El Salvador's armed forces and the National Civil Police (PNC) are killing alleged gang members at a rate of about 35 per month since the government declared war on the country's gangs in January 2015. Security officials justify the killings as confrontations that "conform to the law." But a detailed analysis of the numbers and a comparison with those from other countries with a history of police abuse, such as Mexico and the United States, "point to the existence of summary executions," according to one expert.
In the last 20 months, the PNC and the military have killed 693 alleged gang members, an almost surreal number for a country with about 6.5 million inhabitants. In combination with other statistics, like the very low amount of police casualties and injuries, this figure supports the notion that Salvadoran security forces are making disproporionate use of their weapons and are committing extrajudicial executions.
Police abuse has been researched in different societies, and the international community has agreed on the warning signs. El Salvador is surpassing them all. Some examples: for every alleged gang member injured during confrontations that occurred between January and August 2016, three were killed. Similarly, the ratio of killings of police officers during exchanges of gunfire is one for every 53 such incidents.
"The incidence of civilian deaths at the hands of state agents is very high in El Salvador, even in comparison with countries that have similar problems, like Brazil," said sociologist Ignacio Cano, the coordinator of the Center for Violence Analysis at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and a recognized expert in this field for his work on police violence in Brazil's favelas. "The numbers from El Salvador indicate an abusive use of lethal force by the police and the presence of summary executions."
Through the Access to Public Information Law (Ley de Acceso a la Información Publica), El Faro requested a list of all events that the police declared as "confrontations" from January 2015, when the government declared a war against the gangs, to August 31, 2016. In addition to the time and location of the incidents, El Faro also requested details of the deaths and injuries on each side as well as information on the gender and age of the victims.
Compared to similar studies from Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, the PNC fairs poorly, exhibiting patterns of conduct similar to those of the police forces that operated during the country's 1980 to 1992 civil war. Such behaviour is diametrically opposed to what is expected from a police force in a democratic state. "And the abuse of force by state agents worsened in 2016," said Cano, who analyzed the numbers and information El Faro received from the police.
El Faro spoke to a police officer responsible for one of the police's sub-delegations, who asked to remain anonymous. "I never received an order to kill or cover up" a killing, he said. But, he added, "it is obvious that hatred for gang members within the police and the desire for revenge has increased, and I do hear conversations between agents who say: these sons of bitches, they should all be killed."
This official believes that special units such as the Police Reaction Group (Grupo de Reacción Policial - GRP) and the recently created Forces for Intervention and Territorial Recovery (Fuerzas de Intervención y Recuperación Territorial - FIRT) are particularly prone to committing summary executions.
The official numbers, reports and testimonies confirm fears about the actions of the PNC and the armed forces expressed by a variety of organizations including the US State Department, the Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos), and various non-governmental organizations. The government, however, strongly supports the work of the security forces and denies that they are committing human rights violations.
"Those confrontations occur when dilinquents respond with gunfire to the officers' attempts to arrest them...and so they die," said PNC Director Howard Cotto in a September 16 television interview.
On August 26, the Chicago Tribune published a similar report on the Chicago Police Department (CPD) also based on information obtained through access to information laws. In the six years from January 2010 to December 2015, the CPD registered 435 armed confrontations with suspected criminals, which resulted in 92 killed and 170 injured, yielding a lethality index of 0.54.
In El Salvador, in just 20 months from January 2015 to August 2016, the police registered 1,074 armed confrontations with alleged gang members, which resulted in 693 deaths and 255 injuries, yielding a lethality index of 2.72.
The lethality index is an internationally accepted indicator used to evaluate the performance of security forces. It shows the relationship between the number of civilians killed versus the number injured in confrontations with military and police.
"In any kind of legitimate armed confrontation, police or military, one expects to find more injuries than killings, hence the coefficient always should be smaller than one," said Cano.
Cano's statement is echoed by a report (pdf) on the lethality of security forces in Mexico's drug war published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México - UNAM): "One would expect that in confrontations between civilians and security forces, the number of dead would not significantly surpass the number of injured, and that the index number would not be much higher than one."
The UNAM study explains that "the Vietnam War had a ratio of four injured for every death between 1964 and 1973 [lethality index: 0.25], and the conflict between Israel and Lebanon had a ratio of 4.5 injured for every death in 1982 [lethality index: 0.22]."
In El Salvador, the lethality index of the security forces reached 2.3 in 2015, while in the first eight months of 2016 it jumped to 3.1. The actual numbers could be even higher, since they have been calculated using a category that the PNC labeled as "injured gang members," which does not specify if the injury occurred during a shootout or afterwards during transport or interrogation.
"When there is armed aggression against our officers, they cannot let themselves be killed," Director Cotto said in the above-mentioned interview.
"The police now go around in a state of psychosis, and at times it is natural that they say: 'better to shoot first,'" said the officer who agreed to speak anonymously to El Faro.
The Organic Law of the National Civil Police of El Salvador is very precise when comes to defining how officers should act in dangerous situations in which they feel obligated to use their weapons. Article 15 establishes that "members of the National Civil Police will use, to the greatest extent possible, non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms." The police are also required by law to "minimize harm and injury, and to respect and protect human life," as well as "to proceed so as to provide the medical care and services to people injured or affected soon as possible" following an exchange of gunfire.
More Concerning Statistics
In 20 months, the PNC recorded 1,074 incidents as "confrontations between police or soldiers and gang members," an average of 54 incidents per month. For comparison, the Chicago Police Department recorded an average of six shootouts per month between the police and alleged criminals.
