El Salvador has long been a byword for bloodshed. But 2015 saw more homicides than in any of the civil war years, making the tiny nation the world’s murder capital. During some months an average of one person dies every hour, yet less than 5 percent of murders are solved.
At the center of the mayhem are rival street gangs with origins in the U.S., Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 who command some 60,000 members. Their motto: “kill, rape and control.” The gangs have moved from petty crime and drug trafficking to extortion rackets that generate millions of dollars annually, with collusion from crooked officials. And their competition for turf and profits has brought ever more extreme brutality: torture, beheadings, dismemberments.
No part of the country is immune as civilians flee in larger waves. In the wake of a controversial 2013 truce intended to reduce homicides, attacks on police have surged and mass graves are being unearthed. More aggressive military operations and extra-judicial killings are occurring.
As hostilities—seemingly poised to escalate into full-blown war—intensify, journalist Jason Motlagh travels to the Salvadoran capital and surrounding provinces to show the gang’s vice-grip on poor communities and the plight of those trapped in the crossfire.