El Salvador: Watching and being watched by “The Boys” from MS13

16 Oct 2018
Related Countries
El Salvador
El Salvador, Central America, 12 July 2018, 8:30, in the morning

Mara Salvatrucha 13, known as MS13, is the largest and most organized gang in El Salvador. One of their bases is in Las Guirnaldas, a populated community in the municipality of Soyapango – therefore, one of the most dangerous urban centers in this Central American country. It is known that you don´t play with ´´The Boys.´´1

I am in Las Guirnaldas today to do a walk-through community assessment and make two home visits to patients with another colleague. At 8:30am, so far everything appears to be a normal working day under a total blue sky accompanied by cool weather. People are crossing the main park where we see people bumping into each other. Don Álvaro, a community leader, invites us to join him for a coffee on the patio of his house, which faces the park . We were told that the medical brigades also meet at his patio every Monday.

Don Álvaro says that he grinds his own coffee because the one they sell in the supermarkets upsets his stomach. Niña Julita, Don Álvaro’s wife, brews the coffee and blends it with a cinnamon mixture. Drinking a cup of coffee is an obligatory ritual among Salvadorans. Rejecting an invitation for coffee at someone’s home can be taken as a lack of consideration and respect.

Playing cat and mouse

At 8:50am, everything seems calm. Women hold their children in their arms. Couples hold hands. Some people are walking alone. We drink coffee with Don Álvaro while talking about our outreach plans over the next months. Suddenly, six boys appear 20 meters away from us with weapons under their loose Angelino-style shirts. They’re running about agitated with shaken expressions on their faces in a state of alert. They’re constantly to-ing and fro-ing with their telephones and headphones, talking about “The Dogs”2 being in the area. They run from one place to another to spread themselves out. Even when they stop for a moment, the telephone conversations continue.

Don Álvaro makes eye contact with them and sends a discreet look, while sipping his coffee as if nothing unusual has happened. We observe his movements. He and his wife do not seem scared so we do the same and drink our coffee and continue to talk about work plans. We see the six boys run past us, look at us, then pass us. Nobody in the park seems scared but you can see they are taking precautions. This ‘cat and mouse’ is The Boys daily life with the police always chasing them.

Teams work in basic health care and mental health in areas of the cities affected by high levels of violence.

Violence as something natural

"A new round of appreciation towards blood: neither being impressed by brutality, nor mourning or rejecting the savagery of unexpected death, but celebrating it, enjoying it"

Living alongside The Boys means doing so under the shadow of death: see, hear, keep quiet is their motto. The people in this country understand the profound message of those four simple words... yes, four simple words. No one is surprised by the actions of The Boys, but the people in this community do feel fear. In spite of seeing The Boys run through the narrow streets and passages daily, people go about their business – Children walk to school; people go to the market and shops; they take the bus to work; and mingle with each other as much as possible. This is their normal.

The locals here have learned to survive alongside this most violent group in Central America by trying to ignore their actions. They have learned to normalize violence as a defense mechanism. To what extent is their desensitization of fear and pain a result of false self-preservation?


I looked at the clock and it’s 9:30 am. The Boys are scampering from one place to the next looking a bit anxious. They are laughing like people who are making fun of something or someone. Communications between them have not stopped. We carry on our conversation with Don Álvaro who behaves without seeming surprised or scared. He understands that as long as he does not ‘mess’ with them, The Boys will not harass him even if they are three meters away.

It’s now 10:00am. We finished our coffee. So it’s time to leave. We say goodbye to Don Álvaro and his wife, then head to the part of the neighborhood people describe as the “hottest”3 zone. Hardly anyone wants to pass through there because they fear being harassed by The Boys. We are going there to make two home visits to our patients.

Invisible borders erected by the different gangs and constant clashes with security forces limit people’s mobility and prevent them to reach health centres or hospitals.

Walking through the community

"The jura 4 is coming, the jura is coming!”, The Boys shout agitatedly on their phones."

As we walk along the main street, we see people behind their doors which are locked because they fear that The Boys will run randomly into their houses looking for shelter from the police. If anyone refuses them entry, this could mean death or being forced out of their family homes, their most valued possession.

Since we have been visiting this community for a few months, we recognize the faces of The Boys but they seem to recognize us more easily. Their job, of course, is to be in control of their territory and know what happens and who’s who, every hour, every day of every year. At times, we greet each other, up close and personal with a handshake, or from across the street. Today, there are more of them than normal. We recognize a few of them. The atmosphere feels heavy and tense. Apparently, the police are patrolling nearby. We don’t stop feeling afraid but we take precautions. We walk through alternate streets and passages with our heads up while not making any sudden movements. The Boys, telephone and headphones in hand, are running around seeming agitated. They seem to be on alert.

It’s now midday and we’ve finished seeing our patients in their homes. We are walking back to the park to find our driver. We walk between passages and improvised shacks that function as tortillerías 5. From a distance, we see a boy, keeping watch over the area for the police to avoid surprises. He seems about 1.6 meters tall, slim build, dark skin, around 19 years old, shaved on both sides of his head, wearing two silver earrings in the shape of a cross hanging from his ears, and wearing a loose black shirt, beige shorts and black trainers. I sense that he is going to stop us. We pass in front of him and give greetings. He stares at us and does not say anything. Suddenly, 15 meters along, I hear his voice behind me:

- Hey chele 6, come here! (His tone signals it’s an order.) He said this in a firm but respectful voice while remaining seated, seeming relative calmly while his eyes are looking about everywhere without making any sudden movements with his head.

I approach him. He asks what we are doing; who we are? (I noted that I’ve never seen this boy before.) I tell him that we work for Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical-humanitarian institution that works in more than 70 countries worldwide. And that we are now working in his community. I make him aware of our principles. I emphasize that we have no connection with any governmental institution or any police or military body (really important to mention so we stay safe). I make clear that he, his colleagues and his family can receive our medical services whenever they need them, that everything is free and totally confidential. While giving him all the necessary information, I notice him scanning me from head to toe. He read my15x10 cm ID card (It’s big for better identification) that is hanging visible on my chest.

- All good, chele! That’s fine. OK! I just wanted to know that, you can do your work here suave 7, as long as you’re doing what you say you’re doing. That’s fine, OK! he says.

We continue walking in the direction towards the main park where we had started our day where our driver will be waiting. Living and working in Las Guirnaldas means you have to practice the art of watching and being watched to stay alive.


MSF has presence again in El Salvador with projects in San Salvador and Soyapango.

My name is Santiago. I work as a social worker/psychologist for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). I am 32 years old. Our community outreach team is two people in Las Guirnaldas .

MSF has resumed its work in El Salvador, specifically in areas of San Salvador and Soyapango, where the population live in a climate of fear and witness high levels of violence daily. Because of the fear of leaving their houses, people have difficulties accessing health services. We make regular home visits to provide mental health care people need.

In El Salvador, the word “Niña” is prefixed to the name of a person to designate respect and to refer to an elderly or senior lady, e.g. “Niña Anita”.



  1. It's one of the many gang words to refer to the police.
  2. A word used to refer to a high level of danger or a recent violent encounter involving responses from the opposing gang or the security forces.
  3. A colloquial word used to refer to the police.
  4. Corn tortillas are part of the diet of Salvadorans. They are the equivalent of bread, and accompany lunch and dinner, although some people also eat them at breakfast.
  5. Salvadoran slang used to refer to a person with white skin and, also from gang slang, to a friend.
  6. “Cool” or “no problem” in Salvadoran slang.

(The names of people and places have been changed for safety reasons.)