Leaders of the gang Mara Salvatrucha assit to a mass in the Central Penitentiary Ciudad Barrios, 130 miles north East of San Salvador (El Salvador). Photo: Edgar Romero/DPA/PA Images. All rights reservedThis article is published as part of our series Which Violence in Latin America? in partnership with the University of Santiago in Chile
El Salvador’s street gangs are associated with extortion, threats, sexual violence, and homicides. They target not only rivals, but also those who resist their demands and may be collaborating with law enforcement. In recent years, the gangs have increasingly generated forced displacement from marginal urban areas and begun to exert influence in the country’s security sector and local governments. Groups such as MS-13 and the Barrio 18 have become more structured and clandestine, largely in response to the iron fist policies first launched in 2003 as an electoral strategy by the conservative ARENA party.
Since 2009, the ruling FMLN - the former guerrilla organization - has continued this approach to look firm on crime. A temporary gang truce, sponsored by the Funes government to reduce the murder rate, collapsed in the absence of a commitment to create jobs and services for gang-involved youths. Although in the run-up to the 2014 presidential contest, both major parties met privately with gang leaders to pay them for voter mobilization, they have strenuously rejected the idea of another ceasefire.
The end of the peace talks saw a renewed escalation of gang violence, including more attacks on police officers, soldiers, and their families. As part of the current war on gangs, the police have been sustaining many “confrontations.” In these supposedly fortuitous events, officers get ambushed by armed gang members, return the fire to defend themselves, and generally end up killing most if not all assailants. That account may often be true. But investigations show that officers have deliberately executed suspected gang members, sometimes massacring innocent civilians, and later covered up the evidence. The government has consistently rejected the existence of extrajudicial executions. Officers committing the slayings are not disciplined or successfully prosecuted.
In fact, El Salvador has a long history of state-sponsored violence. The earliest police forces, created at the beginning of the twentieth century, received military training and stood under the command of the Ministry of Defense. Notoriously abusive and corrupt, these corps brutally repressed dissent and revolts. Starving campesinos who protested abysmal labour conditions, were depicted as communists bent on overthrowing the established order and annihilated. During the civil war (1980-1992), the Armed Forces (FAES) conducted a counterinsurgency campaign in the countryside, targeting guerrilla combatants and civilians thought to sympathize with them. In urban areas, death squads operated by police and soldiers and financed by wealthy families that wanted to see the uprising crushed, eliminated students, teachers, trade unionists, and priests suspected of “terrorism.”
Following the end of the armed conflict, the United Nations called for the dismantling of these groups, but death squads have continued to periodically emerge. The most infamous to date is perhaps The Black Shadow, which between 1994 and 1995 summarily killed suspected criminals, mostly gang members, in the eastern city of San Miguel. The group included local politicians, businessmen, and police officers, including César Flores Murillo, currently the Deputy Director of the National Civilian Police (PNC). None of them was ever convicted.
The 1992 Peace Accords eliminated the old police corps, creating the PNC in their place, and directed the FAES to relinquish control over public security. Establishing a professional law enforcement agency in relatively short time proved taxing. In order to fill the need for experienced officers, a quota system was created that initially allowed civilians, former guerrillas, and vetted members of the previous police forces to join the PNC. The new institution was meant to be civilian and democratic, and committed to human rights and community policing. But it struggled to contain rising levels of crime and was quickly dismissed as ineffective. In 1993 the FAES returned to supporting the PNC in public security tasks, and the mandated police reforms were never completed.
The PNC has since been experiencing a series of problems that have hampered its ability to control crime and gang activity. Infrastructure and equipment are generally in deplorable conditions, the salaries of basic rank officers are dreadfully low, and promotions through the ranks are arbitrary. Human rights are emphasized in classroom-based training, but are considered by many officers an unwelcome constraint on policing. Young army veterans, who join the police academy in search of slightly better pay than the FAES can offer, prove difficult to retrain and are contaminating an institution that is not meant to view citizens as enemies. Intimidation and corruption for personal gain lead many officers to collude with members of street gangs or organized criminal groups, leak intelligence, sell firearms and ammunition, or just turn a blind eye to crime.
Accountability mechanisms are ineffective, particularly in investigations on cases of excessive police violence by senior officers. Human rights violations are so pervasive that the PNC is regularly the most reported institution before the Ombudsperson. The abuse includes mistreatment during stop-and-frisk situations, raids, and arrests, but also prolonged arbitrary detention, torture, homicides, and contract killings. The corruption and brutality have tainted the police and severely eroded citizen trust in the institution.
Social media accounts administered by officers in a personal capacity offer some clues about how they view their situation and the challenges of reducing insecurity in El Salvador. Police feel demoralized by difficult working conditions, angry at the privileges of senior officers, pressured to produce results, and vulnerable to gang attacks. Despite limited resources, they try to do their job to the best of their ability, even going to the extreme of killing suspected gang members. Social media posts reveal how officers target their victims and celebrate their deaths. Crude images show the results of these “battle victories”, alongside triumphant captions in a dehumanizing language (“rats,” “terrorists,” “parasites”). The officers express dissatisfaction with a lax legal system that allows perpetrators to walk free. Moreover, they feel underappreciated for their heroic efforts and unfairly criticized by human rights defenders.
Now, if we consider the existing widespread discontent with chronic violence, expectations of quick solutions, and social as well as political support for social extermination, this cycle of carnage in El Salvador is unlikely to end anytime soon.