Recent police killings and reports of a gang assassination campaign targeting law enforcement in El Salvador indicate that the country's security situation has devolved into low intensity warfare between criminal groups and security personnel.
So far in April, three police have been killed in the southwestern La Libertad province, with another murdered in the neighboring province of La Paz. Police believe the deaths are part of an assassination campaign being waged in La Libertad by members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang, reported La Prensa Grafica.
Citing informants within the MS13, police intelligence officials stated that MS13 leaders in La Libertad have ordered each unit or "clica" in the province to kill two police officers. Gang members have information on where police live within their territory and clandestinely monitor their movements, according to a police intelligence report obtained by La Prensa Grafica. MS13 leaders have prioritized killing personnel from special and tactical police units, but if no police reside in a particular clica's area, they have been instructed to target prosecutors, judges, and other judicial officials, according to the report.
Meanwhile, on April 6, a video surfaced online (see below) in which a man dressed as a member of the police urges his colleagues to defend themselves from gangs. "Now is the time to take justice into our own hands. An eye for an eye," he says in the video. The man also calls on police officers to kill ten gang members for every member of the police or military assassinated by criminal groups.
InSight Crime Analysis
The MS13's alleged La Libertad police assassination campaign indicates that El Salvador's security situation has devolved from the traditional challenges facing law enforcement into a situation in which police are locked in low intensity warfare with heavily armed criminal actors.
While violence has been on the rise in El Salvador this year, what is of particular note is the tit-for-tat nature of these recent police killings and accompanying rhetoric on both sides of the conflict. The assassination campaign was allegedly launched in response to the killing of eight gang members during a confrontation with police in La Libertad on March 26. According to the police intelligence report, MS13's La Libertad leaders are looking to convince police that they cannot kill gang members without reprisal.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
Although the national police vowed to investigate the video created by the alleged police officer, the language from police leaders has been only slightly more restrained. In January, after seven police officers had been killed in the span of three weeks, Police Director Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde stated that police should use their weapons against criminals "with complete confidence."
In the past, gangs have claimed to be the victims of extrajudicial killings, and gang leaders have stated that security forces operate paramilitary death squads.
With further killings only heightening the anxiety undoubtedly felt by both gang members and police, it's hard to see an exit strategy from El Salvador's current predicament.