A special forces unit in the El Salvador police committed at least three extrajudicial executions, sexually assaulted two teenagers and extorted money via Facebook, according to an investigation by the Salvadoran online magazine Factum.
The four agents killed the suspects in a series of raids that occurred over a one-month period earlier this year. In each of the cases, they followed a similar modus operandi: locating and isolating the suspect, then executing him with a firearm, while members of the unit kept watch on the perimeter. They would then stage a crime scene to make it look like a shootout and report it as a confrontation with a suspected gang member when reinforcements arrived.
If true, the case would confirm what many in the country have been saying since the battles between gangs and security forces have become a low-intensity war: The police are actively pursuing and extrajudicially executing suspected gang members. The explosive case could undermine relations between the United States and El Salvador just as the US government decides how to deploy resources to the northern part of Central America, an area riddled with gang and security force violence that is causing thousands of people to flee north. The US government also works closely with special units in the Salvadoran police that focus on gang suppression, at least some of which allegedly participate in informal social media and chats among police who are targeting gang members.
Factum only partially identified the four it said were the perpetrators of the killings. The four work with what is known as the Special Reaction Forces (Fuerza Especializada de Reacción – FES) of the National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC), an elite unit created by the Salvadoran government in April 2016 to fight the country’s street gangs, principally the MS13, the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios faction, and the Barrio 18 Sureños faction. The FES is composed of 400 police officers and 600 army soldiers grouped in four to ten-man units.
The four police officers were accompanied by a civilian informant Factum identified only as “Rastreador” (“Tracker”). Rastreador’s testimony regarding the crimes committed by the group is already in the hands of the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalia General de la Republica – FGR). Rastreador also spoke to Factum.
Based on Rastreador’s testimony, a Factum team led by Bryan Avelar and Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson went to each of the places where the alleged extrajudicial executions occurred and interviewed dozens of witnesses. The team also reviewed the autopsies of the three victims, looked at the Attorney General’s Office investigations, consulted with weapons experts, and accessed real-time communication between Rastreador and the other PNC members through the aforementioned social media and chat groups, which were used to exchange information and requests to execute alleged gang members.
On February 14, the FES unit raided a house in Aguilares, a suburb of the capital of San Salvador. There, in a structure held together by aluminum sheets at the back end of a lot, they located Iván Benjamín Cárcamo Caballero, alias “Bam Bam.” Cárcamo Caballero was a 29-year old alleged member of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios.
According to Rastreador, once inside the house, the officers shot and killed Cárcamo Caballero. One member of the unit served as a lookout. After the agents had killed Cárcamo Caballero, one member took a weapon and shot at the entrance, then placed the weapon next to the victim. The commander of the unit then called police dispatch using his radio-telephone and breathlessly reported a shootout between police officers and gang members, Rastreador said.
Cárcamo Caballero is one of 293 gang members who, according to PNC Director Howard Cotto, have died in the 346 shootings and alleged confrontations between police and gang members between January 1 and August 27 of this year.
On March 3, the FES unit went to an area called the Italy District, in the town of Tonacatepeque, also on the edge of the capital city, San Salvador. There they caught and killed Samuel Antonio Avelar Carpio, alias “Eclipse,” a 26-year old alleged member of the City Paraisos Locos Salvatrucha clique of the MS13, and another alleged gang member that authorities have yet to identify. The modus operandi was the same: two agents shot and killed the suspects with their firearms, while two others kept watch on the perimeter. Then they called in a “shootout,” and reinforcements arrived.
Avelar Carpio’s autopsy, which Revista Factum accessed, shows that the gang member received a bullet to the forehead and seven in the back. The only apparent official record of the second death was a document from the Supreme Court, obtained by Factum, that says that another alleged gang member died on March 3, 2017, at the same address where Avelar Carpio was allegedly executed.
Sexual Assault and Extortion
In early March, on outskirts of the capital city in a mountainous area known as the Aguilares, two of the FES officers allegedly sexually assaulted two young teenage girls after a failed effort to find a gang member. After leaving the house in which they were looking for the gang member, the police officers ran into the girls and accused them of “moving drugs” for the gangs. According to multiple witnesses, the officers then interrogated and assaulted the girls, allegedly putting their fingers inside the two girls’ vaginas and putting the barrels of their weapons inside the girls’ mouths.
The unit was also active on a Facebook page, which goes by the name “El Salvador Gang Extermination Group,” (“Grupo de Exterminio de Pandilleros El Salvador”). The page is used to share information about police efforts to “exterminate” gang members.
In its investigation, Factum determined that on January 16, members of the unit used the page to demand $600 from someone who knew an alleged gang member in police custody. If the person did not pay, the unit members said the gang member would not be released. In the judicial record obtained by Factum, the victim was only identified with the number 385. The Facebook page was also used to obtain information about other potential targets.
The Facebook page was but one way the police participating in these allegedly extrajudicial executions and other crimes communicated. With Rastreador’s assistance, Factum followed a WhatsApp channel in which at least 50 police shared photos of dead boys and men, all alleged gang members, as well as tips on how to avoid judicial scrutiny, notices about when alleged gang members were released from prison and other ways they could track and execute suspected gang members.
Factum called the telephone numbers provided by Rastreador that he said pertained to the four members of the FES unit in question. Only the alleged commander answered, but denied he was police before hanging up.
Factum also interviewed PNC Director Howard Cotto and Vice President Óscar Ortiz regarding the crimes attributed to this FES unit. Both are part of the chain of command that controls FES.
In the interviews, both officials admitted they had received complaints regarding the crimes attributed to these police officers, but they denied the existence of any extermination groups inside the PNC. They also promised to initiate investigations on the matter.
The Attorney General’s Office appears to have already begun a criminal investigation. Rastreador testified to the Attorney General’s Office in May. The Attorney General’s Office offered him protection, he said.
The Attorney General’s Office also put him in contact with two agents of the PNC’s Elite Division against Organized Crime. However, instead of questioning the witness regarding the crimes attributed to the members of the FES unit, Rastreador told Factum that the agents focused on obtaining the location of gang members.