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Teen Killer Stuns El Salvador

May 22, 1999

SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador (AP) _ When he was 10, his mother took him out of school because other kids were beating him up. Seven years later, he is the most feared man in El Salvador, a serial killer who has come to epitomize the worst of the country’s fierce crime wave.

Gustavo Adolfo, whose full name cannot be published under Salvadoran law because he is a minor, was charged with 17 counts of murder. The judge found insufficient evidence on 10 of the counts, but convicted him last month of killing seven people.

The judge sentenced Gustavo Adolfo to seven years in prison _ the maximum sentence for a minor for any crime. With good behavior, he could be released in half that. The case has prompted a nationwide movement that is trying to change those limits.

Gustavo Adolfo says he’s innocent, and that he is being persecuted because of fashion, not evidence. ``My hands haven’t killed,″ he said at a news conference this month. ``The judge doubted me because of my tattoos, my clothes. Nobody believes in me.″

Salvadorans are largely numbed to violence after a crime wave that spread across the country since the end of a civil war. El Salvador’s murder rate is 12 times that of New York _ and people are being killed at a greater rate than during the civil war.

And yet the case of the boy who has killed so often has shocked the nation, causing dozens to flee when he briefly escaped this month and prompting the president to propose eliminating some protections for juvenile criminals.

``It says a lot about how things aren’t right in our country,″ President Armando Calderon Sol said.

``Gustavo Adolfo is in a way the painful face of the society that we have created,″ added the auxiliary archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Gregorio Rosa Chavez.

Gustavo Adolfo, whom relatives call ``Tavo,″ grew up in a poor neighborhood of San Miguel, 85 miles east of El Salvador’s capital.

In the middle of fourth grade, Tavo’s mother pulled him out of school because he was getting beaten up every day. He took a job at a bakery, working mornings and spending afternoons playing soccer in the streets with a ball of wadded rags.

At age 13, he says, he entered the world of gangs, many of which are led by U.S. gang members deported to El Salvador.

Prosecutors are barred by law from discussing the case publicly, but two spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. They told of a teen-ager forced to become ever more violent to impress his peers, and whose brutality helped him become a leader of his gang.

In a country where 582 murders were reported in the first three months of this year, a teen-age killer doesn’t make headlines. But prosecutors say Gustavo Adolfo distinguished himself with his brutality.

His first murder, they say _ and one of those for which he was convicted _ was of a young woman he was dating. He was 14, and she had turned down his sexual advances.

According to the prosecutors, Gustavo Adolfo kidnapped her and took her to a hideout, where he raped her, cut off her breasts and threw her _ still barely alive _ into a well, where he left her to die. The prosecutors said other gang members corroborated the story.

Prosecutors would not provide details of the six other killings, except to say that several involved rapes.

Gustavo Adolfo’s mother, Dora Alicia Morales, said her son couldn’t have committed such crimes. She conceded that he had joined the Salvatrucha gang _ she said it was because he liked wearing the baggy jeans _ but said he could never have raped anyone.

``Girls always come looking for him,″ she told The Associated Press. ``My son is not a monster. Everyone is accusing him without knowing him.″

Neighbors are less certain. About 20 families fled the neighborhood this month when Gustavo Adolfo, along with seven other minors in a temporary prison, clubbed a guard and made a quick getaway.

``I left out of fear and because they warned me that the gang would take away one of my daughters,″ said one neighbor, who didn’t give her name for fear of reprisal.

She and the others returned after Gustavo Adolfo was recaptured while holding up a city bus.