someone says: the motorcycle is still on, see? And indeed, through the shouts, murmurs, and sobs it is possible to hear, on the other side of the ravine, the rumble of the motor and even music from the radio. She faints. They call out: Mercedes! Mercedes! They lay her on the concrete. Mercedes! Mercedes! A police officer comes. “Calm, calm.” There is a murmur from the back of the crowd. They fan her with a sweater. “I need you to help out, aunt.” Someone says that she should be taken to the medical clinic. She wakes up to move her head. God giver her strength, says someone. This country is screwed, says another. Someone offers their car to take her. “Should we get you up, aunt? Slowly.” A group of people lift her up. “We’re not going to take her, but slowly.” A murmur. “Stretch your legs,” they say. It seems like she is recovered. They try to convince her saying that she will not be able to see Víctor, that the police will not let her go beyond the gate, that it is better to be here.

Family members and coworkers wait on the road to the hamlet of Los Cañales, in Berlín, for the arrival of the coroners from the forensic service. Photo: Roberto Valencia.

Family members and coworkers wait on the road to the hamlet of Los Cañales, in Berlín, for the arrival of the coroners from the forensic service. Photo: Roberto Valencia.

Tomorrow, all the motorcycle taxis from the cooperative where Víctor worked will have messages on their windshields saying that they will remember him forever and things like that, but now that night is falling, the crime scene coroners have still not arrived and here everyone is angry, distrustful, and suspicious. His colleagues are convinced he was killed for being a motorcycle taxi driver, not for being Víctor Sigarán. It could have been any of them.

They tell me that the motorcycle taxi cooperative has received written and phoned threats from gangs, demanding they pay protection money. They think it is the gang that operates in Mercedes Umaña, Mara Salvatrucha. But they have refused to pay. Some of them have improvised some security strategies, like not taking fares they do not know or avoiding the most remote areas.

Today, Berlín does resemble El Salvador.


A huge German flag on a two meter mast stands in the office of Jesús Antonio Cortez Mendoza, the mayor of Berlín. He is relatively young, he could still pass as a thirty-something, and he took office a little more than a month ago, though previously he was a councilman.

Mayor Jesús Cortez also takes satisfaction in being a resident of a city without maras. He does not disguise the fact that the current situation, with a government that has decided to confront the phenomenon of the maras through repression alone, could affect them, as people are forced out of Apopa, out of Soyapango, out of San Miguel… out of the world outside.

–We have some neighborhoods—he says—that are starting to get entangled, with young people who are, you could say, fans of the gangs. Young people are always in this situation of possible contamination by people who come from other municipalities.

Contaminate, he says. It is a verb that the residents of Berlín have repeated often when referring to the maras. Also ‘virus.’ Also ‘blight.’

–We know that we are at risk. Mercedes Umaña is just 11 kilometers away, and Santiago is 13. They are already trying to extort our people from outside: from Jiquilisco and from Mercedes. We have seen the example of what happens when gangs come in, and that is why we are trying to make our young people aware, because they are the most vulnerable.

–Work with the youth. The mayor of any Salvadoran city could say that.

–Our advantage is that we all know who is who, and what our neighbors are doing. The population has come together.

The population has come together, says Mayor Jesús Cortez. Perhaps it is a rote phrase, coming from the mouth of a politician. But perhaps not, perhaps it is a simple idea that is the key to everything.


Three months after the murder of the motorcycle taxi driver Víctor Sigarán, and although El Salvador is experiencing the bloodiest period since the start of the century, in Berlín there has only been one additional homicide reported: a 55 year-old woman on September 3rd, in the canton of San Juan Loma Alta. It doesn’t seem to be gang related.

I attend, in a hotel in Bogotá, Colombia, a seminar in which one of the invited speakers is Howard Augusto Cotto, the subdirector of El Salvador’s National Civil Police. He speaks with unusual frankness about the terrible situation of violence affecting the country, and at one point says this: “Our job is much easier the more social organization there is, and it is more difficult in places where the social fabric is broken.” I feel as though he could be talking about Berlín.

The seminar is a closed event, Cotto’s deal was that what was said here stays here, but tomorrow I will ask him if he will allow me to include the phrase that I just noted in a story that has Berlín as its protagonist. Yes, he will say. Later, he will remember that a few days ago a half-dozen Berliners, led by Mayor Jesús Cortez, traveled to San Salvador to meet with him, and to tell him how satisfied they were with Sub-Inspector Francisco Pérez, and to request that he remain at the head of the subdelegation when his seven-month interim term ended.

No, Berlín is not Germany, but it definitely does not look like El Salvador either.

Journalist Roberto Valencia reports for Sala Negra of the online news portal El Faro, an investigative journalism outlet based in El Salvador. The original story was published under the title, “No hay maras en Berlín,” and may be found at:

Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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