Members of El Salvador's Police

In the first 15 days of 2015, police were killed in El Salvador at a rate five times higher than during 2014. In response, the government said officers could shoot at criminals when they felt it necessary, without fear of consequences. Meanwhile, some police who see themselves as victims of an offensive by the country's gangs speak of “death squads” like someone who is gearing up for their next battle.

There is no peace. Seven police have been assassinated in El Salvador in just over two weeks to begin 2015. In 2014, there were 39 murders of police, the highest mark since the gangs negotiated a truce in 2012, which reduced homicides and transferred leaders of the gangs to lower-security prisons. That year, just six members of the country's civilian police force (PNC) were killed. That figure doubled in 2013. The country's largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, credited the decline in homicides to the truce. But in March 2014, the gangs signaled the situation was changing because the truce was no longer a priority for the government.

This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. 

The situation had already been deteriorating prior to that announcement. Since the second half of 2013, the truce had broken down, gang leaders said, as shootouts in the streets increased. But the gangs continued to insist on the truce, and called on the PNC not to escalate the conflict.

The gangs hinted that if the police continued shooting first and asking questions later -- which has been occurring since mid-2013, according to the gangs, following a legislative reform that essentially blocked investigations into violent confrontations in which police allege self-defense -- they would respond in kind.


The gangs hinted that if the police continued shooting first and asking questions later -- which has been occurring since mid-2013, according to the gangs, following a legislative reform that essentially blocked investigations into violent confrontations in which police allege self-defense -- they would respond in kind.


Lacking a viable alternative security plan, on January 20, the PNC announced what the gangs call a “green light” for police to shoot at criminals.

““All members of the PNC that have to use weapons against criminals due to their work as officers, should do so with complete confidence," Director of the PNC Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde stated. "The PNC and the government will protect them."

One day later, at a press conference, Oscar Ortiz, El Salvador's stand-in president during President Salvador Sanchez Ceren's trip to Cuba to receive medical attention, backed these words.

“Our government expresses complete support for [Landaverde's] statements. All members of the police, due to their position as officers, in defense of citizens and their very integrity, must use weapons, and should do so without fearing consequences for their actions.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

The Vice President’s words echo those of security policies from previous governments in El Salvador. In 2003, President Francisco Flores spoke in a similar tone when he ordered the “hunting” of gang members with the introduction of the "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist) security approach. The strategy, which in reality authorized police to act repressively against suspected and verified gang members, did not decrease the crime rate or the level of insecurity. In fact, two years later, in the midst of the “Super Mano Dura” plan implemented by ex-President Antonio Saca, levels of violence in El Salvador increased dramatically, making the country one of the most dangerous in the region. With Super Mano Dura in effect, El Salvador's homicide rate in 2009 reached 72 per 100,000.

***

On December 22, 2014, a police officer designated to a post in Las Margaritas, Soyapango was killed. The agent, Carlos Alfredo Reyes Carranza, was assigned to a zone controlled by the MS13, but he lived in Campos Verdes de Lourdes, Colon, a Barrio 18 stronghold. When police agents are asked what the government or the PNC could do to guarantee their security, they always respond that a good measure would be to “create police neighborhoods” so they wouldn't have to live in the same areas as their enemies. Five of the seven attacks against police this year have occurred in zones close to where the officers lived.

“Police neighborhoods.” That was the response from a group of police interviewed by El Faro, who spoke on condition of anonymity. (At the end of 2014, the PNC ordered that no officer, except the director or deputy director, could speak with the press.)

“How do they expect to protect us? Once we take off the uniform, we are alone, and they are many. We ride in the same buses as they do, we live in the same neighborhoods as them. The solution is not simply for us to arm ourselves,” one officer said, who works in the neighborhood where Reyes Carranza was killed.

In mid-2014, when the tally of police murders was roughly 20 for that year, the Inspector General of the PNC -- the office that investigates cases of police abuse -- sent a message to police officers telling them to feel free to use their weapon when it was necessary as part of their work. At that time, no one in the government supported the Inspector General or the high-level command in the PNC. The message, practically clandestine, circulated via posters in police stations and on the Inspector General's web page, which was not working in recent weeks making it impossible to verify these claims.

Around the same time, the PNC and the National Academy of Public Security announced they would conduct workshops and receive feedback on how to improve security for police officers.

