A new phase in El Salvador's security struggle

The struggle to bring an end to homicidal violence in El Salvador entered a new phase last week.  The country's National Assembly approved a set of extraordinary measures aimed at gang leadership in the country's prisons.  Details of the legislation include reductions or eliminations of family visits (often used to send messages to gangs in the streets), the elimination of cell phone service in the areas around prisons (contraband cellphones are used by gang leaders to communicate with those outside), the transfer of gang leaders to a maximum security prison where solitary confinement and other measures are approved, and the suspension of transportation of prisoners to court hearings.

The country's cell phone companies announced that they were complying with the legislation and apologized to their customers who might live next to a prison and who would also be cut off form service.

In addition to the measures targeted at the prisons, the government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén is also developing "rapid reaction" battalions of police and soldiers to be deployed  to combat the gangs.

An article By Alan Hernández and Keegan Hamilton in Vice News titled El Salvador's Gangs Offered a Truce — And the Government Declared War offers a good overview of where the public security struggle now stands in the country,

This comes at a time when there has been a week long drop in the murder rate.  Murders in March dropped from an average of 22 per day to an average of 9 per day after the gangs announced a unilateral cease fire on March 26.   The cease fire was certainly an attempt to forestall the government's exceptional measures, and the gangs claimed a desire to enter into a dialogue with the rest of Salvadoran society about ending the violence.

The Washington Post obtained an interview with rival gang leaders which it published this Sunday along with this video (edited with ominous music).  

An excerpt from the interview:
WP: So are the three gangs [Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street Revolutionaries and the 18th Street Sureños] now united? Are you now friends? 
Mara Salvatrucha gang spokesman: No, we’re not friends. But the three gangs are united in this effort to come together to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country, so the Salvadoran people can see that it’s not just gangs that kill. There’s another group of people that’s killing: the police, the army, and the whole world knows it. But in our country right now, human rights advocates aren’t doing their work. They’re not supporting the people in the way they should be. They’ve been threatened so they’re staying quiet. They don’t investigate what’s happening in our country. 
The rich people are living peacefully in gated communities, they go everywhere in their cars. It’s the poor people that risk their lives to travel in buses, work and go to school in violent communities. 
The police arrive in a community and grab everyone in sight. In a neighborhood dominated by the Barrio 18 gang, or the Mara Salvatrucha, they show up, push the kids against the wall, beat them, put them in the cop car and drive them to a rival territory, where they know they’ll be killed. We have proof of this. It’s why we’re saying that our people are victims of abuses of the army and the police. It’s abuse of authority.
In an accompanying story, the Post describes the government's view:
But despite the enormous toll on both sides, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has remained defiant, vowing to tighten security at prisons and relentlessly pursue gang members. 
“The government has said there’s no chance of dialogue with the gangs,” Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, the minister of security and justice, said in an interview.... 
Ramírez Landaverde dismissed the possibility that the current pause could stretch into a more durable peace, saying the gang landscape is fragmented with hundreds of small cells and cliques. 
“Often it turns out they [gang leaders] don’t have the backing of all the groups, or all of the members,” he said. “Many of them don’t participate, and you can see proof in the streets. They’re killing like nothing happened.”
The Washington Post interview tool place at the offices of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, which is a founding member of IPAZ, a group of Salvadoran churches advocating for dialogue among all sectors of  society including the gangs.  

In my view,  measures by the government to take actual control of what goes on its prisons are long overdue.   It is no secret in El Salvador that leaders of El Salvador's gangs have exercised significant control from within the prisons, giving orders to execute enemies, commit extortion and discipline members.   The gangs largely controlled life inside the prisons, and 18th Street and Mara Salvatruca gangsters were incarcerated in separate prisons.   So if the current exceptional measures are part of a longer term strategy to get control over the prisons and to actually remove the ability to communicate and control from gang leaders, that is probably a good thing.

But as experience has shown, the "iron fist" policies of multiple Salvadoran governments in the marginalized communities where gangs flourish, have only served to increase the level of violence.     The reports of abuses by security forces and police are widespread, and vigilante death squads are assumed to be responsible for killings as well.   Until El Salvador's security policy becomes less one dimensional, and focuses on all the causes of violence in the country, reductions in the homicide rate by gangs looking to make a political point, will only be temporary respites.



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