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El Salvador Is Creating a Special Military Unit to Hunt Gang Members

The government is waging a war against the country's gangs. So far, in 2016, 2,230 people have been killed, an increase of 158 percent from the same period in 2015.
Photo de Oscar Rivera/EPA

El Salvador's government has tried and failed on multiple occasions to contain the country's explosive violence with crackdowns on its infamous warring gangs.

Now — with the murder rate breaking new records every month — the government has announced the creation of a special military unit to pursue these gangs in rural areas.

"The moment has come to end the rising violence of recent years that has caused so much sacrifice and bloodshed," Oscar Ortiz, El Salvador's vice president, told reporters on Wednesday, as he announced the deployment of the new force. "Today we bring about the birth of new hope, and you, brave members of this new force, are part of this new hope."


Ortiz said that the 1,000-member special force will be responsible for "neutralizing" the gangs. He promised that the unit will track down their top 100 leaders who he said are hiding in rural areas after fleeing government operations in the cities.

The move was greeted with skepticism by observers of El Salvador's desperate violence that is primarily associated with the rivalry between the country's two main gangs — the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, and the Barrio 18.

Both gangs have their roots in California. They took hold in El Salvador after the US began deporting large numbers of Salvadorans in the wake of the country's peace accords in 1992. The tiny Central American country's fragile institutions just couldn't cope.

"El Salvador has had this problem of violence for more than 20 years, but the government has tried to solve it with more violence," said Raúl Mijango, a former left-wing guerrilla who helped mediate a truce between the gangs in 2012.

That truce was followed by a brief but important drop in the murder rate that was reversed once the ceasefire broke down and the government intensified its so-called "iron fist" policies. These were further encouraged by a supreme court ruling last year that labeled the gangs as terrorist groups.

Related: El Salvador's Already Horrific Murder Rate Is Getting Much Worse

El Salvador ended last year as the most violent peacetime nation in the world with a murder rate of 104 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. This year the national police have reported 2,230 people killed up until April 20. That's an increase of 158 percent from the same period in 2015.


"Instead of solving the problem, they are only making it worse," Mijango said of the long list of hardline measures that continues to lengthen. "Especially because the use of excessive force comes with the risk of violating the human rights of citizens who have nothing to do with the conflict."

The new military unit comes three weeks after the gangs offered the government a truce in exchange for some concessions related to their prison conditions. The authorities responded by declaring a state of emergency in seven prisons, and transferring hundreds of gang leaders to maximum-security facilities.

Related: El Salvador's Gangs Offered a Truce — And the Government Declared War

"One of the problems this government has is that it thinks the country's violence can only be solved with gunshots," Óscar Martínez, a renowned reporter for the local news site El Faro, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. "Some police chiefs order their subordinates to kill, knowing that if anybody gets into trouble in later years for pulling the trigger, it won't be the chiefs."

National Police Chief Howard Cotto said the new unit launched this week has been trained in modern investigation techniques and in human rights, in order to avoid abuses.

"Our success won't be based on the number of bullets we will be able to shoot. Our success will be based in the sense of confidence that residents feel when they see the unit," he said. "We want people to be able to say 'here come our police and our armed forces to defend us."

Watch: Gangs of El Salvador (Full Length)

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