El Salvador's gangs and security forces are locked in low-intensity warfare

The already heated fight between El Salvador's gangs and security forces began to resemble a low-intensity conflict in 2016, as the MS13 and Barrio 18 increasingly aligned against a government bent on destroying them in a battle that seemed to have everything you would expect in war except an ideology. 

The seemingly endless fight playing out on the streets of El Salvador has shifted from a primarily gang-on-gang conflict to one of gang-versus-state (and vice-versa) with each claiming the other is the principal aggressor.

Mortal enemies since the 1990s, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 gang -- which has split into two factions: the Revolucionarios and Sureños -- have begun to display greater coordination and cooperation in the face of a common enemy. As early as March, there were clear signs of increased collaboration but the lethal consequences of a more organized and politically sophisticated gang structure did not become fully apparent until the late stages of 2016.

The impetus for this inter-gang cooperation came in the face of "extraordinary" security measures, which the government began implementing in April 2016 amid record levels of violence. The measures were designed to prevent incarcerated gang leaders from passing messages to their subordinates on the streets by restricting the inmates' access and communication with the outside world. Around the same time, the government deployed an elite unit of police and military officers to hunt down gang members in both urban and rural settings. Facing such intense pressure from the security forces, the gangs decided to take collective action.

"This rapidly evolving atmosphere prompted the gangs to quickly strengthen their debilitated channels of communication and create a functional system for coordinating their response to government repression," El Faro noted in July. "Before the gangs’ mid-level leadership was relocated to the Zacatecoluca Security Prison, a maximum security facility known to gang members as Zacatraz -- top leaders had been there since April 2015 -- the mid-level leaders struck a new deal between their rival organizations. They agreed that head-on confrontation with state forces was not a sustainable option, and that a change of strategy was needed. That change included putting an end to their street battles with each other." 

Just days before the extraordinary measures were put in place, the three gangs announced that they had agreed to a non-aggression pact. The effect on the national homicide rate was immediate, dropping from 23 per day to 9 per day, with a low of four homicides on March 28.

The agreement was an attempt by the gangs to mollify the government and block it from implementing the new security measures. It didn't work. The authorities went ahead with the repressive policies, claiming that they were responsible for the precipitous drop in homicides, not the gang pact.

The irony of this situation seems lost amidst the carnage.

The irony of this situation seems lost amidst the carnage: in the 1980s, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN) guerrillas led a bloody rebellion against a repressive right-wing government. Now the FMLN is the ruling party, and is pushing for a war without quarter against those who challenge the state's authority. For their part, the gangs are representative of the social, political and economic shortcomings in El Salvador, but they have no coherent political message and exist almost exclusively to satisfy the whims of their leaders.

While the gangs' leadership ultimately failed to sway the government, they demonstrated a level of coordination and political savvy that didn't exist prior to the controversial truce struck between the gangs in 2012. During the truce, the government facilitated contact among the gangs so that they could work together to bring the national homicide rate down. In 2016, however, the gangs began to use these contacts as a means of plotting against a government that now wanted to crush them militarily.  

"During the truce, the previous government encouraged the three gangs to maintain relations," El Faro said in July. "The current government is also encouraging the groups to find common ground, although with very different mechanisms: 'To me, it’s not the MS that is inviting me to go to war now,' explained the spokesmen of the Sureños. 'For me, it’s the government that’s inviting me to war.'"

That abstract "invitation" to war appeared to become a reality in November, when police intelligence reports warned that leaders from the MS13 and the two Barrio 18 factions had agreed to wage a "stepped-up war against the system." 

The leaders decided that during the last months of 2016 they would focus on committing attacks and assassinations that would have a "greater social impact," La Prensa Gráfica reported. This apparently included attacking police, military, prison officials, mayors, congressmen, prosecutors and judges.

Although there have been no concrete examples of the three gangs joining up to target the security forces, there is more solid evidence of the MS13 stepping up its coordinated attacks. Once it became clear that the non-aggression pact was unsuccessful in dissuading the government from implementing the extraordinary measures, the MS13 allegedly planned to create an elite unit of 500 foot soldiers that would be deployed to systematically attack public and private institutions, particularly the security forces.

IMAGE-DOWNLOAD-GAMECHANGERS"Plan A" initially succeeded in lowering the level of violence in the country, but it apparently did not affect the government's intention to clamp down on incarcerated gang leaders. El Diario de Hoy reported that MS13 leaders had also prepared a "Plan B," which allegedly consisted of creating a fund to pool all the monthly illicit proceeds. The fund had $600,800, according to a government indictment, and was meant help create a 500-man unit. Money was also to go to training and military-grade equipment, including high-powered firearms, explosives and weapons.

Not long after the report, eight police officers and three soldiers were killed within a ten-day span. Blame for the attacks was laid squarely on the MS13, and authorities expressed concern about the heavy psychological toll that the constant warfare was having on the national police. 

"We are definitely worried," Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said. "I believe they are doing these attacks in order to intimidate, to lower the morale of the police."

Indeed, over 100 officers resigned in just the first six months of the year; some applied for asylum in the United States or Canada, while others joined the flow of undocumented migrants heading north.

One police investigator, identified as Carlos S., told La Prensa Gráfica said he was afraid of being targeted by gang members after one of his colleagues had been killed in front of his children.

It is the gangs, however, who have suffered the brunt of the violence. Approximately 575 gang members were killed during shootouts between police and gangs in 2016, a number so large and lopsided that many of these so-called “confrontations” are suspected of actually being extrajudicial killings. 

What's more, rumors of anti-gang death squads -- and police participation in them -- have become louder and harder to ignore. In May, six police officers were implicated in a murder-for-hire network, whose members were paid anywhere between $100 and $1,000 to kill suspected gang members. And in November, Al Jazeera investigated a death squad that is believed to be responsible for the murder of at least 40 gang members. Twenty police officers are currently under investigation for their links to "Los Exterminio."

To be sure, El Salvador's street gangs and security forces have always been extremely hostile toward one another. But the country's gang-police dynamic took an even darker turn in 2016. The gangs' increasing coordination and willingness to use violence to earn concessions from the government raises the specter of an even more systematic campaign against the security forces in the near future.

The police, in turn, are exercising even less restraint against gang members, and some are apparently becoming involved in death squads. The stage is set for a more violent and ruthless battle in 2017, which will undoubtedly include more tactical shifts and territorial fights, but little of the ideology that marked the previous war. 


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