US-backed special forces accused of human rights abuses in El Salvador

The Special Reaction Force is allegedly responsible for 43 murders in the first half of 2017.

FILE PICTURE: Police commandos patrol the streets of the historic centre of San Salvador, on August 22, 2017. 
(Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE PICTURE: Police commandos patrol the streets of the historic centre of San Salvador, on August 22, 2017. (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)

An elite Salvadoran police commando unit funded by the United States has been accused of carrying out dozens of extrajudicial killings, according to a forthcoming United Nations report.

The report, obtained in advance by CNN, claims that the Special Reaction Force of El Salvador’s National Police Force (Fuerza Especializada de Reacción, or FES) is responsible for the illegal killings of 43 gang members in the first six months of 2017 alone. The accusations fit into a “pattern of behavior by security personnel amounting to extrajudicial executions,” the report states.

In addition, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, claims that 92 percent of investigations against the Salvadoran police are dismissed within three days, and that units previously accused of human rights abuses are simply re-branded with the same personnel.

Despite this, the FES received an unknown portion of the $140 million in security assistance provided by the United States to El Salvador over the last two years. The funding has continued even though the FES were disbanded earlier this year — among other things, for allegedly kidnapping one of their own members — and replaced with a new unit called the Jaguars, which many former FES officers joined.

“The [United States] participates in training as well as providing equipment,” the Jaguars’ commanding officer, Cesar Ortega, told CNN. “The only thing that the U.S. government does not supply is lethal equipment.” Instead, the Salvadoran government buys its own guns — from a U.S. manufacturer.


Under “Leahy law” provisions, the U.S. government is prohibited from assisting foreign security units where “there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.”

The U.S. Embassy in El Salvador admitted to CNN that the United States had supplied assistance to FES, but added that it has “consistently expressed concerns regarding allegations of security force abuses, the need for accountability, and the critical role of rights-respecting security forces in a healthy democracy.”

Since 2014, the El Salvadoran government has adopted a “tough-on-crime” approach to addressing its epidemic of gang violence, which mainly centers around the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs. In 2015, the government started using anti- terrorist measures against alleged gang members, lowering the threshold for prosecution.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has adopted the policy of deporting as many immigrants back to El Salvador as possible to “turn the tide” against MS-13.

This is despite the fact that, according to Human Rights Watch, many of those forced to return are terrified of doing so, because they would be going back to violent domestic partners, be forcibly recruited into gangs, or be subject to violence for fleeing in the first place. Deported MS-13 members, meanwhile, effectively run the very prisons to which they’re being deported.