The Passenger

AAA Carlos Teos owned city buses AAA in “the most dangerous country in the world”
— not Mexico, and not Colombia – but El Salvador.

His drivers on Route 46 met the world’s highest national homicide rate, if measured per capita–far higher than in troubled Mexico,
the giant nearby. Driving a bus in El Salvador is
a terrifying risk: 135 drivers or assistants murdered in 2010, and 21 buses burned, out of 1,100 buses nationwide, running a gauntlet of street gangs.

AAA

A thousand miles south of the United States–farther than Mexico, not as far as Colombia in South America–El Salvador is the most densely populated nation in Central America: about the same population and land area as Massachusetts. But the exact population is part of the riddle – because more than 2.5 million Salvadorans are said to have come to the United States: perhaps one out of every three living citizens, 500 or so leaving daily, according to the government. Others say many more. A specialized entity has reprised a globalized world: a binational nation. In a violent pressure cooker, the escape valve emits people.

The editor of El Salvador’s influential digital newspaper El Faro, Carlos Dada, said it starkly: “When you turn 15 you have three choices: become a victim, become a victimizer, or you come to the United States.”

AAAThis melding of two nations has made any political objections out of date. The U.S. dollar became the official currency of El Salvador as far back as 2001. City buses like those run by Carlos Teos charge 20 cents, U.S. In religion, El Salvador was once monolithically Catholic, but may now be nearly 40 percent evangelical. An explosion in U.S.-mold fundamentalist chapels and temples has paced the explosion in gangs (also with U.S. roots), as if opposing shelters faced a storm.

And there are gray areas. A slang word from Mexico labels the niche in Salvadoran society held by the people-smuggler, or coyote. Forming a key link in the 500-a-day emigration, coyotes work outside Salvadoran law, subject to prison if arrested. And yet the national economy rests on more than $3 billion a year sent home by expatriates, many of them illegal, smuggled by coyotes for $6,000 to $7,000 a head.

Fifteen times smaller than Mexico, the energetic, industrious homeland of Carlos Teos had become a laboratory for the mysterious. His aging buses shuddered through hold-ups, extortion demands, route feuds and grisly accidents–for starters. In addition, according to police, Teos secretly wore a more exotic hat, as the international mastermind of a people-smuggling ring.

This could be a deadly game. The bus man’s home in Tecapan, El Salvador, lay a thousand miles south of a certain farm shed in northern Mexico, but in August 2010 there would be 72 bodies found in that shed–and this allegedly involved Teos, at least by long-distance. In this shed the San Fernando massacre took place, killing 72 immigrants, non-Mexicans who were trying to cross Mexico from other nations, seeking back-door entry to the United States. At least 14 had been smuggled a thousand miles from El Salvador.AAA

The summer of 2010 quickly overtook ninth-grader Yedmi Castro. Her time-forgotten village in eastern El Salvador, far from urban bus routes, resounded with her “fiesta rosa,” the big party for her fifteenth birthday, marking the brink of womanhood. They said a hundred people packed the town hall: the biggest fiesta rosa in memory. Financing came from Yedmi’s proud mother, who flew home for the event, bringing hard-won immigrant savings from a miracle land called New York.

Yedmi had lived with grandparents since age five. Her remote home region, luxuriant in the rainy season but sunk in economic decay, made a showplace for epidemic migration. Eerily vacated homes alternated abruptly with new boxes of cement and rebar rods, built on bursts of dollars wired home.

On June 20, 2010, Yedmi’s home village, like the rest of El Salvador, trembled with news from the capital city, San Salvador. a hundred miles west. The capital had long been plagued by street gangs, probably more than 10,000 gang members in the city alone, many latticed with tattoos–more than 6,000 in overflowing prisons, replaced outside by thousands more. This was old news. But June 20 brought AAAa new plateau. A gang attack hit a city bus, and its passengers were purposely burned alive. It was not one of Carlos Teos’s buses, but close. Yedmi, naturally, had never heard of the distant man in the city mazes, but she heard of the gang violence he had to deal with.

The June bus attack killed 16 people–bus passengers who were unconnected to the gangs, mere pawns. One woman lingered for days, her airways and 90 percent of her skin burned away. Police at the site had frantically broken bus windows to pull survivors from the inferno. Eight alleged gang members were arrested, one still reeking of gasoline. The bus had been doused while the passengers were locked inside. One arrestee was female. Two suspects were minors. And children were among the dead. One fatality in the flames was an infant.

The attack was apparently not made by the notorious MS-13 gang, world famous since 2004, when MS-13 had slaughtered 28 bus passengers in nearby Honduras. Instead, the June 2010 atrocity was attributed to a large rival, the 18th Street Gang, or “the 18,” which presumably hit the bus to force extortion money–“renta”–out of its owner. In Honduras (next to El Salvador in Central America’s winding chain of nations) gangs levied a “war tax” of more than $10 weekly per bus–plus extorting taxis, plus other businesses–for a reported total of a million dollars a year in gang extortion, just in Honduras. In El Salvador the “renta” was said to go higher–$5 a day even on smaller businesses–with alleged totals passing $15 million a year. The numbers are guesses. Only the general implosion is clear.

