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Published: February 18th 2017
Welcome To El Salvador
Photo: Business Insider, 01 Dec 2016, The 13 most dangerous countries in the world, AP Photo/Salvador Melendez
As you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you better watch how you are talking and where you are walking, you read the news and realize its safe, for today is the day no murder has taken place.
"El Salvador, one of the world’s deadliest countries, has recorded a rare day without a single homicide" (Guardian, 12th Jan 2017)
Feeling a little more confident, you arrange a private taxi to Rute De Las Flores. As you get into the taxi, you are instantly met with a reluctant driver. Initially you think the driver is being difficult but soon realise he is concerned for his safety as you innocently ask him to leave his protected zone and head towards the ganglands.
“Where the gangs stake out most of their territories. Residents who cross the invisible line between them – usually an innocuous-looking bridge, road or park – risk beatings or even death. Taxi drivers dread wrong turns that can lead to robbery or kidnap.” (Guardian, 22nd Aug 2015)
Driving into the mountains you pass green cultivated landscapes and beautiful coffee plantations. As Go-Carts packed with freshly cut logs thunder past cars, you laugh in bemusement
taking your mind off the very real dangers of travelling El Salvador. Eventually stopping at a stunning viewpoint to check out the amazing mountain views, you could be forgiven for thinking this will be just another sight seeing day in the mountains.
Arriving in the first town Juayuaya you quickly notice the colourful buildings and quiet streets. Initially the town feels peaceful and safe as you naively wonder around the town, but as you look closely you notice schools are protected by barbed wire and patrolled by soldiers; private security guards carry shotguns or machetes, and police armed with rifles conduct random checks on the highways. Even on the road into town you pass soldiers in balaclavas on the back of trucks mounted with heavy machine guns.
“While the rich hide behind high fences, often manned by armed security guards, they too fear kidnapping, carjacking, robbery and extortion. Few are willing to accept phone calls from strangers for fear of death threats and cash demands.” (Guardian, 22nd Aug 2015)
It does not take long before you are approached by a shady character and his accomplice. "Welcome to my town" he said, while extending both arms outwards revealing
his gangster style tattoos and blocking your way. With heavy gold jewellery and a relatively smart appearance, he flashes his large confident smile revealing several gold teeth.
Introducing himself as Reaper and his accomplice Junior, he begins to ask why you are in his town. As he carefully extracts information and is clearly playing it dumb, it quickly becomes clear he is trying to suss out whether you are CIA, potential drug traffickers or possible people smugglers, after all why else would a gringo decide to visit such a beautiful and remote little town?
When you cheekily ask what he does for a living, he replies that you shouldn’t know all the details because its bad! however he eagerly explains that he is a coyote. A people and drug smuggler that has contacts to make problems disappear anywhere in the world. Obviously proud of what he does and the respect it demands, he quickly engages with you, talking of money, cars, mansions, drugs and trafficking.
As you feel your jaw drop at the surreal conversation, you begin to feel that nervous feeling in your stomach. You quickly notice that the three heavily armed police officers which were
standing on the street corner for your protection had suddenly disappeared in his presence.
With Junior quietly loitering in the background, it takes a while to draw yourself away from the primary conversation and temporarily turn your attention towards him. With a faded spider web tattoo across his face and three missing fingers, he does not make eye contact, but constantly scopes the surroundings with one had under his shirt. Could he be concealing a weapon? is he the body guard? you wonder as your mind drifts into a paranoid state and natural adrenaline high.
Reaper continues to chat with you and your travel companions. He is excited to tell you that his ex-wife is in jail for smuggling over a tonne of cocaine. He says he was a boxer and once fought Leon Sphinx. He explains he has cancer and likes to smoke weed and drink "special" tea to releave the pain. He offers to introduce you to many business contacts from around the world, whatever business interests you may have.
As the conversation spirals into something out of a movie, it becomes clear that he is scoping for information and a potential business partnership as
you become relaxed talking with the gang boss for the local area.
"I like tea too because I am from England" You stupidly blurt out to try and ensure he doesn’t assume you are all Americans. Reaper turns to his accomplice, briefly mention England in a passing conversation, leans forward and shakes your hand. "Welcome my English friend" he says , you should all come to my mansion in the mountains for a party one evening, I have lots of rum to mix with my extra special coke, don’t worry it will be free, you are my guests, where is your phone, I will give you my details.
Although you secretly admit to yourself that you would love to befriend the local gang boss and have the most insane Facebook profile picture, you quickly realise handing over your expensive mobile phone to the local gangsters is not the best thought to have crossed your mind today, so you lie and tell him your mobile phone is back at the hotel. While hoping your mobile does not start ringing in your pocket, he tells you that his wife is a professional singer and gives you her business card.
As he passes the business card, you try you not to laugh and get shot in the head. Expecting a glamorous mobsters wife, you are met with a cheesy business card illustrating a large women posing in front of a karaoke box. As you take the business card, you are left wondering whether the card is a front for communication. You say good bye with a forced gangster style handshake and eagerly return to the taxi for a quick exit out of town.
With an uncomfortable and anxious taxi driver waiting for you slumped down in his seat and out of view, he is eager to hit the road. Look in the wing mirror you notice you are being followed by a blue Toyota with tinted windows, quickly elevating your heart rate.
Eventually arriving in Apaneca, your driver refuses to get out of the car and tells you are you are all going to get robbed before leaving you to wonder the streets without a guide.
With only a few people on each street corner, the town has uneasy feel. Just beneath the surface you could sense something wasn’t quite right. Under the gaze of the locals
it quickly becomes apparent mobile phones are being used to communicate your whereabouts.
“The gangs are estimated to have about 50,000 members aged 12-55, including more than 10,000 in jail. With the addition of several hundred thousand wives, children, parents and collaborators, it is estimated that nearly one in ten Salvadorians depend on and work with the gangs.” (Guardian, 22nd Aug 2015).
Obviously communicating between one another you quickly become aware you are being tracked. Like a scene out of the TV series Narcos, you soon find your sense of paranoia reaching an all time high. When the police refuse to give you directions and jump on their mobile for instructions under the watchful eye of collaborators on street corners, you decide not to stay too long in this quiet little border town.
Clearly travelling with a taxi driver from another part of the country was causing quite a lot of attention in a town where more is going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. After hearing horror stories of machete attacks and shootings on taxi drivers out of their protected zone, you are anxious to leave town and move on through the Rute De Las Flores visiting Ataco and Auachapan before returning back to the safe zone that is El Tunco.
That evening you talk between yourselves of the events that took place. As you speak of gang members and drugs you cant help but notice the local security guard listening in on the conversation. Moments later two guys approach you apparently drunk, one with his fly undone and both walking an unsteady line. Acting too perfect to be drunk, you can not help but wonder weather everyone is listening in on your conversation.
With paranoia running high between you and your travel companions, you quickly learn to watch how you are talking and where you are walking, for this is El.Salvador, one of the worlds most dangerous countries.
Welcome to El Salvador.
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