Three months ago, gunmen opened fire on a deputy police commissioner in the province of San Vicente, killing her in a hail of bullets as she left a restaurant after dinner with friends. Two weeks later, here in the capital, an off-duty officer fell victim to an apparent gang reprisal when he was fatally shot in the back five times while riding a crowded bus home. In Usulutan province recently, three more officers were killed by a group of men who attacked a festival using semiautomatic weapons and homemade grenades.
Six years after a new national police force emerged from the ruins of El Salvador's long civil war, its members are being killed and wounded at one of the highest rates of any law enforcement agency in the world. The mounting toll offers graphic proof of the violence that permeates Salvadoran society seven years after the accords that ended the 12-year conflict.
It also has raised questions among Salvadorans about the adequacy of the 18,000-member National Civilian Police -- drawn from the ranks of former guerrillas and soldiers as well as civilians -- which remains woefully short of resources and training despite assistance from the United States and Europe.
Police records show that 115 officers were killed last year -- by far the highest toll in the brief history of the department. This year's number has already reached 23. Overall, 380 members have been killed since the first class of recruits was dispatched in late 1993 with minimal training. The figures include officers who died in automobile accidents and other mishaps, but most deaths occurred at the hands of criminals, police officials said. At least six officers are said to be wounded for each one killed.
The toll is particularly striking because the deaths occurred in a country of just 5.5 million people. In the United States, which has a population of 250 million, 156 federal, state and local law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty last year.
"Most of us have been shot at," said police chief Rodrigo Avila. "Some have been stabbed with machetes. . . . Some have been run over by cars, and traffic police have been shot in the back. Others have been attacked in their homes by criminals they once [had] arrested."
"When you hit the streets after training you feel lost," said Sgt. Atanasio de Jesus Bermudez, 28, who was shot in the neck and paralyzed three years ago while trying to arrest a group of car thieves. He said that of the 150 officers who graduated in his police academy class in September 1993, five have been killed and 10 others are in wheelchairs as a result of being wounded.
The 1992 peace accords created the National Civilian Police to replace the National Police, an infamous arm of the Salvadoran military accused of widespread human rights abuses. The new police force, whose officers carry semiautomatic handguns, are at a particular disadvantage because many criminals have access to military weapons still circulating from the civil war, in which 70,000 people died.
International efforts to round up wartime arsenals fell short.
Another challenge stems from the proliferation of violent U.S.-style gangs, many formed by Salvadoran youths who fled to Los Angeles during the war and later returned home. Between 18 and 21 people die by violence every day in El Salvador, where the annual homicide rate of 128 per 100,000 is the highest in Latin America.
"What we face every day is nothing less than a war or maybe worse because these gangs are really not fighting for anything -- they just kill, like machines," said officer Mario Portillo, 30, who has been wounded twice in shootouts with gang members. "Life can be very cheap around here. . . . The harder we crack down, the harder they come at us."
U.S. deportations of Salvadoran criminals, including gang members, have prompted El Salvador's leaders to petition President Clinton to explore alternatives. Outgoing President Armando Calderon Sol has also pressed the legislature to adopt the death penalty and life prison sentences to replace the current 30-year limit for a number of serious crimes, but political opposition has blocked passage of the tougher measures.
Police officials, meanwhile, complain that recent reforms of the penal code have generally made it harder to put criminals behind bars and keep them there. One of the most controversial changes was designed to reduce swelling prison populations by permitting the early release of prisoners, including some convicted of serious crimes.
"The person you arrest could be the person who eventually kills you, because chances are they will not stay in jail too long," said one officer, who said he has received numerous death threats during his two years on the force.
Since its inception six years ago, the police force has been plagued by shortages of vehicles, communications gear and other equipment -- including bulletproof vests. It has just 400. In addition, said Geoff Thale, an associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, "Recruits have received only the most cursory screening prior to admission to the police academy, and they have been trained quickly."
Critics added that the force has failed to put together a comprehensive anti-crime strategy and suffers from institutional weaknesses, such as inadequate supervision. Avila said more emphasis will be put on firearm training and safer arrest techniques. Meanwhile, administrative, supervisory and tactical training for the force's management ranks is expected to begin over the next several months.
CAPTION: A National Civilian Police officer examines a suspect apprehended on a bus in San Salvador. Additional officers have been deployed on the transit system for commuter safety in this Central American capital.
CAPTION: Police officers search two men as a colleague stands by in San Salvador in February 1998.