El Salvador returns criminal gang leaders to high security jail

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador’s government on Thursday returned 14 leaders of the country’s main street gangs to a maximum security prison in an attempt to curb murders of police officers after a truce between two rival criminal groups began to unravel.

The truce was originally brokered under left-wing ex-president Mauricio Funes in 2012. Imprisoned gang leaders were moved out of maximum security to other prisons in March of that year so that they could coordinate the truce with their members.

But violence in El Salvador has jumped over the past year after the unraveling of a fragile pact between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival gang Barrio 18, which at first reduced murder rates.

Vice President Oscar Ortiz said in January that police should respond with force “without any fear of suffering consequences” if threatened by gang members. The government said it would not negotiate with organized criminal groups.

The following day, authorities registered no murders in the country for a 24-hour stretch, the first time that had happened in more than 2-1/2 years, according to police.

Later in January, gang leaders urged the government to tone down its tough stance against their members.

In 2014, homicides rose 57 percent compared with 2013, reaching a total of 3,192. A total of 39 police officers were murdered.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Ken Wills