Violent teens have no parents but war

SUN JOURNAL

El Salvador: The country's 12-year civil war ended in 1992, but its offspring continue to spread violence and terror. New laws prevent them from being tried as adults, regardless of their crimes.

August 17, 1999|By Juanita Darling | Juanita Darling,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador -- At 17, Gustavo Adolfo Morales is a legend -- the hero of a rap song banned from the radio airwaves and the symbol of a lost generation.

He has been convicted of murdering six people in a two-year reign of terror as a youth gang leader in this sweltering city in eastern El Salvador. Police suspect that he actually killed 17 people, but proving his guilt in the other 11 crimes would be academic.

No matter how many people he killed, Morales will serve only seven years because he is under 18 and that is the maximum sentence for a minor, no matter how horrible -- or numerous -- the crimes.

The short sentence has raised an outcry in this tiny nation of 5.6 million people, where a wave of violence after the civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s has reached stunning proportions: 2,192 people were slain in the final six months of last year alone.

Although no figures clearly show what proportion of slayings and other violent crimes are committed by minors, the perception among police, officers of the juvenile justice system and the public is that young offenders are a major part of the problem.

"These are the children of the war," said Manuel Contreras, a psychologist for the juvenile courts. "The desensitization of the war had its effects in the most vulnerable group, which are the children."

During the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, many children were orphaned or abandoned. Some became spies or soldiers for the guerrillas or the army. Others, such as Morales, grew up in an atmosphere of stress and violence, especially prevalent in cities such as San Miguel that were at the edge of war zones.

Now they are teen-agers, and society is paying for the neglect.

Just how high that price is became evident this year when Morales was arrested.

Based largely on testimony from members of rival gangs, police began finding bodies throughout the section of the city roamed by Morales' gang, the Bunch of Crazy Southerners -- a unit of the Mara Salvatrucha, a Salvadoran "megagang" with affiliates stretching from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area to Central America -- and connecting other unsolved killings to Morales.

The police soon acknowledged what the neighbors around the rundown Tesoro section of San Miguel had known for months: A gang war was claiming the lives of area youths.

"As long as gang members were killing each other, the police just ignored it," said Juan Jose Villacorta, the equivalent of a public defender for young offenders. The police became interested only when the nephew of a prominent local official was killed, he said.

The investigation led police to Morales, a fatherless boy who had been a gang member since he was 12. The thin youngster's arms, chest and legs are nearly covered with tattoos, but the most striking are the gothic M and S, for Mara Salvatrucha, above his right and left eyes.

He is known as "El Directo," an expression that means roughly "beyond crazy" and often refers to crack cocaine users.

Speaking in a voice barely above a whisper, Morales denied in a jail house interview that he had committed any of the killings. "Other people did this," he insisted.

Based mainly on the testimony of three witnesses -- a taxi driver and two rival gang members -- police originally accused Morales of 17 murders. The number as well as the brutality of the slayings shocked even Salvadorans, who usually seem inured to violence.

Morales was convicted of walking up to Enrique Sanchez on a corner in January 1998 and killing him with one pistol shot because he wanted to leave the gang.

When Roberto Carlos Diaz objected to the murder two weeks later during a gang gathering at a deserted house, Morales beat him to death with a baseball bat, then dumped his body in a ditch, according to court records obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Morales forced Sanchez's girlfriend, Maria Candelaria Quinteros, to become his girlfriend, then in May 1998 lured her into a gathering of seven gang members at the house, where she was gang-raped, according to the records.

Gang members stuffed a red handkerchief in her mouth and strangled her with a rag, court records said. Her body was thrown down a well, the documents stated.

Another young rape victim was hacked to death with a machete, according to court records. The killings continued throughout 1998, and police found evidence of others committed in 1997.

Unlike the law in many U.S. states, El Salvador's criminal code makes no provision for treating minors as adults when they have committed heinous crimes. Morales would be tried as a juvenile.

Prosecutors decided that they could make a case in seven of the killings. Police had no blood, DNA samples or ballistics tests linking the victims to Morales -- just the testimony of witnesses. Still, they got seven homicide convictions, although one was thrown out on appeal.

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