From policing to a war footing

Photo -LaPrensaGrafica

There has been a war going on in El Salvador for many years involving El Salvador's gangs. The Mara Salvatrucha, the Barrio 18 and smaller gangs ruthlessly kill each other's members over territory, in retribution, or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2012, the so-called "tregua" or truce among these gangs dramatically lowered the levels of killing until the truce dissolved in 2014.

Now the war seems to be taking a dangerous turn with El Salvador's armed forces going on a combat footing. The gangs are still warring with each other, but now the armed forces appear to be transitioning from patrolling the streets in dangerous parts of the country to active missions.

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén announced that El Salvador's army was readying three rapid reaction battalions of 400 soldiers each which could be deployed to the most dangerous zones in the country. There are already 7000 military personnel in the streets of the country to supplement police efforts on public security.

On Saturday, the armed forces confronted gang members in the community of Uluapa Ariba, in  Zacatecoluca in the department of La Paz,   The Twitter account of the armed forces reported that there has been a shoot-out with as many as 30 members of the Barrio 18 gang, which left 9 gang members dead and two captured.

Perhaps as retribution, two soldiers were murdered Saturday night and early Sunday morning in different parts of the country.

El Salvador's presidents from the right and from the left have believed that they need to call on the armed forces to fight crime in the country.   It's a politically popular move, but there is no evidence that over the past decade the presence of the armed forces in the streets has improved the situation of gang-sponsored violence.   The new, more combat-like focus of the deployed troops may only make things worse.