Following two highly organized attacks on police carried out by heavily armed street gangs, authorities in El Salvador are warning the gangs have expanded their territorial influence, increased their criminal activities, and acquired more powerful weaponry.
On April 4, a police patrol and a police delegation were ambushed in separate attacks 30 minutes apart. In both cases, the attacks, which left one officer dead and three injured, were carried out by gang members armed with M16 assault rifles and 9mm handguns, reported El Pais. Police believe the Barrio 18 gang was responsible.
The chief of the National Police (PNC), Rigoberto Pleites, said the sophistication of the attacks suggested the gangs had received weapons training from experts, reported La Prensa Grafica.
The ambushes come against a background of rising attacks against police, with 48 so far this year compared to 30 over the same period in 2013, reported El Mundo..
In the wake of the attacks, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security issued a statement in which it said police had evidence of an increase in the gangs' criminal activities, territorial expansion, increased penetration of social and civil institutions, a growing role in drug trafficking and that they had acquired military grade weapons.
Meanwhile, the country's murder rate has continued to rise, with the first six days of April witnessing 62 murders, bringing the national rate closer to the rate of around 12 per day seen before the truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs came into force in March 2012.
InSight Crime Analysis
According to El Mundo, the police are working on three theories as to what lies behind the ambush that killed the police officer.
The first hypothesis is that it was a revenge attack for the recent killing of a gang member in the same municipality. The second is that it is a reaction to an increase in police operations targeting the gangs, and the third is that its intention was to exert pressure on the incoming government.
Whether there were any political motives or not, the attacks will certainly increase the pressure on the incoming government, which has yet to release a detailed security plan for the new administration.
Throughout the election campaign, President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren avoided overtly condemning or condoning the gang truce. However, the growing murder rate, increases in attacks on police and now police statements the gangs have grown in strength throughout the truce mean he will struggle to continue avoiding the issue.