Elite squads of Salvadoran Troops are taking on the MS-13, M-18, and Mao Mao gangs under a new strategic plan to improve public safety.
The Salvadoran Armed Forces (FAES) are leading the country’s fight against the violent Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18) street gangs, playing a key role in the “Nuevo Amanecer” [New Dawn] plan, which provides a framework for joint operations with the National Civil Police to improve public safety. Under this strategic plan, the FAES are deploying their most accomplished and experienced Army service members to take on the gangs after receiving training in a rigorous program.
“The Special Forces School has designed various training programs aimed at raising the level of our Troops’ operational readiness,” explained Army Colonel Eduardo Carías, Commanding Officer of the 4th Military Detachment, where the Mountain Command training is conducted. “This will enable our Troops to face criminal groups that employ a variety of behaviors.”
The “Nuevo Amanecer” plan includes involving the “Trueno” [Thunder] Command, an elite group of Troops capable of responding quickly to crime scenes. “Trueno” Soldiers participate in special training to refine their abilities to find and dismantle gangs, which have extended their operations from their typical locations in cities into the country’s rural and mountainous zones.
In these regions, gang members plan crimes and engage in weapons training. “Our sort of organization is flexible so that it can operate in urban areas as well as rural zones, where we have a good deal of experience and our service members are continually training,” Defense Minister David Munguía Payés said.
Extortion, robbery, and homicide
The MS-13 and M-18 have factions that maintain their respective criminal enterprises by committing homicides, extortions, and robberies. The MS-13 faction is known as the Mirada Loca
[Crazy Look], while the M-18 subgroup calls itself the Sureños Revolucionarios
[Southern Revolutionaries]. They force small businesses to pay “rent” or face assaults, as a field survey conducted in 2015 by El Salvador’s National Small Business Council revealed, reporting that 85 percent of small-business owners throughout the country are experiencing extortion.
“We had a small place selling metal kitchens; I can’t say where because I’d give myself away. But I had to close it because the gangs ‘asked’ me to pay $1,000 a week not to kill my wife,” said Gabriel Zepeda, a 32-year-old former small-business owner who lives in the department of Cuscatlán. “Now the Military is taking care of things in that area and the gangs are afraid of them. But I still don’t dare to reopen my business.”
Another gang that sows fear among citizens is Mao Mao, which sells cocaine, crack, and other drugs. It operates primarily in the region between the municipalities of San Salvador and Mejicanos, where the Armed Forces have deployed a large number of Soldiers to protect civilians.
The Military is determined to defeat the Mao Mao gang. “As long as the people need us, especially where the people feel the least safe, we will be there for them,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo González, Commanding Officer of the Special Operations Group. “We are only effective insofar as our presence breaks the will of the criminal elements.”