This week, El Salvador’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, David Morales, reported that police and military forces likely committed extrajudicial executions on at least two separate occasions last year. One was the March 2015 massacre at the San Blas Finca in which security forces killed at least eight alleged gang members. The other was an August 2015 massacre at Los Pajales in Panchimalco in which security forces killed five alleged gang members.
The Ombudsman announced that, “in both cases we concluded that there were extrajudicial executions.” They reached their findings based on evidence that police moved bodies to make the scene appear like a shootout. In addition, some of the bodies showed signs of being beaten prior to being shot. Of the 13 killed in these two incidents, 4 were minors under the age of 18.
The Ombudsman also said that his office is reviewing 30 other incidents involving 100 deaths that they suspect to be cases of extrajudicial killings.
The allegations are not new. Experts have long suspected f that many of the shootouts reported in the papers are actually extrajudicial killings committed by police and military. Because the victims are reported to be gang members, few citizens or government officials ask questions or demand more information.
The Ombudsman’s announcement comes just over a year after President Sánchez Cerén’s administration said publicly that the police should use their weapons in defending against gangs without fearing that they will “suffer consequences.”
The question of extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members goes beyond on-duty police and military forces. In January 2016, the Ombudsman for Human Rights said, “in this country we see that there exists a pattern of violence concerning death squads. According to our observations as the Ombudsman’s Office, I presume the existence of these groups, it is very likely that they are in operation.” Just in the past year and a half, extermination groups have taken to social media to claim responsibility for many homicides of alleged gang members, but they are not investigated and the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.
As the Ombudsman announces their findings of extrajudicial killings, the government is doubling down on the use of force to combat gangs. The government recently deployed a special combat force to attack gangs in rural areas. It is comprised of 600 elite military soldiers and 400 members of the police, and will start by focusing on hard to reach rural areas where they believe that gangs are operating. Vice President Oscar Ortiz said, “This is a firm action that says to the gangs that the State is stronger.”
In addition, last week the Legislative Assembly passed reforms to the Penal Code and other laws making it illegal to provide aid to or act as a intermediary for gangs. It also makes it a crime for government officials to agree not to prosecute gangs or in any way negotiate with gang members. The penalty for being found guilty of violating these laws is up to 15 years in prison. Raul Mejango said the reforms “burn all boats that could somehow afford to find other solutions to this problem [of violence], betting solely on repression as the solution, and historically this has proven not to resolve the problem.”
What is especially terrible about extrajudicial killings, extermination groups, use of Special Forces, and the new laws is that repression and force this is the only approach the government is taking to addressing insecurity in El Salvador. Salvadorans need more. El Salvador is among the most violent countries in the world, and instead of moving towards long-term solutions, or even identifying the roots of the violence, the government is responding with even more violence and more repression.
The gang issue is complicated, and the violence and extortion perpetrated by these groups destroy communities around the country. Voices on the Border staff has seen this first hand. But reverting to wartime tactics will only lead to more violence and more violence. Gangs exist, at least in part, because there is a void created by socio-economic and political inequalities. Even if a militarized solution led to the destruction of the gangs, something else less than positive would take their place. And even in war, extrajudicial killings like those being reported by the Ombudsman for Human Rights would be a war crime and should be punished.