It’s been a bloody year for El Salvador. An ongoing war between two powerful street gangs — the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 — has given the tiny Central American nation the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, and there’s fear that a series of recent developments could make matters even worse, at least in the immediate future.

Late last week, the rival gangs, known as pandillas, offered to halt the killings in exchange for concessions from the government, but authorities have instead decided to take the fight against the gangs to their home base: the country’s notoriously corrupt and overcrowded prisons. Gang leaders operate from behind bars, using smuggled cellphones to oversee street-level drug dealing and extortion, and to order kidnappings and murders.

On Tuesday, the government declared a state of emergency in seven prisons, promising deep searches for weapons, money, and cellphones. They also moved 299 high-ranking MS-13 members into a maximum security prison near San Salvador, the country’s capital.

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