El Salvador struggles to reduce gang violence while mother looks for kidnapped son

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This photograph is one of many Betty Espinoza keeps of her missing son Franklin, who was 13 at the time he went missing. (Photo by Ambar Espinoza.)

Betty Espinoza has searched for her son Franklin for more than a year. She said one of the El Salvador’s most violent gangs kidnapped him when he was 13 years old — and she hasn’t seen him since.

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"Earlier this year, I felt this strong premonition. I felt a strong grief, and I just cried and cried," she said. "I wondered if they were doing something terrible to my son."

Espinoza said her son was kidnapped on a mountain in eastern El Salvador, where he worked on a coffee plantation. She said witnesses told her that two men abducted him. She thinks Franklin was kidnapped because he found a cell phone that belonged to a member of the Pandilla 18 gang, and the gang member was furious.

"He told someone from a neighboring town, 'that boy is going to shed tears of blood,'" Espinoza said.

The police launched a search, but they didn't find the boy. Espinoza said people had seen her son in a small village not far from here.

"People say the gangs have already tattooed him," she said. "Everyone who's kidnapped into gangs is tattooed. I've heard my son runs drugs for the gangs, begs for money or leaves extortion notes."

This kind of story is common in El Salvador, where every year thousands of children are kidnapped and recruited into gangs. But recently the Catholic Church intervened. In March, the church brokered a truce between two of the country's most violent gangs.

The results have been dramatic — homicide rates dropped by 50 percent. Good news, said El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes at a news conference, but he said it was only a first step.

"As a government, we are convinced that this truce between gang leaders does not solve the problem of delinquency in our country," Funes said. "But it does open an opportunity to attack the problem."

The problem has to be battled on many fronts, says James Rose, the regional gang adviser at the U.S. State Department in San Salvador.

"It's an economic problem, it's an educational problem, it's a law enforcement problem, it's a public safety problem," Rose said.

He said it was also a problem that crossed borders.

"For example, we know that there are gang members here that are directing extortion against Salvadorans in our communities in the U.S.," he said. "Because it's becoming more and more transnational, it requires a transnational response."

The international community is responding. The gangs spread criminal behavior and insecurity across borders, according to the United Nations. The U.N. is providing counter-terrorism funding for police and judicial reform, border security and economic development. The U.S. is behind a multi-million dollar pilot project to teach police in Central America how to do things like extract information from SIM cards of gang members' cell phones.

U.S. officials say the project had reduced murders by 40 percent in Lourdes Colon, one of the most violent communities in the country. In March, U.S. Under Secretary of State Maria Otero visited Lourdes Colon and praised the program.

"It is really an effort to understand how you gather intelligence," she said. "It is an effort to understand how it is that gang members are linking to others to extort, to carry out different crimes, to even kill each other."

But better police work, border security, economic development — even the truce between the gangs — aren't enough for the mother of Franklin Espinoza.

"I'd like to find him dead or alive to know what's happening, to be sure of what's become of him," she said. "To this day, I don't know what they’ve done to him."

Espinoza said she's given up hope of ever seeing her son alive again.

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