El Salvador is Trying to Control MS-13 by Doubling its Army

The notorious and violent MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs control swathes of the Central American nation, despite the efforts of President Nayib Bukele to reduce their hold.
July 30, 2021, 12:00pm
A member of the MS-13 gang in in Chalatenango prison, north of San Salvador, on March 29, 2019.
A member of the MS-13 gang in in Chalatenango prison, north of San Salvador, on March 29, 2019. Photo: MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images.

SOYAPANGO, El Salvador — Blanca* looks around a small restaurant, nervously eying the other patrons to make sure that no one is watching or listening.

“Here, the control of the gangs is complete,” she says quietly.

Blanca, who asked VICE World News to change her name for fear of retribution, is the leader of a community group in a neighborhood in Soyapango, north of the capital San Salvador. The complete control that the notorious MS-13 gang has over her community means it's not safe to reveal its exact location.

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Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele—whose relationship with the U.S. remains tense—announced this month that he is boosting the size of the military in an effort to combat the gangs, part of a controversial security strategy that’s been widely criticized as ineffective. 

“We will double our Armed Force in the next five years, starting today. Every 15 weeks, a group of new soldiers will be introduced,” tweeted the president, aiming to increase the army’s 20,000 troops to 40,000.

After entering office in 2019, President Bukele quickly instituted a new security initiative called "Territorial Control Plan", which aimed to claw back government power in gang-controlled territories. The controversial plan remains shrouded in secrecy, with Bukele even stating that most of it would never be revealed to the general public.

Since then, the government has touted a drop in homicides as a success of the program, but journalists and critics point to an alleged pact between the government and the gangs as the true reason for the reduction.

In Blanca's community, she said, “the Territorial Control Plan is a lie. It lasts for just a little while, while the police and the soldiers are in operation. But once they leave, the neighborhood returns to normal; it is once again under the control of the gang members.”

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“No one can call the police [in her community], not even to transfer an emergency patient. If you call 911 and a patrol arrives for some reason, then the gang members will complain and that offense could even cost your life,” says Blanca. “In an emergency, the gang has to be called and they may or may not authorize the call to the police or an ambulance.”

The fourth, military-expanding phase of the Territorial Control Plan announced earlier this month is called “Incursion.”

But it has already been criticized by analysts and security experts in El Salvador, who say it has militarized public security. This latest chapter of the strategy was launched by the government after a recent uptick in homicides and the massacre of four students that occurred on July 15.

“The government institutions administer power in two ways: “law and force,” said Luis Enrique Amaya, an independent researcher on citizen security.

But in parts of El Salvador, the gangs operate in a similar way.

“If someone else establishes ‘laws’ or norms in these areas and uses force to enforce them, that other actor is behaving like the government; it is taking away power and control. This is what happens with gangs,” said Amaya. 

Amaya emphasized that the examples he's discovered in his research cannot be generalized for all of El Salvador, but he said he hasn’t “found any element that makes me think that power has changed hands, that is, the gangs have stopped controlling the territories.”

The militarization of public security in El Salvador existed before Bukele. Since 2009, then-President Mauricio Funes began to use soldiers on the streets, and by 2016—when El Salvador saw the highest level of homicides in the past two decades—tanks, Humvees, and armored cars were circulating through the streets of San Salvador. 

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But Bukele’s ambitious territorial plan seeks to expand on the previous efforts, and the boost in the number of soldiers on the streets has forced the gangs to lie low, said observers.

“The difference is that now the gang members are no longer out in broad daylight, now they are no longer visible in the streets. They have gone to the mountains,” said a rank-and-file police officer in San Salvador, who asked not to be named.

“But the reality of things is that the gangs are always extorting,” said the officer. “People do not report it because of the same fear; it’s a lie that the police are here all the time. When we leave, the gang members return to control their territories.” 

“If you want to see if the plan is working, go into these communities, see how it goes,” said the officer. “The other day, five gang members came who wanted to kill my wife. Luckily, we managed to capture them.”

But a local resident of Soyapango said "there are borders" created and enforced by the competing gangs. In her neighborhood, there's a market nearby in the other gang's turf. She says that only older adult women are allowed to cross the gang’s border to go shopping, but “if my brother goes to buy even some vegetables there, it is certain that he will not return.”

Although she did start to see a change in her neighborhood when Bukele began launching different phases of the territorial control plan, it didn’t last.

“It was a bit traumatizing to see a huge tank in the neighborhood and the streets full of soldiers. But at least there was a change,” she said. “The policemen set up a makeshift police post. Then there were a couple of young people who dared to go shopping at the mall. And nothing happened. But after weeks, control of the gang returned.”