SAN SALVADOR – Authorities arrested 35 suspected Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members early Thursday on charges that they committed 18 murders, including the killings of four soldiers, in El Salvador, a National Civilian Police (PNC) spokesman said.
The suspects were arrested in different communities in the cities of Ilopango and Soyapango, which are located near the capital and known for having a large gang presence, the PNC spokesman told reporters.
New charges will also be filed against 45 individuals who are currently being held at prisons and have been linked to the killings, the PNC spokesman said.
The Attorney General’s Office, meanwhile, said in social media posts that the arrests will help investigators “clear up” 18 murders and five kidnappings.
One of the cases involves the kidnappings and murders of four soldiers who disappeared in October 2016 and whose remains “have been found buried in clandestine graves,” the AG’s office said.
“The investigations concluded that these people participated in crimes against rivals of their criminal organization who were buried in a similar fashion,” the AG’s office said.
Since 2014, authorities have found more than 150 clandestine cemeteries belonging to gangs across the country, recovering the bodies of over 220 murder victims.
Israel Ticas, one of El Salvador’s best known forensic specialists, has said on numerous occasions that if a person goes missing for more than eight days, there is a high likelihood that they were murdered and buried in a clandestine cemetery.
The suspects, who have been linked by investigators to the MS-13’s Tecolotes Locos Salvatruchos cell, will also face charges of belonging to illegal organizations.
More than 10,800 people have disappeared in El Salvador since 2010, according to PNC figures, exceeding the official number of people listed as missing during the 1980-1992 civil war.
El Salvador, according to police, is experiencing a spike in murders since April due to leadership shuffles and internal purges within gangs.
The Central American nation is considered one of the world’s most violent countries, registering homicide rates ranging from 50.3 per 100,000 inhabitants to 103 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2015 and 2018, with the high murder rate being blamed mostly on the nation’s gangs.
Many of El Salvador’s gangs started on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s, with most of their members young Salvadorans whose parents fled the Central American nation’s erstwhile civil war for the United States.
Because many of the gang members were born in El Salvador, they were subject to deportation when rounded up during crackdowns in California in the 1990s.
Sent back “home” to a land they barely knew, they formed gangs in San Salvador that spread throughout the small nation and to neighboring countries in Central America.
The gangs are engaged in murder, drug dealing, kidnapping and people smuggling.