It’s So Dangerous to Police MS-13 in El Salvador That Officers Are Fleeing the Country

Kevin Sieff, Washington Post, March 4, 2019

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{snip} But members of the Salvadoran police have been killed by the dozens in each of the past three years, most in attacks that investigators and experts blame on MS-13, an international street gang. At least nine officers were killed in the first month of this year.

Now, a number of El Salvador’s police officers are fleeing the gang they were tasked with eliminating.

There is no list in either El Salvador or the United States of Salvadoran police officers who have fled the country. But The Washington Post has identified 15 officers in the process of being resettled as refugees by the United Nations and six officers who have either recently received asylum or have scheduled asylum hearings in U.S. immigration courts. In WhatsApp groups, police officers have begun discussing the possibility of a migrant caravan composed entirely of Salvadoran police — a caravana policial, the officers call it.

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The United States has been bolstering the Salvadoran police, part of a regional strategy intended to stabilize Central America’s most violent countries and reduce migration. The State Department spent at least $48 million to train police in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from 2014 through 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The department opened a law enforcement training academy in San Salvador, where 855 Salvadoran officers were trained by the FBI and other American law enforcement agencies in those four years.

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By some measures, the U.S.-backed security efforts appeared to be showing results. In 2018, El Salvador’s murder rate was 50.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. That was still among the highest in the world, but it was down from 60.8 per 100,000 in 2017 and 81 per 100,000 in 2016.

MS-13 was born in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, expanding as more Salvadorans arrived in the United States after fleeing the country’s civil war. The group splintered, with Barrio 18 becoming a chief rival, and both groups grew in American prisons before reaching El Salvador through mass deportations. Between 2001 and 2010, the United States deported 40,429 ex-convicts to El Salvador, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

El Salvador’s government adopted an “iron fist” response to the gangs, including more police operations. When that approach failed, it tried to broach a truce with the gangs in 2014. The pact quickly disintegrated and was followed by another surge in violence. It was then that the gangs began to explicitly broadcast their threats against police officers.

“If you kill a ‘pig,’ or a police officer, you’re more respected in these gangs. That’s the policy — using death as exchange currency,” said Héctor Silva Ávalos, a journalist and researcher who has written a book on the Salvadoran police and has served as an expert witness at several asylum hearings for former police officers in the United States.

With salaries of $300 to $400 per month, the low-level police officers who make up the majority of the force often have no choice but to live in neighborhoods vulnerable to gangs. And so, in the vast majority of the cases, police officers are killed when they are home from work or are on leave.

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Complicating their response to the threats, Salvadoran police are also not legally allowed to take their weapons home with them.

“I bring it home anyway. I sleep with it on my waist,” said a female officer, who is awaiting refugee status from the United Nations and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety. “My husband and I take turns sleeping. We know they are going to come for us.”

Many units in the Salvadoran police are forbidden to wear balaclavas to conceal their identities. In anti-gang units, officers are allowed to wear such masks during operations, but they are frequently asked to testify in court, where they must show their faces and identify themselves by name while gang members look on.

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Many officers, feeling unprotected by their own force, have said their only option is to leave the country.

Organizations that work with the United Nations to resettle Salvadoran refugees in the United States say they have found more and more police officers arriving unannounced at their offices. In addition to the 21 asylum seekers and refugees identified by The Post, several others have recently arrived in Spain and Mexico, according to news reports, applying for humanitarian visas or other forms of protection. Lawyers for police officers and many officers themselves say that far more officers are preparing to flee.

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