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El Salvador's Gangs Send Message in Blood

BARRIO 18 / 16 DEC 2021 BY SETH ROBBINS EN

Though El Salvador stands on track for another record low in homicides this year, the country was recently shaken by a three-day killing spree, a bloody reminder that its newfound peace could be easily shattered.  

During a 72-hour period from November 9 to 11, El Salvador tallied 46 homicides. On the second day of bloodshed, 22 people were killed, the worst daily death toll this year, La Prensa Gráfica reported.

Strangely, the murders stopped as quickly as they had started. The country registered zero homicides on November 12, according to the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC). The next day, the only murder recorded was the discovery of a head in a black garbage bag tossed on the banks of a river.

President Nayib Bukele credited his Despliegue Nacional – a deployment of heavily-armed soldiers and police into the streets – for ending the violence.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile

“After 24 hours of having launched #DespliegueNacional, we can announce that we have contained the increase in violence during the past couple of days,” Bukele wrote on Twitter.

Bukele attributed the homicides to “old enemies,” a cryptic reference to the country’s deadly street gangs, which he claimed were now allied with “new dark forces and external financing.”

Within days, Douglas García Funes, the National Civil Police’s sub-director for specialized forces, announced that several dangerous gang leaders, whom he fingered for the increase in violence, had been arrested. He did not provide further details. Police officials also claimed that the killings were the result of gang turf wars.

Some of the victims, however, appeared to have no links to the gangs, according to La Prensa Grafíca. Security sources told the news outlet that a “green light” had been given for the attacks, including on civilians. Several of the killings also had the hallmarks of targeted assassinations. Among the homicides reported by El Diario de Hoy were a victim shot in a car, another shot while riding the bus, and a third gunned down inside his home.

Despite the wave of violence, the country recorded just 15 more murders in November compared to last year. The country also is also set to record another decline in killings in 2021. Between January and November, authorities registered 936 homicides, a 15 percent drop from the 1,100 in 2020.

“We’ve come from being the most violent country in the world to now not even coming close to those numbers, we’re not even in the top ten,” Bukele said in late November.

InSight Crime Analysis

El Salvador’s recent spike in murders was intended not only as a deliberate message to Bukele, who has staked his presidency on lowering homicides but also to jailed gang leaders, who have reportedly benefited from secret negotiations with government officials.

Evidence of meetings among Bukele administration officials and incarcerated leaders of the country’s three deadly street gangs came to light only recently. Though it’s still not clear what deals were struck, it appears that the leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and Barrio 18 Sureños agreed to lower homicides in exchange for improved prison conditions and other privileges, such as access to cell phones, sex workers and fried chicken.

The perks, however, never extended to the gang members on the streets. The three days of killings served as a bloody message that they, too, wanted consideration, said Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist and journalist who has long studied El Salvador’s gangs.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador Gang Truce

A faction of the MS13 unleashed the killings, and then others followed suit, Martínez said, pointing out that most of the murders occurred in or near the capital of San Salvador. Different clicas, or gang cells, coordinated, he said, particularly those in Distrito Italia, a neighborhood in Tonacatepeque, just north of the capital. The district is a stronghold of an MS13 clica known as City Paraiso.

“For the first time in the history of the gangs, the gang members on the street showed they have a way to pressure the leaders in jail,” Martínez told InSight Crime. Previously, he said, it had been the other way around.

The gangs learned several years ago that dead bodies offer them leverage with the government. When government support for a 2012 truce was later withdrawn – a truce originally negotiated by intermediaries with the s­upport of the government – violence between gangs and authorities surged. More than 1,000 firefights occurred in the streets during a 20-month period in 2015 and 2016. El Salvador was declared the most dangerous country outside of a war zone, tallying nearly 20 murders a day.

“Since 2012, the gangs and the state communicate through deaths,” Martínez said.

After peaking in 2015, murders began to drop.

Bukele came to power on a wave of populism two years ago, promising an all-out assault on the gangs. He sent soldiers and police to gang strongholds as the first move in his so-called territorial control plan.

Homicides plunged further, reaching once-unthinkable lows. In 2020, El Salvador recorded 1,322 murders, a nearly 45 percent drop from what was already a low of 2,398 in 2019.

Bukele has taken credit for having wrested control of the country from the gangs. And whenever killings have spiked, as they did last month, he has unleashed a show of force.

After a four-day period of bloodshed in April 2020 when the country recorded 76 murder victims, Bukele authorized security forces to use “lethal force.” His government published images of imprisoned gang members pressed together and sitting en masse, heads bowed over and half-naked. 

All the while it appears backdoor negotiations were occurring with imprisoned gang leadership, according to evidence from a scrapped Attorney General’s Office investigation and recent US Treasury Department statements sanctioning Salvadoran officials.

Bukele has used negotiations with gangs in the past to help execute his agenda. InSight Crime chronicled how, as mayor of San Salvador, his team used vendor associations as intermediaries with the gangs to allow for the cleanup and modernizing of the city’s Historic Center, whose labyrinthine, congested street markets had long been controlled by the gangs.

And the gangs, particularly the MS13, have become adept at using violence in a self-serving way, Martínez said. Conflicts between MS13 and Barrio 18 factions are rare. Murders are often meted out as punishment within the gang itself or the result of internecine warfare.

The recent pattern of spikes in homicides followed by peace is likely to become the norm. It’s a way for the gangs to make their presence felt without interfering too much in their other criminal activities, which includes everything from extortion and street drug sales to selling water.

“It’s a utilitarian violence. That’s to say it serves a purpose,” Martínez said.

And dead bodies pile up as bargaining chips.

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