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A suspected gang member being detained by two policemen in El Salvador. A man is detained on suspicion of having links to a gang, San Juan Opico, El Salvador, April 1, 2015 (AP photo by Salvador Melendez).

El Salvador’s ‘Iron Fist’ Crackdown on Gangs: A Lethal Policy With U.S. Origins

Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018

SAN SALVADOR—Late one morning in the fall of 2016, police officers handcuffed a group of middle school-aged boys on a street in a neighborhood on the outskirts of El Salvador’s capital. The boys were serving as lookouts for members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, the violent street gang that originated in Los Angeles and expanded over two decades ago to this small Central American country, which had just ended a brutal civil war. MS-13 and other gangs have since multiplied across El Salvador, becoming a main source of violence in the postwar era. There are now an estimated 60,000 gang members in a country of 6.5 million people. Serving as lookouts, as the boys were doing, is an early step toward full gang membership.

After handcuffing them, the police officers commandeered a nearby home, forcing the family out, then took the boys inside and onto the back patio. The officers proceeded to torture and kill them; it took several hours. The coroner’s report notes that one boy’s body featured a trail of bullet wounds leading from his left wrist to his forehead. Neighbors later said they could hear the boys pleading for their lives as the officers laughed. ...

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