SAN SALVADOR — Agustin Portillo knew his son Jose was headed for trouble.
He came home in November after four years in the United States, defiant, tattooed with gang symbols--and deported as an undesirable immigrant.
"I am going to change," the 24-year-old promised his father. But he did not have time.
By April, Jose Portillo was dead.
The teen-agers who honored the young man as a veteran of the Salvatruchas--one of three major gangs in this city of 1 million--say they saw uniformed police shoot down Portillo as he ran from the scene of a rumble.
The police report blames his murder on unknown assailants who dragged Portillo from his home, shot him through the chest and left his body on a riverbank in the style of the Sombra Negra, the Black Shadow, the most feared instrument of El Salvador's new terror: the killing of people deemed social undesirables.
Under the cover of anonymity perfected in the 1970s by political death squads, vigilante groups have killed more than two dozen known gang members and threatened lawyers who defend them, judges who sentence them too lightly and politicians who advocate human rights.
The spate of killings has added El Salvador to a growing roster of Latin American countries chilled by vigilante justice. Rising crime in Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras--as well as El Salvador--has left citizens frustrated with police, leading some of them to take the law into their own hands.
In a lawless form of crime prevention, they have undertaken what they call "social cleansing," killing gang members, the homeless--especially children and drug addicts--and others considered likely to commit crimes. In Colombia, the targeted victims are called desechables , disposable people.
"Because we are poor, they do not care," says a gang member in Soyapango, a working-class suburb of San Salvador, where nine young men, ranging in age from 14 to 22, have been killed since April. "If one of them had been the son of a congressman, you better believe they would investigate the murder."
Emboldened by impunity, some vigilantes have expanded their list of victims to include prostitutes, gays and political activists, in a reminder of the days when paramilitary death squads routinely murdered anyone suspected of opposing right-wing Salvadoran governments and those in some other Latin countries.
"This is a return to a past we want to forget," Salvadoran Police Inspector Ever Manzano says.
However, even Manzano, who works with gangs, says he has been given no information about investigations into vigilante groups. The dearth of information, much less arrests, in the murders, combined with conflicting accounts of killings such as Portillo's, and reports that vigilantes sometimes use military-style weapons like 9-millimeter pistols, fuel speculation that police may be working with--or may even be--the vigilantes.
"How can a group of people armed to the teeth move from one side of the city to the other without someone noticing?" asks Kirio Waldo Salgado, president of the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party and one of the politicians threatened by the new death squads.
"No one can do this without contacts in the government intelligence structure," he continues. "They also have tentacles in the National Civilian Police, although I do not believe that the police are involved as an institution."
In some countries, the ties to police are clear.
After a private security guard shot 21-year-old Oscar Rene Marroquin in the restroom of a Guatemala City bar called El Shute in January, witnesses said, he called his supervisor, who then called police.
"The national policemen apparently received about $200 from the private policemen to dispose of the youth," alleges Bruce Harris, director of Covenant House, which operates shelters for street children in Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Hollywood.
"His body was found the next morning close to the Mateo Flores Stadium," Harris says. "He had several bullet holes in him--more than the two shots that were heard in the bar."
The police director told representatives of Covenant House that the police officers accused of the crime had been protecting the attorney general that day. The attorney general denied that they were with him, according to Harris' account.
A former police officer in Rio de Janeiro, who identified himself as Marreco, openly admitted to being a member of the vigilante squad Justica Final (Final Justice), according to Human Rights Watch.
"There's no way that the police can guard all the neighborhoods, all the streets," he told investigators of the watchdog agency. "Meanwhile, crime increases and criminals multiply."
Such frustrations are common among police trying to combat the crime waves that have enveloped their countries as their economies--never strong--have deteriorated even further in recent years.