‘El Salvador Police Use Uniforms to Distinguish Jailed Members of Rival Gangs’

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Police in one San Salvador municipality have reportedly responded to overcrowding by asking detained members of the country’s two largest gangs to wear different uniforms, an attempt to create stability that may have the unintended consequence of strengthening gangs.

Police of the Soyapango municipality have informed the families of the inmates in holding cells there that they may bring the inmates colored clothing: yellow for members of one gang, white for the other, said a police source, according to La Prensa Grafica.

This is a response to overcrowding and escape attempts in the facility, which is running at 300 percent over capacity. Prisoners are only meant to be held there for 72 hours, but 80 percent of detainees have already passed this mark, reported the newspaper.

Authorities have also reportedly stepped up searches, in order to stop detainees holding illicit objects that could be used in escape attempts or to commit crimes inside the facilities.

InSight Crime Analysis

The “mano dura,” or “iron fist” policy of mass arrests of suspected gang members, introduced in 2003, resulted in a surge in the population of Salvador’s prisons. This threw gang members in together, allowing them to regroup and get more organized. Forcing together members of rival groups the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 led to increased violence.

This led authorities to separate the two gangs from one another inside some prisons, which in turn intensified the process of regrouping, as the gangs were safer and had more time to focus on expanding their activities, building nationwide extortion networks. Members of the two gangs are now sent to separate prisons, according to a 2010 InSight Crime investigation. Meanwhile, El Salvador’s murder rate doubled between 2003 and 2011.

The reported overcrowding in holding cells like that of Soyapango is the result of massive overcrowding in prisons, and judicial gridlock. Separating gangs in these facilities may actually make them stronger, as it did in prisons.

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