Police and army officials were among those arrested in El Salvador's biggest opperation against anti-gang death squads in recent memory, as the authorities finally move against the deadly militias that have flourished under their noses.
On June 21, Salvadoran police arrested four police officers, including one high-ranking official, ten members of the military and 34 civilians accused of forming a network of death squads in various zones in the east of the country, reported EFE. A further five military officials remain at large.
Will Ruiz, the head of the anti-organized crime unit at the Attorney General's Office, announced at a press conference that the group stands accused of 36 murders and two attempted murders, one case of deprivation of liberty, and 13 armed robberies.
Ruiz told media that the network consisted of two factions that had allied with each other, one dedicated to "social cleansing" killings and the other to bank robbery.
According to the prosecutor, the mission of the death squad was to "take justice into their own hands because of the incompetence of the authorities in solving the gang problem that affects the population."
However, while most of their victims were members of the MS13 gang, Ruiz said, among them were also nine people who investigators believe had no ties to gangs at all. In addition, there is evidence in two cases that the group acted as contract killers, taking payment to carry out murders.
The network was divided into diverse cells that coordinated to aid each other's operations, Ruiz said. This included using their inside contacts in the police, who provided intelligence and alerts to their death squad comrades, and hindered the operations of their police colleagues.
The prosecutor also described the alleged financing of the death squad by people living in the United States. He identified one of these suspected moneymen by the alias "Willy," saying he is wanted on charges of human smuggling and is believed to have fled to the United States.
InSight Crime Analysis
The operation in El Salvador represents the most serious blow yet against a phenomenon that until recently provoked little response from the state, even as the list of its victims grew ever larger.
Rumours of anti-gang death squads turned into concrete evidence of "social cleansing" killing sprees as far back as 2014. But amid a climate of fear and violence as the gangs declared open war on the security forces, their activities went largely unchecked.
The first signs that this could change came with the arrest of six police officers along with several civilians in May 2016. And a group of police was charged in July 2016 with participating in extrajudicial killings. This new wave of arrests now represents a serious stepping up of efforts to combat the death squads and a welcome sign the authorities are finally taking the problem seriously.
The alleged activities of the death squad send a clear message about the dangers of letting such vigilantism take hold. Not only do such groups undermine the rule of law, they also inevitably leave innocent victims and will likely slide into criminality, whether in the form taking payment for their killings and robbing banks as in this case, or in other activities such as extorting protection money from the communities they claim to protect.