El Salvador’s gangs turn to civil war weapons

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

A policeman detains a suspected member of the MS-13 gang at a checkpoint in San Salvador.

A policeman detains a suspected member of the MS-13 gang at a checkpoint in San Salvador.

Across Central America, gangs are increasingly turning to military-grade weaponry as they battle each other as well as ever more heavily-armed law enforcement authorities.

The militarisation of gangs is perhaps most serious in El Salvador. According to an investigative report published in El Faro (translated to English by Insight Crime), a Salvadoran digital news outlet, on September 7, the trade in weapons has been on the increase as the country’s two main gangs – MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang – face off against a government that takes an increasingly military approach to fighting crime.

According to the report, during the first half of 2016 police confiscated three “weapons of war” a day, using the government’s term for assault weapons, mostly variants of the AK-47s and M-16s. Between 2011 and 2014, the average number of such weapons captured was about one a day.

16-09-12sal-rifles_graphicMany of the weapons, El Faro noted, are leftovers from El Salvador’s civil war, when both the government and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) received generous aid from foreign backers. The guerrillas’ arsenal, apart from AK-47s, included ample quantities of American M-16s that had fallen into the hands of the communists during the Vietnam War.

While the scope of American military aid to the government has been well documented, the amount of weaponry that the guerrillas were able to amass is much harder to quantify. But in the book “Strategy and Tactics of the Salvadoran FMLN Guerrillas“, authors David Spencer and Jose Angel Moroni Bracamonte note that one captured FMLN document from 1989 states that the guerrillas had 400 tons of weapons ready to be shipped from Cuba, with another 150 tons waiting in Nicaragua. According to the authors, this translates to approximately 27,000 weapons – not including those already in the hands of guerrillas in-country at the time.

This figure, it should be noted, assumes that half of the total tonnage was comprised of ammunition. This, however, seems unlikely, as the guerrillas were in chronically short supply for much of the war.

The problem in El Salvador, many have noted, is that the weapons used by the military and the guerrillas were never properly accounted for when the war ended in the early 1990s.

In his book on weapons in El Salvador, Jose Miguel Cruz, the Director El Salvador’s Institute of Public Opinion, asserts that “nobody knows how many weapons were left in the hands of civilians after the war, and institutional efforts to recover them were fractured, and totally failed.”

According to El Faro, there are several ways in which these weapons reached the hands of criminals or other groups when the conflict ended. Many weapons were kept by individual combatants, who then passed them on to gang members. Still others were sold by fighters who were left guarding significant caches after the war, or by commanders who had held onto weapons in case the peace process went sour. Many ended up on the black market which flourished after more than a decade of war.

Members of the 18th Street gang attend a mass at the prison of Izalco in El Salvador. (Photo: Ulises Rodriguez / Reuters).

Members of the 18th Street gang attend a mass at the prison of Izalco in El Salvador. (Photo: Ulises Rodriguez / Reuters).

To make matters worse, El Salvador’s gangs are looking to former military personnel or guerrillas for training. Earlier in September, another Salvadorean newspaper, El Mundo, reported that members of the 18th Street Gang had hired former combatants to train gang members at six camps in the departments of San Salvador, La Paz, La Libertad, and Sonsonate. These areas were theatres of intense combat of the 1980s.

The training of Salvadoran gang members by combatants is not a new phenomenon in Latin America. In Colombia, for example, paramilitary groups – many of them actively involved in the cocaine trade – took training from Yair Klein, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in the 1980s.

More recently, drug trafficking organizations have turned to military veterans for training and as hitmen. The original members of the Zetas, for example, were almost entirely drawn from the Mexican Army, and it is believed that the group also hired members of Guatemala’s elite Kaibiles special forces.

The increase of military-grade weapons and training among El Salvador’s gangs bodes ill for the near-term future of the country’s security landscape. The government’s military approach to the problem of gangs will increasingly be countered by a military response. The civil war of the 1970s and 80s pitted ideological foes against each other. Today, the country is the scene of different conflicts: the government against criminals and rival criminals against each other.

The result is a climate of violence in which common crime is rampant and the civilian population suffers: El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

More information
“Without disarmament, demobilization and the successful reintegration of combatants, sustainable peace is impossible.” –> Patrick Truffer, “Successful Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration for Sustainable Peace“, offiziere.ch, 14.10.2015.

This entry was posted in Bernd Debusmann Jr, English, Organised Crime, San Salvador.

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