El Salvador Violence Rising Despite ‘Extraordinary’ Anti-Gang Measures

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September in El Salvador saw 435 homicides — almost 15 per day — making it the country’s most violent month in 2017, according to official figures. And this escalation in bloodshed comes against a backdrop of contradictory public policies promoted by the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

Most of the murders occurred in the last 10 days of the month, just as the Salvadoran government decided to send tanks to the streets of the capital in an apparent show of force. An average of 27 homicides occurred per day between September 20 and 30, according to official figures.

Moreover, September ended with two events that illustrate a pattern of violence that will likely continue to repeat itself.

On the night of September 30, a relative of Attorney General Douglas Meléndez was shot and killed at his home in a suburb east of San Salvador, according to press reports. Prosecutors told InSight Crime that they still have not determined whether the attack was gang-related.

Another incident shows how gangs, especially the MS13, maintain control over important parts of El Salvador, especially in urban areas.

On September 30, members of the MS13 called private security guards at a housing complex in Soyapango, a suburb east of San Salvador, to threaten to kill them if they did not leave the building. The guards left their posts and the neighbors decided to form a self-defense group in order to protect themselves.

This recent rise in homicides comes just a few weeks after accusations surfaced that the Salvadoran government was turning a blind eye toward the existence of death squads within the National Police.

In addition to an August journalistic investigation by Factum, which documented allegations of murder, sexual assault and extortion by members of an elite police unit, a group of civil society organizations recently presented a report to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) regarding 16 police cases of abuse in the course of government’s “war” on the gangs.

SEE ALSO: Special Investigation of El Salvador’s Gang Truce

Since 2014, after the end of a government-brokered truce with the MS13 and Barrio 18, the state has implemented security policies that prioritize repressive measures. The state has also promoted the creation of elite police units, giving them significant leeway under a package of “extraordinary” measures approved by congress. These measures included extended detention periods, the use of the army in public security activities, increased flexibility for the execution of searches and seizures, and the tightening of administrative measures in prisons.

Despite its extraordinary anti-gang measures and belligerent rhetoric, the Salvadoran government has also been accused of promoting clandestine pacts with the gangs, including one that reportedly facilitated the creation of a dissident faction of the MS13, dubbed the MS503. (El Salvador’s telephone country code is 503.)

InSight Crime Analysis

The climbing number of murders in El Salvador contradicts the government’s narrative about the supposed suceess of its tough talk and heavy-handed actions against the gangs. Not only has the number of homicides begun to rise once again after sustained declines, but the statistics also cast doubt on the claims of the Sánchez Cerén administration that most of those being killed are gang members.

The Salvadoran police report homicides each day on their Twitter account. On September 29, for example, 32 people were reported killed, of which only 2 were presumed to be gang members. The numbers were similar on September 28: 21 killed, of which only one was a gang member and 2 were suspected gang collaborators. Similar numbers were repeated during the final days of September.

Attorney General Meléndez has promoted the government’s narrative of success against the gangs. During a September 29 meeting in Miami with US officials and representatives from Guatemala and Honduras, the attorney general said that the Salvadoran government had criminally charged 3,477 alleged gang members and arrested 1,400 alleged MS13 members.

The Salvadoran figures were added up in a September 29 US Justice Department press release, which alludes vaguely to charges filed against 3,800 alleged gang members in the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Officials also called for continued international cooperation to counter gangs, specifically the MS13, which the US Treasury Department designated as a transnational criminal enterprise in 2012.

The Justice Department statement highlights ongoing trials in New York and Massachusetts against suspected members of the MS13 as well as charges filed by US partners in Central America as signs of success in the fight against the gang.

“These efforts have helped our Central American partners convict thousands of criminals, seize over $1 billion in illicit assets, and coordinate on dozens of transnational investigations with their US counterparts,” the Justice Department said.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

On the ground in El Salvador, however, the results have yet to be seen.

In El Salvador’s courts, prosecutors have not fared well against the MS13. In August, prosecutors lost a trial in which 18 people, most of them ex-officials, were charged with having committed illegal acts to facilitate the 2012 gang truce. The trial judge acquitted them all and even berated prosecutors for the weakness of their case.

During the case, a witness testified about negotiations between top officials of the administration of former President Mauricio Funes with the national leadership of the MS13 and Barrio 18, as well as gifts offered by the two main political parties, the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and the opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), in exchange for electoral support from the gangs.

Another case, derived from the anti-gang “Operation Check” (Operación Jaque), is still pending trial. According to an indictment filed in that proceeding, the investigation and prosecution focuses on the finances of the MS13.

As the US Justice Department pointed out, extraordinary anti-gang measures in El Salvador have led to the arrests of numerous suspected gang members. However, as has happened with previous heavy-handed security initiatives, many of those arrested have returned to the streets after short periods in jail because most are charged without solid evidence.

One of the consequences of El Salvador’s gang truce was the strengthening of new gang leadership structures in the streets. On several occasions they have used the number of homicides as a bargaining chip in their violent interactions or dialogues with the government.

The September numbers, which the government has attributed to internal fighting between factions of the MS13, highlight the interaction between the extraordinary measures, the resurgence of the use of violence by gangs to maintain territorial control and the direct consequences of the gang truce. These factors have reinforced a lethal cycle that the government’s current rhetoric and strategy will not be able to break.

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