A string of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have El Salvador’s authorities searching for culprits and motives behind the attacks.
The IEDs have been piling up. The latest came on September 10, when police said three unidentified men had detonated an IED outside El Salvador’s Treasury Department. (See photo below) It was the third IED detected in less than three months and the first to explode before authorities could intervene.
Just hours after the attack, El Salvador’s Attorney General Luis Martinez said he knew the perpetrators had directed the action from their jail cell in the state of Morazon, and that authorities had confiscated more bomb-making materials such as C4 from the suspects.
In mid-June, police bomb squads diffused a van booby-trapped with a grenade in Soyapango, a satellite city of San Salvador. Police sources told InSight Crime that gangs had laid the trap for the police, which did not explode.
And in late August, the police safely dismantled an IED made of C4 explosives in front of the Justice and Public Security Ministry. Three people were arrested, including a policeman, and charged with laying a trap for the attorney general.
La Prensa Grafica’s map of recent car bombs
The incidents come amidst El Salvador’s deteriorating security situation. Following the collapse of negotiations with the nation’s powerful street gangs, the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the government isolated imprisoned gang leaders in maximum security prisons and launched a more militaristic approach to street crime. El Salvador’s murder rate has since skyrocketed as gangs battle each other and security forces.
The IEDs add another layer of insecurity, particularly since there is so much uncertainty about who is behind them and why they are being used.
Little Motive, Less Ability
The gangs are the first suspects that come to mind. MS13 has been linked to rudimentary car bombs using grenades in the past. The simple booby-traps are set so the grenade’s safety pin will be pulled as the victim opens a door or turns the vehicle’s wheels. These improvised devices require little technical know-how and incidents appear to have targeted specific individuals, such as those who refused to pay extortion.
The Soyapango booby trap fits this modus operandi. The grenade — an M-67 — was rigged to the passenger door.
However, El Salvador’s last two IEDs appear to have been made using more sophisticated devices — in one case C4 explosives — and positioned for maximum visibility and impact.
This would be a very “unusual tactic” for gangs, the Organization of American State’s Secretary of Multidimensional Security Adam Blackwell told InSight Crime. While gangs may be looking to respond to El Salvador’s increasingly violent security forces, the incidents are likely to draw an even greater backlash from authorities, while also disrupting lucrative gang activities like extortion and drug distribution.
“I have a hard time seeing the gain,” Blackwell said.
Independent security analyst Douglas Farah agreed. Detonating a car bomb outside an important government building has a certain “historical resonance” in El Salvador, where car bombs were frequently used during the civil war, Farah said.
“The physiological impact of that is clear, and I don’t think gangs have any understanding of that,” the analyst added.
Farah acknowledged that the gangs’ more well trained subsets, or “clicas” as they are known, likely have the technical capacity for sophisticated IEDs, but suspected other players within El Salvador of being responsible.
‘Social Cleansing Groups’
A second set of suspects come from malcontents inside El Salvador’s security forces and possibly right wing vigilante groups who have formed what are often referred to in El Salvador as “social cleansing groups.” Some police, in particular, have emerged as radical actors that will go to extremes to fight the gangs.
Building on its troubled history of death squads during the civil war, multiple reports have surfaced recently in El Salvador of men in police and military uniforms committing summary executions of suspected gang members.
Supporting this argument is the fact that many of the materials used in recent IEDs have been traced back to security forces. (Gangs, it should be noted, also have access to these same materials, either through theft or corrupt security officials.)
The motives of these groups is opaque. For some, it could be part of a Machiavellian plan to destabilize the government and ensure support for a militaristic response to the security crisis. Former truce negotiator Raul Mijango told InSight Crime that social cleansing groups have attempted to disguise executions as rivalries between gangs. Now these groups may have taken to planting IEDs in the hopes that they will be blamed on gangs.
The timing of the IEDs is also important. In August, the Supreme Court labeled the gangs as terrorist groups, opening them up to widespread persecution. The IEDs would serve to confirm this ruling.
The aim is to “increase fear and anger against the gangs in order to legitimize the court ruling which classifies gangs as terrorists,” thus justifying further violence against them, Mijango said.
Upsetting the Status Quo
A third set of suspects are related to the drug trade, independent security analyst Farah told InSight Crime. In the past, gangs served local drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) as subordinates, handling tasks like contract killings, local drug distribution and security. However, during the truce, gangs were able to acquire more guns, recruits and territory — particularly key trafficking points along El Salvador’s coast. The emboldened gangs then began taking steps towards playing a more direct role in international drug trafficking. In response, Farah says the local DTOs tapped their connections with El Salvador’s elites to apply pressure on the gangs.
“Transportista networks enjoy an enormous amount of political, police and military support,” Farah said.
Among these elites were members of the government, Farah added. Many high ranking officials within the government “have economic interests in maintaining the status quo in terms of drug trafficking,” he said.
In sum, according to Farah, the IEDs are likely being orchestrated by DTO-connected security personnel, with the aim of vilifying gangs.
“This is part of psychological operations to prep the population so they would accept the high level of violence and bloodshed needed to take out the gangs,” Farah said.
Multiple Culprits, Multiple Motivations
Finally, there is the strong possibility that there are multiple actors involved in placing the IEDs for multiple reasons. People like Mijango describe El Salvador’s current security situation as “low-intensity warfare.” With as many as 50 homicides occurring in a single day and police officials describing themselves as “at war” with gangs, the label seems appropriate.
Within this low-intensity war there are not just two sides but multiple actors with their own sets of interests and potential for violence. Cut off from their central leadership, for instance, one gang clica may decide that setting off IEDs is a proper response to police aggression, while others fear further extrajudicial killings or hold out lingering hopes for a truce.
Meanwhile, some members of social cleansing groups and security forces may be looking to steer the collective political response, while others may be more interested in eliminating the competition of their DTO allies.
This web of motivations and potential culprits makes the mystery behind the IEDs look like the mashed up car in front of the Treasury Department.
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