A self-defense group operating in a rural community of El Salvador is asking for formal legal recognition, a reminder of security concerns elsewhere in the region caused by similar non-state actors taking justice into their own hands.
The group, based in the town of San Nicolás Lempa in the department of San Vicente, is made up of about 60 citizens. The group’s members are seeking legal recognition in order to be able to operate openly and to gain access to more arms and equipment, La Prensa Gráfica reported.
The origins of the self-defense group date back to 2015, when former combatants from the country’s 1979-1992 civil war rearmed themselves following the appearance of Barrio 18 members in the community and the assassination of a community leader and his daughter, presumably by the gang.
Since that time, the self-defense group has worked somewhat surruptitiously with the armed forces and the National Civil Police (PNC) of El Salvador to carry out joint operations against gang members, the news outlet reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
Regardless of whether or not the self-defense group receives legal recognition, its presence and the nature of its actions reflect a muddled security situation in the region that often requires officials to contend with non-state actors seeking to establish their own rule of law. This is often fueled by perceptions of state neglect and the belief that authorities cannot or will not protect local communities.
El Salvador, which has a long history of death squads, has seen a revival of the phenomenon in recent years, believed to be caused by a pronounced lack of state control in many gang-dominated areas. The rise in extrajudicial killings in El Salvador has been accompanied by a worrying trend that police are abusing lethal force and killing with impunity, and reports that security forces are working with vigilante groups compound these concerns.
Should El Salvador grant legal recognition to self-defense groups, the country might find itself in the same situation that Mexico did when that country provided tacit recognition to self-defense groups in the state of Michoacán. In that case, violence and extrajudicial killings were exacerbated as vigilantism proliferated and self-defense groups began to engage in illicit criminal activities. Even if self-defense groups in El Salvador avoided criminalization, Mexico’s example illustrates that self-defense groups are not a long-term replacement for strong, formal state institutions.