HomeNewsGang Murder Rampage Sends Shockwaves Through El Salvador Government
NEWS

Gang Murder Rampage Sends Shockwaves Through El Salvador Government

BARRIO 18 / 28 MAR 2022 BY ALEX PAPADOVASSILAKIS EN

A killing spree unlike anything seen since El Salvador’s civil war has delivered a macabre message from the country’s street gangs, which have learned that spikes in homicides speak to the government.

The country’s main gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18, appeared to indiscriminately kill people – including vendors, bus passengers and market-goers – during three days of bloodshed that began with 14 killings on March 25.

The next day, authorities had tallied 62 further homicides, marking the deadliest day on record since the country’s civil war ended three decades ago. Eleven more people were murdered on March 27, for a total of 87 homicides in 72 hours.

Local press reported that gang members may have been instructed to leave bodies in plain sight. One corpse was visibly dumped on the side of a road.

SEE ALSO: Evidence of Gang Negotiations Belie El Salvador President’s Claims

The government's response was immediate. On March 27, El Salvador’s legislative assembly approved President Nayib Bukele's month-long state of exception, suspending constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly, and loosening rules on arrests. The measures also permit military roadblocks throughout the country.

El Salvador authorities later announced the arrest of over 570 gang members in the space of two days, including two leaders who had allegedly ordered the homicides, according to the national police and the country's security minister.

The government also cracked down on gang members in prisons. On Twitter, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele announced that inmates in maximum security jails would be confined to their cells.

“Because of your actions, your 'homeboys' won’t see a single ray of sunlight,” the president said in the same March 27 Twitter post.

Bukele’s bellicose reaction came as the killing spree threatened to derail his administration’s gains in lowering the country’s homicide rate. The three days brought the number of homicides in El Salvador to 329 this year, 21 more than the same time period in 2021.

Bukele has taken full credit for the country's recent drop in homicides and has denied negotiating with the gangs to keep the peace. His statements, however, have been undercut by the country's Attorney General's Office previously unearthing evidence of covert meetings between government officials and gang leaders behind bars. And last December, the US Treasury sanctioned El Salvador's prison director and another top official for allegedly brokering pacts with the gangs.

InSight Crime Analysis

Rather than long wars with state authorities or each other, El Salvador's gangs now appear to favor short bursts of indiscriminate violence.

The record-killing spree comes just months after a rampage left a trail of 46 bodies in a 72-hour period in November 2021. Another sudden spike in murders in April 2020, when dozens were killed, was the first sign of major gang unrest during Bukele's time in office.

According to analysts, these brief spikes typically occur when there is a rupture in negotiations between the government and the gangs, with the gangs using bodies as bargaining chips.

"The gangs use their ability to alter the levels of violence as leverage to press the government into meeting certain demands," said Tiziano Breda, Central American Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

But the "gangs don't appear to be interested in disrupting the whole process," he told InSight Crime. Rather, they are just interested "in making adjustments to it."

SEE ALSO: Gangs, Vendors and Political Capital in Downtown San Salvador

The waves of violence avoid any protracted conflict with state actors. The gangs have avoided killing security forces during recent murder sprees, reflecting a long-term shift away from direct confrontation with the government. The unraveling of a previous gang truce led to an all-out war between gangs and security forces in the mid-2010s, with the sustained violence provoking a record homicide rate in 2015.

"We shouldn't see it as the start of a war, but rather a cry for attention," said Juan Martínez d'Aubuisson, a Salvadoran anthropologist and gang expert, adding that the gangs are likely using the killings to express discontent with secret government negotiations.

Martínez also said dissent within the MS13 rank and file may be behind the murder spike. While the gang has long used homicides to demand preferential treatment from the government, the benefits have largely remained with imprisoned gang leaders. Now, according to Martínez, low-level gang members may be using the same strategy to show their leaders they are unhappy with the negotiations.

"[The leaders] may be getting a taste of their own medicine," said Martínez.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

BRAZIL / 22 NOV 2012

São Paulo's secretary for public security has resigned, following criticism of his handling of a wave of gang-police violence in…

ELITES AND CRIME / 23 OCT 2020

There is one element that has proven vital to the operational success of international drug trafficking organizations the world over,…

ELITES AND CRIME / 9 DEC 2014

Three Congressmen in Paraguay have been accused of links to Brazilian drug trafficking groups, as more politicians get drawn into…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela Drug Trafficking Investigation and InDepth Gender Coverage

29 APR 2022

On May 4, InSight Crime will be publishing The Cocaine Revolution in Venezuela, a groundbreaking investigation into how the Venezuelan government regulates the cocaine trade in the country. An accompanying event,…

THE ORGANIZATION

InDepth Coverage of Juan Orlando Hernández

22 APR 2022

Ever since Juan Orlando Hernández was elected president of Honduras in 2014, InSight Crime has provided coverage of every twist and turn during his rollercoaster time in office, amid growing…

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela's Cocaine Revolution

15 APR 2022

On May 4th, InSight Crime will publish a groundbreaking investigation on drug trafficking in Venezuela. A product of three years of field research across the country, the study uncovers cocaine production in…

LA ORGANIZACIÓN

Widespread Coverage of InSight Crime MS13 Investigation

8 APR 2022

In a joint investigation with La Prensa Gráfica, InSight Crime recently revealed that four of the MS13’s foremost leaders had been quietly released from…

THE ORGANIZATION

Informing US State Department and European Union

1 APR 2022

InSight Crime Co-director McDermott briefed the US State Department and other international players on the presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela and the implication this has for both nations.  McDermott…