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.
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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.