MEXICO CITY — Nearly every day in El Salvador, police have what they call “enfrentamientos” — or confrontations — with the powerful street gangs that blanket the country. Another word for this is “shootout.”
So the announcement last week by the director of the National Civil Police, Howard Cotto, that police have done this 459 times so far this year points to the severity of the conflict between the gangs and the state. In those confrontations, 424 alleged gang members were killed, Cotto said at a news conference.
The website Insight Crime, which tracks security issues in Latin America, pointed out that this means El Salvador's authorities are clashing with criminal groups more often than in Mexico, which is still engulfed in a drug war, and Colombia, whose half-century-long civil war is ending — despite those countries having far larger populations.
One notable thing about the “enfrentamientos” statistic is that many people in El Salvador view this term with deep suspicion. From human rights officials to average citizens, many people doubt whether an exchange of fire took place — and wonder whether police officers simply killed their enemy.
Last year, on the San Blas farm south of the capital, eight “gang members” died in a what police described as a shootout. Investigative reporting by the news site El Faro cast doubt on those statements, and the attorney general's office subsequently brought charges against several police officers for extrajudicial execution.
The government of President Salvador Sánchez Céren has pursued a fierce crackdown on gangs over the past two years, imposing emergency measures and calling up soldiers and police into the fight. Although those measures are often popular in gang-weary El Salvador — gangs are responsible for killings, kidnapping and vast amounts of extortion. Human rights workers have repeatedly raised warnings about abuses by authorities as they carry out their operations and target gang members.
The homicide rate has fallen from its height in 2015. Still, there have been more than 4,400 murders so far this year, down by about 1,000 from last year's total at this time.