SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador's Mara street gangs are arming themselves with high-powered rifles and some gang members have tried to join the army to get military training, a top official said Friday.
Public Safety Minister Ricardo Perdomo said the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 street gangs are buying automatic rifles in the black market in Honduras and Guatemala, and also getting them from the brutal Zetas drug cartel.
"We have evidence (the gangs) are buying these weapons," Perdomo said.
Authorities recently arrested a person in downtown San Salvador who sold gang members 15 M-16 rifles, Perdomo told the TCS television network. He said he couldn't give any other details because there is an open investigation.
Another way gangs are getting weapons is by stealing them from private security guards, he said.
Army recruiters recently detained 26 gang members who tried to join the military. They told authorities that joining the army was part of a plan to get military training and then steal military uniforms and weapons, another sign that gangs are looking to be better armed and better trained, Perdomo said.
In 2012, El Salvador's Mara Salvatrucha and the rival Mara 18 gang declared a truce in several cities but the government said earlier this month that attacks against police are rising again.
After the gangs agreed to the truce homicides dropped from 14 to five per day but since January they have risen to an average of 9 per day, according to authorities.
Perdomo said the gangs have also increased their attacks against police. He said members of the Mara 18 gang have orders to take revenge against police and soldiers who wound or kill one of their own.
"If there is a shootout with police and a gang member is killed or wounded, the whole gang has to take revenge on the officer who fired against that gang member, that's the order," Perdomo added.
Since January, there have been 61 attacks on police in El Salvador, up from 30 in the same period of 2013.
An estimated 20,000 Salvadorans belong to street gangs that deal drugs and extort businesses.