Salvadoran authorities recently claimed that an anti-gang campaign has led to thousands of weapons being seized. But the numbers and types of weapons seized are unlikely to make a real difference to gangs and do nothing to halt the flow of weapons entering El Salvador.
In early October, El Salvador’s police announced the seizure of 2,026 firearms, including 1,371 pistols and other small arms. All of the guns were seized this year as part of the Territorial Control Plan (Plan de Control Territorial) launched in June 2019, which saw a greater security presence deployed in the country’s most violent areas.
The government of President Nayib Bukele has touted the success of this plan, claiming it has led to over 20,000 arrests and reductions in a number of other crimes. However, weapons seizures in 2020 are down on previous years. In 2019, authorities stated they had seized a total of 3,413 firearms and 2018 saw a similar number, with 2,516 small arms and 540 high-caliber weapons.
The Territorial Control Plan has been one of the flagship policies of President Bukele, who has stated it has put the gangs on the back foot and led to a historic reduction in homicides. Since 2015, when El Salvador was the most murderous country in the Western Hemisphere, its murder rate has continued to fall, including a 62 percent year-on-year drop in the first half of 2020.
But investigations by El Faro, International Crisis Group and InSight Crime have raised questions about this, stating that the drop of violence had begun before his arrival to power. For example, gangs have repeatedly shown their ability to reduce levels of violence during informal pacts with the government, as shown during the 2012 gang truce, or in exchange for other criminal economies such as extortion, or to let political operatives campaign in gang-controlled areas.
InSight Crime Analysis
While seizing weapons is an important step to reduce violence in El Salvador — where most homicides are carried out with firearms — this strategy neither tackles the flow of weapons entering the country nor closes loopholes for people to obtain weapons legally.
Firstly, while most murders in El Salvador are committed with small-caliber weaponry, those with the right money and connections can still gain access to a heavier arsenal. Last June, a report by OjoPúblico found that between July 2014 and July 2019, the Salvadoran police had granted permits to 556 people to own high-caliber weapons, including AR-15s, which cannot legally be owned by civilians.
And it is not known how many weapons have been purchased with these permits since they did not restrict the owner to a single firearm. Hiding personal arsenals behind a veneer of legality has long existed in El Salvador. Around 2012, during a government drive for the population to formally register weapons, an army general and colonel legalized around 20 automatic weapons, including M-16s, AK-47s and AR-15s, according to OjoPúblico.
Also in 2012, a woman was able to register 207 firearms that formally belonged to her deceased husband under her name, even after paying a fine for having outdated permits. She had bought some of them from the aforementioned army general.
Even former president Mauricio Funes registered 92 weapons in his name, days before leaving office in 2014, including assault rifles such as a Heckler & Koch 91, a favorite of military snipers.
Secondly, weapons taken off the streets inside the country does nothing to stop the flow of guns trafficked to El Salvador. According to a government statement in October, police have seized many automatic weapons, including M-16 and AK-47 models. These were reportedly taken from gang members who clashed with the police.
The top three departments in which guns were seized include Santa Ana, Sonsonate and San Salvador. All three have an important presence of El Salvador’s two main gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18.
Gangs obtain their weapons both through legal sales and from the black market, according to security analyst Jeannette Aguilar.
“Since mano dura [iron fist] policies began, the gangs increased their firepower … one of the major changes was an increase in the use of heavy, military-grade weaponry and a reduction in the use of small arms,” she told InSight Crime.
For Aguilar, the lack of attention paid to illegal weapons trafficking or to regulating the legal market has left almost half a million firearms in the hands of civilians in El Salvador. “Even legally owned and registered weapons are commonly used by gangs when committing crimes. Often, the same weapon is used in a number of criminal acts by various people,” she said.