Members of the elite Special Reactionary Forces

El Salvador's government has praised an elite unit tasked with confronting street gangs, but this strategy is unlikely to translate into long-term security gains in a country wracked by violence. 

Vice President Óscar Ortiz said on October 20 that the Special Reactionary Forces (Fuerzas Especializadas de Reacción El Salvador - FES) had proven particularly efficient against the gangs during its first six months of operations, reported La Prensa Gráfica. He also gave the unit his blessing to use force when necessary. 

"If in this moment, at this point, in these circumstances, the use of force isn't the way to go, then what is? These are hard and complicated times, but that's how we should face them, with determination," Ortiz said while addressing the FES during a ceremony. "People have asked me, 'vice president, what if everything that is currently being done is later challenged in five years?', and I answered that God willing and for the good of this nation, I hope that never happens."

According to National Police Director Howard Cotto, FES has arrested 1,500 individuals, including 44 of the 100 most wanted gang leaders in the country. The force also seized 349 weapons and 350 kilos of cocaine in the past six months.

The government has credited the crackdown on a drop in El Salvador's murder rate, which was the highest in the world last year. However, the country's principal street gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, say the decline is due to a non-aggression pact they signed at the end of March. 

Meanwhile, Defense Minister David Munguía Payés admitted that the use of the military for public security could lead to human rights abuses, as some soldiers "broke protocols."

The FES was launched in April 2016 with 400 police officers and 600 soldiers, and was tasked with three official objectives: dismantle organized crime structures, arrest the 100 most prominent gang leaders with pending arrest warrants, and capture individuals accused of homicide.

Upon its creation, the government insisted on the elite unit's intense training and heavy weaponry. According to the journal La Página, the force's equipment includes military-grade weapons such as grenade launchers and AK-47 rifles.

InSight Crime Analysis

The vice president's comments indicate that El Salvador does not intend to soften its hardline policy against the gangs any time soon. This aggressive approach is a major reason why police and gangs have engaged in an average of nearly two confrontations per day this year.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

While it is understandable that the government feels it has to increase pressure against the gangs given their growing capacities, including access to military-grade equipment, it is doubtful that the emphasis on the use of force is a sustainable way to fight crime. As InSight Crime has previously noted, a more comprehensive policy encompassing both security and social measures would likely be a more viable long-term option.

Investigations

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

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

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...

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...

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...

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...

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...

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 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...

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.

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...