El Salvador Reforms Classify Gangs as Terrorists, Criminalize Negotiation

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Legislators in El Salvador have passed anti-gang reform measures that establish new crimes, prohibit negotiation with criminals, and classify gangs as terrorist organizations as the government doubles down on hardline security policies. 

On April 21, members of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly voted nearly unanimously to pass reforms to the country’s penal code that target the “mara” street gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, reported El Faro.

The legislation criminalizes negotiation and dialogue with gangs under the broader umbrella of laws against criminal association. Specifically, the new law allows for prison sentences of up to 15 years for anyone who “solicits, demands, offers, promotes, formulates, negotiates, convenes or enters into a non-persecution agreement [with gangs] or any other prerogative to illegally dispense with applicable laws, or offers benefits or advantages to members of illicit groups…[.]”

The measures also modify the country’s existing anti-terrorism statute to explicitly classify gangs as terrorist organizations. Under the statute, membership in a terrorist organization can carry a prison sentence of more than 8 years.

In addition, the reforms establish new crimes, including “illegally limiting the freedom to circulate,” “coercing or threatening students or teachers in or around schools,” and “resisting authority.”

The new legislation is being billed as part of an ongoing package of “extraordinary measures” that the government announced it would be implementing to combat gangs. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Elected in 2014, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén inherited what had become a controversial security policy — the gang truce between the MS13 and Barrio 18 that had been facilitated by the previous administration. Since then, violence has escalated to levels not seen since the country’s civil war.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador gang truce

However, while policies such as those currently being introduced are clearly a reaction to the collapse of the gang truce and subsequent rise in violence, the thinking behind them is nothing new.

Dr. José Miguel Cruz, an expert on governance and organized crime in El Salvador at Florida International University, told InSight Crime that while some of the measures are technically new, in spirit they represent a continuation of “iron fist” security policies the current administration has been pursuing since it came to power and that were a central feature of several previous administrations.

In the past, such hardline legislation has often proved counter-productive, and the new laws could well prove problematic. For example, the effort to criminalize negotiation with gangs is designed to preclude any formal or official engagement with gangs, such as another truce. Yet it remains unclear if the law could also be used to prosecute those who pay protection fees or other coerced rents to gangs, says Dr. Cruz. 

“We don’t yet know if the law could be used to criminalize victims [who pay extortion fees]. We do know that in the long term, this closes the door on any alternative spaces or engagement mechanisms for trying to deal with issues of violence in El Salvador,” said Cruz. 

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