Reporting from San Salvador — At least 16 people were killed when street gangs attacked two passenger buses, spraying one with bullets and dousing the other with gasoline before setting it on fire in a congested neighborhood in the Salvadoran capital, police said Monday.
The attacks represented a dramatic surge in ongoing street violence attributed largely to gangs but exacerbated lately by a growing presence of drug traffickers, authorities say. Police say gangs have been demanding protection money from bus companies, and major criminal forces, including drug cartels, are believed to be recruiting gang members to do their dirty work.
El Salvador has the highest murder rate of any Central American country and one of the highest in Latin America, according to the United Nations. Still, the attacks on two occupied buses were extreme and stunned a battle-hardened public where transportation unions have reported scores of attacks on bus drivers and fare collectors in the last 18 months.
Opposition politicians immediately demanded the government's security officials be fired because of their inability to protect the public — a demand President Mauricio Funes rejected.
Six suspects were arrested in connection with the Sunday night bus attacks, national police chief Carlos Ascencio said.
In one incident, attackers boarded a bus traveling through the dense, working-class neighborhood of Mejicanos and strafed passengers with automatic rifle fire. Two people were reported killed.
Separately, another bus on the same route was intercepted by assailants who set it on fire, trapping desperate passengers inside. Fourteen passengers died at the scene or later from extensive burns, police said. Police used the butts of their rifles to break windows and help some people escape.
Several children were among the dead in the incidents.
Mejicanos is the dominion of various notorious gangs, many with roots in Los Angeles, who have long terrorized residents and controlled criminal activities including extortion, robbery and kidnapping. Police said many of the suspects in the bus fire were associated with the Mara 18 gang.
"I tried to throw water on the fire from my roof — I saw people burning up in the back of the bus and heard a woman crying for her daughter," said Jose Alfaro Peralta, 68, who lives a few feet from where the vehicle went up in flames. "But then, with all the gangs around, I thought better of it and hid in my house."
Alfaro Peralta returned to San Salvador in 2005 after working for 40 years in Los Angeles and set up a small grocery store. But the unrelenting violence in his Salvadoran neighborhood has made life here impossible, he said. He plans to return to Los Angeles.
"I gave my statement today to the state prosecutor, and you know what he told me? He said I'd better go back because here there is no safety."
Funes' year-old government has deployed 4,000 army troops to back up police in the fight against criminal violence. "We cannot permit a group of vicious criminals to take hold of Salvadoran society," he said in a news conference Monday.
A senior government security official called the attacks "a terrorist act aimed at provoking fear in the population."
We are no doubt talking about dark forces who planned this … as part of a campaign by organized crime to destabilize the state and sow terror in society," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his own safety.
Renderos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.