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.