In April, it was reported that March had been the bloodiest month in a decade in El Salvador, with a reported 481 homicides during the month. May has topped it, clocking in 622, with 16 killed on May 31st. That makes May the bloodiest month in the small Central American country since its civil war, which raged from 1979 to 1992.

The first half of 2015 has been marked by repeated assaults on El Salvadoran police and military by Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, the two biggest gangs in the country. While there has been a truce declared between security forces and the gangs since 2012, and it has not been officially rescinded, the escalating violence has pointed to its increasing irrelevance.

The truce was largely brokered by the Catholic Church and the army, and was aimed at ending the turf war between MS-13 and Barrio 18. The two gangs effectively have the entire country divvied up between them, and are making vast amounts of money in a very poor country through drug trafficking, extortion, human trafficking, and gun-running. As part of the truce, while the government offered no real concessions to the gangs, several gang leaders were moved out of maximum-security prison for lower-security institutions.

The truce effectively fell apart last year, when the new president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, entered office. A former FMLN guerrilla during the civil war, Ceren opposes making any concessions to the gangs, and ran on a platform of combating organized crime. His administration has transferred most of the gang leaders who had been moved to lower-security prisons back to maximum security. They had been allowed phone calls and access to family, and many believe they were continuing to run their criminal enterprises from prison (not unlike several Mexican cartel capos).

Leaders of both MS-13 and Barrio 18 have issued statements that the government’s repression and anti-gang activity has been responsible for the escalating violence. Others, mainly among the police and the government, have voiced their belief that the gangs simply used the truce to consolidate their positions, rearm, and prepare. The government claims that surveillance has observed gang members going up into the hills for training.

The country’s police forces have seen a slackening of the rules governing their conduct, and in fact, new laws have been passed (largely with public approval) making it more difficult to investigate police activity. The police, mostly underpaid, poorly equipped, and living in fear of reprisal from the gangs (most of the dead police in recent months were murdered while off duty), have become more and more aggressive, and the anti-gang task force commander, Pedro Gonzalez, has admitted to the Washington Post that, “If these killings of gang members had happened five years ago, these police would be in prison; if they happened two years ago, they’d be jailed, for violation of human rights.” But the people are afraid, and so there is little outcry outside of the gangs and certain human rights groups as police forces sweep through neighborhoods of San Salvador, wearing balaclavas, raiding houses, and sweeping up anyone who might have some (however tenuous) connection to either of the maras.

Several videos have surfaced in recent weeks picturing masked and armed men threatening war between united gangs and the police if the government does not cease its crackdown on organized crime. The government claims that the videos are fake, intended only to spread fear, and Insight Crime has pointed out that this kind of PR is not normal for either MS-13 or Barrio 18.

Some are comparing the intensifying violence and reports of disappearances to the civil war. An estimated 75,000 people were killed in the 12 years of guerrilla fighting between the military government and the leftist guerrillas, who finally united under the Farbundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. Interestingly, there are authorities with the government now who were on both sides of that war, now united against the gangs. As previously mentioned, President Ceren was a leftist guerrilla, and Police Sub-Director Gonzalez was a captain in the army during the war, trained at the School of The Americas at Fort Benning.

The gangs do, however, still arise from the El Salvadoran Civil War. During the bloodletting of the ’80s, thousands of Salvadoran youth fled the fighting and gravitated to Los Angeles. It was there that both MS-13 and Barrio 18 were founded, and while the mass deportations of refugees later shifted many of them back to El Salvador, both gangs retain a considerable presence in the United States. MS-13, in particular, has cells all over the U.S. (the FBI estimates across 42 states and the District of Columbia), and is believed by some to play a major role in securing drug trafficking routes for Mexican DTOs—having a longstanding alliance with the Mexican mafia. They are a completely cellular, decentralized network, without a defined leadership chain, and have a justified reputation for violence—often very personal violence. They have even targeted U.S. Border Patrol officers for impeding cross-border narcotics traffic.

(Featured image courtesy of the AP)

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