El Salvador police reported that there have been close to 100 gun battles between security forces and street gangs in 2016, signaling a continued increase in violence in what is beginning to resemble a low-intensity civil war.
At a graduation for police sergeants, National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) Chief Howard Cotto stated, “We have seen three to four cases [of confrontations] a day in the last two months,” reports El Mundo.
This would represent an increase in gun battles from last year when between January to May 2015, there were approximately 250 armed encounters, or about two a day.
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Cotto mentioned various battles, including two shootouts that resulted in eight deaths in Apastepeque, San Vicente, and a police chase that left four people dead in Zaragoza, La Libertad, a case that is being scrutinized by El Faro.
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With the highest homicide rate in the world and security force-illegally armed group confrontation rates at levels similar to Colombia and Mexico, El Salvador resembles a low-intensity civil war.
Authorities blame most of the increased homicides on intra- and inter-gang violence. But they blame the increased battles between gangs and security forces on gang aggressiveness towards them. Unconfirmed reports in 2015, for instance, stated that members of some factions of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) had been ordered to kill security forces. And factions of the Barrio 18 have ambushed police.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
Salvadoran authorities have responded by declaring war on the gangs, and in 2015, then Police Director Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde — who is now the government’s minister of security — told law enforcement officers they had a green light to shoot gang members if they felt threatened in any way.
Some analysts question whether gun battle reports are accurate, and accuse police of excessive force. For example, in the Zaragoza case, El Faro reports that the alleged gang members had surrendered before being shot by police and at least one of those killed had nothing to do with the gangs.
This is not the first accusation of human rights violations by security forces. The Salvadoran ombudsman reported that 92 percent of human rights complaints he had received from June 2014 to May 2015 were against security forces.
Police themselves are quitting in record numbers because of violence and dismal labor conditions. The government has responded by sending military forces to conflictive neighborhoods, but they are also demanding higher salaries and better equipment in return for increased deployments in the war against street gangs.