Marvin Recinos / AFP / Getty Images

El Salvador gangs target police after failed truce

Police believe gang leaders, many back behind bars, instructed units to kill two officers per neighborhood

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on how the sharp increase in violence in El Salvador is changing the daily lives of residents of the capital.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Hundreds of police officers, some wearing masks to protect their identities, sat in the large white church in Zacatecoluca, a short drive from the capital. They were joined by the country’s police chief, government ministers and the U.S. ambassador for what has become a familiar occasion: the funeral of a police officer murdered by gangs.

In 2015 more than 20 police have been killed by the country’s powerful Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs. At least six soldiers have also been killed this year. Violence is approaching the high levels seen before the criminal groups agreed to a truce three years ago.

During a single weekend in April, at least 34 people were murdered, 22 of them in a single day, April 19, the most violent 24 hours this year, according to official sources. With the truce over, some gang members have been returned to maximum-security prisons, where it’s believed they instructed smaller neighborhood units to kill two police officers apiece. The information regarding the gangs’ strategy was reportedly provided to police intelligence sources by informants.

The people in the Zacatecoluca church were there to mourn the death of Wendy Yamileth Alfaro Mena, 27, the first policewoman to be murdered. She was gunned down on the afternoon of April 20 as she left her home in Zacatecoluca to buy tortillas. Gang members had been watching her, according to police. It’s unclear if they were from the Mara Salvatrucha or the 18th Street gang, which has split into the rival Revolutionarios and Sureños, or Southerners.

At her funeral and again at a private ceremony afterward at which police presented Alfaro’s family with the flag that draped her coffin, her murder was described as a blow against all Salvadoran women and one that must drive the police and all Salvadoran society to continue la lucha, or fight, against the gangs.

“The gangs know that these actions demonstrate their willingness to attack the state, to attack the country and to show how strong they are,” said El Salvador’s Deputy Police Chief Howard Cotto. He said that violence and crime in El Salvador are getting worse and that “force must be met with force.” 

As for the truce between the gangs that went into effect March 2012 and led to a marked reduction in murder rates, Cotto said, “We have been very clear that we do not agree with that.”

The truce, apparently brokered by intermediaries in the Catholic Church, had been seen as an example to follow for other countries with similar severe gang problems, like Honduras. Similar efforts championed by the bishop of San Pedro Sula in Honduras failed. The extent of the government’s role in agreeing to the truce remains unclear.

El Salvador’s then-President Mauricio Funes was adamant in March 2012 that “the government did not sit down to negotiate with gangs,” although he admitted it played a part “facilitating” the accord. There was an immediate dramatic drop in the murder rate after the truce. By the end of 2012, the national police had registered a 41 percent reduction in killings from the previous year — 2,576 compared with 4,371.

But it didn’t last.

According to Steven Dudley from Insight Crime, a U.S.-based foundation that tracks organized crime in the Americas, the agreement was “more of a violence interruption project than a truce.”

“It required the participation of police and trusted interlocutors with the gangs,” he said. “It fell apart when the government pulled its support from the project in June 2013 and named a new security minister. It slowly unraveled thereafter.”

‘The gangs know that these actions demonstrate their willingness to attack the state, to attack the country and to show how strong they are.’

Howard Cotto

El Salvador’s deputy police chief

In 2014 murders went up by nearly 60 percent from the year before, to 3,912, according to police figures, and that increase has continued. In March 2015 alone, police registered 481 murders — the most in a single month for 10 years. They say many of the targets were gang members.

El Salvador’s President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who was vice president when the 2012 truce was brokered, has made clear he believes the truce was a mistake that gave the gangs an opportunity to increase in size. “We will not negotiate with any gang,” he restated in February.

At the police’s emergency call center, a limited staff fields 20,000 calls a day — up in the last few months from 17,000 a day — from all over the country and dispatches officers. Police estimate 1,000 to 1,500 each day are for serious incidents.

“People are feeling insecure and want patrols nearby,” Inspector Juan Bautista Rodriguez explained. “It’s when someone feels something has changed, because of gangs or less safety.”

Upstairs in the police building a special unit monitors 400 surveillance cameras throughout the capital. He said they hope to have 5,000 cameras in five years, along with many more panic buttons for drivers of buses and taxis — regular targets for gangs. In a country where witnesses are often afraid they will be targeted or killed if they come forward, he said, a camera is an increasingly useful tool.

“We catch murders on film,” said Rodolfo Ernesto Campos, another senior officer.

In one recent video shown to Al Jazeera, an 18-year-old is selling strawberries and talking with a young woman on a streetcorner late on a Friday afternoon. Police said it’s likely he was also keeping watch for a gang. Moments after the woman walks away, three young men cross the road toward him, pulling out weapons. They shoot him point blank until he lies dead on the ground. Those nearest to the shooting run when they hear the shots. The three murderers flee. A crowd forms around the dead teenager. Soon the street begins to return to normal.

None of the unit officers there knew if the murderers have been caught. Crime often goes unpunished in El Salvador, a country with an impunity rate of over 94 percent.

Cotto said that more must be done for the country’s most marginalized and that the national police — along with community police, private business and local government — must investigate the underlying causes of violence and crime. Last week a senior official proposed a law for the reintegration of gang members into mainstream society. In exchange for agreeing to abandon criminal activity, they would be offered economic support. However, police officers have been given a clear message: shoot criminals without fear of consequences.

“This institution and the government will protect you,” said Police Chief Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde in January after the killing of seven officers in just over two weeks at the beginning of the year.

In terms of its strategy, the government is creating three new quick-response battalions, made up of 1,200 police officers and 600 soldiers, to counter the rising violence. The battalions are due to take to the streets shortly. As for the country’s 70,000 or more gang members, of whom an estimated 10,000 are in prison, their leaders are reported to have offered a moment of calm in May as a gift to the country during the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero to the country’s poor.

The possibility of extending that respite seems remote. 

“Neither the gangs nor the police seem to have complete control of the rank and file where most of the violence is occurring,” said Dudley. “What may be possible is another attempt to implement a violence interrupter program of sorts, i.e., have trusted interlocutors help to stem the violence in some ways. But the acceleration of violence between gangs, amongst the gangs and between the gangs and the security forces is a disturbing trend that is building its own evil momentum.”

While senior police say they must look beyond fighting force with force, they point out that after the failed truce, it must be made clear to the gangs that crime will not be tolerated.

“The state can never renounce its constitutional responsibility to combat crime. That cannot be. This is our job,” said Cotto. “It would be idealistic to think the problem of crime will go away simply if the police stops what it’s doing.”

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