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El Salvador police free to shoot gang members if threatened

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador’s vice president said on Wednesday that police should respond with force “without any fear of suffering consequences” if threatened by gang members, following the killing of seven officers in ambushes so far this year.

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Vice President Oscar Ortiz, acting as president while President Salvador Sanchez Ceren receives medical care in Cuba, said the government endorsed the decision of the federal police director last week to authorize the new policy.

Previously, police who used deadly force would be investigated and sometimes fired.

Ortiz added that the government will no longer tolerate attacks on the country’s police, military, prosecutors or judges.

“We support ... any member of the police, our police, who in fulfillment of his duties and the defense of the safety of citizens, uses his gun and should use it without any fear of suffering consequences,” said Ortiz in a statement.

Last year, 39 police officers were executed by suspected gang members in the Central American country, or more than three times the number of officers killed in 2013, according to official figures.

The killing of police is just part of the violence that grips El Salvador, where gangs battle over lucrative drug transit routes and other criminal enterprises.

The number of murders last year jumped by nearly 60 percent to an average of 12 killings a day as a truce between the country’s most powerful gangs collapsed.

The pact between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival Barrio 18 helped reduce the murder rate in mid-2013 to around five per day - a 10-year low.

But as the truce crumbled, the number of murders rose.

“We will win this battle, and we’re going to win it by democratic means, but also by applying force that is needed to punish those who need to be punished,” Ortiz said.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Phil Berlowitz