El Salvador’s street gangs have reportedly carried out over 250 attacks on security forces so far this year, statistics that suggests the country is heading towards a new phase of an increasingly bloody conflict, resembling that of a low intensity war.
On May 14, the deputy director of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) Howard Cotto said the country’s police and military have engaged in 251 shootouts with gangs so far in 2015, reported El Mundo. Cotto added that 24 police officers have been killed this year, although many were reportedly off duty when they were attacked. The police official made the remarks shortly after handing over 850 bullet proof vests to members of the PNC.
PNC Director Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde also stated that police weaponry is “insufficient” for officers to carry out their work, despite the force maintaining a stockpile of AK-47, AR-15 and M16 rifles, among other firearms, according to El Mundo.
Meanwhile, on May 16 authorities discovered 23 hidden grenades that they believe gangs were going to use against police stations and vehicles, reported La Prensa Grafica.
InSight Crime Analysis
At a rate of almost two confrontations per day, the conflict between gangs and security forces in El Salvador appears to be taking on the appearance of a low intensity war. Both sides have ratcheted up their aggression since the breakdown of the country’s 2012 gang truce early last year, putting El Salvador on track to be the most violent nation in the Western Hemisphere. This surge in violence is surpassing even pre-truce levels: March was the country’s most violent month of the past 10 years.
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For their part, the MS13 — one of the country’s principal street gangs — has reportedly launched a police assassination campaign that has led to the deaths of at least three officers. With rank and file PNC officers feeling outgunned, high-level security officials have advocated for a more confrontational approach to combat the gangs. In January, Landaverde told his officers to shoot at criminals “with complete confidence,” while in February another police official stated simply, “we’re at war.” Earlier this month, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren announced roughly 600 special forces — most of whom are part of elite military units — will be sent into urban areas in order to protect the cities’ residents from gangs. These troops are not trained to police or patrol, but rather to kill enemies.
This increasingly militarized security approach has likely contributed to the large number of deaths that have come as a result of confrontations between security forces and gangs. Sanchez Ceren has attributed 30 percent of the killings in March to police engaged in shootouts with alleged gang members.