El Salvador’s attorney general has accused several police officers of participating in a high-profile case of extrajudicial killings, signaling a desire to reign in heavy-handed anti-gang tactics that have been linked to increases in violence and human rights abuses.
In a July 8 press conference, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez announced that his office had ordered the arrest of seven members of the national police in connection with the March 26, 2015, killing of eight people at the San Blas farm in San Jose Villanueva.
Meléndez also said that a total of 22 suspects, including police officers and business owners, had been ordered detained on charges that they belonged to a criminal structure that carried out murders for hire.
“I said it a few days ago. We cannot allow our country to turn into the Wild West,” Melendez said, referencing earlier comments. “This case is a demonstration of that, where we have indications that there were summary executions of people who did not even have a criminal record.”
The police stood by their version that eight members of a “criminal structure” were killed at San Blas in a shootout with officers. National Civil Police Director Howard Cotto also held a press conference on July 8, telling reporters “we are absolutely sure that we acted within the framework of the law.”
However, an investigation published last year by the news outlet El Faro concluded “that those killed were summarily executed and arranged to appear as if they died in a shootout.” More recently, El Salvador’s inspector general for human rights came to similar conclusions.
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The arrest orders, combined with Meléndez’s statements, strongly suggest that the attorney general is attempting to send a message that police must act lawfully when carrying out operations against the country’s powerful gangs. Other government officials have supported aggressive police tactics. Vice President Óscar Ortiz said last year that police who feel threatened should use deadly force against gang members “without any fear of suffering consequences.”
Meléndez’s office has brought charges against officials suspected of collaborating with the country’s powerful gangs, including mayors and political figures linked to a controversial, government-brokered 2012 truce. The charges in the San Blas case signal that his office will not turn a blind eye to misconduct on the part of the police.
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It remains to be seen, however, whether the attorney general’s actions will lead to a change in policing policies. The Salvadoran government appears to be committed to continuing its “iron fist” approach to the gangs, despite the fact that a majority of citizens believe that the “extraordinary measures” have shown poor results thus far.