Gangs Declare War on Police as El Salvador Violence Rages

Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 8:20 AM

"Those who live a tiny closer are scared that they might be identified and later face reprisals when they're off duty," said the 20-year veteran cop, her face visible behind a pair of sunglasses.

As police Inspector Alba Guevara Lopez'south officers fanned out through the narrow alleys of a gang-controlled neighborhood in this San Salvador suburb, half had their faces hidden by black ski masks.

"Those who live a tiny closer are scared that they might be identified and later face reprisals when they're off duty," said the 20-year veteran cop, her face visible behind a pair of sunglasses. "In your free time you become more vulnerable."

There is reason to be afraid. Hyper-violent gangs declared open-season on police in this Central American nation in response to a government crackdown that began latest year. Killings of officers nearly doubled to more than sixty in two thousand-fifteenth, and so distant this year fifteen officers have been slain, including two Tuesday. In some cases they're targeted while they're off duty and relaxing with family members, who also become victims.

Analysts declare the growing attacks are a sign El Salvador'south conflict is spiraling out of control and threatening to burst up into open warfare.

"The gangs have managed to provoke a psychosis and paranoia within the police," damaging the force'south already low morale, said Jeannette Aguilar, an expert on gangs who's director of the Univ Institute of Public Opinion at Central American Univ in San Salvador.

It'south also portion of a chain of eye-for-an-eye killings and retaliations that's keep the country on a path toward distant greater bloodshed, she said.

El Salvador had the world'south highest homicide rate exterior war zones in two thousand-fifteenth, with one hundred three slayings per 100.000 residents. In the first three months of this year there have been more than 2.000 killings, putting it ahead of latest year's pace.

The bloodshed has sent thousands of Salvadorans streaming toward the United States. Latest week the U. north refugee agency called for immediate action to assistance those fleeing violence in El Salvador and neighboring Honduras and Guatemala in numbers not seen since the region was wracked by civil wars in the 1980s.

Aguilar sees two thousand fifteen as a watershed moment in El Salvador'south violence as both the government and gangs pursued strategies of more open confrontation, and even ordinary citizens took up arms to hunt down gangsters.

Gangs set up training camps in the mountains and exploded a car bomb in the capital. They began targeting police and their loved ones as well as soldiers when the army became more involved in the fight.

In just three weeks in January, gang members were accused in the slayings of a cop'south father, a soldier'south brother, the wives of two police officers, and a woman and her son who were relatives of a cop.

Latest month, special forces soldier Carlos Enrique Ramos was slain along with three family members he was visiting in a rural area. They were found with hands and feet bound, their bodies riddled with bullet and machete wounds. Authorities said the Barrio eighteen gang controls the area.

For Guevara, it'south personal: Several of the inspector'south colleagues have fallen victim to off-duty murders that she'south sure were carried out by gangs. One officer was at residence sweeping his patio, "totally relaxed." The other was fixing his roof.

"It wasn't coincidence. They (the gangs) had an objective," she said.

Marvin Reyes, another 20-year police veteran, said that by his count thirteen officers and twenty-five of their relatives have been killed so distant this year. That was before Tuesday, when authorities said Barrio eighteen gunmen killed two officers in an attack on police escorting a witness. Six alleged gang members were killed.

Reyes said police earn so small they've number choice but to live in neighborhoods controlled by gangs they're combatting. Simply going residence at night puts families at risk, so they frequently sleep at police stations. Many officers have abandoned homes they're still paying for to rent elsewhere. Many are leaving the force, in most cases to move to the U. S.

"We've to live together with the criminals. Our children go to the school where the criminals go. Our kids walk in the same places where the criminals' kids walk," Reyes said. "The gangs look that we're assailable when we're on leave, when we're not on duty."

Reyes and others have tried to organize to demand better working conditions and pay in a nation where the base police salary is $425 a mo before taxes. But the law prohibits police from unionizing, and latest mo Reyes was suspended without pay along with five other labor-activist cops.

Justice and Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde, who was national police director until January, acknowledged that security forces are vulnerable. He said the proper response is more training and, more importantly, taking down those responsible for attacks on police to indicate it won't be tolerated.

"Many criminal organizations have found that it's a way to support a kind of grip on the government, hoping that below this pressure the government will sit down with them," he said. "The government already clearly said that it'south not going to do it, so that means there will be a period that's not only painful but tough in terms of work for the police."

The gangs ordered a unilateral cease-fire this mo and the daily death toll dropped, but number one seems to think it will hold.

The government is taking an increasingly tough line. Latest week authorities announced the transfer of three hundred forty-two jailed high-ranking gang leaders to a maximum-security lockup where they'll be held in isolation. Latest week, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren called up 1.000 military reservists to connect the fight.

Aguilar says provoking the gangs and eschewing dialogue ignores the fact that in many cases gang attacks are a response to alleged extrajudicial killings and other abuses by police.

It also risks ramping up the conflict into all-out war between gangs, security forces and civilians, she warned.

"This is going to generate an unstoppable spilling of blood in communities," she said.

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