The phrases "death squad", "extermination group" and "hit men" have appeared with prominence in recent news from El Salvador. In separate settings in San Miguel in the east and Chalcuapa in the west, the spectre of death squads and extra-judicial killings raises new fears.
Recent revelations have filled the Salvadoran press about a syndicate of hitmen working within the San Miguel section of the National Civilian Police (PNC). The story started on July 28, 2007 when men dressed in black drove up in an SUV and shot and killed 42 year old Amado García Amaya. Family members flagged down a military patrol which was engaged in an anti-crime exercise and the soldiers managed to locate and take into custody three armed men, two of whom were policemen in San Miguel.
As the story has unfolded, as many as 6 PNC officers from the San Miguel district have now been arrested for a total of 4 murders, and as many as 31 murders with similar execution-style characteristics are being investigated. (Details are set out in this story in El Faro as well as coverage in La Prensa). The ring of murderous cops has been variously linked to drug traffickers and to death squads devoted to "social cleansing."
Meanwhile, a group calling itself "EL" has imposed its own curfew on the town of Chalchuapa, as this article describes:
Chalchuapa, El Salvador - A local death squad seemingly intent on curbing petty crime and gang activity is imposing its own curfew on a once-thriving El Salvadoran town. The group in Chalchuapa identifies itself only with the initials EL, which many believe stand for the Spanish phrase "escuadron de limpieza," or "clean-up squad."
After dark, the group has distributed leaflets since August 18 calling for the curfew and even ordering police to return to their quarters.
"Chalchuapa will become safe since we are better equipped than the police. In the meantime, we recommend that you do not go out at night," the EL said in one of its statements.
The town's homicide rate increased dramatically in August, though police have acknowledged only 17 killings, while local authorities claim there were 50.
Like other parts of El Salvador and Central American countries, Chalchuapa - located in a rich coffee-growing region 78 kilometres from the capital San Salvador - has fallen prey to criminal gangs. Known as maras, the gangs have sought pricey extortions from local businesses and street vendors.
Local police have denied the existence of the death squads, and the Salvadoran government has claimed people who want to destabilize the country are behind the EL.
However, residents and business owners in Chalchuapa say they obey the curfew because they do not want to run any risks. The curfew is effectively enforced after 7 pm, although the EL said it wanted to impose it after 10 pm.
A group of alleged members of maras sent a video to several media outlets, in which they asked the authorities for protection.
Sadly, these stories are not new news. Tutela Legal, the Catholic church's human rights office, raised serious concerns earlier this year in its review of 233 murders when it concluded that 57% showed evidence of being the work of extermination groups. The human rights office also found evidence of police involvement in at least 8 of those murders.