A judge in El Salvador has sentenced members of the MS13 street gang to 200.5 years in prison on extortion charges, another sign that the judicial system is moving in lockstep with the government’s security apparatus to combat the gangs.
A sentencing tribunal in the eastern city of San Miguel handed down the ruling to six MS13 members for running an extortion network from within the prison facility La Esperanza (The Hope), reported El Diario de Hoy. The network, which was reportedly comprised of 17 gang members, made phone calls from within the prison to extort victims on the outside.
The same court convicted 76 other gang members of attempting to murder a police officer and belonging to a terrorist organization, reported the Associated Press. Eight ringleaders were sentenced to 44 years in prison, while the other 68 members received 38.5 years.
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The court’s decision to sentence the extortionists to such a lengthy prison sentence is eye-catching, especially in light of the much shorter sentences other gang members received for attempted homicide of a police officer. The ruling comes within the context of a wider government push to crack down on illegal activity within the country’s prisons, which have long served as recruitment and operations centers for the gangs and are where many of the extortion rackets originate. Earlier this month, Vice President Óscar Ortiz extended the state of emergency in seven penitentiary facilities for one year.
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This is not the first time the courts have taken a tough stance against the gangs in tandem with a government crackdown. In August 2015 the Supreme Court labeled the MS13 and Barrio 18 as terrorist organizations, paving the way for more militarized anti-gang strategies at a time when security officials were already talking of waging all out “war” against the gangs.
The Salvadoran government appears set to continue employing so-called Mano Dura, or Iron Fist, tactics to combat the gangs. However, this hardline strategy has so far failed to pay security dividends. Last year El Salvador became the most homicidal nation in the world not at war, with a significant amount of the violence attributed to the gangs.