(IPS) – Human rights defenders and analysts in El Salvador suspect that death squads were responsible for two highly coordinated attacks in which 12 young men were killed this month.
In one of the latest incidents pointing to “social cleansing” activities by death squads, black-clad hooded gunmen shot and killed seven suspected members of “maras” – as youth gangs are known in Central America – near a stream on Feb. 2.
The murders took place in Milingo, in the central department (province) of Cuscatlán, and the killers used M16 assault rifles and 9mm pistols.
Just four days later, five young men were gunned down in a restaurant in Tonacatepeque on the outskirts of San Salvador by three gunmen wearing similar black clothes and facemasks and armed with the same kind of weapons.
One of the survivors said the gunmen shut all of the men in a room, asked them if they belonged to maras and checked their bodies for the tattoos that indicate gang membership.
Although they didn’t find tattoos, the hooded men told the youngsters that they were going to die anyway, and opened fire. Police investigations found that the victims had no ties to the maras, but were students and construction workers.
The maras originated in California after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during this country’s 12-year civil war and settled largely in poor neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife. After the armed conflict, U.S. authorities began to deport thousands of gang members to El Salvador, where the escalation of violence drove the murder rates above those seen during the war.
The maras also spread to Honduras and Guatemala.
Police in El Salvador have referred to two theories about this month’s massacres: that they were a settling of scores between maras or the work of social cleansing groups.
The attorney-general’s office is investigating whether the same group of killers was involved in both incidents. Although similar firearms were used, police investigators told IPS that the M16 rifle used in Tonacatepeque was not the same as the one used in Milingo.
Political analyst Salvador Samayoa, a former chairman of the National Council on Public Security, a government body, wrote in an oped that a specialised commando apparently committed the killings in Milingo, to judge by the modus operandi.
Samayoa said theories that the killings were the result of a vendetta between gangs or were the work of hired thugs or “sicarios” were “improbable.”
“Based on our history, the ‘theatre of operations’, the weapons used, the way the ambush was staged, the clothing worn, the style of the killings, and above all the capacity and determination to attack a large group, the killers exhibited characteristics of a commando and of combat experience,” he wrote in the Diario Hoy newspaper.
The expert said that although there are precedents in El Salvador of warfare between rival maras and of gang killings of civilians who have nothing to do with the criminal underworld, this month’s two incidents were different.
“It is practically inconceivable that three gang members would decide to attack a group of 10 people. That is only done by the ‘special forces’ or so-called ‘commandos’, who are trained precisely to use just a few men to overcome or annihilate larger units or groups,” he added.
According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Report on Human Development in Central America 2009-2010, Central America has become the region with the highest levels of non-political violent crime in the world.
The report was mainly referring to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which have some of the highest murder rates on the planet: 48 per 100,000 in Guatemala, 52 per 100,000 in El Salvador, and 58 per 100,000 in Honduras – compared to a Latin American average of 25 per 100,000.
The three countries not only share the problem of gang violence, but the continued activity of death squads as well, according to human rights groups like the London-based Amnesty International and Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organisation.
In the past, death squads targeted students, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and leftist political leaders and activists in all three countries: before and during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 armed conflict; during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war; and in the 1980s in Honduras.
In El Salvador, death squads tortured and killed thousands of leftists and labour and human rights activists in the 1970s and 1980s as part of the “anti-communist crusade” led by Roberto d’Aubuisson, the late founder of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) which governed the country from 1989 to 2009.
And in the mid-1990s, the “Sombra Negra” (Black Shadow) – as the group called itself – emerged with the apparent aim of exterminating criminals and gang members in the eastern department of San Miguel. Although police officers were arrested for allegedly participating in the group, they were let off due to lack of evidence.
For years, human rights groups and experts have said the death squads that operated in the past never disappeared, but continue to target suspected criminals or gang members, and even homeless children – activities that Amnesty International has also reported in South American countries like Brazil and Venezuela.
Analysts warn that death squad activity will further undermine the still shaky democracies of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
If the phenomenon is confirmed in El Salvador, it will weaken the foundations of justice and human rights institutions, Benjamín Cuéllar, director of the Human Rights Institute at the Jose Simeón Cañas University (IDHUCA), told IPS.
“I see a real danger that this kind of criminal activity is here to stay, which poses a serious threat to democracy,” said Cuéllar.
He linked the phenomenon of death squads to what he described as the “failed” security policies with which the right-wing governments that ruled El Salvador until 2009 sought to clamp down on crime, focusing on force and strong-arm tactics.
The tough-on-crime strategy has not been modified by President Mauricio Funes, the first leftist president in the history of El Salvador, who took office in June 2009 at the head of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The president announced this month that he is preparing an urgent security plan that would increase the maximum prison sentence for minors from seven to 15 years, as part of an attempt to curb the escalation of violent crime. The plan, which was applauded by business, religious leaders and human rights activists, would also include advice from international experts on law enforcement.
According to official figures, 2009 was the most violent year in a decade, with 4,365 murders in this country of 6.1 million people.
Against that backdrop, some groups have decided to “to take justice into their own hands, which is also criminal behaviour, and to focus less on institutional justice,” said Cuéllar.
In late January, human rights ombudsman Oscar Luna said he had received telephone death threats from individuals claiming to belong to a death squad. They warned him to leave the country and to not interfere with their supposed campaign to stamp out crime.
In neighbouring Guatemala, “the office of the human rights ombudsman, as well as numerous civil society organisations, have reported over and over the complicity of police and judicial authorities in these criminal activities, stating that behind these deaths are social cleansing operations and extrajudicial executions to exterminate supposed criminals and gang members,” the Brazil-based Adital grassroots news service reported in March 2007.
And in January 2009, Amnesty International issued a press release on the activities of death squads in the northeastern Brazilian states of Pernambuco and Paraiba.
The statement noted that in his report on a November 2007 visit to Brazil, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions said “the public prosecution service in Pernambuco estimated that approximately 70 percent of the homicides in Pernambuco are committed by death squads,” and according to a federal parliamentary commission of inquiry, “80 percent of the crimes caused by extermination groups involve police or ex-police.”
In Venezuela there have long been reports of activities by what Amnesty described in 2002 as “police death squads” in the northwestern state of Portuguesa.
In June 2009, one such group warned that it would launch a social cleansing campaign. Leaflets tacked up in local businesses said that on Jul. 1 the group would begin to kill “drug traffickers, thieves and prostitutes” in the capital of the state, Aragua, and other towns, the Noticiero PR News on-line publication reported.
After the recent spate of killings in El Salvador, President Funes said he did not believe they were the work of death squads, and that there was no evidence to prove that social cleansing groups existed.
But IDHUCA’s Cuéllar said that “to judge by the history of this country, all signs indicate that there are death squads, and it is worrisome that President Funes has flatly ruled out this possibility, before investigating.”
Ramón Villalta, director of the Social Initiative for Democracy, told IPS that such groups “are undermining the country’s institutions.
“But it is the lack of efficacy of the institutions themselves in curbing the soaring levels of violent crime that most affects democracy itself, and pushes citizens to take justice into their own hands,” he argued.