The new offensive against gangs in El Salvador

The government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has launched a new, expansive (and expensive) anti-crime package targeting gang leaders, reforming prisons and establishing renewed police presence in select municipalities.  Will it work?


From April 26-28, 2016, I had the opportunity to visit El Salvador and interact with senior military, police, and other government personnel as part of a professional exchange sponsored by the U.S. Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), in conjunction with El Salvador’s Counter-Transnational Organized Crime Regional Training Center (CTRACCT, per its acronym in Spanish) and supported by Joint Special Operations University (JSOU).  The timing of the event, just a week after the Salvadoran government’s launch of a new series of initiatives against the violent criminal street gangs, afforded me an exceptional opportunity to speak with personnel closely connected with designing and implementing the government’s new initiatives, to understand what the government is trying to achieve, against difficult odds, and how.

While what I saw and heard gave me hope that the government may be turning a corner in its fight against gangs, it also left me with profound doubts whether the new initiatives could be sufficiently coordinated, resourced, and persistent to succeed.  

No more Mr. Nice Guy

During the course of 2014, the deterioration of the tenuous truce between El Salvador’s two major criminal gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang—B-18) drove an expansion of killings in a country whose incidence of murders, extortion and other crimes were already among the highest in the region.  In the beginning of 2015, the incoming government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén took a strong public stance not to negotiate with the gangs.  As part of that change in tack, the new government transferred key gang leaders back to maximum security prisons from which they had been moved as part of the previous government’s efforts at dialogue.  The hardline precipitated a bloody wave of violence that included not only inter-gang violence, but attacks against the police, military and civilians who were either in the way or not paying the extortion demanded of them.  In August 2015, El Salvador’s Supreme Court found MS-13 and B-18 to be terrorist organizations, laying the political and legal groundwork for an expanded series of measures against them.

Before that, the Salvadoran military had already committed significant forces in support of civilian authorities in areas such as joint military police patrols (Zeus command), control of prison perimeters (San Carlos command), protection of schools and tourist sites (Eagle command), border control (SumPul command), and a special rapid reaction force (Thunder command).  As violence escalated to the unprecedented rate of 104 murders per 100,000 people in 2015, by early 2016 the government announced a new $2.1 billion five year initiative, “Plan Secure Salvador.” The policy shift sought to address the crisis through a combination of socioeconomic and security measures, financed by an unpopular new tax on cellphone use and cable television.

Despite such measures, the violence continued to escalate.  While Sánchez Cerén reportedly resisted taking more extreme measures, the massacre of 11 telecommunications workers on March 3, 2016 in the gang-infested neighborhood of Opico demonstrated the increasing willingness of the gangs to target large numbers of civilians, and reportedly convinced the government that it had to act.

Although extraordinary measures had been under consideration for some time, the new package was reportedly assembled in just seven days, with the President’s technical secretary Hato Hasbún, playing a key role.  On April 20 the government announced the first phase of the plan: targeting the top 100 gang leaders.

The government’s new package of legal reforms and security initiatives has two principal foci, designed to reinforce each other: control of the country’s prisons, and the recuperation of communities.

With respect to penitentiaries, the government is attempting to capture the key gang leaders not currently in prison, while more effectively isolating gang leaders and other members in confinement.  Currently, using smuggled cellphones and other forms of communication, gang leaders in prison can direct extortion and coordinate other operations on the outside.  Their ability to do so enables them to both bribe prison workers and threaten their families, ensuring that the gang leaders, not the guards, control the prisons.  By cutting those lines of communication and moving both gang leaders and prison workers, the government hopes to break that cycle, so that those inside prison can’t extort the Salvadoran population from their cells, and can’t bribe guards or intimidate them into doing their bidding by threatening their families.

As part of the strategy, with the aid of a new package of laws, the government has moved gang leaders to different penitentiaries and has temporarily isolated them from contact with both other gang members and family visits.  In the seven prisons in which the gangs are concentrated—within the 20 facilities in El Salvador—the government is installing new devices for blocking cell phone signals, and has obliged the local telecommunication service providers to adjust their antennae to deny cell coverage to the prison compounds.  The government also reportedly re-assigned prison personnel suspected of corruption away from positions controlling access to visitors and inspection of contraband goods days before the new initiative was launched.  In the brief time since the new measures were implemented, extortion calls from the prisons have reportedly dropped by 60 percent.

