Word on the street is that only the girlfriends of gang members are allowed to be redheads or blondes. So in this violent place, women are scurrying to salons to give up their blond hair and highlights, to dye it all black—not out of fashion sense, but out of fear. There's no evidence the rumors are true, and the gangs have even issued a statement to deny the hair-color decree. But with violence in El Salvador reaching levels rivaling those of the civil war that ended more than two decades ago, few are willing to take risks. Castellanos counts the number of women who've come to her salon recently seeking to color their hair dark: One, two, three, four... "You don't wait for clarifications," says a former blonde who lives on the outskirts of San Salvador. "These people are crazy and they will kill you."
The country of 6 million has just experienced one of its most violent months since the end of the civil war in 1992, with 635 homicides reported in May. June is on track to break that mark. Police officials and others blame the worsening insecurity on the breakdown of a truce made between the gangs and the government in 2013. While the homicide rate plunged, critics say the truce gave the gangs time to strengthen, train, and acquire heavier arms. Jailed gang leaders were moved to more lax facilities where they were able to run their criminal operations remotely. But in January, the 6-month-old government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren publicly rejected any truce and launched an aggressive crackdown, putting gang leaders back in maximum-security cells. The change has meant the streets now are controlled by younger, better-armed criminals who are willing to be reckless. (Read more El Salvador stories.)