In a stark statement illustrating the gravity of the current situation in El Salvador, the director of the country's civilian police force (PNC) said law enforcement had permission to shoot criminals whenever necessary.
“All members of the PNC that have to use weapons against criminals due to their work as officers, should do so with complete confidence," Police Director Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde said in a press conference on January 20 (see video below). "There is an institution that backs us. There is a government that supports us."
The comments came on the same day of a reported massacre of five gang members in the state of Sonsonate. The killings -- along with similar attacks against gangs in recent days -- has fueled suspicion of the existence of death squads that target gang members in the country. Many of the suspected gang victims have died of single shots to the head, a mark of professional assassins.
One anonymous police source told La Pagina that death squads have been operating in El Salvador for the past two years, but have recently stepped up their attacks against gangs due to increased violence against police. Seven members of the PNC have been killed so far in 2015; over 30 were killed in 2014.
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The Salvadoran police are in the midst of a crisis due to the wave of violence that has left many dead. Low-ranking members of the PNC have recently taken to social media to demand better protection against attacks from criminal groups, and have called for heavier weaponry to combat gangs armed with high-powered assault rifles such as AK-47s.
The police leadership is trying to take its cues from a government that has yet to settle on a clear strategy with regards to the gangs following the unraveling of a truce between the country's biggest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18. That limbo -- where there is no hard or soft strategy -- has made a lot police feel vulnerable, without direction. Ramirez Landaverde's declaration appears to be aimed directly at those rank and file members, providing the type of clear cut backing they felt they were missing.
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The comments come, however, at an inopportune moment. Death squads, either within the PNC or working separately, appear to be on the rise. While not a new phenomenon in El Salvador, reports of the existence of these armed groups increased in 2014 as gang violence fueled the country's spike in homicides last year. El Salvador posted Latin America's highest homicide rate in 2014, and is now considered the world's most deadly country not engaged in war.