An elite police unit dedicated to dismantling "mara" street gangs has begun operations in San Salvador, as a drop in killings appears to show that gangs are behind the majority of violence in the country.
On Wednesday, President Mauricio Funes officially launched the new anti-gang force. Its 302 officers, supported by another 150 officers from other units, have begun patrols on the streets of the capital city.
Last week the unit's members graduated from a specialized course in intelligence, tactics, investigative techniques and in the communicative patterns of gangs. There are plans for the officers to receive further training from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
However, the unit will not receive extra pay, unlike other elite units which get a monthly bonus of up to $240, according to Security Minister David Munguia Payes.
Pedro Gonzalez, the head of the new unit, said 68 of the officers would be assigned to intelligence work, 60 to investigations, and the remaining 174 to "anti-gang interventions." They will·also operate a call center for the public to phone in tips on gang activity.
Munguia said the government hoped to extend the scheme to five provinces that between them see three-quarters of all murders in El Salvador. (See video report, below, from El Diario de Hoy.)
InSight Crime Analysis
The specialized anti-gang unit is part of a new security policy being rolled out by the administration of Mauricio Funes. Most notably, the government "facilitated" the brokering of a truce between the country's two biggest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, which has been followed by a drop in killings of almost 60 percent. The government has also proposed measures including work schemes to help former gang members reintegrate into society, a curfew on young people, and legal reform to help prosecutions move faster with the aim of putting more gang members in prison.
The need for a specialized police unit is emphasized by new evidence that the gangs have been responsible for a large majority of all killings in El Salvador. The fact that murders have dropped by almost 60 percent since the truce would appear to prove that gangs were behind most violence. Before the truce, Munguia asserted that 90 percent of homicides were the work of gangs, a figure questioned by analysts including InSight Crime. However, it now seems that the minister's assertion may have been closer to the truth than the estimates of some police officials, who put the proportion at 30 to 35 percent.
However, Fespad, a non-governmental organization that works with gangs, said that it still is not convinced the gangs were responsible for such a high proportion of killings. "It's true that it has surprised us that the number of deaths has dropped so significantly," a representative told El Faro, saying "We suspect that the agreements included criminal structures separate from the gangs."