SAN SALVADOR — Most nights now, men in black masks are sweeping through this city, house to house, rousting shirtless boys from their mattresses, shining flashlights across their torsos, looking for tattoos.
The police officers rummage for drugs and guns but will settle for Nike Cortez sneakers — a gang favorite — or any symbol of affiliation, like a little grim reaper scribbled on a bedroom wall. Then it’s into zip-cuffs and down to the station, with maybe a shove or a twist of the cuffs on the way. Because for the 500 members of El Salvador’s anti-gang police force, this has become personal.
In El Salvador, the homicide rate has spiked to its highest level in a decade, putting the tiny Central American nation on pace to become the most deadly country in the hemisphere. Since a 2012 truce between the two most powerful street gangs crumbled last year, violence has surged. More than 1,800 people have been killed this year, including two dozen police officers, most slain while off-duty.
Amid a public outcry and mounting government pressure, El Salvador’s anti-gang police have ratcheted up their operations, killing suspected gang members and arresting more than 4,400 others this year. New laws have made it harder to investigate police violence. The country’s vice president, Oscar Ortiz, has said that police “must use weapons and should do so without fearing consequences for their actions.”