Standoff Between Gangs, Government Deepens in El Salvador

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El Salvador’s government is pushing ahead with measures to get tough on gangs despite a drop in killings over the past few days ordered by gang leaders in an attempt to head off the crackdown, setting the stage for yet another tense standoff in the violence-plagued nation.

Since representatives of the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs instructed their members to stop committing homicides on March 26, the average number of murders has decreased from 23 per day to nine, with a low of four homicides on March 28, El Faro reported.

The directive was issued in response to the government’s plan to impose emergency measures in the country’s most violent neighborhoods and a state of emergency in seven prisons across El Salvador, six of which hold only gang members.

Unbowed, goverment officials on March 28 transferred 299 mid-level gang members to Quezaltepeque prison, where they will reportedly be held in cells without electricity to cut off communication with fellow gang members outside of prison. Officials said cells at the prison had recently been modified to enhance security, and that El Salvador’s maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca had not been an option because it is full, El Diario de Hoy reported.

The government also declared a state of emergency in the seven prisons on March 29. On March 31, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén will send the packet of emergency measures to the Legislative Assembly for approval, reported El Diario de Hoy.

InSight Crime Analysis

El Salvador’s government and its most powerful street gangs are once again testing each other’s limits and resolve.

Authorities have interpreted the four-day decline in killings as an attempt to hold the government — and the Salvadoran people — hostage. Maintaining the relatively hard line adopted by the Sánchez Cerén administration in similar situations, officials have responded with increasingly repressive anti-gang policies.

“What [the gangs] are doing is putting a gun to the population’s head and saying: either negotiate with us or we’ll keep killing…that is why the only solution is full combat,” presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas told local media.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The drop in killings over the past several days suggests that the gangs remain sufficiently organized to control the country’s homicide levels. Murder rates quickly fell following a 2012 truce between the Barrio 18 and MS13, but the gangs’ leaders are more isolated now than they were during the truce, when they were held in prisons with a lower level of security.

A few days is still a very small sample size, however, and there are reasons to believe the reduction in violence will not last. In January 2015 homicides went down at a similar rate after gangs leaders ordered an end to killings, but levels of violence soon went up again. By the end of the last year, El Salvador had earned the dubious distinction as the new murder capital of the world

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