“The [workshops] were not just to practice shooting; it was to retrain officers on how to act professionally at all times,” Landaverde said. “As of December 2014, we have trained more than 10,000 agents.”

El Faro asked police assigned to various parts of the country about the workshops, but they all responded that no one had invited them to any such training during 2014.

The police, in fact, accuse their bosses of a double standard. The bosses tell the media they are ensuring the safety of their officers, but in private they are not loyal to them. The police use this as an example for this what they refer to as “murder traps.” This is when their bosses assign non-compliant or disrespectful officers to work in a neighborhood controlled by one gang, yet live in an area controlled by another.

In El Salvador, to live in a neighborhood dominated by MS13 and to work, study, or even visit someone in an area controlled by Barrio 18 can mean death. It all has to do with whether or not one of the two gangs find out, and how much or how little the gangs trust the person who is in this unfortunate situation. The police are not exempt from these underworld rules of conduct.


In El Salvador, to live in a neighborhood dominated by MS13 and to work, study, or even visit someone in an area controlled by Barrio 18 can mean death.


For example in Lourdes, Colon, the police and the investigators in the police division there coordinate their schedules so that when they are off-duty they can at least guarantee they are not waiting alone at bus stops in areas where gang violence is the highest.

“Once we get off our shift, we are watching our backs. Now, at least, they gave us back our pistols,” one agent who works in Santa Ana province said.

Who should protect the police? Or better yet, were the police prepared for the increased attacks against them? The answer is yes, according to Landaverde.

“We are always prepared," the police commander said. "In cases of violence against police, we have responded in a systematic manner. Every police unit is important and necessary when these types of acts occur.” 

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

“If they were foreseeable, how does one explain the wave of attacks in which the police were shot while they were off-duty? Were they expecting to be attacked like that?

“This is not news [attacks against off-duty officers]," he said. "It has happened in years past. We are preparing new security strategies, but I cannot release those details to the press.”

***

On social media, people who identified themselves as police have celebrated the fact that there is now a “green light” on the gangs. Days before the government and Landaverde announced their authorization for police to use their pistols, a message circulated on Facebook that “low-ranking officers” requested permission to create death squads in order to solve the issue of widespread violence.

"Eight partners have recruited me to join [a death squad], and I'm thinking about it,” said Jose, an officer in San Salvador, while he searches in his cellphone for the messages his friends have sent him inviting him to join the special squadron.

As we talk, Jose's radio transmitter filled the room.

“I have information, I have information from 911: gang members, it says, will continue with the attacks. Everyone has to be on guard and have the nine ready in case of anything,” said one of the agents through the radio.

“Copy,” replied another officer.

“The nine and the ten as well,” says a third officer, referring to the model “9.10 millimeter [gun] that we carry,” Jose explained.

“Copy, copy,” answered another officer.

“I have brought a few Galil. Take off the security on it,” said another voice. The officer was referring to rifles that are only sanctioned for use by the Salvadoran military.

“Let's get them!” shouted another officer, who had the voice of a young man.

“No fear, go! Forward, with no fear, hey!” shouted another in more serious tone.

“We're here in front of these scum. We're going to wait for those bastards here with our Galil!" bellowed the officer with a young voice from an unidentified province.

Jose added a “copy” to the conversation. Later he told me: “Before I never listened. To talk like that was disrespectful. But it's just normal now since they [police officers] are looking for ways to get their anger off their chest.”

***

How to combat the gangs? How to reduce violence in El Salvador? How can police retake the territories dominated by gangs? Can the PNC win the battle against the gangs? Twenty-four thousand police against more than 60,000 gang members, according to government statistics. Is shooting first and asking questions later the solution? The director of the PNC believes so, and El Salvador's President now supports him.

“Last year, police confrontations resulted in the deaths of many criminals, and injuries to an even larger number. These confrontations resulted in zero police officers being arrested,” said Landaverde.

To send the police to battle is not counterproductive then?

“At no time is it is counterproductive," he responded. "We need police to have complete confidence so that when they need to use their firearm, for cases in which it is the only way to resolve a situation, they can do so with all the confidence in the world.”

*This article was translated, edited, and reprinted with permission from El Faro. See the Spanish original here.

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