El Salvador had more homicides last month than any other single month in a decade, a dark milestone that some attribute to the collapse of a gang truce and one that could mark a trend of greater violence to come.
Data from the Salvadoran National Civil Police show 481 homicides recorded last month, or more than 15 a day. This month’s start is no better, with 73 killings reported in the first five days. At this rate, El Salvador is on pace to surpass Honduras as the deadliest peace-time country in the world.
Gang-on-gang violence, as well as attacks on police and Salvadorans in general is spiking in what authorities say is an attempt by gangs to pressure the government to negotiate issues raised as part of a two-year truce that fell apart last year. Others see it as a reaction to the new government’s iron-fist approach to the country’s two major gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street.
Since taking office in June last year, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has openly opposed any negotiations with gangs, which according to various estimates have as many as 70,000 members in a country of 6 million inhabitants.
Sanchez Ceren, a former guerrilla leader during El Salvador’s civil war, sent gang leaders back to maximum-security prisons from the less-restrictive facilities where they were moved just before the truce. His administration has also allowed National Police officers to carry their arms outside of work and advised them to use their weapons without fear in the line of duty or in defense of lives, including their own. Many of the gang attacks have targeted police.
So far this year, gang members have killed 19 police officers, compared to 39 in all of last year, according to official figures.
“The gangs deliberately want to run up the numbers, deliberately increase the figures to try to pressure, to try to corner the institutions and the entire country,” Salvadoran National Civil Police Director Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde recently said.
However, for some close to the gangs, the government’s new policies are provoking the violence.
“Everything that is happening was predictable. This could be stopped in a matter of days,” said former legislator and guerrilla Raul Mijango, who from 2012 to 2013 participated in negotiating the truce.
“The decision to transfer the gang leaders to the maximum security prison known as ‘Zacatraz’ [after the infamous US prison, Alcatraz] spurred the reaction of the gangs, which increased their attacks on police and the community,” he said.
The truce, negotiated under former Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes, is credited for a drop in homicides from an average of 14 per day to five over 16 months. Critics of the truce said that gangs were manipulating the homicide count by burying their victims to hide them, although there were no solid numbers to prove that.
However, Salvadorans in gang-controlled areas said the truce enabled gangs to boost their power and increasingly prey on everyday citizens through extortion and terror.
Homicides numbers started rising again in June 2013 and never came back down.
Observers and experts agree the rising violence is linked to the end of the truce.
Returning gang leaders to the maximum-security prison means they can no longer maintain control over gang members in the streets, who see no incentive to reduce violence when authorities have promised to pursue them at any cost, said Ana Tager, Latin America regional director for non-governmental organization Interpeace.
“The guys in the street see that their leaders were betting on something that didn’t happen, that did not work,” she said. “The guy in the street wants to seize his opportunity and nothing else.”
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