In El Salvador, Hysteria Trumps Security Policy

El Salvador’s Attorney General recently said the country is looking to extradite alleged gang members to the United States on terrorism charges, a highly unlikely scenario that is illustrative of the government’s increasingly tough rhetoric on combating soaring gang violence. 

In an interview with Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica, Attorney General Luis Martinez said he has been in talks with US officials about extraditing gang members as terrorists. 

“We are going to demonstrate the power of the state,” Martinez declared. “We are going to impose order, law, and justice. We are going to make them respect [us].”

Martinez said gang members deserve to be considered terrorists because they have carried out attacks against security forces and government agencies. “It is an effort on their part to create fear and terror in society,” he said 

According to La Prensa Grafica, the 140 suspected gang members allegedly involved in the forced bus strike that paralyzed San Salvador for days and left seven public transport operators dead will be tried on terrorism charges.

InSight Crime Analysis

The likelihood that members of El Salvador’s largest street gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18, will be extradited to the United States is slim to none. Despite Martinez’ comments labeling gang members as terrorists, neither the MS13 nor the Barrio 18 has been placed on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. It is hard to imagine the US government seeking to extradite gang members on terrorism charges if the criminal group they belong to is not considered a terrorist organization. 

Martinez’s comments are more reflective of the government’s increasingly radical position on how to combat the gangs amid historic levels of violence.  Last week, Martinez announced authorities had placed warrants out for the arrest of 300 suspected gang members on terrorism charges. “They are terrorists, not gangsters,” Martinez said at the time.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Martinez is not alone in calling for stronger punishments for gang members. In January, El Salvador’s top police official announced officers should shoot at suspected criminals “with complete confidence.” The following month, another high-level police official declared, “We’re at war.” Amid this aggressive rhetoric, incidents like police massacres of civilians and gang members have also been reported

The tough talk by police and government officials comes amid evidence that El Salvador is on track to become the most violent country in the Americas this year. June and May were reportedly the two most violent months since the country’s civil war ended in the early 1990s, raising doubts about the country’s ability to reduce violence in the short term.