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El Salvador: High Court Rules Street Gangs Are ‘Terrorist Groups’

Bill Weinberg

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The constitutional chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice on Aug. 24 ruled that the country’s notoriously violent street gangs and those who support them financially will now be classified as “terrorist groups.”
The ruling came in a decision rejecting four challenges to the constitutionality of the country’s Special Law Against Terrorist Acts  (LECAT). The ruling defines terrorism as the “organized and systematic exercise of violence,” placing the label on any group that attempts to usurp the state’s monopoly on the use of force. The ruling upholds the freezing of funds for any persons believed linked to the named groups, and a ban on any negotiation with the groups. At issue are the Mara Salvatrucha network and their deadly rivals the Barrio 18 gang.  

The ruling comes amid escalating violence. Fourteen Barrio 18 members were strangled or stabbed to death inside Quezaltepeque prison in the west of the country on Aug. 22—part of a growing wave of prison violence throughout the region. Authorities said the death orders came from gang leaders in San Francisco Gotera prison in the country’s east, in an internal purge of Barrio 18.

At the end of July, gangs paralyzed the capital San Salvador, killing at least nine bus-drivers to enforce a “strike” called to oppose the government crackdown. After the end of the strike, when transit operators got back on the road with increased security, authorities issued at least 300 arrest warrants for gang members accused of “terrorism.”

Warfare between the rival gang networks over the cocaine trade through El Salvador has made the country the most deadly in the region, overtaking Honduras for the number-one slot this year. Homicides are now up to an average of 16 a day, with 3,840 killed so far this year in the country of 6.4 million people. The violence is at a level rivaling that during El Salvador’s civil war that ended in 1992. A 2012 government-brokered truce between the rival networks led to a temporary drop in gang violence, but began to break down the following year. The current violence now surpasses pre-truce levels.

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