A wave of attacks against relatives of El Salvador's security forces serves as a reminder of gangs' willingness and ability to use targeted violence, but the spike in these killings contrasts with an overall trend of decreasing homicides in the Central American country.
Three relatives of security forces were killed in less than 48 hours between June 11 and June 12 in El Salvador, El Diario de Hoy reported.
This brings to eight the total number of relatives of security forces killed in similar attacks this month, according to La Prensa Gráfica, which also includes the killing of a former soldier in its body count.
According to the two news outlets, the wave of targeted killings is the second phase of a retaliation plan by the MS13 street gang, in response to extraordinary prison measures implemented in April 2016 that toughened incarceration conditions for the gang's leaders and members.
In April 2017, a year after the implementation of these measures, reports had surfaced of an internal document from El Salvador's armed forces warning its members of upcoming MS13 attacks.
According to El Diario de Hoy, the document warned that MS13 leaders "have given orders to the members of that structure so that, between May 7 and May 10, 2017, they execute 'Plan Bitter Tears' against members of the armed forces, National Civil Police and the Central Administration of Prison Centers; likewise, so that from June 2017, they execute 'Plan Orphan Children,' against the same targets and their relatives."
Authorities have so far refused to confirm the authenticity of this document or publicly acknowledge the correlation between the wave of killings and the alleged MS13 plan. But the latter remains the investigators' working theory, and internal warnings have been released for the police to stay alert, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
The wave of targeted killings comes amid a spike in overall violence in El Salvador. The country suffered 137 murders during just the first 12 days of June, according to El Diario de Hoy, with particularly bloody days such as June 9 and June 11 witnessing as many as 25 killings.
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The MS13's apparently coordinated attacks against family members of security forces is a reminder that the gang retains the capacity to launch violent and targeted campaigns, despite the state's heavy-handed policies aimed at disrupting the gang's operations. However, it is unlikely that these attacks forshadow an imminent return to the severe levels of violence that made El Salvador the most murderous country in the region in 2015.
El Salvador has repeatedly suffered from short spikes in homicides linked to temporary escalations in gang-related violence. In November last year, for instance, El Salvador's government accused the MS13 of orchestrating a wave of police killings that prompted a response in kind by security forces.
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There is always the latent risk that sporadic outbreaks of violence constitute early warnings of a resurgence of high homicide rates. But El Salvador has maintained a trend of decreasing homicides so far this year. According to authorities, El Salvador saw 1,405 murders during the first five months of 2017. This constitutes a nearly 100 percent reduction in comparison to the same period last year, during which 2,724 homicides were recorded.
And despite the recent wave of attacks against relatives of the security forces, it also appears that the intensity of the conflict between gangs and security forces may be declining. So far this year, only eight police officers have been killed and only two soldiers had been reported murdered by mid-May. Last year saw a total of 62 police officers and 22 soldiers killed in reported confrontations with gang members, according to La Prensa Gráfica.