Are El Salvador’s gangs plotting to 'take down the system'?

The Salvadoran National Civil Police say gangs are planning attacks on security forces, but others believe the remark has more to do with politics.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

El Salvador’s police have claimed that the country’s “maras,” or street gangs, are planning an all-out attack on security forces, despite the fact that these groups have neither the organizational structure nor motive to do so.

The deputy director of investigation for the Salvadoran National Civil Police (PNC), Howard Cotto, claims that authorities believe imprisoned gang leaders are contacting gang members on the outside and directing them to attack security forces. In remarks to El Salvador’s newspaper, Contrapunto, Cotto said that those behind this scheme refer to it as an attack on “the system.”

Deputy director of prisons, Nelson Rauda, backed the claim, saying that authorities had intercepted letters from gang leaders which contained a call to attack “members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, the PNC, prison staff members, as well as judges and prosecutors.”

It is true that the Central American country’s gangs are a growing security threat. As InSight Crime has reported, El Salvador’s murder rate is the highest it has been in years. This rise was accompanied by an overwhelming number of disappearances in 2011, with more than 2,000 people reported missing in San Salvador alone. According to Minister of Security David Munguia Payes, 90 percent of the murders in the country are gang-related.

Despite the threat they pose to citizen security, the non-hierarchical nature of El Salvador’s maras suggests that a concerted attack on security forces would be nearly impossible to orchestrate. While the main street gangs active in the country -- groups like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18 and the Texis Cartel -- do have networks spread throughout the country, they lack the firm chain of command of more structured organized crime groups, like Mexico’s Zetas. Relations between gang cells, more so than within cartels, vary according to complex local identities and variations in criminal interests. As such, the idea of a gang like MS-13 declaring a widespread campaign against state forces is highly suspect.

What’s more, the lack of details released by both Cotto and Rauda make their claims difficult to take seriously. For one thing, neither official made mention of which particular street gang was behind this strategy. It could be that this omission was due to security considerations, but it casts the authenticity of the claim into question.

Ultimately, the remark could have more to do with politics than with the reality of gang violence in the country. The PNC is currently in the middle of a major anti-corruption purge which has resulted in the investigation of more than 1,600 officers for misconduct. As such, the claims may simply be designed to garner public sympathy for the police, in an attempt to cast the police force as the “good guys.”

Mara attacks on police officials are more likely to take place on an individual basis, and to come in response to direct interference with the gangs’ activities. Ironically, such interference does not always come in the form of justice or strict law enforcement, a point which could backfire for the PNC. It is just as likely that a gang would target police in retaliation for a crackdown as it is that they would target them for charging too much for a “cut” of the action, or for entering into an alliance with a rival gang.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey  is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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