When he saw the body on the side of the road, journalist Carlos Martínez had two questions. Is that a human? Is it alive?
It was a muggy afternoon in September 2014. Martínez was driving back from Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, with photographer Fred Ramos, his colleague at the San Salvador-based news site El Faro, which is known for its vivid coverage of gang violence. The two journalists were investigating why Zacatecoluca, the capital of the La Paz province, which means “peace,” had become anything but peaceful. For months the city had topped the “most violent municipalities” list in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. They planned to publish a joint article and photo gallery with the inside scoop.
They’d spent the day talking to gang members about a recent insurrection in the local faction of the 18th Street Revolutionaries (one of El Salvador’s three main gangs), and about the police’s increasingly brutal tactics, which had added to the body count. Martínez thought the reporting had gone well but Ramos worried he hadn’t gotten any good photos. When he saw a flock of vultures so thick it turned the sky black, he told Martínez to pull over.
They thought it might make a good “Picture of the Day” for El Faro’s website. Later, it seemed like a harbinger for what happened next. “When you cover violence, sometimes it’s hard not to think of yourself as a vulture,” Martínez says. “It was an ugly kind of symbolism.”
Ramos snapped a few pictures—they were blurry; he moved too quickly and scared the birds—and got back in the car. Moments later, they saw the body.
Martínez’s pulse quickened when he realized the answer to both his questions was “Yes.” A man drenched from head to toe in his own blood crawled along the shoulder of the road, his dwindling strength so focused on advancing another inch he didn’t even look up when the journalists approached. He reeked of alcohol. “Whoever tried to kill him is going to come back to finish the job, and we’re going to be part of the package,” Martínez thought. Still, they dragged the man into the backseat of the car—an ‘88 Toyota Corolla named “Rocinante,” like Don Quixote’s horse. They turned around, called 9-1-1, and sped back toward the hospital in Zacatecoluca.
As they expected, the 9-1-1 dispatcher said not to bother waiting—an ambulance could take an hour. Neither journalist had first aid training. “My basic logic from watching crime shows was, if he falls asleep, he dies,” says Ramos, who sat in the back and tried to keep the man awake by asking him questions: “What’s your name?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“What’s your best dish?”
“Lasagna! You’re going to make us lasagna when you get out!” When the man stopped responding, Ramos started slapping him in the face.
After 10 or 15 minutes on the rural road, the gas light went on. Martínez fumbled around for a little prayer card of Óscar Romero, a beloved Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated in 1980, which he kept in the car “for emergencies like this one.” He stuck it in front of the gas gauge and kept driving.
They were nearly at the hospital when Martínez exclaimed: “You haven’t taken a single picture!” Ramos wiped his bloodstained hands on his pants and—in between slaps—snapped a few shots of the man, who didn’t speak again except to say “thank you” as nurses carried him away.
Felipe Guardado died at 4:30 a.m. the next morning.
In the afternoon, Martínez took his Corolla to the carwash and asked the workers to give the interior a good cleaning. He didn’t offer an explanation for the bloodstains on the seat, and they didn’t ask. The police officer who interviewed them at the hospital didn’t have many questions, either:
“So, where did you find him?”
“In the street.”
“What was he doing?”
“He was in the street.”
“Okay, thank you very much.”
The officers took down their ID information and cell phone numbers. “In another country they would have arrested us, or taken us to the delegation for further questioning, but they just let us go,” Ramos said. Neither he nor Martínez heard from the officers again.
Some months later, El Faro hosted a first-aid class for its reporters. Violence between the police and the gangs was beginning to resemble a war, and the newspaper wanted its journalists to be prepared. “We learned we had done everything wrong,” Ramos says. “We should have tried to put pressure on the wound. I shouldn’t have slapped him.” Still, the instructor said it probably wouldn’t have made a difference—Guardado had been shot four times in the stomach and chest.
One of Martínez’s gang sources heard about Guardado’s death and offered to help clear up some of the mystery. He told Martínez that Guardado had been a member of the 18th Street Revolutionaries in San Salvador, and went by the nickname “El Faraón,” or Pharaoh. A hot-tempered drunk, Pharaoh “wasn’t worth anything to the gang anymore.” The night before Martínez and Ramos found him, he’d disappeared from a downtown bar where he’d been causing trouble. His kidnappers—almost certainly his fellow gang members—dumped him near Zacatecoluca for the very reason that had attracted the journalists: the bloodshed. The best place to hide a corpse is on a battlefield.
Ramos titled his photo gallery “War in La Paz,” and it ran on November 3, 2014. Death haunts the corners of every image: gang members pose with stolen police uniforms and M16s; soldiers in balaclavas patrol an abandoned water-park; a mother and daughter walk to school, fear in their eyes, after the gangs told everyone to stay home. In the photos of Felipe Guardado, death is front and center. Ramos won “Best Portrait” in the 2015 Latin American Picture of the Year contest for the image of Guardado with his eyes closed, left arm up, sweat dripping down his chest. It’s not a traditional portrait, but Ramos framed a copy and gave it to Guardado’s father and sister when they met in a Mister Donut restaurant in San Salvador after his death.
Martínez’s article, published the same day, is called “The rebellion that made Zacatecoluca bleed.” (You can read an English version here.) The story starts—like this one—with a bloody body on the side of the road. Then we meet a rambunctious 18th Street gang leader in Zacatecoluca named Chipilín, who decided his superiors weren’t giving him a big enough cut of the extortion profits, so he struck out on his own, taking several villages with him. Then we’re back in the car with Ramos and Martínez as the gas light flicks on and Felipe Guardado’s time runs out. Then back to Chipilín’s rebellion. (In the end, the gang killed him and most of his followers.) And so on. “El Faraón’s last minutes alive became the narrative thread that tied together all the different parts of the story,” Martínez says.
He’d initially argued with one of his editors about whether or not to include the episode. Guardado was from San Salvador, not Zacatecoluca, and his death was tangential to the violence there. Martínez didn’t want readers to get confused. Wouldn’t it seem like he was writing about the dying man just because it was dramatic—in other words, being a vulture? The editor, Roberto Valencia, urged him to include Guardado’s story. “Two journalists are investigating the most violent municipality in the country, and that municipality throws a cadaver on the road in front of them. How could you not?”
Photo by: Fred Ramos / El FaroSarah Esther Maslin is a freelance journalist based in San Salvador and a writer in residence at the Carey Institute for Global Good. She is working on a book about the village of El Mozote three decades after US-trained troops massacred hundreds of civilians in 1981. Follow her on Twitter @sarahmaslin.