Latin America

Fresh wave of violence in El Salvador leaves 125 dead in 72 hours

Rights activists fear that battles between police and gangs could lead to a new insurgency

Gang members are captured in El Salvador.
Gang members are captured in El Salvador.Jessica Orellana

An unprecedented wave of violence has swept across El Salvador this week, leaving at least 125 people dead in one three-day period and government forces struggling to deal with the surge in attacks by Mara street gangs.

Even though the United Nations considers El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world, this is the first time that more than 100 killings have been reported in one 72-hour period in the Central American country’s recent history.

Since the beginning of the year, 42 policemen, 16 military officers and a prosecutor have been killed in this new urban war ignited by the gangs.

Since the beginning of the year, 42 policemen, 16 military officers and a prosecutor have been murdered

Children, pregnant women and elderly people were reportedly among the victims in incidents that took place between Sunday and Tuesday.

“This is an armed conflict,” said Jeannette Aguilar, a security and violence expert who directs the University Institute of Public Opinion.

In 2010, imprisoned gang leaders drew up a truce in which they pledged to stop ordering murders and extortion. But the treaty, which won international praise, began to unravel early this year after bloody skirmishes between the Maras and the military broke out.

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén ordered strike forces to battle with armed gangs – a strategy that some human rights officials fear will bring the nation to the brink of a new civil war.

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A total of 40 killings took place on Sunday, making it the most violent day of 2015 to that date. But that record was broken the following day when 42 murders were reported and again on Tuesday when there were 43 deaths.

“We have entered a new stage in the escalation of violence, one of armed confrontation in which the government is now involved and has answered back in a radical manner with police and military operations,” Aguilar said in an interview.

According to statistics, an average of 15 killings took place each day in El Salvador last month. That figure has now risen to 25 per day for August so far.

National Civil Police chief Howard Cotto has acknowledged a spike in the homicide rate but he explained that most of those killed have been gang members.

“We have to conduct an exhaustive analysis to determine what is happening, like what happened on Sunday when we had a series of skirmishes with criminals,” Cotto said.

Police say that many gang members are using high-caliber weapons, including military assault rifles

The majority of the victims had been taking part in direct attacks or ambushes against government and police forces, officials said. According to police, many gang members are carrying high-caliber weapons, including assault rifles reserved exclusively for the military.

“We have to recognize that the gangs have radicalized their use of violence, not only because of their natural evolution, but also because they are setting up new groups with some political legitimacy,” said Aguilar.

In her opinion, this radicalization seems to be moving toward a new armed insurgency movement.

“It has to do with a defensive response to the wave of killings, attacks, harassment and abuses that are being carried out by gangs and other offshoot groups here, which have not been investigated,” she said.