El Salvador War with Gangs Shows no Sign of Abating

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Gang members have reportedly killed a high-ranking police officer for the first time in El Salvador, a reminder that the battle between the “maras” and security forces continues despite the government’s heavy handed-tactics aimed at reining the gangs in.

On September 1, Sub Commissioner Alberto Marroquín and police agent Nelson Edgardo Paz were on patrol in the western department of Ahuachapán when they discovered that several individuals on a motorcycle appeared to be holding someone captive, according to La Página. A shootout ensued, during which both officers were fatally wounded.

According to El Diario de Hoy, Marroquín’s death is the first case of a high-ranking police officer being killed by gang members.

One alleged gang member was arrested after being injured in the clash, EFE reported.

The body of a soldier, Carlos Wilfredo Ramos, was also discovered the same day in La Libertad department, several days after he had gone missing, El Diario de Hoy reported.

So far in 2016, 30 police officers have been killed “in direct attacks or while executing their responsibilities,” according to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – PDDH).

Another 11 members of the Armed Forces have been killed this year, compared to 24 during 2015, according to La Prensa Gráfica. El Diario de Hoy reports that 17 members of the military have been killed in 2016. On the other hand, some 280 mara gang members have been killed in 2016 in 300 confrontations with security forces, according to EFE.

Authorities have attributed an apparent rise in attacks on police over the past few days as a reaction to recent operations against criminal networks, La Página informed.

InSight Crime Analysis

Police killings in El Salvador have been increasing steeply over the past three years, reaching 63 in 2015, according to some reports. While this year’s death toll is lower, the recent killings bring home the risks faced by security forces every day — largely due to the threat posed by the country’s biggest gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18. Indeed, between 2013 and 2015 over 800 police officers resigned from the force.

Although the number of officers killed is significant, it still pales in comparison to the number of gang members killed by security forces. El Salvador’s police continue to be accused of extrajudicial killings and belonging to death squads on a regular basis. Gang members have denounced the government’s apparent endorsement of a “shoot first, ask questions later” strategy by police, and have hinted that they will respond in kind.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

El Salvador’s continuing crackdown on gangs has been evident in recent days. One police operation netted over 300 suspected gang members, while a law currently being pushed through the Legislative Assembly would facilitate the treatment of gangs as terrorist organizations, a designation they were given a year ago. Last week, the presidents of violence-plagued neighbors Honduras and Guatemala joined El Salvador in a “historic” pact aimed largely at tackling the region’s ongoing gang problem. 

Beyond the body count, El Salvador’s critical security situation has severe implications for the country’s economy.

Nearly six out of 10 companies polled by El Salvador’s Economic and Social Development Foundation (Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económico y Social – FUSADES) had no desire to invest in the country — up 9 percent from 2011, El Mundo reported. Of these, 78 percent blamed crime and insecurity as major deterrents.

In addition, 62 percent of companies surveyed reported that criminal activities had directly resulted in a decrease in their sales or services offered, while over 42 percent said they had been extorted.

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