-- It was the middle of the night in El Salvador and officers, armed with masks and body armor, were asking men they had arrested to remove their shirts before they brought them to a rundown police station in the country’s capital city.
The officers were checking for tattoos that would reveal certain gang memberships.
One man among the 169 who were crammed into three cells in the tiny police station had a tattoo on his forehead. It said, “El Diablo.” Another had a tattoo that read "Revolucionario" or “Revolutionary” in Spanish.
“It’s a cause we’re starting ... to take care of each other,” the man said.
Gang violence has turned the small central American country of El Salvador, roughly 1,500 miles south of the United States border, into the murder capital of the world. On average, there was nearly one homicide per hour there in the first three months of 2016, according to El Salvador's government organization Instituto de Medicina Legal. The country has a murder rate 22 times that of the U.S., though these gangs have active members in 46 states, according to U.S. authorities, because of a revolving door of illegal immigrants and deportation cases going back and forth across the border.
“It’s extremely violent as evidenced by their motto, ‘mata, viola, controla,’ which translated means ‘kill, rape, control,’” said Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
“Nightline” traveled to El Salvador and embedded with a special anti-gang unit or "Antipandillas" on night patrol as they looked for gang members, as well as spoke to dangerous gang leaders, to investigate why the violence there has become so grotesque and contagious.
Those in the anti-gang unit covered their faces with masks when out on patrol so the gangs wouldn’t recognize them. Even the translator who traveled with “Nightline” covered his face, he said, to protect himself and his family.
In the capital city San Salvador, the two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18 (or 18th Street Gang), have carved up the city into warring factions.
Every night, a forensic team from a local morgue heads out into the streets to collect dead bodies. When the bodies are brought back to the morgue, doctors take note of the person’s age and the trauma to the body.
One was a 23-year-old man named Carlos, who was shot and killed inside his home after ordering a pizza. His mother insisted that her son wasn’t even in a gang.
"He was everything for me. My only son," she said in Spanish. “They took him away from me. They left me alone."
Munisha Kailley, who is from Canada originally, is part of a team of archaeologists employed by the morgue to help identify victims found buried in unmarked graves, their bodies often dismembered.
“The weapons that are mostly used here by gang members are pickaxes, machetes and guns,” Kailley said. “They’re cut at the knees, at the hips, at the elbows, the arms, the neck.
“You get desensitized,” she continued. “Especially working here in El Salvador, there’s death all around us. We’re used to this.”
Dozens of families come to the morgue every day to search for missing loved ones and identify the dead. A woman named Eriselda came to the morgue to claim the body of her 17-year-old son Alexis, who was killed by gangs the night before. She said another son, Roberto, was murdered just two months prior.
“When my first son was killed, my other two sons applied for asylum. Now there's only one left,” she said in Spanish. “If they’re going to give us asylum, they can still take him, so I don't lose all of my children."
Later, in the middle of the wake service for Alexis, gunshots rang out. Eriselda’s only remaining son was thought to have been the target. Police said they believe since the service was held in 18th Street territory, the shooters were likely from MS-13, and the ordeal wasn’t over yet. Eriselda still had the burial service the following day to worry about.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “But I have to face this situation because it's my son I have to bury."
The family said the best hope to have a funeral without violence was to ask for help from the local mayor, who is rumored to be tied to MS-13. The day of the funeral, the mayor got on the phone and seemed to call in a favor with one of the gang leaders, asking them to stand down.
At the cemetery, Eriselda said, “I think they may come after me next.
"They already took two sons from me, I don’t know what those murderers have in mind now,” she added.
The loyalty among gang members is fierce. A man who goes by the name “Clavo,” which is Spanish for “Nail,” says he’s the clique leader for the 18th Street Gang in an area known as "La Fosa" or "The Graveyard." He said sometimes they have to resort to violence to protect their territory, and if he were to walk into a rival gang’s territory, he could be killed and vice versa.
“You have to respect your area,” he said in Spanish.
Clavo personifies the noxious symbiosis between the U.S. and El Salvador. As a boy, he moved to Virginia, where he joined a gang. Then he was deported back to El Salvador, where his gang career continued.
Now, he said he wants to sneak back into the States, in part to escape gang life, because he said he’s tired of taking orders from higher gang leaders, most of whom are in prison but can still make a phone call to have someone killed. Sometimes, Clavo said, he doesn’t even know why someone orders a hit on someone else.
The violence in El Salvador has provoked an enormous flood of illegal immigrants crossing over the border into the U.S., including tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors. But once here, they often find themselves targeted by the same gangs, according to U.S. authorities. MS-13 and Barrio 18 now have tentacles all over the States.
U.S. federal authorities say the gangs are incredibly sophisticated, engaging in drug dealing, gun running, human trafficking, prostitution, extortion, and then sending the proceeds back to their leaders in El Salvador.
The gangs started in Los Angeles after residents fled north to escape El Salvador's 12-year-long civil war began in the late 1980's, which left 75,000 people dead.
A 15-year-old boy named Francisco said he made the perilous journey to the U.S. alone at age 13, fleeing gang violence, and now lives in California. He recently learned that the gang that targeted him then attacked his mother Ana and his two siblings, Miguel and Isabel, back in El Salvador.
“They try to kill my family, my mother, my little brother, my sister,” he said.
Francisco met with a lawyer because he believed if he went back he would be killed. Today, he learned he was granted asylum to stay in the U.S. In El Salvador, his mother lives on the run. She told “Nightline” gang members burst into their apartment one night and opened fire. Her children were hit, but she said they survived.
"My daughter would have been killed if it weren’t because my son put his leg up [to block the bullet]," she said in Spanish. "I live in fear. I can’t go out to the corner because I feel like they’re going to kill us."
The El Salvadorian government is escalating its fight against the gangs. In August 2015, the Supreme Court of El Salvador declared MS-13 and 18th Street gangs terrorist organizations. But the gangs are hitting back with ferocity, sending the murder rate to record levels, according to Reuters.
Critics say government officials are either in league with the gangs or forming illegal vigilante death squads to retaliate.
But some say it seems that the impoverished nation may be overwhelmed with the volume of young people who feel they have no choice but to join gangs. There are over 15,500 gang members in El Salvador’s overcrowded jails, according to Instituto de Medicina Legal.
In that tiny jail at the rundown police station in San Salvador, one inmate said in Spanish, "With everything we've done, there's no going back.”
Members from different gang fractions are kept separated because if they are kept in the same cell they say they will kill each other. Some inmates are chained to metal pipes and are only released twice a day to use the bathroom.
A top gang leader named Santiago said the government doesn’t have control, the gangs do, and the situation in El Salvador is just going to get worse.
“If we as a gang fall into the trap that the government is setting, yes, because they are calling us and daring us to war,” he said.
He said the only route for peace is for the government to negotiate with the gangs. As a show of force, Santiago announced a cease-fire between MS-13 and Barrio 18 right then.
The next night, the local morgue was quiet.
It was proof of the incredible power the gangs hold, but it didn’t last long. The government rejected the truce and within days, the violence resumed.