El Salvador Sees Historic Violence as Gangs Challenge the Government

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As a result of the escalating conflict between gangs and the government, El Salvador is on track for another record-breaking month of homicides, which at the current rate will surpass anything the country has seen since its gruesome civil war.

In the first half of May, there were an average of 21 homicides a day in El Salvador, higher than the 16 daily homicides that made March the most violent month in the last decade, reported La Prensa Grafica. In total, from January 1 to May 18 this year, 1,298 people were murdered. If the violence continues at its current pace, El Salvador could see over 5,000 homicides by the end of December, a level the country has not seen since its civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992 and claimed an estimated 75,000 lives, reported La Informacion.

The rising violence appears to be driven by a direct conflict between gangs and the government, instead of the historic pattern of gang on gang violence. At the end of April, a video titled “United Gangs” surfaced on YouTube, in which purported members of rival gangs MS13 and Barrio 18 said they would only reduce violence if the government transferred top-level gang members out of the maximum-security prison Zacatecoluca.

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While the authenticity of the video could not be verified — the deputy director of El Salvador’s national police said “there is no guarantee” that the MS13 and Barrio 18 have united — if it was created by the gangs, it represents a direct challenge to the government. Even more troubling, the video indicates that gangs are using murders to force the government to meet their demands.

Indeed, much of the recent violence comes from shootouts between gangs and the police. Gangs have carried out over 250 attacks on security forces so far this year, and there have even been reports that bitter rivals the MS13 and Barrio 18 are teaming up to target police.

Meanwhile, El Salvador’s government appears to be doubling down on the “Mano Dura” (Iron Fist) strategies the gang members say are their motivation for sustaining such high levels of violence: transferring gang leaders to maximum-security prisons, policies that allow police to shoot first and ask questions later, and increasingly militaristic rhetoric. 

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If the government continues to aggressively fight the country’s gangs, it is likely that sustained levels of high violence will become the new norm, as the security situation devolves into low-intensity warfare. However, the current violence puts immense pressure on the government to improve security, which could result in some sort of back-channel agreement. Under the administration of former President Mauricio Funes, the government granted concessions to the gangs — including moving gang leaders to lower security prisons — that paved the way for a truce that reduced homicides dramatically before unraveling in late 2013.

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