But Yedmi Castro’s summer of 2010 turned on a different note. In her fifteenth year she had blossomed attractively. Attentions were coming from an older man. Her family feared he might lure her away to a neighboring country, cutting short her future. Yedmi’s mother dreamed of sending her to school in New York. Then early August brought homecoming for the fiesta rosa, and the ominous romance was revealed. The timetable for Yedmi’s move to New York was drastically accelerated, according to her mother’s later statements. The impressionable 15-year-old had to be gotten out of El Salvador fast. People-smugglers were not hard to find. In rustic eastern El Salvador they said some coyotes hung out office signs.AAA

Yedmi’s mother found a network, probably talking to a lower-level recruiter, one of the smooth-talking salesmen who convinced nervous emigrants to take the plunge–and to pony up $3,000 to $3,500 as a downpayment, with a similar sum to be paid on arrival in the United States.

Yedmi would eventually travel with at least 13 other Salvadorans in the arduous overland journey to the U.S. At least six of these travelers, according to later charges, were recruited and shepherded by an organization secretly managed by the bus man, Carlos Teos.

The specific arrangements for Yedmi are known only through statements from her family to the press–once the journey had led to atrocity. Family witness narratives about links to people-smugglers are often murky, burdened by remorse (if the trip went bad), and by loyalty, hopes of future emigration–and fear. Even at age 15 Yedmi was trusted alone to a coyote network. Her mother would wait for her in New York. Despite frightening risks, such arrangements had brought many children to immigrant parents. The Castro family may never have met or even known about Carlos Teos as he pulled strings in the background. The deepening summer of 2010 found Teos facing other problems.

Tensions in El Salvador’s capital city were high after the June 20 bus massacre. The outraged government rushed a new law through the legislature, imposing heavy penalties for just belonging to a street gang. The gangs, preening themselves as homeboy social pillars, threatened retaliation. They demanded negotiation. The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, replied angrily that he didn’t negotiate with criminals.

Yedmi’s trip began on August 10. The people-smuggling ring attributed to Carlos Teos worked with clockwork precision, unlike some other operations. Yedmi took a bus for 60 miles to a regional hub, and there quietly joined other travelers paying around $7,000 apiece. For example, the recuiters had found Antonio Blanco, a 30-year-old farm worker with four children, in a town AAA 30 miles from Yedmi’s. He was bound for Washington, D.C., where he had three brothers. Also on the trip was Wilmer Velasquez, age 16–only a year older than Yedmi–and, like her, getting shipped to parents in New York, this time on Long Island. Even after crossing the U.S. border, the leg of the trip on U.S. soil would span 2,000 miles, probably in vehicles run by illegal contractors called “raiteros.” And this was after a thousand miles in Mexico, the “land of death” for non-Mexican transients moving northward.

The sweep of it was epic–a signature of globalized horizons. But the shortest route to New York and Washington meant crossing a ghostly highway chokepoint 90 miles south of the Rio Grande: a town in northern Mexico called San Fernando.

The group’s first few hours passed in an ordinary commercial bus through El Salvador. In another day they had crossed Guatemala, reaching a point near Mexico. Through Guatemala, Yedmi and her companions were merely legal travelers, citizens of the loose-knit Central American Union, requiring no Guatemalan visa. But in Mexico things would change. Smuggled across Mexico’s southern border, they faced a thousand miles of traveling outside Mexican law, easy targets for police shakedowns, hold-ups and kidnap snares, long before they dodged the U.S. Border Patrol.

From Guatemala Yedmi phoned home, reportedly on both August 11 and 12, perhaps staying overnight in one place. She said she was fine, but her group was moving slowly because one woman was pregnant. Twelve days later, the 72 bodies found in the San Fernando farm shed included 14 women, one of them pregnant.

Through El Salvador, some of Yedmi’s group were shepherded by a pudgy, serene-faced coyote named Erick Escobar, 33 (arrested months later, on December 1, 2010). But at the border with Guatemala they were allegedly handed off to a Guatemalan coyote, Jose Negreros. AAA After Negreros got them through Guatemala he would hand them off again, to Mexicans. Back among the urban mazes of El Salvador, Carlos Teos was said to be making international phone calls.

