El Salvador's brutal condemnation of the maras taking advantage of the Covid-19
The president authorized the army to use "lethal force" against the mareros and ordered that in the prisons they mix members of different gangs.
Less than a month ago, the news came out of El Salvador that the various maras had made a "decisión de barrio" to enforce the quarantine imposed by the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.
The gangs' decision was motivated by three concerns: first, the less the quarantine was enforced, the greater the presence of the army and police in the neighbourhoods; second, the growth of the pandemic could affect the prisons and infect their gang members; and third, the more COVID-19 infections there were in El Salvador, the less likely it was that medical centres would provide a ventilator for a marero, should he need one.
The combination of quarantine and the "barrio decision" made by the maras led to a historic decrease in the number of fatalities recorded per day in El Salvador. Unfortunately, this trend changed after April 24, when the daily number of murders began to rise again.
Bukele responded with two measures, both published via Twitter: authorising the public forces to use "lethal force" against the mareros and the decision to mix members of different maras in prison cells, in order to prevent communication between them.
El uso de la fuerza letal está autorizado para defensa propia o para la defensa de la vida de los salvadoreños.
Instamos a la oposición a que se pongan del lado de la gente honrada, y a las instituciones que controlan a dejar de proteger a quienes asesinan a nuestro pueblo.
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) April 26, 2020
Estamos ejecutado la acción de mezclar y recluir en las mismas celdas a los diferentes grupos de las estructuras criminales que tanto daño están causando al país.
En este Gobierno no habrá beneficios y privilegios para ningún miembro de estructura criminal. pic.twitter.com/FdlTqLjsbg
— Osiris Luna Meza (@OsirisLunaMeza) April 27, 2020
The President also made known that he was willing to use the nation's resources to defend members of the public force who were sued for the excessive use of force.
Both the press agencies operating in El Salvador and the prison authorities themselves have released chilling images where dozens of half-naked men emerge lined up, sitting in narrow rows, each one's chest touching the other's back, and where - a novelty for the Salvadoran press - men with the letters MS and the number 18 tattooed on their bodies were gathered equally.
President Bukele's hope in doing all this and then confining the men in the same cell, crowded and mixed, is that by having the members of different maras together, they cannot plan murders that would then be communicated to members outside the prisons. Also, to prevent them from using sign language, he has asked that they be held without access to sunlight.
The Salvadoran investigative media, El Faro, contrasted the information obtained through spokespersons for the MS-13 and the Sureños del Barrio 18 faction with that of a police commissioner and an official seeking to reconstruct the circumstances that led to the resurgence of violence in the country and the adoption of these measures in the prisons.
El Faro's investigation sheds the following light: the increase in the number of murders appears to be a unilateral decision by MS-13, as the spokesperson for the faction Sueños del Barrio 18 declared that MS had cut off communication with the other gangs and they did not know what the reason for this change in policy was.
In addition, the police commissioner told the Salvadoran media that two other factors were at play: on the one hand, gang members are seeing the economic suffocation of not being able to collect the extortions they regularly use for their livelihoods - plus the aggravation that their relatives are not being able to exercise the legal economic activities in which they usually work - so they may be afraid of losing power, and the increase in homicides is "a wake-up call to say that they are still there, with the same power and in control of their areas," reported El Faro.
The second factor is the increase in aggressions, humiliations and beatings of both the gang members and their families. This may explain the effort by the mareros to recover their territories.
The last point on which the El Faro investigation sheds light is the one the official made known to them: the Salvadoran government has no plan to avoid the disputes inside the cells and they hope that they will organize some kind of amnesty in their confinement.
Pure intuition can lead one to think of four things that could happen: either the mareros will try to ignore each other - which is impossible, more so in such a degree of overcrowding - or lethal fights will break out in the cells, or the mareros will associate with each other, or an outbreak of COVID-19 inside the prisons will produce a mass death of the prisoners.
The latter two scenarios can have serious medium- and long-term consequences for the country: gangs associating with each other can give rise to another force that is more difficult to control than those already plaguing El Salvador, and if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons, the gang members who survive it will be seen as heroes by the groups to which they belong. In any case, the cure may result in aggravating the disease without solving the country's underlying problems of poverty and inequality.