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Filmmaker slain in El Salvador was worried about growing violence

Christian Poveda was dismayed by the increasing viciousness of the gangs he had chronicled. 'Government authorities have no idea of the monster facing them,' he said a day before his death.

September 05, 2009|Alex Renderos and Tracy Wilkinson

SAN SALVADOR AND MEXICO CITY — The day before he was killed this week, Christian Poveda, veteran photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, said he was worried. The Salvadoran street gangs whose lives Poveda had chronicled in recent years were turning uglier than ever.

A brief glimmer of hope -- gang leaders speaking of a truce and ending the daily, deadly violence that has terrorized tiny El Salvador for years -- had vanished. A new crop of leaders was emerging who seemed more vicious and less inclined to negotiate or moderate their criminal actions, including extortion, carjacking and killing.

"Government authorities have no idea of the monster facing them," said the French-born journalist, 54, whose recent documentary, "La Vida Loca," portrayed the desperate, brutal lives of gangs that have their roots in Los Angeles.

A day after Poveda made these comments to The Times, he was dead.

Police said Poveda was shot to death Wednesday, with four bullets in the face, as he drove home from another day of taking pictures and making contacts in a piece of territory controlled by the Mara 18 street gang but disputed by other gangs.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Filmmaker in El Salvador: An article in Saturday's Section A about Christian Poveda included a reference to an online video of an interview with the French-born photojournalist that said the video was made the day before he was killed, which was Wednesday. The Times did two interviews with Poveda, one in April and one last week. The video was made during the April interview.

Police said they believed Poveda was killed by Mara 18 gangsters who were part of the new generation he had alluded to, young thugs who either did not know him or, if they did, resented his work.

Poveda's body was found alongside his car north of the capital, San Salvador, none of his expensive cameras or equipment missing.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, a former journalist who knew Poveda, said he was shocked by the slaying and has ordered a full investigation.


Roots in L.A.

Street gangs in Los Angeles formed by Salvadorans have long been among its most ruthless. In the early 1990s, as El Salvador's lengthy civil war came to a conclusion, members of various gangs in Los Angeles returned here, either of their own volition or through the stepped-up deportation of those serving time for crimes committed in the United States. They replicated their U.S. organizations in the Central American country, recruited members, spread and now number in the tens of thousands.

In large part because of the burgeoning street gangs, El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

"Let's not confuse ourselves," photographer Edu Ponces wrote in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro. "Christian is just one of the 10 who will die today. On Sunday, he will be one of 70. And on Sept. 30, one of 300 for the month. . . .

"If you look long enough down the throat of the lion, he will eat you."

Poveda's Spanish Republican parents fled to France during the Franco dictatorship, and he grew up in poverty.

He came to El Salvador in the early 1980s as a news photographer covering the civil war. When it ended a decade later, and most foreign journalists departed, Poveda remained and turned his attention to the gangs.

Speaking to The Times' La Plaza blog in April, Poveda said he had spent 16 months with members of Mara 18, establishing a relationship, gaining their trust and filming the documentary, which won cinematographic awards internationally. He said he recognized the brutality of the gangsters' violence, but also saw the young men and women as victims of a repressive society, crippling poverty and broken homes.

"My proposal was at least one year of filming, and I explained my plan to them, which essentially was to show the human aspect of the gangs, to show who they are, these youngsters. And that really interested them," Poveda said. "And I was present for everything that might happen, the good things and the bad, and that established a relationship of trust."


'Never been afraid'

The documentary contained disturbing images of gang girls with tattoo-covered faces, funerals of slain teenagers, and young kids enduring beatings as an initiation ritual.

"As savage as they can be, they are people of their word. They're very well-structured organizations, and the decision of a gang is the last word," Poveda said in April.

"So from the moment that I understood that well, I never had any problems. I've never been afraid."

This week, however, when he spoke to The Times, he sounded a far less hopeful note. It may be that Poveda was tripped up by the reality of today's ever more ruthless criminal syndicates that traffic in drugs, weapons and people: Whatever relationship an outsider establishes with them, they are trustworthy only until they are not.

He said he was especially dismayed to see 11-year-olds, the children of jailed gang members, preparing to be initiated. Any hope for dialogue and a calming of the bloodshed was lost, Poveda added.

"The leadership that was fairly political-minded has been substituted for some extremely violent gangsters who believe only in guns," he said. "Now the 18 is full of crazy people. I am very worried . . . and sad."


Renderos is a special correspondent. Deborah Bonello of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.


The last interview

Video of a Times interview with photojournalist Christian Poveda, slain a day later, is available online.

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