El Salvador’s two most powerful gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, are now considered terrorist organizations by the Salvadoran government, after a Supreme Court ruling Monday found the gangs’ actions “indiscriminately” affect the “fundamental rights of the population.”
According to the decision, the court found the gangs are in violation of the country’s Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, leading to the categorization as terrorist groups. Actions considered in the ruling include systematic attacks on life and public security, against police, military, and other officials.
The decision also considered how gangs violate Salvadorans’ basic rights through extortion and other actions that have restricted people’s movement and forced some to leave their homes under the threat of violence. Gangs have also had a role in preventing youth from realizing their right to education out of fear of being targeted when attending school, according to the decision.
Members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in prison in El Salvador. I Photo: AFP
Aside from specific gangs, the court ruled that any organization that finances gang activity or attempts to seize powers of the state and infringe on Salvadoran sovereignty through systematic acts of violence will also be considered a terrorist group.
The ruling comes after gangs forced a shutdown of public transit at the end of July for four days, paralyzing the capital city San Salvador, leaving thousands of commuters to find alternative transportation. Following the end of the strike, when transit operators got back on the road with increased security measures at transit points and along major routes, Salvadoran authorities issued at least 300 arrest warrants for gang members accused to terrorism in a renewed effort to crackdown on organized crime.
Salvadoran Attorney General Luis Martinez described the arrest warrants as part of a “new strategy” to counter the “terrorist acts” of gang members and to “impose order and bring social peace.”
The terrorism designation also comes as the violence-ridden Central American country is poised to hit before the end of August 4,000 so far this year, making 2015 the most violent year on record in the 21st century. Beginning earlier this year, violence already spiked to levels not seen since the end of two decades of civil war in 1992.
El Salvador has also now overcome Honduras as having the highest murder rate in the world, with 96 murders for 100,000 residents this year.
The recent transit strike and sharp spike in violence has also showed that gangs are capable of plunging the country into crisis. Over the course of just over a week when the transit strike occurred, at least nine bus drivers were killed at the hands of gangs. In the weeks following the strike, the murder rate leaped to more than one per hour in the small Central American country of 6.3 million people.
Salvadoran gang members under arrest. I Photo: Reuters
But despite the increase in gang violence, said to be a tactic by gangs to pressure the government to negotiate reduced punishments for fellow gang members, the government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has repeatedly refused to enter into dialogue with gang members.
Sanchez Ceren’s predecessor, former President Mauricio Funes, also of the leftist FMLN party, had an unknown role in a 2012 truce between the rival Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, that resulted in a temporary drop in gang violence. The 15-month truce cut the country’s murder rate in half, but once the deal began to unravel in 2013, violence level creeped back up and even surpassed pre-truce levels.
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Critics say the truce failed to address the underlying causes of gang violence, such as chronic poverty and inequality, resulting in the renewed surge in violence once the agreement broke down.
Sanchez Ceren, who entered office in 2014, has rejected the idea of negotiating with gang members.
El Salvador's rival gangs Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, now deemed terrorist organizations, both have roots in the street gangs of Los Angeles and tens of thousands of current members in the United States.