A top police official in El Salvador has advocated an aggressive stance against street gangs, but these hardline security policies will likely only increase violence in the short term.

If more police and citizens shot gang members in "legitimate self-defense," it could help pacify El Salvador, police internal affairs head Ricardo Salvador Martinez told La Prensa Grafica.

Martinez' comments come during a tense time of frequent shootouts between police and street gangs, including the MS13 and Barrio 18. During the first two weeks of 2015, police were reportedly killed at a rate fives time higher than the same time period the previous year. Meanwhile, El Salvador's civilian police director recently urged authorities to use their weapons against criminals with "complete confidence." 

"We're at war," Martinez said of the country's security situation. "And in this war, the criminals are beating us." With this in mind, gang members killed during police operations should not be labeled "assassinations," he said.

Martinez also accused the press of unfairly sympathizing with slain gang members and dismissed allegations of gang leaders being executed by paramilitary death squads as "urban legends." 

In additional comments to La Prensa Grafica, Martinez criticized the potential for any gang truce to reduce violence, and instead advocated for an increase in police presence and aggressive anti-gang tactics.

InSight Crime Analysis

By asserting that El Salvador is essentially "at war," Martinez articulated a reality that's been evident in the country for some time now. As Martinez implied, the police see themselves as under serious pressure, which, from their perspective, justifies the greater use of force. The MS13 and Barrio 18 members number in the thousands, and police have reported feeling outmatched in terms of firepower. With low-ranking officers feeling under fire literally from criminals and figuratively from some media outlets, Martinez obviously saw the need to express unconditional support for the police rank and file. 

However, examples from elsewhere in the region cast serious doubt on whether this hardline approach will bring lasting peace to El Salvador. When asked if shooting more gang members (in self defense) would create instability, Martinez responded "We're not creating violence, we're fighting it." Notably, Mexico used similarly aggressive tactics in its fight against organized crime, tactics which have resulted in "an epidemic of summary executions, enforced disappearances, and torture by the military and police," according to a recent Human Rights Watch report

In contrast to this hardline approach, Latin American neighbor Ecuador dramatically lowered its murder rate by raising police salaries, increasing training and emphasizing community policing. In El Salvador, however, the police appear convinced that going back to an "iron fist" approach is their most viable option for now. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

In the photograph, they are both smiling. In the foreground, on the left hand side, a man in a short-sleeved buttoned white shirt, jeans and a metal watch, holds a bottle of water in his right hand. He laughs heartily. He is Herbert Saca. On the right...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...