El Salvador Supreme Court Labels Street Gangs as Terrorist Groups

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El Salvador’s top court has reclassified the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs as terrorist organizations, in what appears to be an official declaration of war and a green light for the further militarization of domestic security.

On August 24, El Salvador’s Supreme Court declared the MS13 and Barrio 18 — along with any other criminal organizations that violate the fundamental rights of the population or seek to usurp state power — to be terrorist groups, reported the AP. The Supreme Court based its ruling on the gangs’ systemic and organized use of violence, such as a recent gang-enforced transportation strike.

In the same ruling, the judges rejected multiple lawsuits seeking to declare elements of El Salvador’s anti-terrorism laws as unconstitutional. The laws provide for harsher sentencing of MS13 and Barrio 18 members, including 10 to 15 year prison terms for gang leaders convicted under terrorism charges.

In addition to gang members, the court’s ruling categorized gang “collaborators, apologists, and financiers” as terrorists, according to La Prensa Grafica

The move comes as El Salvador’s security crisis continues to worsen and police-gang confrontations increase. August — with 539 homicides through its first 20 days — has a higher daily average homicide rate (almost 27) of any month so far in 2015. Furthermore, 44 police have been killed this year, eclipsing the 39 murdered in all of 2014.  

InSight Crime Analysis

While El Salvador’s desperate security situation calls for creative solutions, the Supreme Court’s de facto endorsement of a militarized response is likely to invite abuse, while improving little. 

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Indeed, labeling gang members and their suspected associates as terrorists adds to the government’s increasingly warlike rhetoric — despite scant evidence that militarized security solutions reduce violence. This further lends itself to the possibility of human rights abuses by authorities.

The nation’s security forces have already been accused of carrying out extrajudicial massacres and brutalizing suspected gang members, making little distinction between gang members and civilians in police round-ups. Salvadoran legislators have also considered giving authorities increased wiretapping powers, and in May President Salvador Sanchez Ceren announced heavily-armed military brigades would be deployed onto El Salvador’s streets.

On top of increasing the potential for abuse, the new terrorist label may also backfire in other ways. For instance, NGOs and international organizations working with at-risk youth in El Salvador’s gang-controlled areas or helping current gang members leave their criminal life may now potentially be labeled as terrorists, thereby inhibiting their important work.

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