Comparing 2015 and 2016, it appears that the PNC is becoming increasingly lethal over time. In eight months in 2016, 373 alleged gang members were killed compared to 320 in all of 2015. In 2013 and 2014, there were 39 and 49 killings respectively. Thus, the "war" seems to have multiplied the number of suspected gang members killed by a factor of ten.
As for security force casualties, 13 police officers and 4 soldiers died in confrontations in 2015, and 4 police and 3 soldiers had died in such incidents as of August 31, 2016. (See InSight Crime's graphic below. Data for 2016 represent a projection based on current trends.)
The gender of the victims is another significant data point: 99 percent of the suspected gang members were male. Another relevant statistic is the victims' age. Although the PNC claims not to have been able to establish the age of 330 of the 693 slain suspects, among those that were identified are 63 minors, from which it is possible to infer that roughly 100 of the victims may have been younger than 18 years old -- "children" according to international treaties signed by El Salvador.
As for the geographical distribution of the confrontations, the most affected departments are La Paz, Cuscatlán and Usulután. At the opposite extreme, Ahuachapán, Chalatenango and Morazan -- in that order -- are the territories where the least armed confrontations have taken place. At the municipal level, it is noteworthy that rural towns and villages appear to be the scene of more confrontations.
But of all the data, the most worrying for Cano is the relationship between the casualties of police and soldiers and the casualties of gang members. In 2015, this ratio was was one to 19.
Not even in Mexico during the worst periods of the war on drugs were such numbers observed. The ratio of deaths of Mexican Federal Police officers to suspected criminals was one to 10 in 2012. And the military, a key player in that conflict, had a ratio of one soldier dead for every 20 suspected criminals between 2011 and 2013. (In August, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto fired Federal Police chief Enrique Galindo following revelations that the force had been involved in extrajudicial executions.)
In 2016, the Salvadoran PNC has had a ratio of one officer killed for every 53 presumed gang members slain.
"According to Paul Chevigny (1991), the death of more than ten or fifteen civilians for one security officer casualty suggests that lethal force is being used beyond what is necessary," reads the UNAM report cited above.
Cano cites the same source to conclude that there appears to be "abuse of lethal force on the part of law enforcement officials in El Salvador."
Paradoxically, the PNC legitimizes the killings of alleged gang members with the claim that they are heavily armed when they are killed by the police. "Just in the operations in which there have been confrontations, 443 weapons were seized this year from gang members, including 18 AK-47 rifles and 16 M16 rifles," Cotto said.
Presumed Gang Members
The use of "presumed gang members" in this report when referring to deaths caused by the police and military is not just a formality. In July 2015 and February 2016, El Faro revealed how agents of the police murdered two young men whom the institution later presented as "gang members" even though they were not part of any gang structure.
Dennis Alexander Martínez, for example, died as a result of being shot in the head by GRP officers while he knelt down begging for his life at the San Blas farm on March 26, 2015. However, in official police statistics, Dennis appears as a gang member.
A similar situation played out with Armando Díaz, who was also executed by the GRP on February 8, 2016, when three underage gang members fleeing from a police operation slipped through the roof of his home in the neighborhood of Villas de Zaragoza in the municipality of Zaragoza. Armando is listed in official reports as one of 693 "gang members" killed by the police in self defense.
Even though these cases are publicly known -- in addition to others revealed by other news outlets and in official reports by the human rights ombudsman -- events referred to by the PNC as "confrontations" rarely spark the interest of the Attorney General's Office, with the exception of the few incidents that involve casualties of police or soldiers.
The Attorney General's Office rejects accusations that the institution is lenient when it comes to police abuses. Salvador Martínez, the institution's communications director, assured that the death of a gang member is processed in the same way as "that of a doctor or a farmer."
When asked for detailed information on the number of police officers and soldiers who have been prosecuted for participation in "confrontations," Martínez answered: "It is not that we don't want to give the information, but we would have to analyze the six hundred-odd cases, one by one, to know who is being prosecuted."
Despite Martinez's statement, an internal document of the Attorney General's Office obtained by El Faro, provides evidence that only one of the 693 deaths of presumed gang members caused by security forces over the course of 20 months has advanced past an initial court hearing: the case of Dennis Martínez, one of the eight killed in the emblematic massacre at San Blas.
In the remaining deaths -- 99.86 percent -- the Attorney General's Office has accepted the police versions as valid.
The PNC and Human Rights
The PNC is the state institution that accumulates the most complaints at the human rights ombudsman's office. According to a poll published by the investigative unit of La Prensa Gráfica at the end of August, the percentage of people who said they had suffered police abuse jumped from 11 percent in 2015 to 16 percent in 2016.
Nonetheless, in El Salvador there seems to be a political and social majority that tolerates and even applauds the methods used by security forces in the "war" against the gangs. The same poll revealed that the number of Salvadorans with a good or very good opinion of the PNC rose from 52 to 54 percent.
"Some police officers have been driven by what the population is asking for," said the PNC official who agreed to speak under condition of anonymity. "On social media, out of every 60 comments, 59 call for the death of all gang members."
On September 10, the PNC's official Twitter account shared an image of two officers -- a man wearing protective gear like that used by the Unit for Public Order (Unidad del Mantenimiento del Orden - UMO) and a woman wearing the official white uniform -- with the slogan "New times, heroes of El Salvador." The photomontage was accompanied by a message that read, "When the homeland is in danger, everything is allowed, except not defending it."
The next day, after some critical voices raised concerns on social media, the tweet was deleted, and the same image was shared with a more politically correct message: "New times for citizen security, with full respect for human rights."
When the homicide rates left behind by the "war" are analyzed in detail and compared with similar situations in countries like Brazil and Mexico, the idea expressed in the deleted tweet that "everything is permitted" in the actions of the PNC seems like much more than a slip up by the manager of the official Twitter account.