The changes implemented in the prisons thus far are only the beginning a much more ambitious series of initiatives.  Pursuant to final constitutional and legislative approval to take out a new $100 million loan from the Central American Economic Integration bank (Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económico, or BCIE), the government plans to build three new minimum security prisons, to which it would transfer approximately 10,000 lower risk prisoners not affiliated with the gangs.  It ambitiously anticipates building the facilities in the span of three or four months, starting in May 2016, using prefabricated walls and the support from military construction capabilities to minimize the costs and delays of contracting such work to the private sector.  Separately, the government also plans to construct three new “farm prisons” with a total new capacity of 6,000 persons, where low-risk prisoners would work under conditions of confinement, as well as identifying and releasing 2,000 low-risk or terminally ill prisoners.

These measures, if implemented, would remove 18,000 of the 38,000 prisoners in Salvador’s existing overcrowded facilities.  The changes would create space for incarcerating additional prisoners (although the government officially does not expect roundups of large numbers of gang members).  It would also allow the government to move approximately 5,000 persons currently held in overcrowded temporary detention police facilities to more appropriate for long-term detention.

The government has further extended the amount of time that a person can be held in detention (following the preliminary review of a judge, but without a trial), from 24 to 48 months, and has modified the law to allow preventative detention of minors rounded up in operations, based on the decision of a juvenile prosecutor.

The government has also been moving more aggressively to investigate and remove corrupt judges who find gang members innocent or prematurely release them against the evidence.  Yet such removals require tedious internal investigations by the Salvadoran Supreme Court, and will neither be quick nor easy.

As mentioned earlier, the first phase of the project was the targeting of the 100 MS-13 and B-18 senior leaders.  In taking down these gang leaders, the government is relying heavily on a newly created “Specialized Reaction Force” (Fuerzas Especializados de Reaccion de El Salvador, or FERES), drawing on the military commando units assigned to the Thunder Command, and various police forces.  The FERES currently comprises 400 persons, divided into 10 sections of 40 (24 military and 16 police) divided into four squads of six military and four police each.

Re-establishing state presence

In addition to these measure, as part of Plan Secure Salvador, the government has designated 10 municipalities, with 81 sectors, as the focus of their initial effort, to recover territory currently controlled by criminal gangs.  In the first phase, initiated February 8th, before the current launch of extraordinary measures, the government had been conducting “cleansing operations,” going after the key gang leaders.  In phase two, “massification,” the government cordons off the communities and brings in a significant contingent of police and military forces to purge the community of its criminal elements.  

In the third phase, the government plans to establish a long-term community police presence in the municipality, presumably cleansed of its gang elements.  In the process, it also plans to invest in revitalizing the local community and reconnecting it with its own public spaces, through initiatives such as restoring municipal streetlights and creating public sports facilities, community theaters, and similar facilities. In each of these phases, government actions against the gangs in the targeted municipalities will be supported by changes to the legal framework, reportedly facilitated by the respected Salvadoran Attorney General, Douglas Arquímides Melendez.  The government has already passed new laws that reportedly include criminalizing impeding movement in neighborhoods and making it illegal to intimidate people to flee from their residences.

In implementing the plan in each of the 10 target municipalities, the key security instrument of the government is the newly created “Intervention and Territorial Recuperation Force” (FIRT), drawn principally from the previously discussed FERES, but also including special prosecutors and other government personnel, and supported by other forces, such as the regionally deployed elements of Zeus command.

In the government concept, once a municipality has been recovered, the FIRT will move on to a new municipality, leaving behind a residual security force with a community police emphasis.  In such a fashion, the government essentially plans to recover the national territory 10 municipalities at a time.

In recognition of the force size required for this, the government has called for the mobilization of 600 military reservists, to be deployed to administrative and infrastructure protection tasks.  By mobilizing the reservists, the plan will free up active duty forces to conduct other activities directly combatting the gangs, as well as fulfilling the nation’s commitments to foreign activities, such as U.N. peacekeeping forces in Africa and support to the peace process in Colombia.  

Yet, as with the construction of new prisons, the activation of the reserves and re-allocation of active-duty forces requires financial resources, and in particular loans.

Beyond the comprehensiveness of the government’s new campaign against the gangs, there are other reasons for cautious optimism.  El Salvador’s new security minister, Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, is generally evaluated positively by both police and military personnel with respect to his ability to coordinate security operations.  Current Police Commissioner Howard Cotto, who was promoted from the number two job in the department, is similarly well regarded both inside and outside the police for his technical knowledge and abilities.  

