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El Salvador: Barrio 18 ‘Revolutionaries’ Sentenced in Massacre

Last week, a judge in El Salvador sentenced seven accused members of the country’s feared mara gang networks to 390 years in prison each for the March 2016 massacre in the town of San Juan Opico.

Authorities say the maras kidnapped three day laborers and eight electric company workers at the town, just outside the capital San Salvador—and then killed them, without waiting for a ransom.

The mara networks have been factionalizing in a struggle over the cocaine trade through Central America, as well as the lucre from their new sidelines of extortion and kidnapping. The seven sentenced are said to be from a new faction with the disconcerting name of the Barrio 18 Revolutionaries—implying they actually seek to challenge the state, in the style of Mexico’s Zetas.

The judge explained that each murder carries a sentence of 35 years, with another five years added for illicit enrichment. However, the maximum time that can be served under Salvadoran law is 60 years—which means that if any of the seven are still alive after 60 years, they can go free. 

The conviction was based on the testimony of a former gang member who converted to Islam, repudiated the maras and agreed to cooperate with authorities. He made clear that the victims were chosen randomly and that the massacre was not part of a fight over the narco trade.

“We killed people who were not involved in anything,” he told the judge.

Violence has surged in El Salvador since a 2012 truce between the Barrio 18 network and its rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) broke down in 2014. The self-styled “revolutionaries” are an offshoot of the greater Barrio 18 network.

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