Crime & Justice

Gangs still rule in El Salvador, analysts say

By Hugo Sanchez

San Salvador, Dec 28 (EFE).- The gangs that President Nayib Bukele describes as an “irregular army of more than 70,000” retain their grip on communities across El Salvador despite a reduction in violence that some suggest is the result of negotiations between the government and the criminals.

While the Bukele administration maintains that this year’s drop in homicides is due to its crime-fighting efforts, reporters with online news outlet El Faro say they have uncovered evidence of authorities’ cutting deals with gangs.

The United States recently imposed sanctions on two senior Salvadoran officials accused by Washington of conducting negotiations with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs, an allegation Bukele called “absurd.”

The 1,074 homicides reported in the first 11 months of this year signify a decline of 12.4 percent from the same period in 2020, the government says.

But early November saw more than 40 murders attributed to gangs.

“These abrupt fluctuations are expected in a context where the absence of policy prevails,” Jeannette Aguilar, a researcher in the field of public safety, said.

Much of Bukele’s anti-crime program remains a mystery and the elements that have been made public are similar to steps taken by previous governments, such as use of the army for law enforcement tasks.

Without measures to “address comprehensively the phenomenon of criminal violence,” Aguilar said, “we will be subject to the will of these groups to maintain these levels (of homicides) or alter them.”

She pointed to speculation that the spate of violence last month consisted of killings that would have happened earlier if not for a pact aimed at burnishing the image of the police and military.

“Coming from a government whose central element is messaging, propaganda,” Aguilar said, “it would not surprise me if they resorted ever more frequently to opening the valves (of violence), never mind that it’s about human lives, to generate a favorable climate of opinion for certain objectives.”

The mayhem in November was the fourth spike in homicides since Bukele took office in June 2019.

Veronica Reyna of SSPAS, a social service organization lined to the Passionists, a Roman Catholic religious order, said that authorities have ended the gangs’ “dominion” over large areas of El Salvador.

“The state has not recovered the municipalities, has not recovered the territories, the settlements, and just going to communities makes that clear,” she said.

Human rights organization Cristosal, founded by Salvadoran and US Episcopal prelates, says that it has seen no reduction in the numbers of people forced from their homes and lands by gangs during the 2 1/2 years of Bukele’s presidency.

To the contrary, Cristosal’s Rina Montti told Efe of the existence of “anecdotal” evidence that police are ceding some areas to gangs.

On Dec. 15, Bukele denied that his administration bargained with the gangs or told police to turn a blind eye to criminal activity.

“It is not easy to confront that cancer which grew during 30 years, it is not easy to confront an irregular army of more than 70,000 members who have army guns, army grenades supplied by earlier administrations,” the president said.

He did not cite any facts to support the claim that his predecessors had armed the gangs. EFE hs/dr

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