An endless cycle of carnage in El Salvador

In recent years, El Salvador’s
street gangs have begun to exert influence in the country’s security sector and
local governments. But the country has a long history of state-sponsored
violence. Español

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 reserved

This 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.

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