The use of protected witnesses by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has increased by 15 times in the last 11 years. The case of a young woman accused by her boyfriend of collaborating with the Barrio 18 Sureños gang, and later acquitted by the courts, illustrates the excessive use of questionable testimonies as the only evidence against these criminal organizations.
The murderer said that the dead man, before he died, was very drunk.
On Christmas Day in 2014, a 70-year-old woman went to the police in her municipality to report the disappearance of her 40-year-old son. Tall, brown-eyed and dark-skinned, he wore a blue shirt and pants and a black backpack. Neighbors told her he had been threatened by a Barrio 18 gang member. It was not the first time this had happened to her. Her other son had been murdered in 2012. She now feared yet another was coming.
Two years after the disappearance, the parents of that tall, dark-skinned man learned on television that the police had found some bones at the bottom of a ravine. Besides the bones, there was a black backpack, the very one the man wore on Christmas day. The dead man on TV was her son.
When the prosecution interviewed the man’s widow, she pointed to the possible culprit: the Barrio 18 Sureños, a faction of the Barrio 18, one of Central America’s largest gangs.
Years ago, the government isolated Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang leaders in prisons to hinder their organizations. The break within the Barrio 18 was irreversible. In 2006, two enemy factions were born: the Sureños, who followed the rules of their gang in California under orders of veteran deported prisoners; and the Revolucionarios, who sought to have a more local personality without foreign orders, and whose leaders were outside El Salvador’s prisons.
By 2016, the owner of the black backpack had been buried for two years at the bottom of the ravine, a victim of that inter-gang war. The Attorney General’s Office already knew, the witness had told him. That witness was a member of the gang, he was one of the three murderers and fingered 76 people from the Barrio 18’s Sureños faction for participating in 20 similar homicides.
This type of witness in El Salvador, the “snitch”, is called a criteriado. In the last 11 years, 663 people in the country received a reduced sentence and a temporary stay in exchange for providing information, according to the type of negotiation carried out by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office.
This ploy has become recurrent in gang cases: the testimony of a single person can be enough for the prosecution to accuse dozens of people. The use of protected witnesses multiplied by 15 times in the last 11 years, but without much success. Fifty-four percent of the informants have withdrawn from the program.
“The defendant received a call from Z where he was told that the brother of B was [drunk], so [the defendant] left where he was with Hebe. He was told to [take] B’s brother to a house and to warn them,” said a report from the prosecutor’s office on the witness’s statement.
Hebe is not her name, but for her safety, she will take the alias of the Greek goddess of youth and eternal beauty. According to the witness, after Hebe left, two other gang members arrived at the house. Between the three of them, they hung the old woman’s son from his belt until he was dead. They waited until it was nighttime to take the body from the house and throw it down a nearby ravine. They even followed the body down to the bottom, dug a hole, and buried it.
On August 16, 2018, Hebe, 19, stood in front of the judge wearing blue pants, sneakers, and a black long-sleeved shirt. She is accused of illicit association, meaning that she is charged with joining with at least two people to commit a crime. It plays well for such defendants to go to trial and be sentenced to a minimum of three years in prison. Hebe’s dark eyes with mascara looked at the protected witness, covered from head to toe with a dark cloth, like the executioner who cuts off his head.
“Do you know who’s talking to you?”
“No, I do not know who you are.”
“We were a couple, yes or no?”
She won’t admit it at the hearing, but before and after, Hebe says the witness, the criteriado, was her boyfriend. The alleged boyfriend incriminated her and accused her of participating in the murder of the old woman’s son. The prosecution also accused her of illicit association. That is why she spent a month and a half in jail, three months in pre-trial detention and eight months more with an obligation to go to court and sign a form every 15 days until she was acquitted.
A woman and her son pass in front of a sign demanding justice in the case of Ivy Gutierrez, a young woman falsely accused of extortion by police in 2016. She was acquitted by a judge in 2018.
The Act of Falling in Love
“Girl, you haven’t seen the cops up there?”
The girl, who was walking through her town, turned around, looked and recognized him.
In July 2018, in a cafe in the capital San Salvador’s hotel zone, the girl recalled with a mischievous smile arriving at that crossroads in January 2016. Hebe said that the witness and her met as children, but they had not seen each other for years. After they reconnected, a Facebook friend request came from him. She accepted. But she did not anything to do with a gang member, she said.
“Hebe, I love you.” On the night of October 12, 2016, in front of her house, he asked her if she wanted to hang out with him. “Yes, I will” Hebe recalled with innocent irony.
The same year that the witness protection program came into operation, Salvadoran gangs prohibited women from becoming members. Until 2006, women had held leadership positions in both gangs. But they were expelled due to a lack of confidence. The suspicion came because some were informants for the police and the prosecution.
Women became standard witnesses. In the absence of loyalty, there were punishments: some were raped, some murdered. However, the gang logic contrasts with reality. Up until December 2017, 65 percent of witnesses in the protection program had been men. Since El Salvador established the use of cooperating witnesses in 2006, there has not been one year in which women represented more than 35 percent of witnesses, but they seem to be the ones who lost the trust of those from above.
