Each day twenty-four people are killed in the streets of El Salvador. The decision of the government to reverse benefits to imprisoned gang member and the end of the truce has given way for more violence and open war against the state.
According to the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML), this year will end with 6,000 violent deaths, much higher than the record since the end of the civil war of the 80s, which was registered in 2009 at 4,367 homicides, a figure that the Salvadoran government attributes to the war against the gangs, its closest enemy. Overall, there has been an increase in the murder of those who refuse to be blackmailed, police agents, military, civilians who pass through communities where they do not belong, and young people who are reluctant to join gangs, among others.
Violence even reaches the government. From January until the second half of September 2015, 51 agents of the National Civil Police (PNC) were killed, exceeding the murders in 2014 (38). The military officers who accompany the police during security tasks have also been targeted by gangs, or ‘maras’, and over a dozen have been killed, including a bodyguard of President Salvador Sanchez Cerén.
According to security officials, the increase in deaths occurred because the leaders of the two gangs – Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 – stopped receiving the prison privileges they obtained during the government of former President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014). The result of the privileges was that in 2012, the imprisoned gang leaders were transferred from the maximum security prison of the Zacatecoluca department – better known as Zacatraz – to common jails.
This agreement, and others, along with ‘La Tregua’ (The Truce), as the agreement between the government and gangs to cease hostilities between these gangs came to be called, reduced homicides. The government of former President Funes always denied that this idea was born and promoted within their administration, and Funes publicly tried to sell himself as the ‘facilitator’, but journalistic publications showed otherwise however.
The aim of the government was to lower the homicide rate. And it did work. Before The Truce, which lasted approximately one and a half years, there were between12 and 14 murders a day in El Salvador. Following the agreement, the rate dropped to between 3 and 5 deaths per day. But when the second administration of the leftist party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), began on June 1, 2014, it reversed these benefits. That is, the gang leaders returned to the maximum security prison. In response, the gangs became enraged and began an open war against the state. Currently the number of murders has risen to 24 a day.
Official figures estimate that there are at least 60,000 gang members on the streets in El Salvador. Within the prison system, there are another 13,952, of whom 5,945 belong to Barrio 18 and 7,617 to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13. From prisons, leaders order the extortions, murders and other crimes that affect the entire nation, such as the paralyzing of public transport for instance. The Secretary of Communications of the Presidency, Eugenio Chicas, recently said that the number of victims in 2016 will be similar to 2015 for the simple fact that the government cannot stop the war against the gangs, which includes the massive capture of gang members and repression in the territories they dominate.
“At this point, simply believing that the killings will magically disappear will not happen. A confrontation with crime in this time period will result in what is currently happening: many victims. We regret this, but we believe that this is the only way and it is our strategy”.
Different government, same mistake
Political analysts believe that the government of President Sanchez Cerén is repeating the same mistakes made by the government of the right – who ruled for 20 years through the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) – in its fight against gangs. They even say that the President’s actions are more repressive. But this repression receives the consent of the population that is fed up of fear and violence. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared on 26 August that the gangs are terrorists.
The resolution covers partners, financiers, apologists and those who want to negotiate with these groups. “By classifying gangs as terrorist groups, the Salvadoran state gave them a status that places them above criminal groups and makes them political actors that target the state and state security”, said the former guerrilla member and former deputy of the FMLN, Raul Mijango. During ‘the Truce’, Mijango was a ‘facilitator’: a kind of bridge between the gangs and the Funes government.
“Violence is the main problem in El Salvador. If this is not properly resolved, the country ceases to be viable,” warns Mijango. And he mentions as a solution something that is unacceptable to the political parties of the country, society and the law. “The more civilized way and of least social and economic cost to reduce violence is dialogue with the generators of the violence [gang members] to make them part of the solution to the problem. We can´t forget that the best antidote is derived from poison,” he said.
“Death to gang members”
The government and the opposition blame each other for the insecurity in El Salvador. The Vice President of the Legislative Assembly, Guillermo Gallegos, from the Great Alliance for the National Unity party (GANA) has openly called for “death to gang members”.
Blandino Nerio, FMLN member and representative in the Public Safety Commission of the Legislative Assembly, asserts that the results the people expect cannot happen overnight.
“A 20-year old problem will not be resolved in a month. We must remove the structural factors that have generated the violence. The processes for undermining the growth of gangs is not easy”, he says.
Jeannette Aguilar, a researcher on security issues and Director of the University Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University, is a harsh critic of the government´s performance, Salvadoran society´s thirst for revenge, and the indolence of representatives.
“The double standards of Salvadoran society and the remnants of authoritarianism are still present in the political culture of El Salvador. We complained about the violence and crime, but we want to solve everything with violence (…), officials are apologists for crime when they say that it is good that most who are killed are gang members because they are encouraging execution practices. They should be challenged, investigated, because they are stimulating further violence in a context of great social tension”, she said. Far from light optimism and rooted in reality, Aguilar thinks that there is “no way out in the short term. Corruption and the culture of illegality are deeply entrenched in our political system and social fabric. Homicides or gang violence is only a visible expression of the profound decay and fracture running through Salvadoran society”.