New testimony indicates that the Barrio 18 gang's Revolutionaries faction in El Salvador paid former soldiers and guerrillas to provide gang members with firearms and martial arts training in 2014, reviving an issue that has been the subject of debate for several years.
During criminal proceedings related to a 2014 attack on police officers in Quezaltepeque, testimony alluded to gang "training camps", reported El Mundo. The testimony cited the existence of six training centers spread across the departments of San Salvador, Chalatenango, La Paz, La Libertad and Sonsonate. The trainers were allegedly paid $200 per week.
Several of these training camps were located on remote hilltops. The first camp, near San Andres de Apopa, was allegedly the site where gang members were trained two times a week in marksmanship with M-16, AK-47 and Galil assault rifles. Another camp was apparently located on a hill in the department of La Paz. On the mountain of Guazapa, just north of the capital, another camp was reportedly run by José Milton Lopez Saavedra and Hector Hernandez Rivera, who are both currently facing criminal charges.
Two other hilltop camps were established in La Libertad and Zacatecoluca. One witness says that he was taken along with other gang members to the hilltop in Zacatecoluca to receive firearms training.
The final camp was actually located within Izalco prison in Sonsonate, where gang members were trained in martial arts such as kickboxing and in self-defense.
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This is not the first time that gangs in El Salvador have been linked with increased military prowess and military style training sessions. Reports surfaced in 2014 with similar claims, although it was then MS-13, rather than a faction of Barrio-18, that was preparing for combat.
The testimony given recently in the court proceedings comes from a gang member, and has not otherwise been corroborated.
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Should the allegations prove true, it would show that gangs used the time during and immediately following the truce in El Salvador to build up their strength. It is likely that the gangs have the resources to hire firearm instructors, and there are certainly plenty of qualified teachers given the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. However testimony about "training camps" does not necessarily mean the Barrio 18 gang members are becoming sophisticated commandos.