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While there has been a truce declared between security forces and the gangs since 2012, and it has not been officially rescinded, the escalating violence has pointed to its increasing irrelevance.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.