Wearing jeans and sneakers, Yedmi Castro would see little of Mexico from a crowded cargo truck in rain-swept jungles. Up in the cab, an outlaw trucker made detours–or payoffs–as police roadblocks loomed in the darkness. AAA

By that point it was out of Carlos Teos’s hands–though perhaps not his influence. The “Gulf route” through Mexico was controlled by that nation’s most reviled drug gang, the Zetas. Less buttoned-down than the big Sinaloa cartel–but more mafia-like than the street gangs of Central America–the Zetas made up the difference with violence. AAATeos knew he was sending his clients into Zeta turf, because people-smugglers paid the Zetas a cuota, or toll, for passage rights. But since February 2010 the Gulf route had been torn by an underworld war, pitting the Zetas against a long list of criminal enemies. Somewhere in the process, the mysterious Carlos Teos was said to have fallen into debt to the Zetas, perhaps lapsing on payments of his turf tax.

Supposedly, the $7,000 paid for Yedmi Castro had cocooned her in protection, enabling payoffs to potential predators like the Zetas. As a paying customer she was not like the thousands who risked Mexico on their own, clinging to freight trains and huddling in soup kitchens. But the 2010 cartel war was disrupting the payoff chain, deepening the dangers.

Signs of the war appeared on Mexican Federal Highway 101, where the Gulf route for illegals pushed toward the U.S. border. In July 2010, 12 alleged Zeta operatives were caught by rivals in the cartel war and tortured to death, then were dumped in a pile on the highway. AAAEach body was painted with a large Z, for “Zeta,” like a grim parody of Zorro. A few days later 15 more executed Zetas appeared on the same highway. The Zetas were losing badly in the war, but not conclusively–and they lashed out fiercely. The rumors of strange Zeta paranoias and frenzies could have been enemy propaganda–or accurate commentaries on outlaw chaos.

The highway heaps of July 2010 were like boundary markers on a battle front, which raggedly separated the Zetas from their foes. This conflict line ran parallel to the U.S. border but 30 to 100 miles south of the border in northern Mexico. Anchoring it was a shell-shocked Zeta stronghold in open farmland. The Zetas still reigned in San Fernando.

A thousand miles south, El Salvador’s upheaval was not a cartel war like Mexico’s, but a melee of Central American street gangs. On August 25 a bus on Route 46, Carlos Teos’s route, became the 18th Salvadoran bus burned in 2010. September 1 brought finalization of El Salvador’s new anti-gang law. The gangs pushed back. Another bus burned. Then another. On September 7, public transport ground to a halt for a day. Soldiers turned out.

A region of more than a thousand miles, from the U.S. border south through Mexico and into lands beyond, was flaring too often for comprehensive news: On September 7, Honduras also saw a gang massacre, killing 17 factory workers.

By then the San Fernando massacre had been revealed, on August 24. It dwarfed the others–72 dead–as if coming from a different planet, or suddenly packaging accumulated poisons into a super-virus. Events were outrunning historical perspective; the news failed to note that the solemn event at San Fernando was apparently the largest mass execution in all of modern Mexico, since its birth in 1920 out of the fires of the Mexican Revolution.

In the United States it was tuned out. The blinders closing off news from Mexico let in only glimpses, and those fanned old fears of Mexican violence spilling north–mostly baseless fears. Few in the United States were looking still farther south toward El Salvador–as January 2011 brought new bus attacks. Carlos Teos’s Route 46 was struck by a duplicate of the August hit–in this case sparing the passengers of the burned bus, unlike the June massacre. Gang mercies ebbed and flowed. On other routes, early January saw seven bus workers murdered. Honduras ran apace, with a bus massacre of four women and four children. El Salvador’s bus owners demanded a fare hike to compensate for their impossible position. Some had fled the country under gang threats. Carlos Teos was a shadow in the storm, his name still unpublicized at this point.

But on March 7 a Teos bus, license plate AB 79-822, put him in the spotlight, as it brakes apparently failed. Jumping a curb, it barreled across two pedestrians. A 19-year old had been walking his eight-year-old stepson to school–through a sea of gang dangers–when another danger joined the mix. Public indignation over the two deaths had the newspapers digging for the owner of the bus, and Teos was found. His company was said to offer the grieving family a couple of coffins and a shrug. When asked about the driver of the bus (who had leaped out and disappeared), the company shrugged again, saying it had no idea who he was.

Teos became known and hated. Perhaps coincidentally, the police stepped in. He would have been hard to arrest for a rogue bus, but there was his other hat. On March 23, Teos was marched off in handcuffs for the crime of people-smuggling. For some time, Salvadoran investigators had been delving to find out how some of their fellow citizens had been caught in the San Fernando massacre in distant Mexico. Arrests of people smugglers tied to the case became periodic. In angry media reports, Carlos Teos was transformed from a facilitator of willing journeys to a “kidnapper” of migrant victims.

Yedmi Castro could offer no opinion. Seven months earlier, as news of the big massacre hit the airwaves, Yedmi’s grandmother was watching TV. The heaped bodies appeared. She recognized a familiar blouse.

AAA

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About Gary Moore

Investigative journalist, international and domestic issues,
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