Specter of Anti-Gang Death Squads Appears in El Salvador

September 16, 2005

SAN SALVADOR (EFE) – The President of El Salvador, where street gangs “imported” years ago from Los Angeles are spurring a spike in the murder rate and spreading fear, has promised an investigation into allegations that vigilantes have formed “extermination” squads to summarily execute suspected thugs.The notion that private citizens might be taking their idea of bloody “justice” into their own hands is a disturbing one in this Central American nation, where “death squads,” often with support from security forces, abducted and murdered thousands of suspected leftists during politically motivated strife in the 1980s.President Tony Saca said recently that he wants police and the attorney general’s office to investigate the alleged vigilante activity.LEADERS of the gangs went public last month with complaints to the press about threats from supposed death squads in the eastern province of San Miguel.“If people who have been victims of this situation go to the authorities, we are going to give instructions to the National Civil Police, to their chief, and of course we will talk with the attorney general’s office to see that an investigation is immediately initiated,” Saca said in response.“I don’t have more facts; the only thing I can say is that we condemn totally any extermination group that exists in the country,” the president emphasized. SACA has repeatedly said that El Salvador’s estimated 10,500 gang members are responsible for approximately 60% of the killings in the Central American nation, where the murder rate is now nine a day.In August 2004, the government implemented the “Super Hard Hand” plan designed to put gang members behind bars, an operation that often lands a young man in prison for the mere fact of having tattoos believed to be gang-related.“We’re trying to get the most dangerous people off the streets, the murderers, and to make them pay for their misdeeds,” Saca said.IN a few towns in the eastern province of San Miguel, handwritten signs on cardboard were exhibited in public spaces this week, signed by gang members proclaiming their “retirement” from a life of crime.The placards are supposedly a response to threats from the alleged “extermination” squads that gangsters will be summarily executed unless they change their ways.In a story last month headlined “Gang members dissolve bands due to death threats,” the Salvadoran daily Diario de Hoy reported that several such “repentant” signs had appeared in the eastern town of Moncagua.The paper quoted local prosecutor Miguel Guevara as saying the human rights department of his office has received reports of three instances of alleged threats to gang members.“Heavily armed and hooded men accosted several gang members and warned them they would have to quit the gangs and make it public,” reported the paper. “Otherwise, they would kill them and their close relatives.”THE story noted the appearance in the town of Valle Alegre of a poster on which young men announced they had quit the gangs and pledged not to revert to the criminal life.But the paper also quoted the regional chief detective, Ciro Barrera, as rejecting the idea that gangsters were being intimidated by hit squads. At least in his jurisdiction, police have received no complaints about such actions, he said.Meanwhile, authorities in San Salvador reported a continuing rise in the murder rate.THE first seven months of this year saw 2,090 people murdered in El Salvador, up 28% over the same period in 2004.In July alone, 375 Salvadorans were slain, a significant increase from the 246 killings reported in July 2004.Desperately seeking to contain a gang-fueled surge in violent crime, authorities in June said they would tack on terrorism charges in cases of particularly barbarous killings.National Police Chief Ricardo Meneses called on judicial officials to work with police in prosecuting as terrorists gang members who decapitate or dismember their victims.CRITICS of the government’s “hard-handed’’ tactics against gangsters contend that the succession of escalating crackdowns has not halted the wave of violence.The most notorious of the gangs is the Mara Salvatrucha, a particularly violent criminal organization that evolved on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s, with most of its members young Salvadorans whose parents fled their nation’s erstwhile civil war for the United States.Because many of the gangsters were born in El Salvador, they were subject to deportation when rounded up during crackdowns in California in the 1990s. Sent back “home” to a land they barely knew, they formed gangs in San Salvador that spread throughout the small nation and to neighboring countries in Central America, where membership is now counted in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, and gangsters are engaged in murder, drug dealing, kidnapping and human trafficking.In addition to those activities, the gangsters here are blamed for a spike in rapes, robberies and even the collection of “taxes” from transportation companies and owners of small businesses.

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