Details on an alleged police assassin network that killed gang members for profit heightens concern over the rule of law and practice of extrajudicial executions by law enforcement in El Salvador.
According to El Salvador's attorney general, the murder-for-hire network consisted of up to 32 individuals, including six police officers, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
The network is believed to have murdered 11 gang members and one other individual in the departments of La Libertad, Sonsonate, and Santa Ana between 2014 and 2015.
Authorities have so far detained 22 suspects who stand accused of aggravated homicide, attempted homicide, conspiracy to commit homicide and illicit association, among other charges.
One former member of the network, referred to as "Sirio," has turned police witness, testifying that members received between $100 and $1,000 per murder.
Sirio reportedly told police that people who contracted the hit men expressed a variety of motives. Their reasons ranged from being threatened by gang members, to avenging the death of a loved one, to silencing or punishing a gang member for collaborating with police investigations.
The group reportedly posed as on-duty, uniformed police and abducted victims under the pretext of conducting official business. A car was allegedly rented for the express purpose of kidnapping victims, who were taken to remote locations and killed.
The network also allegedly killed gang members for personal reasons. Sirio recounted the May 2014 murder of a gang member in San José Los Sitios in which four police investigators participated. One of the officers, identified as "Agent Noé," wanted to kill the gang member because he was harassing local residents.
Over 80 police officers have been arrested on criminal charges in El Salvador so far in 2016.
InSight Crime Analysis
Investigations indicate the murder network was active at a time when violence in El Salvador began spiraling out of control. This violence has been marked by confrontations between gang members and security forces, with both sides explicitly targeting the other.
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Rising levels of violence in El Salvador have been accompanied by indications of increased "death squad" activity by police and civilians conducting extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members.
In this case, however, it appears the assassins' network was motivated by profit rather than carrying out vigilante justice or taking part in a larger social cleansing effort.
That such a network operates with active involvement of police officers suggests a broader environment of lawlessness in El Salvador in which violence against gang members is tacitly sanctioned and accepted.