El Salvador gangs enforce coronavirus lockdown with threats of violence, report says

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El Salvador gangs, long known for terrorizing the country’s residents through violence and intimidation, have turned to enforcing the government’s coronavirus lockdown order with threats and, in some cases, baseball bats, according to a report.

The lockdown, issued last month by President Nayib Bukele and lasting through the end of April, has caused a dramatic decline in homicides, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon their arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, June 22, 2017. 

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon their arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, June 22, 2017.  (Reuters)

With more residents quarantined inside their homes, gangs -- like in other parts of Latin America -- have taken on the role of criminal public health enforcers.

In one recorded message circulated on messaging apps, gang members reportedly warn people not to be seen in the street.

“If you go out, it better be only to the store, and you better be wearing a mask,” said one recording obtained by the Times.

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The virus has cut into the revenue stream of gangs like Battio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha. But these groups have been willing to accept temporary losses, knowing that the pandemic, if not addressed, could do far superior damage to their business.

Celia Medrano, the director of programs at human rights group Cristosal, said the gangs’ enforcement of quarantine -- rather than the government's -- “just confirms that they are in control.”

Elsewhere in Latin America, gangs have also been enforcing quarantine in the absence of state intervention.

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In Brazil, gangs have been stepping up enforcement in some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods, ordering residents to remain indoors after 8 p.m. and threatening to punish anyone who violates the rules.