A month after the end of their two-year truce, gangs have reorganized themselves in El Salvador.

Gang members have increased their criminal activities, obtaining military-grade weapons and deepening their ties with the Mexican drug-trafficking cartel Los Zetas, according to Minister of Justice and Public Safety Ricardo Perdomo.

Salvadoran police officers guard an M16 rifle and a gun that were recently confiscated from gang members after an operation by the Anti-Gang Unit of the National Civil Police (PNC) in the district of El Tránsito in the municipality of Cuscatancingo. (Francisco Campos for Infosurhoy.com)
Salvadoran police officers guard an M16 rifle and a gun that were recently confiscated from gang members after an operation by the Anti-Gang Unit of the National Civil Police (PNC) in the district of El Tránsito in the municipality of Cuscatancingo. (Francisco Campos for Infosurhoy.com)

Perdomo said on April 7 gangs aligned with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18) are planning on attacking police, military personnel and public servants.

“There is a mutation of the gangs toward a drug-trafficking structure,” he said. “Some subgroups have received military training and penetrated even further into communities.”

Gang leadership changed their operating methods during the March 2012 to March 2014 truce, modifying their structures to exert more territorial control, according to Carlos Ponce, a Salvadoran criminologist and police science specialist.

“We are dealing with a reorganization of the gangs,” he said. “During the truce, conditions were created for the gangs’ evolution and transformation into more sophisticated, stronger and more dangerous criminal organizations.”

Due to the porous borders of Central America’s Northern Tier, which includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, gangs can move more freely, according to Ponce.

“[We have] evidence of links with Los Zetas, which is responsible for moving drugs to the United States,” Perdomo said on April 25. “Los Zetas has connections to the gangs, whom it pays with weapons and drugs the gangs can sell.”

Los Zetas also traffics weapons to Salvadoran gangs through Honduras, Perdomo added.

“Since [Los Zetas has greater ambitions] and is more involved in the transport and sale of narcotics, it’s logical to infer [the weapons come from] the same [cartels] that supply the international criminal organizations dedicated to drug trafficking in Mexico and the Central American isthmus,” Ponce said.

The National Civil Police (PNC) reported 787 homicides nationwide between January and March 2014, an average of 8.74 deaths daily, after 551 – an average of 6.12 daily – were registered during the same period last year.

March was particularly intense, with 305 violent deaths, including 72% of the victims killed by gunfire, after 171 were reported murdered during the same month in 2013, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML).

Police authorities recorded 47 attacks against officers and military personnel between January and March, 17 more compared to the same period in 2013.

On April 5, M-18 members ambushed a patrol car that was responding to a false emergency call in the Hacienda San Lorenzo in the municipality of Quezaltepeque. Officer Fredy García Ramírez, 29, was killed and three other officers were wounded in the attack.

Another police officer was wounded during a gunfight with MS-13 members in the municipality of San Rafael Cedros in the department of Cuscatlán.

In both operations, the PNC arrested numerous gang members and confiscated M16 and AK-47 rifles and guns.

From January to March, 334 gang members have been arrested on drug-related charges, according to PNC Deputy Director of Investigations Héctor Mendoza Cordero.

In 2013, the PNC’s Anti-Drug Division of the PNC arrested 1,036 gang members for drug-related crimes, compared to 590 in 2012.

“We are on course to dismantle the drug-trafficking structures and strike powerfully against the gangs who are involved,” Mendoza Cordero said. “We are not going to stop.”

Institutional response

The Ministry of Justice and Public Safety announced on April 16 the application of Article 6 of the Special Law Against Terrorist Acts, which calls for prison sentences of 25 to30 years for those convicted of attacking “cities, towns, buildings or private facilities, places of public use, diplomatic offices or places used for religious services, totally or partially, by using weapons or explosives.”

“We are going to apply the law to defend the country’s population, military and police,” Perdomo said. “We are not going to tolerate an increase in the attacks against the police. We are going to be relentless against those who attack a police officer or his family.”

PNC Director General Rigoberto Pleités said there would be drastic changes in current strategies, without going into detail for security reasons.

“We will take greater public security measures,” he said. “The PNC is not intimidated and we will act as a body in response to these heinous events.”

The Legislative Assembly amended the Penal Code in November to prohibit incarcerated members of law enforcement from sharing cells with common criminals.