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A spike in police slayings have El Salvador’s officers on edge as some called on social media for extrajudicial executions of suspected members of the street gangs, an issue that will be front and center for the country’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele. 

It was the day after one of their own had been killed by suspected gang members, but at a police station in downtown San Salvador, you wouldn’t have known the difference.

There was no special meeting, no remembrance or service to honor Omar Rivas’s time in the police. There were no special instructions given to the other beat cops who worked alongside him in San Salvador’s historic center. There was no special investigation launched to see if Rivera’s January 14 murder was related to his work downtown.

The presumption was that Rivera had been killed like so many others: surprised by an enemy that seems to be evolving and everywhere at the same time. He is one of nine police killed in January 2019, compared to 32 police and two administrators killed in all of 2018.

The pace has police on edge. Officers in the station that day were restless but felt helpless and afraid. The suspected gang members who’d killed Rivas had reportedly entered his house, where his wife and daughter were, and shot him six times. The rumor circulating in the station that day, unconfirmed, was that they had been wearing police uniforms and ski masks, and carrying high caliber weapons.

“That’s my biggest fear,” one policeman told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, “that they come dressed as us.”

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Just who is who in the fight is blurring, and many police are more willing to use any means necessary to beat back an enemy they think the government hasn’t the will to do so.

It is an issue President-elect Nayib Bukele, who won in convincing fashion February 3, will have to address. International observers and media have raised concern about extrajudicial executions. The problem is not new. Dating back to the country’s civil war, security forces and civilians alike have used extrajudicial means to settle their differences.

Still, the tit-for-tat between the street gangs and the security forces has some new dimensions, among them Twitter accounts that anonymously promote another, more permanent solution to the gang problem.

“Do not forgive, give gas to all lookouts and gang-bangers or women and collaborators with those son-of-bitch gangsters,” a tweet from Exterminio (@exterminio10_7), or Exterminator, reads. “Now is the time to clean them up just like they do us…”

Exterminio describes him or herself as “not the boss nor the best,” but emphasizes that “here only those with balls are allowed and anyone who shits [themselves] or is a traitor gets it in the mouth.”

The account chronicles this battle in graphic detail with pictures of bloodied “lacras,” or “eyesores,” as Exterminio and others call the gang members, and videos of captured ones squirming during an interrogation. Some suspected gang members lie dead on the streets, others next to their beds. Exterminio celebrates their deaths, laments their capture, and pleads with his fellow police to leave the death squads alone to do their business.

“Please, those in blue, don’t pursue the units that you find cleaning up places,” Exterminio wrote recently. “The mission is to eliminate the eyesores.”

Other accounts are less focused but equally forceful. Comandante Tornado (@cuernodedisco), or Commander Tornado, combines the word “parasite” with “eyesore,” and likes to post pictures of his fast food binges, but also litters his feed with photos of dead suspected gang members, which he stamps with his twitter handle.

“Here we talk straight, if you want to hear about how everything is great you are in the wrong account,” Tornado writes.

The gangs have upped the ante and increased their capabilities and firepower. Judicial documents show the gangs have been buying police uniforms and gear since at least 2015, and they have issued special orders to collect money to purchase assault weapons and give their members rudimentary instructions on how to shoot them.

To be sure, the gangs appear to be more proactive and aggressive. Previous killings of police and military, who lost 17 soldiers in 2018, happened in public spaces. Rivera’s home invasion, as well as the ambush of a patrol a few days later that left two other police dead, shocked officers.

Some told InSight Crime that they were frustrated that no one was speaking up for them. Their commanders were largely silent. No one wanted to ruffle any political feathers.

“There is no specific plan to attack members of the police,” Police Commander Howard Cotto declared in early January, a few days after suspected gang members had gunned down a member of the police’s Special Forces as he waited for a bus to ride to work.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Homicides Thrust MS13 Back Into Official Discourse

In mid-January, officials at the Attorney General’s Office contradicted Cotto, telling InSight Crime that in late December the gangs had decided to increase the pressure, in part to force the political parties to deal directly with them prior to presidential elections.

For his part, Bukele, the former San Salvador mayor, has already had dealings with the gangs, negotiating via intermediaries the development of parts of the city center to make way for business and tourist activities.

The newly elected president will have to walk a fine line. Congress allocated $2 million in extra funds for the police in January, and support of the hard-line tactics is entrenched.

The police themselves have also responded. Cotto briefly suspended breaks between shifts in January, as those were the time periods in which the police were most targeted. And by the end of the month, more than 300 suspected gang members had been detained, police officials said. Several others had been killed, as chronicled in the Twitter accounts like Exterminio’s.

“We’re not making a lot of noise to rip out their cabbage,” read a recent tweet. “As the saying goes, those who eat in silence, eat as much as they want.”

Top Image Credit: AP Photo/Salvador Melendez

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