Not long after a trio of investigative reporters in El Salvador published an explosive investigation about the killing of seven alleged gang members and a bystander by police at a coffee farm, the journalists started receiving death threats.
The official police account went as follows: Officers received intelligence that members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang had taken over the San Blas farm on the outskirts of the capital San Salvador, and sent an elite group to investigate, which was then attacked. "The subjects shot with their firearms to warn of police presence," the National Civil Police said in a press statement. Officers claimed they fired back in defense, killing eight people.
But Roberto Valencia, Oscar Martinez, and Daniel Valencia Cervantes, who write for the respected online news site El Faro, challenged the official version, saying what really took place on the early morning of March 26 was an extrajudicial massacre.
'If it´s the police, don't be afraid, they will respect you'
El Faro's investigation, published on July 22, reconstructed the incident based on the testimony of four survivors alongside other witnesses, photographs from police officers' private social media accounts, autopsy and forensic reports, and the account by the prosecutor's office. Put together, the evidence shows the official version is false, the news site said. "Concepts such as 'massacre,' 'summary executions,' and 'editing' would better define the act of the Salvadoran state on March 26," El Faro declared.
According to El Faro's report, upon arriving at the farm, officers found one man outside the buildings and opened fire as he began to run. Another three suspects remained in a crumbling warehouse. Police officers surrounded the building and threw a non-lethal stunt grenade inside. When gang members tried to flee, the officers gunned them down. Four others were then found and executed inside a house next to the warehouse. One of them was Dennis Martinez, a 17-year-old farm worker whose bedroom was in the building.
After hearing the gunshots from inside his room, he made a terrified phone call to his uncle, the farm manager, asking what to do. "If it´s the police, don't be afraid, they will respect you," said his uncle, according to El Faro's interview with the slain teen's mother Consuelo. The uncle heard the door open and the police demanding to know this nephew's identity before the call was cut off.
Consuelo, sitting only about 15 meters away outside the shack near where the coffee beans were dried, heard her son asking for a chance to speak before hearing gunshots. She had explained to officers surrounding her that her son was the only person upstairs in the building; one of them yelled "Stop shooting!" she told El Faro. "But my Dennis was already dead."
'When they didn't encounter that much resistance, they decided to kill'
Oscar Martinez, one of the co-authors of El Faro's investigation, told VICE News that according to a witness, two victims "begged for their lives." The police officers "were prepared for a clash," he said. "When they didn't encounter that much resistance, they decided to kill some of the people who were there."
The story also includes social media posts of the massacre that appear to show the crime scene was tampered with to support the police version of events. A photograph of one victim shows him with a gun nearby, purportedly proving that the gang members were armed. But several photos show the gun in different positions.
The arrangement of the guns is manipulated in one of the photos of the crime scene. (Photo via El Faro)
Continuous turf wars and shootouts between police and gang members have made it an intensely violent year in El Salvador, with the murder toll in June reaching 667, the highest since the end of the civil war in 1992. Since the breakdown last year of a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18, the country's other powerful street gang, the murder rate has shot up by more than 50 percent. Earlier this month, in this Central American country of just over 6.3 million people, 125 people were murdered over the course of three days, according to the National Police. Dozens of police officers have been killed this year.
"Police colleagues of officers whom Maras have killed take justice in their own hands," El Faro journalist Roberto Valencia told VICE News.
Since El Faro published its report, the reporters say they have been threatened on social media, had their homes spied on by unidentified men, and that their neighbors were asked to identify the precise location of their residences, causing deep anxiety in the newsroom. Death threats have been made on social media and El Faro's website. Martinez said an informant alerted the site's editors to a planned attack on the three journalists on August 10. The reporters checked out the tip with sources in El Salvador's security ministry and found it to be credible, though the attack did not happen.
"What we know [is the threats] come from different groups. At least one person is linked to the police," said Martinez. According to him, some people in El Salvador believe the only solution to the country's gang problem is "to eliminate controls and kill anyone who they think they should kill, mainly gang members."
'People who took part in the massacre operation in San Blas are not worried about an internal police investigation'
El Faro and the journalists involved have filed a complaint about the harassment with El Salvador's Attorney General's Office. Two prosecutors have been assigned to the case, but the prosecutor's office denied to disclose any further information to VICE News, saying that the investigations are confidential.
Earlier this month, the National Police director stood by the official police version of events, and said that officers involved in the shootout were still active in the police force. VICE News tried to speak with representatives about a possible internal investigation by the National Police and the Attorney General's Office, but they weren't immediately available for an interview.
The Human Rights Ombudsman's Office in El Salvador opened an investigation after El Faro published its investigation. A report on the issue will be released in the coming weeks.
"What I think is that people who took part in the massacre operation in San Blas are not worried about an internal police investigation," said Martinez. "I don't believe that the National Police wants to attack us, but people inside the police want to stop the work we do."
Gabriela Gorbea contributed to this report.
Follow Rafael Castillo on Twitter: @RC_Quintero