El Salvador’s Hidden War Is Getting Worse
Death squads and gangs keep killing in spite of truce
On a Wednesday morning in July, a group of armed men came to the door of a house in Santa Maria Ostuma, a hilly and remote town east of El Salvador’s capital. The men, wearing black outfits that resembled police uniforms, knocked on the door.
When the occupants—four alleged gang members—answered it, the black-clad killers opened fire.
All four occupants died in the attack. The state investigators believed the killings and others like it in recent months were the work of right-wing death squads. It also set off worries the country is returning to the brutal years of the civil war, when death squads roamed with impunity.
It’s also notable the killers targeted gang members—possibly in retaliation for rising violence after a much-publicized truce between the government and the gangs collapsed last year.
El Salvador isn’t at war—in the sense of a traditional military conflict. But the country’s streets are more dangerous than many war zones.
El Salvador’s gangs are so powerful they have press conferences. Tens of thousands of members owe their loyalties to the gangs, and they’re armed with everything from hand grenades to assault rifles. “Scratch beneath the surface of apparent peace in El Salvador and you will find a hidden war being waged,” Salil Shetty, the head of Amnesty International, wrote in Huffington Post this month.
But El Salvador took a somewhat different approach than its neighbors in dealing with gang violence and cartel-linked drugs. Instead of fighting a losing war, the government made a truce with the gangs in 2012.
The state never made the terms of the truce very clear, but in practice it meant the security forces would lay off the gangs in exchange for peace between the country’s two largest and most powerful criminal organizations—Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. This deal also brought the gangs into secret negotiations with the government, which resulted in the state moving some of the gangs’ imprisoned leaders into laxer prisons.
It worked … for awhile. El Salvador saw its homicide rate drop.
Three years ago, the country’s homicide rate was the second-highest in the world, at 77 homicides per 100,000 people. The only country worse was neighboring Honduras. A year later, the rate dropped to more than half that number—to 32 homicides per 100,000. That was still extremely high, and roughly equivalent to South Africa and Colombia.
The progress didn’t last. During a three-day period in May, a wave of gang violence targeting rival gang members, cops and non-combatants resulted in 83 deaths. Gang members have also assassinated nearly three dozen members of the police and military this year. The gangs’ leaders declared another truce in August, but the violence doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
“The victims range from low- to high-ranking members of the security forces and are spread across a wide geographic area,” wrote Steven Dudley at the Latin American crime monitor InSight. “This gives the impression that they were not pre-selected or targeted, but rather were killed when the opportunity presented itself, or following security force disputes with local gang factions.”
The roots of El Salvador’s gang violence are complex, originating in a 12-year civil war between a American-backed military junta—supported by powerful landowners—and a leftist uprising backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union.
It was one of the Cold War’s bloodiest conflicts. Thousands died, and a quarter of the country’s population fled. Migrant children who settled in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s joined street gangs. The U.S. swept the gang members by the thousands and deported them back to El Salvador.
Many of the deported gang members didn’t know Spanish, or spoke a hybrid Spanglish. Suddenly, they had to survive on the streets of a country they barely knew. The United States effectively deported its street violence to a country where most crimes also go unprosecuted.
Now introduce cocaine trafficking coming from Colombia on its way to Mexico and the U.S.—and the result is dead bodies.
For its part, the U.S. declared El Salvador a “major drug-transit country” in 2011 as the nation continued to deteriorate. No one even knows how much cocaine is moving through El Salvador—except those moving it. Salvadoran troops seize tons of the white powder every year, but this is widely believed to be marginal compared to the true amount transiting the country.
According to InSight, the country’s homicide rate will likely return to its pre-truce high this year—as the country’s hidden war goes on.