El Salvador Forces Kill 346 Gang Members This Year

El Salvador’s police reportedly killed 346 gang members in violent confrontations so far this year, once again raising concerns that the country’s bellicose security strategy is leading to widespread human rights abuses.

Howard Cotto, director of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), said police supported by soldiers killed the 346 suspected gang members in an equal number of confrontations since the beginning of 2016, reported El Mundo. That averages out to 2.2 confrontations — and slain gang members — per day.

Cotto did not specify how many members of the security forces died in those confrontations. However other reports indicate that suspected gang members had killed a total of 16 police officers by April 12 of this year, and many of those officers were killed while off duty, outside of the operations referenced by the police director. 

The number of confrontations have increased in recent weeks following the deployment of combined police and military forces in a special unit tasked with hunting down gang members who have reportedly moved to rural areas to avoid tightened security in major cities. Most of the confrontations Cotto referred to have taken place in rural areas, El Mundo reported.

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The large number of gang members killed and the disproportionately low number of officers being shot in those operations raises serious questions about the circumstances in which the deaths occurred. Across Latin America, from Mexico to Venezuela and Brazil, the term “confrontation” is used to explain lopsided body counts and cover up human rights abuses by the security forces. 

The government’s ongoing crackdown has raised similar concerns about El Salvador, where there are already well-documented cases of extrajudicial killings by police officers. In a March 2015 case, PNC officers reported having killed eight criminals in an exchange of gunfire at a coffee farm known as San Blas. An investigation by Salvadoran news outlet El Faro found that the “criminals,” who included a woman and two minors, had been summarily executed and that their bodies had been repositioned to support the police’s version of events. 

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Salvadoran officials’ militarization of the fight against gangs, both materially and rhetorically, may be contributing to more aggressive action by an emboldened public force. In January 2015, for example, then-PNC Director — and current Security minister — Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde told his officers they should feel “complete confidence” when using their weapons against criminals.