SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR - MARCH 29: Three hundred gangs members were transferred to the prison of Quezaltepeque, Libertad on March 29, 2016. (Photo by Fred Ramos/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Gang members are transferred to prison in the El Salvador capital San Salvador in March

One woman’s body, her wrists and feet tied, dumped in a black bag; a man, possibly hanged, bundled in sheets and stuffed into a suitcase; a dead gang member.

The newspaper coverage of this grisly pre-dawn death toll in different parts of the country on a single day last week was matter of fact. Savage turf battles between gangs have made murder mundane in El Salvador, which last year supplanted Honduras as the homicide capital of the world.

Now the government, which credits its tough anti-gang task forces in ski masks for helping cut the murder rate by 42 per cent in April compared with March, has promised to bring the gangs to their knees in a year.

It is a tall order: the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, declared terrorist groups by the Supreme Court last year, have some 60,000 members. Even national police chief Howard Cotto has admitted that as fast as the men on El Salvador’s 100 most wanted list are captured or killed, others will fill their shoes.

“We can’t go on tolerating these groups . . . we have to lay siege to them, pursue them and bring them down. This is the mission we have in the next 12 months,” said Óscar Ortiz, the vice-president, this month.

Its success is not just a Salvadoran but a regional issue. With scant prospects in a country with low growth and rising debt, young people face a stark choice: gang membership or a perilous trek to enter the US with the prospect of being sent home. Violence took root in the country in the 1990s precisely when thousands of Salvadorans who joined gangs in Los Angeles after fleeing their country’s 1980-1992 civil war were deported.

Despite the government’s iron-fisted tactics, the recent fall in homicides owes much to a self-imposed gang ceasefire agreed in late March — a reminder of how murders halved during a truce from March 2012 until late 2013 which saved an estimated 5,501 lives.

But after that truce collapsed, homicides climbed again. Last year the murder rate surged 70 per cent to 6,670 compared with 2014, making the tiny Central American country of 6m people the most murderous peacetime place on earth.

Map: El Salvador

Underscoring the government’s zero tolerance to gangs, Raúl Mijango, the former congressman who talked the imprisoned bosses into the truce, was this month himself arrested, accused of getting them perks including prostitutes, cable TV, video games, dancers and 1,605 boxes of fried chicken. Mr Mijango defended the perks as necessary to get the gang leaders onside, and said he acted with the full knowledge of the then government.

Analysts see the arrest as a distraction after recordings published by respected online news site El Faro showed both government and opposition figures in contact with gangs ahead of the 2014 presidential election — raising suspicions, which they deny, that they were courting or buying the gang vote.

Now El Salvador has another problem: trigger-happy security forces. Last year, the government said police who felt threatened could shoot gang members “with no fear of suffering consequences”. Critics say they have taken that edict to heart.

El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman, David Morales, says security forces executed 13 people in two shoot-outs last year, including four teenagers, the youngest aged 15. In all, he has received reports of 30 cases of alleged executions, with 100 victims since the gang crackdown began last year.

FILE - This June 25, 2014 file photo, shows a group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally as they are stopped in Granjeno, Texas. Illegal crossings along the Rio Grande have slowed dramatically since an overwhelming surge of immigrants had state and federal agents scrambling to secure the border earlier this year. But Texas leaders don’t want their ground troops to leave just yet. An $86 million proposal would keep extra state troopers and the National Guard in South Texas through next August, prompting criticisms from local law enforcement who say the money would be better spent elsewhere. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
A group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas. © AP

The government’s tactics are popular in a country terrorised by violence, where extortion of shopkeepers, bus drivers and other locals is the gangs’ main source of income. It is “an ugly, informal tax system supported at gunpoint,” according to Geoff Thale at advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America.

As Héctor Silva, a Salvadoran research scholar at the American University in Washington puts it: “The difference between what is happening now and two years ago is that the state is in the position of strength and not the gangs because they are using violence in the streets, with very few limits, to hit them . . . it’s like some sort of scorched earth policy in some areas.”

It is a fragile situation. One aid worker with long experience in El Salvador feared that with jailed bosses now held incommunicado, the gangs’ “mad young guns” could become more radical — leading to violence rising again.

And that has heartbreaking consequences. The collapse of the truce was followed by record numbers of unaccompanied children fleeing to the US in 2014, believing they would be allowed to reunite with family members. From October 2015 to March 2016, there were 11,000 apprehensions of Salvadoran children and their families trying to cross into the US, more than three times the rate in the same period last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

Mauricio Hernández, a taxi driver in the capital, San Salvador, sees little hope.“ These gangs are like octopuses, they have tentacles everywhere,” he said. “It’s very difficult to end this.”

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