El Salvador’s ‘maras’ gangs send a message in blood to Bukele

Although the data for 2021 are not definitive, El Salvador will register another record drop in homicides. A few weeks ago, however, the country was plunged into a three-day homicide spree, a bloody reminder that the recently achieved peace is advancing on shaky ground.

El Salvador counted 46 homicides in just three days in the month of November. On the second day, 22 people died, making it the worst day of the year. What is worth noting is that the homicides stopped as quickly as they had started, since the following day there were no murders in the entire country.

President Nayib Bukele attributed the end of violence to the nationwide deployment of soldiers and armed police on the country’s streets.

A few days later, Douglas Garcia Funes, sub-director of intelligence of the National Civil Police, announced the arrest of several dangerous gang leaders, to which the President pointed as the ones responsible for the wave of violence, due to territorial wars.

But, as the newspaper La Prensa Gráfica observed, some of the killings were stamped with the seal of targeted killings, including a bus driver, a passenger in a vehicle, etc.

Despite the wave of violence, the country registered only 15 more homicides in November compared to 2020. As for the provisional data for 2021, between January and November, the authorities recorded 936 homicides, which is 15% less than the 1100 murders that occurred in the same period in 2020.

Some experts blame this wave of violence in El Salvador on a direct message to President Bukele, who has based his mandate on reducing homicides.

Evidence from interviews between Bukele administration officials and the imprisoned leaders of the three main gangs leads one to believe that the latter agreed to reduce high homicide rates in exchange for better prison conditions and other privileges, such as access to cell phones, sex workers and better-quality food.

But these advantages were never extended to free gang members. The three bloodstained days would seek consideration for these members.

One MS13 faction unleashed the killings and the rest followed suit, with most occurring in or around the capital, San Salvador. Different factions of these gangs coordinated in sectors near the capital as a way of pressuring the leaders who are in prison.

For several years now, the gangs have learned that the corpses give them bargaining power with the government. The last time the government withdrew the truce, in 2012, violence between these groups and law enforcement greatly increased. So much so that El Salvador, with more than 1,000 shootings a year in its streets, was declared the most dangerous country in the world without war. The gangs and the State have been communicating through deaths for years.

However, homicides fell to figures unthinkable in the past. In 2020 El Salvador recorded 1322 homicides, a drop of about 45% from the 2398 deaths in 2019.


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