June 6, 2014 / 5:31 AM / 3 years ago

El Salvador gangs urge new president to tackle violence

El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and the Minister of Defence, General David Munguia Payes, take part in a military review at the Military School in San Salvador in this June 5, 2014 handout picture provided by El Salvador Presidency.El Salvador Presidency/Handout via Reuters

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - The heads of El Salvador's main street gangs urged the country's new president Salvador Sanchez Ceren to tackle criminals behind a recent wave of killings, declaring themselves blameless on Thursday for the violence gripping the Central American nation.

The leaders of five gangs known as maras, including the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival Barrio 18, blamed criminal groups trying to create instability in El Salvador to justify death squads they said were attacking their members.

"We hope the new government will take a firm stand against these groups," the gangs said in a statement issued by a group of churches who are backing a 2012 truce signed by the maras.

The truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 helped cut the murder rate in El Salvador in mid-2013 to about five per day, a 10-year low, from around 12 a day.

However, that rate has recently shot up again, touching levels as high as 14 per day in the last few weeks.

"We declare that, we the gangs and maras, have not been behind these incidents in recent days, nor do we aim to be," the gangs said in the statement to the government of Sanchez Ceren, who took office on Sunday pledging to tackle rampant crime.

Separately, El Salvador's Congress changed the penal code on Thursday to raise the maximum jail sentence for people convicted of murder or attempted murder of police from 40 to 60 years.

Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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