Numerous sources told Al Jazeera that the authorities' inability to reduce crime in El Salvador has contributed to the rise of a shadowy group dedicated to killing suspected gang members, but the government's attempts to take back control are only exacerbating the violence.
"The police and the military do what they can," a spokesman for the death squad known as "Los Exterminio" (The Extermination) tells filmmaker Lali Houghton and local journalist Bryan Avelar. "But they will never be able to truly protect our communities. We have to defend ourselves."
The interview was part of an investigation by Al Jazeera into the death squad operating in the eastern province of San Miguel, which has been credited with at least 40 murders of gang members.
The sentiment expressed by the spokesman was shared by an active police officer who is under investigation, along with 19 of his colleagues, for potential links to Los Exterminio.
"People who live in the countryside, they are defenseless," said the man identified as Inspector Maradiaga. "Police might go there once or twice a month, but these criminals live there. So that's why these people decide to take matters into their own hands."
The journalist Juan Carlos Diaz also pointed to the government's weak presence in certain areas as the principal motivation for the anti-gang death squad.
"The very origin of the Los Exterminio group is the state's neglect of the communities," Diaz told Al Jazeera. "The state has not been able to guarantee security, which is why those who are able have organized themselves to fight the criminals."
InSight Crime Analysis
Authorities in El Salvador are feeling increasing pressure to fill the security void cited in the Al Jazeera investigation. El Salvador became the murder capital of the world last year, and appears to be on pace to keep that dubious title in 2016.
Security officials are attempting to regain control by implementing harsher anti-gang policies, such as the "extraordinary measures" that seek to cut off communication between incarcerated gang leaders and their subordinates on the streets. In tandem with these policies are militarized offensives against the groups. The most recent, "Plan Nemesis," was launched in response to an alleged MS13 plan to wage a "stepped-up war against the system."
But unsurprisingly, this strategy has led to greater levels of police-gang confrontations and violence. At least 44 police officers and 20 soldiers have died this year, a large number that nonetheless pales in comparison to the over 500 suspected gang members killed. This lopsided tally suggests a significant number of these so-called "confrontations" were actually extrajudicial killings by the security forces.
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Instead of deploying more police units, redirecting these resources towards improving El Salvador's weak judicial system would likely pay greater security dividends in the long run. The impunity rate for homicides stands at 94 percent, meaning there is little incentive for either gangs, death squads or the police to stop the killing.
"The real cancer is impunity," Avelar told Al Jazeera. "Impunity has allowed the gang phenomenon to grow and evolve and has now created these other violent armed groups."