Crime & Justice

Gangs show muscle, disrupting authorities’ fight vs. COVID-19 in El Salvador

By Hugo Sanchez

San Salvador, Apr 27 (efe-epa).- Salvadoran gangs on the weekend put the fight against Covid-19 and the government’s security strategy in jeopardy in a show of force and control of turf characteristic of the violent groups, which are responsible for most of the murders in this country, considered to be one of the most violent in the world.

The scale of the violence, without precedent during the Nayib Bukele government, spurred authorities to isolate imprisoned gangmembers, who are said to have orchestrated the attacks, and to authorize police and soldiers to use “lethal force” for self defense or to defend the public.

The Attorney General’s Office confirmed to EFE that on Friday there were 24 violent deaths, 12 on Saturday and 22 on Sunday.

The resurgence in murders is a double blow for the Bukele administration since it diverts the security forces assigned to monitor compliance with the generalized quarantine to limit the spread of Covid-19 and reveals possible gaps in the government’s “territorial control” strategy.

“The gangs are taking advantage of the fact that almost all our public (security) forces are dealing with the pandemic. We will have to move resources to fight them,” Bukele said on the social networks on Sunday.

He added that the police and the armed forces “will have to prioritize safeguarding their lives, (those of) their colleagues and the esteemed citizenry,” although he did not specify the forces that will be reassigned to halt the wave of violence.

The government has about 23,000 police and more than 7,000 troops on the streets to combat the violence, a phenomenon inherited from the 12-year civil war that left more than 75,000 dead and 8,000 missing.

Initially, the security authorities said that the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of eight people in this country, had contributed to a noteworthy reduction in murders in March, during which 65 people died violent deaths.

“By a great deal, it’s the lowest figure since El Salvador has kept records,” said Bukele on April 1, while the director of the police, Mauricio Arriaza, said a few days earlier that Covid-19 had contributed to a drop in violence.

No official, not even Bukele, has suggested why the gangs have stepped up their murders at this point, and it is not at all clear whether they have changed their tactics and/or strategy of demanding, on pain of death, that residents of the zones they control respect the quarantine.

Moreover, it is not known if these murders are being committed because of that latter threat.

Celia Medrano, the director of regional programs for the humanitarian organization Cristosal, said that the murders “highlight a situation that refutes the effectiveness of the reduction in (violent) acts by the gangs and organized criminal groups” that is attributed to the government’s “territorial control” plan.

She said, in remarks to EFE, that “They call into question whether in reality the control of these groups on the territorial level is diminishing,” given that they have been able to commit this wave of murders with the great majority of the public under quarantine and all state security forces deployed to lock down the country.

Medrano also criticized the fact that the measures taken initially by Bukele to counteract the violence have been focused on the prisons in that he has decreed states of emergency to isolate the imprisoned gangmembers amid the “humiliation” of media scrutiny.

“It will be very difficult for these actions to be able to reduce this level (of violence) given that it is evident that the gangs’ control of turf and their actions have not been reduced despite the fact that officially that has been the result of the territorial control plan,” she said.

For various sectors, the security strategy employed by the current government is an unknown, although it resumes measures used by Bukele’s predecessors and has achieved, the government says, better results.

Bukele has ordered two measures similar to those taken by the last government of his opponents, the leftist Farabundo National Liberation Front, to combat the gangs, namely tightening the prison regime and escalating direct confrontation.

The first move made by Bukele on Friday evening was to order a “maximum emergency” in the prisons on the basis of “intelligence information about orders for murders issued from there.”

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