They went on to occupy a new role, purely logistical, at the lowest level of the gang, as collaborators. They do not have access to meetings or scheduling, and cannot give orders. They collect and carry money, keep and move weapons. They hold accounts, act as frontwomen to receive and send international remittances. They steal. They kill. The same as the men. But they are far from the leaders.
A few days before the hearing, Hebe was silent and squeezed into a table at a fast food restaurant that she agreed to go to with her mother. Talk more mom. She talks more, although she often smiled when her evangelical mother talked about “the witness.” “He was the town murderer,” the mother said without regard. Hebe blushed silently.
“Why did you fixate on a gang member?”
“I don’t know, maybe sweet girls like bad guys. Oh, no, I’m not going to walk with one of those ever, right? But the unexpected can happen,” she joked, a few days later when her mother wasn’t listening.
In late July 2017, four policemen knocked on Hebe’s door at 2:35 a.m. Her father answered. They had come to arrest his daughter, accused of homicide and illicit association. Hebe refuses to meet her father today, as he never visited her in prison or attended her court visits. dad is a man we won’t meet. He is very present in Hebe’s conversation, but absent during the time she spent in prison and during her visits to the court because he had to work.
Four years before, when she was 14, Hebe and her older brother, accused by “the witness” of another murder and illicit association but later acquitted, had to leave the public school where they studied because it was in a part of town controlled by the MS13. They lived in a Barrio 18-controlled area. As a consequence, her father took the family to live elsewhere for a year and a half. Although they later returned, Hebe still had to change schools.
In the department of San Salvador, one of the poorest and most violent municipalities has a wall with a painted image of the police repressing citizens.
In El Salvador, hundreds of neighborhoods are virtually off-limits. Hebe changed the point where we picked her up for the interview on three occasions. She lives among a group of 18 municipalities that, in 2013, when the government agreed to a truce to end the bloodshed with the gangs, was declared free of violence. This was a euphemism to explain that the gangs were not going to attack each other or anyone in that territory.
The spectacular drop in homicides, which reduced the number of murders in the country to less than half, lasted just six months until a cornered government that hid its main role in the negotiation and a growing number of murdered gang members who weakened the truce. The following government buried the truce altogether. Since then, El Salvador has ranked among the most homicidal countries in the world.
On December 28, 2016, two months after starting to date “the witness,” Hebe ended up moving to her boyfriend’s house. He bought the food and she learned to cook for two. “It wasn’t the chacha [domestic work] for anyone, only for him and me,” Hebe said.
She said she did not do favors for the Barrio 18 Sureños, but the witness gave her about $30 per day to buy what she wanted. The money was kept by her mother. One month they had $750, more than twice the minimum wage in El Salvador. Her older brother came to visit and smoke marijuana. In return, he would warn if the police might arrive.
The girlfriend accepted money from the gang to live. The mother saved the gang’s money. The brother did favors for the gang. The father tolerated the relationship of his daughter with a gang member. To this family, everyone felt like an outsider compared to the Barrio 18 Sureños, but the boundaries of this relationship were still undefined.
The witness apparently had a privileged memory. In his statement, he recalled in what year he met each of the gang members and collaborators, such as Hebe. He described their height, weight, birthmarks, tattoos and why he knew them.
In 2017, 10 years after becoming a member of the Barrio 18 Sureños, the witness sold out all of his clique and alleged collaborators. But throughout three thick folders, the witness never said that Hebe was his girlfriend. It is she who today says that “she was accompanied” by him.
El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has been relying on this type of informant for more than a decade. The problem is that in many cases, the witness is only interested in obtaining a reduced sentence and other special benefits is the only source of information. The institution does not cross-check the data provided, and many cases fall apart before coming to trial due to a lack of evidence. Or as happened with Hebe, the defendants are acquitted by a judge.
“What do you think you were looking for in the bad guy?”
“I wanted to rebel because I was angry with my dad. Maybe after accompanying me [as my boyfriend] it was, I felt that I could defend myself, I even got into trouble in town and I never said anything,” Hebe said.
Hebe spoke sweetly of the three times she got into trouble for the witness. It was because of jealousy. He was with her, after all. And with three others. She said she twice left her boyfriend. Days before the final time, shortly before being arrested, the witness told Hebe, “I have a question, are you afraid of me?” Why would she be scared, she asked out loud while grabbing his cell phone.
This story of death and love have parallel lives, but not converging. When going through the file of Hebe’s case and story, the witness is both and is not a boyfriend. There is only one detail over which they agreed: the reason for the murder.
After a year of being with the gang member, Hebe now dates a young man from her church. She met him a year ago and says that he is a “good guy.”
On August 16, 2018, Hebe got up at 5:00 a.m. without knowing she was going to face the man dressed as an executioner, the witness. The lawyer insisted that she face the witness. She didn’t want to, she was undecided, but on second thought, she saw how to trap this s-called “witness” with a simple question. how to prove that “the witness” was lying with a single question.
“Do you have an 18 on your chest?”
“Say that again.”
“Do you have an 18 on your chest?”
“Thank you, that is all.”
The day in which all the defendants went free is the same day in which Hebe publicly became the ex-girlfriend of the gang member who sold out her family.