Authorities in El Salvador are keen to expand a much-praised local policing model believed to have helped two rural communities tackle bloody gang control. But a visit to the areas revealed a murky combination of factors behind the security gains, including indications of vigilantism.
On a dirt road leading to the villages of Guajoyo and Miramar in the municipality of Tecoluca, some 80 kilometers east of the capital, San Salvador, a rusty checkpoint barrier blocks an unpaved path cutting through the countryside.
Uncultivated fields sprawl on either side of the dirt road, in one direction to the foot of a mountainous forest looming in the distance that once served as a hideout for guerrilla insurgents who fought in El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s.
A few kilometers back stands the landmark “Golden Bridge,” one of the biggest and most impressive engineering feats in El Salvador until it was famously blown up in 1981 by a commando from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), the guerrilla group that later became the governing political party.
The civil war is long over, and the FMLN flags flying above so many of the rural households here now represent a non-violent political movement rather than armed revolution -- a sign of how far the country has come in securing peace. But the war in this region gave way to another conflict, this time between the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs as well as state security forces, which turned the area once again into a battleground.
Juan José Leyva, a sturdy man in his mid-fifties who is an officer with Tecoluca’s municipal police (Cuerpo de Agentes Municipales - CAM), remembers that the presence of gangs began expanding in 2012.
Early one evening in 2014, he was stationed in Tecoluca's central plaza when he says three gang members walked up to him, two with weapons visibly tucked under their shirts, the third with his gun in his hand.
“So tell me, if we kill someone right here are you guys [the municipal police] going to get involved?” Leyva says they asked him.
The police officer says he told them that if they attacked innocent men, women or children, then yes, the CAM would retaliate. But if they happened to run rival gang members out of town and deal with them elsewhere, it wouldn’t be of the CAM’s concern.
“We’ll take that into account,” Leyva remembers the young gang member saying.
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Under increasing pressure from urban security forces in the 2000s, gang members had migrated to the countryside, setting up some of the same activities that make up their bread and butter in cities, such as extortion. With this geographical shift, violence increased, with rising homicides blamed on extortion and score-settling.
Another Tecoluca police officer, José Ambrosio, told InSight Crime that the situation around Guajoyo and Miramar quickly worsened in 2014 with the arrival of a hardened Barrio 18 gang member, Apolonio Neftalí Rivera Durán, alias "Polo." By 2015, some businesses near the Golden Bridge were paying up to $100 a week in extortion to the gang -- nearly half the monthly minimum wage for a commercial employee.
In June 2015, things came to a head. A police operation to arrest the gang’s second-in-command in the area resulted in the suspect's death. The following day, members of the Barrio 18's Revolucionarios faction dragged the daughter of a local Guajoyo community leader from her house onto the main road, and in broad daylight executed her and her father, who tried to intervene.
Shock to the System
The motive behind the killings was uncertain -- the daughter reportedly was in a relationship with one of the local gang members -- but the bloody incident sent ripples through the community. Fourteen families fled, while the rest organized to create a local committee for violence prevention and increased their cooperation with local police, which helped lead to the dismantling of the gang, according to authorities.
Ambrosio, the police officer, says that the development of community policing in the area dates back as early as 2010, but that it was the desperation provoked by the killing of the leader and his daughter that really brought the local population closer to law enforcement, who simultaneously saw the opportunity to launch an outreach campaign.
"First, [law enforcement] succeeded in gaining the population's trust," local community leader Miguel Ángel Cruz told InSight Crime.
"Before, we would have community meetings and there would be no law enforcement participation. Since then, there hasn't been a single social meeting without a member of the police present, giving out a speech or training," he added.
The renewed trust spurred the sharing of information by locals that allowed police to take down the local gang structure. By the end of 2016, all fourteen families had returned to their homes.
Praising the security gains achieved in the area since the peak of the violence, authorities at the national level are pushing to replicate a model known as the Local Violence Prevention Committee (Comité Local de Prevención de la Violencia - CLPV), through which law enforcement and the Guajoyo and Miramar communities cooperated. In April, the government announced that it was hoping to see 23 new CLPVs in the area.
Ambrosio's superior, Police Commissioner Gerson Pérez, in charge of the department of San Vicente, also insisted that the community’s social cohesion was key to the successful model.
“These are places that have remained organized since the war,” Pérez noted.
Community Policing or Vigilantism?
There is a consensus among officials and non-governmental observers that the lack of trust in Salvadoran law enforcement is one of the main obstacles to bringing down extortion levels and prosecuting gang members. Improving the flow of information from communities to law enforcement appears to be a step in the right direction.
But improved cooperation alone may not fully explain how such a powerful gang presence was dealt with so quickly.
Two sources requesting anonymity told InSight Crime that extrajudicial killings and executions of gang members had taken place during the period in which locals were trying to force the gangs out of the area -- a period during which murder accusations against security forces jumped by 630 percent at the national level.
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Such a hypothesis would be in line with a national and regional pattern of extortion victims taking justice into their own hands. Some politicians are advocating for a bill to legalize self-defense movements against gangs. The president of Congress, Guillermo Gallegos, has even boasted about financing the arming of a vigilante group.
At the national level, extrajudicial killings by Salvadoran security forces have also become an issue. Several investigations have revealed the existence of death squads led by police and military, sometimes in coordination with community members. And local press reports suggest that a combination of policing efforts and a vigilante movement by locals pushed gang members out of Miramar and Guajoyo.
Ambrosio vehemently denies these claims, but Commissioner Pérez told a different story.
“It doesn’t really matter if they [the civilians] were armed or not,” Pérez told InSight Crime, choosing to highlight the communities' concerted effort to coordinate with local authorities.
Officials and experts consulted by InSight Crime concurred that the ability of a community to organize itself is essential to resisting gang infiltration and criminal activities like extortion. All agreed that measures such as Tecoluca’s community policing program can go a long way in undermining gang structures.
But the story of Guajoyo and Miramar suggests that attempts to replicate this model in other communities should take into account the potential for abuses by both community members and security forces.
* Deborah Bonello contributed reporting to this article.