El Salvador's 'vigilante' mayor battling the gangs

Florence PANOUSSIAN
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San Jose Guayabal mayor Mauricio Vilanova is armed and ready to patrol the streets of his town to protect them from gangs

Mauricio Vilanova is no typical small-town mayor. The 60-year-old patrols the streets of El Salvador's San Jose Guayabal in a 4x4 vehicle wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an automatic rifle.

Vilanova's civilian patrols are one of the reasons this town is one of the few in El Salvador not haunted by the gangs which, in this country and elsewhere in Central America, are cited by migrants as a major reason for trying to flee to the United States.

"Carrying a weapon doesn't make me feel more of a man. I do this out of love for my town," says Vilanova, mayor for 18 years in the community of 13,000 people covering 45 square kilometers (17 square miles).

Trouble is never far away, though, as San Jose Guayabal lies alongside some tough suburbs of the capital San Salvador.

Here, to Vilanova's great delight, youngsters play basketball when night falls.

"We feel free. The children can play," Carmen Garcia, a 48-year-old grandmother, tells AFP.

Ricardo Reyes, 38, an athletics club coach, adds: "Here, I've never had problems with gangs."

The mayor remains on red alert once the sun sets, ready at any moment to dash off to get his Beretta handgun and Galil SAR assault rifle, both of which are kept under lock and key in his office.

Then he heads off to see what's happening, much to the chagrin of his wife and 21-year-old daughter.

- Endangered person -

Other than unexpected call-outs, Vilanova also performs a regular patrol alongside a chauffeur and bodyguard, both also armed.

The mayor has been targeted by gangs and despite never having been attacked, he is classified as an "endangered person" by the government.

Vilanova is undeterred, though. "It's difficult to get out of it. I'd have to leave the country," he says.

Things weren't always calm in San Jose Guayabal and could re-escalate at any moment. Gang members turn up in the town regularly and paint their symbols.

If the police pick them up, Vilanova treats the gang members to a sermon and then makes them paint over their graffiti.

Gang activity in the town began in 2006 when La Barrio 18 -- one of the most dangerous criminal groups in the country alongside MS-13 -- took over two neighborhoods.

Deploring the lack of security forces, Vilanova, whose father was a champion shooter and gave him his first gun in adolescence, decided to start patrolling alongside them.

"It took us just two years to basically solve the gang problem," he said.

It didn't last, though, and around 2012 "Guayabal flared up. It wasn't two neighborhoods this time but six out of nine cantons."

Both MS-13 and La Barrio 18 took advantage of a truce with the government to expand their territories.

- Murder rate plummets -

Racketeering, kidnappings and murders were back.

A tearful 34-year-old woman who doesn't wish to give her name out of fear of reprisals says her 21 and 22-year-old nephews disappeared.

"They took them away from me. I've heard nothing of them since."

She received threats just for informing authorities of their disappearance and searching for the nephews she describes as "very honest and well-mannered boys."

Vilanova decided to revive his patrols, but as the law prevented civilians from doing so alongside security forces, he was joined on his rounds by town hall officials.

He proudly points out that the number of murders in his community has plummeted from 18 a year when he started patrolling to none in 2018. And this in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world: 45.5 per 100,000 citizens in 2017.

He may not be allowed to patrol with security forces but Vilanova does help them.

"The mayor provides us with a vehicle and a chauffeur so we can be more effective," said Antonio Carbajal, 35, a policeman on patrol with three soldiers.

He is one of only eight policemen at the local station. They are fed by the local town council, which also pays them a monthly subsidy of around $1,000 out of its $40,000 annual security budget.

On their route they pass by some peasants carrying bales on their heads.

Suddenly the vehicle stops and the balaclava-wearing soldiers jump down from the back, M-16s in hand.

They surround an adolescent and check his bag, his phone and lift up his T-shirt.

They find nothing; no weapons, drugs or even gang tattoos, so they let him go.

- 'We don't hit' -

The mayor cannot perform such stop-and-search checks so his own team limit themselves to stopping suspects and calling the police.

"We don't violate any rights. We don't hit" suspects, says Vilanova, who claims to have only ever fired his gun "in the air or into the ground" as a warning.

Even so, not everyone is onboard with Vilanova's brand of vigilantism.

"It's the Wild West," says Benjamin Cuellar, from the El Salvador independent monitoring group (GMIES), a rights organization.

"When you have cockroaches at home, you spray their corner and four or five die. The others leave but then they come back."

Vilanova has installed security cameras and built up a network of about 300 informants but he is also investing in preventative measures such as sport and education to try to starve the gangs of new recruits.

"If we identify a youth at risk... we appoint a mentor to accompany him," said Vilanova.

Although he chooses to play the role of vigilante, Vilanova is against allowing civilians to carry weapons.

And he's prepared to venture beyond his own town's borders to help out neighboring communities, such as El Proyecto in San Martin.

"The inhabitants ask for me," he says as he patrols streets emblazoned with MS-13 graffiti.