El Salvador’s national police director says his officers have engaged in 459 confrontations with gangs so far in 2016, a staggering number that suggests something resembling a low-intensity war is playing out in the Central American nation.
National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) Director Howard Cotto announced on September 26 that the clashes have resulted in the deaths of 424 alleged gang members during the course of this year, reported El Mundo. That averages out to 1.7 confrontations and 1.6 confrontation-related deaths per day.
Cotto said there were five skirmishes this past weekend just in the northwestern municipality of Caluco. Security forces entered Caluco after families were forced to abandon their homes due to threats from gangs. According to Cotto, gang members told the community to inform them of when the police and armed forces were entering the municipality. The gangs threatened to use violence against members of the community if they refused to obey the orders.
In contrast to the increasing number of confrontations between gangs and police, murders have continued to decline nationwide from the high-water mark of 2015 and early 2016, when El Salvador’s homicide rate surpassed 100 per 100,000 citizens. Cotto said homicides are down 50 percent so far this month compared to September 2015. From January to March of this year, El Salvador registered on average between 20 and 24 homicides per day, but since April that number has fallen to between 11 and 13 per day.
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The number of police-gang confrontations in El Salvador is striking, especially when juxtaposed with conflicts in other parts of Latin America. There were 934 attacks against the Mexican military between 2013 and 2015 in the latest iteration of that country’s so-called “drug war,” while Colombian guerrilla groups engaged in 360 confrontations with the armed forces in 2013.
These numbers indicate El Salvador’s gangs and police forces square off more frequently than security forces and criminal groups in Mexico and Colombia, despite the fact that El Salvador’s population of 6.3 million people is dwarfed by that of both Colombia (47 million) and Mexico (122 million).
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Violent clashes between gang members and police have become a central part of the security dynamic in El Salvador. In late March, the country’s three principal street gangs — the MS13 and the Sureños and Revolucionarios factions of the Barrio 18 — signed a non-aggression pact, which came just days before the government approved a package of “extradordinary measures” to combat the gangs. Both sides have claimed credit for the resulting drop in murders, but these actions appear to have done little to reduce the number of confrontations between them.