El Salvador’s War on Terror

With a single ruling this past month, El Salvador’s Supreme Court fundamentally changed the country’s war on organized crime.

The court issued a landmark decision Aug. 24 rejecting constitutional challenges to a 2006 terrorism law. Along the way, it redefined terrorism as any attempt to seize the state’s legitimate monopoly over the use of force, extended the “terrorist” designation to members of El Salvador’s various gangs, and made clear that any individuals or organizations associated with the gangs could find themselves facing charges of terrorism as well.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren applauded the decision.

“The prosecution of crime will now be more effective,” Sanchez Ceren observed. “The gangs are now terrorists and all the force of the law will be applied against them.”

Official support for the ruling comes as El Salvador plunges ever deeper into crisis. The country witnessed an astonishing increase in violence this past month. In August alone, over 900 people were murdered — the steepest climb in killings experienced in El Salvador since the country’s civil war.

Despite government approval, the high court’s intervention will only bring more trouble to a country that has already suffered terribly.

The ruling provides rhetorical and legal cover that will allow the government to prosecute its war against the gangs more freely. Yet just as the “war on terror” prosecuted by the United States led to the sacrifice of civil liberties and human rights in the name of national security, the sweeping language in the court’s decision raises alarm that a similar abrogation of the law could happen in El Salvador. In fact, it may already be underway.

The Sanchez Ceren administration has sought to widen its public surveillance powers of the general public, and has explicitly encouraged state security forces to take extreme measures in their fight against the gangs. If repeated reports of massacres of gang members and civilians are to be believed, police and military personnel have embraced that message, and are fighting gang power by any means necessary. The frightening reality is that the recent ruling invites the gangs to think similarly.

By collapsing the state’s ongoing conflict with the gangs into a Central American “war on terror,” the court may have inaugurated a new, and more grotesque, period of violence. The repackaging of organized crime as terrorism, and maras as terrorists, leaves the gangs with few options. There’s no question that they will press on with their war against the government. But with nothing left to lose, there is no reason to assume that the maras won’t make a point of living up to the “terrorist” stereotype.

Evidence that the ongoing fight between state forces and the gangs is taking a new turn has already appeared. Up to now, gang violence has been largely confined to gun battles in the streets, and executions perpetrated largely outside of public view. No more. The day after the court issued its ruling, El Salvador’s Attorney General Luis Martinez announced that security forces had foiled a plot by gang members to carry out explosives attacks against government officials.

Then, on Aug. 29, El Salvador’s Minister of Defense General David Munguia Payes announced that police had diffused a car bomb discovered near the Security Ministry in San Salvador. This was followed by a successful attack in the capital, two weeks later, when a car bomb exploded late at night near the Ministry of Finance. Thankfully, no one was hurt in the attack, but it seems clear that the gangs have decided to take the fight directly to the heart of state power.

This is not a battle the state can win. Defeating the gangs through use of force, no matter how heavily it’s applied, is impossible. With each new phase of the conflict, the gangs have demonstrated the ability to meet state coercion with overwhelming violence of their own. And as last month’s bus strike, and the string of attempted car bombings that followed, makes clear, El Salvador’s gangs are capable of carrying out sophisticated operations that aim to raise the stakes still further.

In order to regain control over the gang wars the government needs to creatively substantiate its greatest asset — legitimacy— especially as its militarized approach to fighting the maras brings rapidly declining returns. Sanchez Ceren seems cognizant of the fact. Following the court’s decision to repackage the gangs as terrorist outfits, the president urged El Salvador’s Congress to draft a law that would offer legal sanction to gang members seeking rehabilitation into regular society.

The ruling, however, undermines these efforts. While the president attempted to balance sticks with carrots, the court rendered entire swathes of Salvadoran society potential enemies of the state. To their credit, the ruling magistrates attempted to define what constitutes unlawful support of the gangs. These are broad descriptions, though, and leave lower courts with responsibility for determining “terrorism” in specific instances, which could invite abuse and politically motivated targeting of individuals or organizations. Unless the law is applied carefully, Salvadorans’ fear of the gangs could give way to fear of the government.

But in the long run, the greatest damage wrought by the court’s intervention lies in its prohibition of negotiating peace with the gangs. The court ruled out the possibility as unconstitutional, effectively shutting down any hope that the ongoing wars ripping El Salvador apart might be resolved through diplomacy. This is the real insidiousness of the decision — straight jacketing the country into a war on terror without a foreseeable end.

Thousands will be killed. Many more will flee and be displaced. Peace talks, though, are out of the question. After all, there’s no negotiating with terrorists.

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine.

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