This administration has also demonstrated an important understanding of strategic communication.  The Presidential Communications Secretary, Eugenio Chica Martínez, for example, has shown a particular sophistication in his messaging to domestic audiences, such as the victims of gang violence and at-risk youth, and to international community more broadly.

Challenges and doubts

Yet as with numerous efforts by prior Salvadoran governments against the gang challenge, the present initiative faces multiple challenges that make its success far from certain.

First, it is not certain that the government will be able to obtain the funds that it needs to implement its plan.  The Sánchez Cerén administration’s pursuit of a $100 million loan, just months after implementing the unpopular new telecommunications tax to pay for Plan Secure Salvador, raises doubts whether the government is being realistic in the amount of resources that it will need to implement its initiatives, or whether it can spend those resources efficiently to achieve its objectives, or whether the government may need to return to the congress and international supporters to ask for even more money in the not-too-distant future.  If the government cannot obtain the resources to pay for the mobilization of reserves and the construction of new prisons, it may find itself simultaneously confronted by a fiscal crisis and further escalating violence from the gangs, which see the government as having declared war on them.

Even if the new penitentiaries are built and the policy and police measures are effective, it is not certain that the government can keep gang leaders in prison cut off from their rank-and-file without allowing the military to operate in the interior of the penitentiaries, as they did prior to the 2012 gang truce.  Indeed, the success of the military in limiting the flow of contraband goods to those inside the penitentiaries was arguably one of the reasons that gang leaders demanded that they be withdrawn as a condition of the truce.

Beyond such issues, Salvadoran security analysts express concern over the effectiveness of the government’s plan to concentrate military and police manpower on 10 troubled municipalities.  The danger is that by doing it incrementally and in a small area, it will only displace gang members to other areas where security forces have had to decrease their presence to focus on the campaign.

There is also the challenge of coordinating military and police personnel in the FERES and FIRT initiatives, which was an issue in the past with the Zeus command.  Unlike in the past Zeus command effort, FIRT police officers will be working the same hours as their military counterparts, and have a more significant role in the force.  But in both FERES and FIRT, the police and military will still respond to separate chains of command.  However well-coordinated these two forces may be, they are separated by different institutional cultures, and the legacy of the police’s recreation after the Salvadoran civil war, with quotas of personnel from the FMLN and other parts of society.

At a higher level, it is also not clear if government efforts will be sufficient to inspire confidence in the population to cooperate with authorities and take a more active role in their own security.  While the government emphasizes the importance of communities taking a more active role in their own security, in the most troubled areas residents are reluctant to report crimes or provide information to the police, worrying that they may be penetrated by the gangs, and that such collaboration will thus be found out and provoke reprisals.

A further concern is that the government’s removal of MS-13 and B-18 from the targeted municipalities will merely replace one problem with another, leaving behind the spouses and dependents of the imprisoned gang members, deprived of their illicit income driving those who remain in the neighborhood into new forms of crime to sustain themselves.

Finally, the government’s emergency measures arguably reflect a troubling tendency within Salvadoran society to view gang members as less deserving of the rights and legal protections afforded to other members of Salvadoran society, eligible to be “cleansed” from the nation’s municipalities. Such sentiments obviously derive from years of desperation over the levels of violence and criminality that the gangs have wrought and the lack of resources to address its underlying social causes, but raise concerns over human rights and social inclusion.

To its credit, the government’s 124-element Secure Salvador Plan does, on paper, focus on the socioeconomic roots of the nation’s gang problem.  But for the moment, the human focus on the government’s plan has been overshadowed by the emphasis on the need for a frontal attack against the leadership of the mara organizations.

As I write this article, there have been five major actions under the new regime, with 15 gang members killed and zero police or military casualties.  The April 26, 2016, operation by security forces in La Campañera, the first operation of a FIRT force to seize and recover gang-held territory in one of the 10 targeted municipalities was, by official reports, a success.  Nevertheless, civilians with knowledge of the operation expressed doubts over whether the operation had actually changed anything in the neighborhood, or whether the government was there to stay.

The battle for public perceptions over such issues will likely play a key role in both winning the trust and cooperation of the populations of the targeted municipality, and convincing Salvadorans more broadly that the government’s new campaign can and will make a difference.  Let’s hope that the government’s ambitious, multi-faceted plan has the resources, coordination and persistence to make a difference, and that Communications Secretary Chica Martínez’ skills with strategic communication, are up to making a deeply skeptical Salvadoran population believe that this time will be different.

More Commentary

Scroll to Top