El Salvador has invoked its anti-terrorism laws to prosecute alleged gang members -- raising the debate over definitions of crime and terrorism, where the two intersect, and the government's motives in framing the gangs as terrorist organizations.
On August 11, El Salvador Attorney General Luis Martinez announced capture orders had been issued for approximately 300 alleged gang members on charges of “terrorist acts,” reported EFE. The gangs have “gone too far,” said Martinez. "They attack the police and prosecutors, intimidate the population, force people to leave their homes, and intend to destabilize the state. They are terrorists, not gangsters.”
Martinez said applying El Salvador’s Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism -- on the books since October 2006 -- against gang members reflects a “new strategy” to “restore order and create social peace.”
Under terrorism charges, gang members can receive between eight and 12 years in prison, while gang leaders can receive 10 to 15 years. The law also lays out prison terms of between 40 to 60 years for those convicted of carrying out “an act against the life, personal integrity, liberty, or security” of a public official or employee.
Authorities also announced the arrest of 130 alleged members of the Barrio 18’s “Revolucionarios” faction. They are suspected of enforcing a recent public transportation “boycott” -- during which at least seven bus drivers were killed and two buses burned -- with Martinez declaring they “conspired and proposed the development of terrorist acts to bring terror and fear to the population.”
Capture orders have also been issued for alleged gang members suspected of carrying out attacks against police and soldiers. In 2015, 41 police officers, 15 soldiers, and one prosecutor have been killed.
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El Salvador’s Attorney General first proposed using the country's anti-terrorism law to go after gangs in April 2014. On a recent trip to Washington DC he emphasized gang members had evolved from simple delinquency to terrorism.
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Nonetheless, terrorism is a politically charged concept that is difficult to define. Indeed, El Salvador’s own legal definition of terrorism is vague and applicable to varying contexts. The law defines a terrorist act as "evidence of intent to provoke states of alarm, fear or terror in the population, place in imminent danger or affect the life or physical or mental integrity of people."
It may be that Salvadoran authorities see linking the gangs with terrorism as advantageous, carrying a lower burden of proof than criminal charges to reach a conviction. Painting gang members as terrorists may also be a politically expedient way for the government to justify harsher and more forceful anti-gang measures to the Salvadoran public.
Regardless, the Attorney General’s move raises the debate over where Salvadoran gangs fall on the “crime-terror continuum," and whether the gangs are truly using terrorist-like tactics to achieve political goals. While the question of whether El Salvador's gangs are truly political actors remains in contention, it is also clear that the gangs are using violence to extract certain concessions from the government (such as less-restrictive prison conditions).