The killing of dozens in El Salvador in a single day, despite government claims that a hardline policy against violent gangs is working, shows these criminal groups maintain their lethal power, and may signal a resurgence of spiking violence in the country.
El Salvador's head of National Police Howard Cotto announced during a press conference on March 16 that 30 individuals were killed during the previous day, reported La Prensa. According to Cotto, at least 17 of the deaths were directly linked to the country's powerful gangs.
Hours before the announcement, authorities had praised the more than 62 percent decrease in homicides between January 1st and March 14th 2017 and the same period in 2016. El Salvador witnessed 651 murders during those dates this year, a significant drop from last year's 1,722.
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Among the lethal incidents on March 16 were the deaths of six individuals in the capital city's historic centre following a shootout between gang members and private security guards over extortion activities.
Another incident took place in the San Martín municipality of the San Salvador department, where gang members murdered three individuals. In their attempt to flee, six suspects, allegedly members of the Barrio 18 gang, were killed by elements of the Special Reactionary Forces (Fuerzas Especializadas de Reacción El Salvador - FES), reported El Mundo. Four of them were shot in their escape vehicle.
According to the Nicaraguan media La Prensa, Cotto refuted the notion that these incidents signalled a new wave of violence and insecurity. This stance was echoed by the Justice and Public Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, who chose to describe the murderous day as "abnormal."
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These recent violent events show that the maras still possess the power to wreak havoc in the country, despite the government's anti-gang strategy.
Cotto in February praised the extraordinary measures implemented in 2016 against gangs for their alleged impact on the decrease of homicides that year. But as InSight Crime had noted then, the fall in violence may have been as much the result of a decision by the gangs to ease their attacks than of a government policy.
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The killing of the six suspects in San Martín, including four within their own vehicle, indicates that the government is maintaining its hardline crackdown on the gangs. Authorities asserted that the gang members opened fire first, but there is growing evidence of increased extrajudicial killings by El Salvadoran security forces, and the FES was set up with the explicit purpose of violently cracking down on gangs.
Given this context, the latest incidents could constitute early signs of an end to the 2016 trend of decreasing homicides.