High-ranking members of El Salvador’s military allegedly commanded a secret death squad to execute gang members, the first instance of senior military personnel being so clearly implicated in the ordering of extrajudicial killings in the country in recent years.
According to phone conversations intercepted by the Attorney General’s Office last year, three top ranking army officials orchestrated the group’s operations in an effort to illegally execute suspected gang members.
Wiretaps recorded Colonels David Iglesias Montalvo, Héctor Solano Cáceres and Lieutenant Lionel Ascencio Sermeño discussing the squadron, and revealed the existence of a structure of command within the army’s intelligence unit. Members of the army’s Information and Analysis Battalion (Battalón de Información y Análisis del Ejército — BIAE) carried out the killings, the Attorney General’s Office alleged.
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The Attorney General’s Office also accused the officers of covering up an incident last June when soldiers tortured two people in the western department of Ahuachapán.
In a recent press conference, El Salvador’s Defense Minister General David Munguía Payés criticized the Attorney General’s Office for charging the officers with the cover-up. He also denied the existence of the secret unit.
“There are no extermination groups,” Munguía said in comments reported by local media. “Neither will we tolerate the existence of extermination groups within the institution.”
In response, the Attorney General’s Office criticized the armed forces for being “defensive,” and called for greater cooperation between the two agencies.
InSight Crime Analysis
Extrajudicial killings are a major symptom of the ongoing insecurity in El Salvador, as government forces grapple with the gang violence that has made the country one of the world’s most violent. El Salvador has seen rising violence, despite security officials’ use of “extraordinary” tactics and increasingly hardline measures to exert control.
Although there have been many documented cases of executions, assault and extortion by security forces across the country, the Attorney General’s Office’s evidence is the first to clearly single out high-ranking military officials.
Many of the country’s security forces are thought to be infiltrated by gang members, and the country’s Police Reaction Group (Grupo de Reación Policial — GRP) was dissolved and replaced earlier this month after repeatedly being accused of carrying out massacres.
Agnes Callamard, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, recently spoke with InSight Crime, and described the use of excessive force among Salvadoran security forces as linked to impunity, weak institutional oversight and an inability to effectively prosecute corruption.
“Ultimately it is about providing good evidence, having judges that are not afraid of indicting police officers, and protecting these judges from very unpopular decisions,” Callamard said.
Callamard also noted that the Salvadoran justice system needs mechanisms that allow officials to gather “the required evidence to demonstrate extrajudicial executions or excessive use of force,” to effectively tackle institutional corruption.