Erasing gang graffiti in El Salvador

Agence France-Presse
Soldiers paint over graffiti associated with the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Rosal neighborhood in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador April 4, 2016.

Soldiers paint over graffiti associated with the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Rosal neighborhood in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador April 4, 2016. 

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

Police and soldiers on Tuesday painted over gang graffiti in a town in El Salvador as part of a vigorous new campaign against criminal outfits that for decades have terrorized the Central American country.

"We are going to erase these tags as many times as is needed," police deputy commissioner Oscar Nuila vowed as the operation was conducted in Quezaltepeque, just north of the capital San Salvador.

Armed security officials, their faces covered to hide their identities, wielded brushes and paint cans to cover over letters and symbols graffitied on walls by the Mara Salvatrucha gang, a feared organization also known as MS-13.

One security team was seen obscuring an expanse of wall on which the words "Mara Salvatrucha" had been painted in black letters. One soldier wrote the word "Paz" ("Peace" in Spanish) over it.

The activity, aimed at rolling back the gang's visible presence in the town, added to a raft of government measures taken in recent weeks to hem in MS-13 and Calle 18, the two main rival gangs, and various smaller organizations.

El Salvador is the country with the highest murder rate in the world, outside of a war zone -- around 20 homicides a day. Most of the violence is attributed to the gangs, which engage in killings and extortion.

Soldiers and policemen paint over graffiti associated with the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Rosal neighborhood in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador April 4, 2016.

Soldiers and policemen paint over graffiti associated with the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Rosal neighborhood in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador April 4, 2016. 

Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

In April, the government cracked down on jailed gang bosses to prevent them giving orders to their troops, and set up heavily armed elite forces to hunt down gang members on their turf.

There are an estimated 70,000 gang members in the country, of whom 13,000 are in prison.

Tuesday's paintover operation added to the pressure by deleting markers MS-13 had painted on walls to assert their rule over the Los Izotes district in Quezaltepeque.

According to officials, MS-13 would go to the public school in Los Izotes to recruit boys into its ranks — part of a strategy of using minors to carry out its crimes.

Nuila said getting rid of the gang's graffiti was a "preventative" work meant to reassure local residents.

More: How Salvadoran gangs are using Facebook to track down victims

Two suspected gang members were also arrested in the district on Tuesday.

Using law enforcement to crack down on petty urban wrongs such as graffiti or other vandalism to curtail bigger crimes and counter an underlying sense of insecurity is known as the "broken windows" theory.

The tactic was used in New York City in the 1990s, where it was generally credited with reducing a high crime rate. Critics however said other, societal factors might have been at play.