Seven gang members were each condemned to 390 years in prison for the murder of eleven people in El Salvador — a symbolic judgement involving a massacre that was instrumental in the introduction of tough anti-gang measures by the government.
On May 24, a judge sentenced each of the seven suspects to 35 years behind bars per murder, with an additional five years for criminal association, according to a press release from the Attorney General’s Office. The individuals, who were found guilty of the March 2016 San Juan Opico massacre, are all reportedly members of the Barrio 18 gang.
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The massacre captured significant attention in the country at the time, as the victims appeared to have simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Eight of the victims were employees of an electrical company working on repairs, and three others were agricultural day laborers.
Authorities first blamed the MS13 gang, which denied any responsibility. Nonetheless, the massacre was a milestone in the government’s campaign to implement a package of “extraordinary measures” a month later. These intensified security measures for incarcerated gang members, cutting off the prisoners from the outside world.
El Salvador’s Attorney General Douglas Meléndez applauded the sentencing and emphasized the role that scientific evidence played in the prosecution’s success. The prosecution had initially petitioned for 330 year sentences, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
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The seven prison sentences nearing four centuries for every single one of the accused is, on its face, absurd, especially given that El Salvador’s legislation establishes a maximum of 60 years in prison before an inmate is automatically released, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
But the sentences are highly symbolic, as the San Juan Opico massacre created a wave of support that the government successfully rode to implement a security policy that remains in effect. Indeed, El Salvador renewed the now not-so extraordinary package until 2018, after having extended the measures throughout the penitentiary system.
As InSight Crime previously reported, given the uncertain results of these extraordinary measures and the eroding public support for the policy, the government’s insistence on maintaining the measures part of some sort of negotiation with the gangs, although authorities have officially refused to take up the criminal groups on their offer to establish a truce to slow the violence. What’s more, by bringing back the San Juan Opico to news headlines, the symbolic judgement may prompt renewed support for the policy.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
From a purely judicial point of view, the judgement shows that El Salvador’s prosecutors can, in a context of significant public and political pressure, succeed in seeing a complex case through to a conviction. This is a positive sign given that both gang members and security officers are often believed to kill with impunity. Between 2011 and 2014, less than 6 percent of murders led to convictions in El Salvador.