SAN SALVADOR — It was bad enough when Jorge Beltran had to plead for his family's safety with the mother of a Mara Salvatrucha gang leader. Or flee his own neighborhood to shield his teenage daughter from the unwanted attentions of gang members.
Late last year, his job as a newspaper editor and reporter in the murder capital of the world took an even stranger turn. The threats this time didn't come from gangs, but from his own government.
Beltran specializes in reporting on gangs and organized crime at El Diario De Hoy, one of El Salvador's largest newspapers. The 46-year-old has been a journalist for 15 years, chronicling the murder waves, death squad killings and official corruption that have washed over the nation's capital in recent years.
In late December 2015, he published a map detailing which of San Salvador’s neighborhoods are controlled by the country’s powerful streets gangs, including the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and the Barrio 18. It was intended as an interactive guide to help people navigate the confusing and treacherous gang boundaries; knowing where not to cross is literally a matter of life and death here.
But national law enforcement authorities were deeply embarrassed by the notion that they had lost control of huge swaths of San Salvador to the maras, the gangs. A few days after the maps were published, the government fired back.
Citing laws classifying street gangs as terrorist organizations — and giving authorities wide powers to punish their “collaborators, apologists and financiers” — a top national police commander filed a complaint against Beltran’s newspaper with the attorney general’s office. (The articles were unsigned, but Beltran says the government knew he was the author).
The alleged charge: advocating terrorism and inciting crimes, violations punishable by up to four years in prison.
“Sir, these articles show complete control of the capital city by these criminal groups, magnifying their presence and provoking fear and terror in the population,” wrote Joaquin Hernandez, chief of police investigations, in a letter sent to the attorney general on Dec. 23, the last day the series of maps were published.
The move against El Diario de Hoy, one of the country's two major traditional newspapers, sparked international outrage and condemnation from other Central American news outlets. Beltran was never charged with a crime, and there is no evidence that the government has followed through with its threats against the paper. But the incident fits a pattern of official intimidation leveled against reporters by the government and powerful figures.
In El Salvador “officials harass and threaten journalists who try to investigate corruption or government finances,” according to the journalist advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. Last year, for example, the digital newspaper El Faro received death threats for reporting on extrajudicial killings of gang members by police. That followed previous blowback, in 2012, when El Faro faced reported threats after publishing accounts of a controversial truce between the government and gang members.
More recently, Salvadoran journalist Hector Silva Avalos, author of Infiltrated: Chronicle of Corruption in the National Civil Police, has faced legal harassment from a prominent and politically connected businessman, Jose Enrique Rais, over his report citing Florida state court records describing Rais as a "priority target" of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Rais — later charged by Salvadoran prosecutors in a separate corruption investigation involving a former attorney general — has used El Salvador’s criminal defamation laws, panned by advocates of press freedom, to threaten Silva.
Moves to harass or threaten reporters could have a chilling effect at a time when — thanks in part to robust competition from online trailblazer El Faro — the Salvadoran press has been cranking out top notch accountability journalism, according to Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Monitoring press freedom in Latin America is a major focus at the center.
“The goal is self-censorship. When you create such a hostile environment for journalists, they always think twice before publishing,” Alves said. “Self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship. You never know what you can publish or whether you can push the envelope or not.”
When it comes to harassing journalists, El Salvador isn’t in the same league as Mexico, where powerful drug cartels have systematically targeted reporters who dig too deep. The Center to Protect Journalists lists 32 Mexican journalists killed because of their reporting since 1992, compared with three in El Salvador for the same period.
The street violence is so rampant that journalists differ little from their fellow citizens in trying to carve out safe lives for themselves and their families. Beltran has first hand experience.
He encountered death threats in his own city, Soyapango, now one of the most-gang infested barrios in San Salvador’s metropolitan area. Ironically, the gangs didn’t begin infiltrating his neighborhood, whose name he preferred the Texas Tribune not publish, until a controversial truce was declared between MS-13 and Barrio 18 in 2012, Beltran said.
That year a young MS-13 member running from police tried to take refuge in Beltran’s house, but the journalist refused to let the boy inside. Beltran told police what he saw when they showed up minutes later.
That’s when the trouble began.
“The fact that I talked to the police about him — that was like a death sentence on me,” Beltran said. “The guy already wanted to kill me.”
Luckily, Beltran knew the mother of a high-ranking MS-13 member. He went to her, explaining that he had only told the police he saw someone running, and that he couldn’t lie to the authorities.
"She told her son, ‘Look, don’t mess with these people. They aren’t involved with anybody.’ And the boy said, ‘OK, don’t worry about it,’” Beltran recalled. “If we hadn’t done that, we would have been in a lot of trouble. They would have killed us.”
Not long after the incident, Beltran began to notice his neighborhood changing. It had started with that one gang member. Then came another. And another. Finally, they had established control of the streets.
Beltran wrote about living among gang bangers in mid-2013 in an online journal entitled “Diary of a Journalist in a Neighborhood Dominated by Gangs.” In one entry in May 2013, Beltran wrote that he was enjoying crawfish soup during lunch with his family when rival gangs started shooting at each other on the street corner just outside his house.
“My house is so close to the corner that I can hear the shell casings falling and the clicking of the pistols as they’re being loaded or unloaded,” he wrote.
He chronicled gang members sleeping on roofs to evade capture; young children greeting each other with elaborate gangster salutes; kids being enticed to join the gangs with gifts such as cell phones and bicycles.
“Life in my neighborhood has changed so much that even the cats seemed to have changed their habits: today they are walking down the alley with their tails up high and without meowing,” he wrote in August. “And rather than cats it’s the gang members who dash around the roofs, pistols in hand and with telephones stuck to their ears.”
Beltran told the Tribune that while living in Soyapango he worried incessantly about the safety of his three children, including a daughter he feared might be targeted by a marero — a gang member.
“The mareros try to find girlfriends in the neighborhood. Or the girls fall for some gang member. And if a father tries to stop it, they kill him,” he said. “There’s been a lot of cases in which they kill the parents because they don’t want their daughters to go out with gang members.”
He was determined to move out of the neighborhood where his kids grew up, but it wouldn’t be cheap or easy. It took him more than two years to find a safe place he could afford — and only then after informing his children they’d have to help Beltran and his wife launch a new catering business to make ends meet. They specialize in El Salvador’s national dish — the pupusa, a thick corn tortilla typically filled with meat and cheese.
He still owns the old house in Soyapango, but the rent is steep in his new upscale neighborhood, where the murder rate is more like calm Costa Rica's than the rough parts of San Salvador.
“Now we’re fine. The level of security is quite high. No gang members sleeping on the roof. No more shootouts,” he said. “My kids can go out at night to buy things, and there’s no problem.”
At his day job, Beltran sees people every week who are desperate to flee the same gang violence his family was able to escape.
“It hurts me to see 12- or 13-year-old gang members die,” he said. “They’re killing and getting killed. These are real lives. This is our reality.”
This story is part of The Texas Tribune's yearlong Bordering on Insecurity project.