Salvadorans who mistrust their military have another reason for suspicion: The army is inadvertently training its enemy in record numbers.
A new defense ministry report reveals that El Salvador's Armed Forces (FAES) has discharged 223 soldiers this year for having alleged gang ties. That's up 145% from last year, when 91 suspected gangsters were detected within the army's ranks. More shockingly, it's a 2,000% increase from 2012, indicating that the gangs' infiltration of the country's armed forces is growing exponentially.
In total, El Salvador's military has discharged 393 soldiers suspected of having gang ties over the past six years, according to the defense ministry report, which was acquired through a freedom of information request filed by El Salvador.com.
With the exception of Army's First Infantry Brigade, the report reveals that the gangs have managed to infiltrate every branch of the armed forces, including special forces.
The situation is extremely worrisome in a country that is already beset with the worst levels of violence in 20 years. And it could be a frightening indicator that the gangs are gearing up for even greater escalation of violence in the months ahead, security analysts warn.
"The gangs appear to be trying to prepare themselves militarily for a greater conflict," says regional military and security expert Roberto Cajina, of the Latin American Security and Defense Network (REDSAL).
Cajina says it's premature to say the situation in El Salvador could be heading towards a more traditional civil war between gangs and state security forces, but he thinks that the gangs' infiltration of the armed forces is a clear signal that the major gangs are seeking professional military training from those whose business is war.
Salvadoran defense officials are spinning the situation in a slightly more positive light. Defense Minister David Munguía Payés has said he thinks many of the gangbangers are enlisting in the armed forces as a way of escaping the notoriously brutal gangs.
"There are people who want to get out of gangs and they know if they join the army they can have indirect protection because the gangs aren't going to go after them there," Munguía Payés told the Salvadoran press last June.
Cajina says that's probably wishful thinking. The defense analyst says gangsters enlisting in the army for protection is like seeking shelter "in the cave of the lion." The more likely scenario, Cajina says, is that the gangsters are being sent to infiltrate the army for professional military training.
"The situation is alarming; the level of violence in El Salvador has already surpassed that of Honduras and Guatemala, and with military training it will only get worse," Cajina told Fusion in a phone interview. "The army is training the enemy. The gangsters they train could later form elite commando groups, or could become military trainers for the next generation of gangsters."
It's unclear how gangsters were able to enlist as soldiers in the first place. All new army recruits need to submit a police report and prison record as a basic requirement to get in. Whether it's corruption or negligence, Cajina says the situation suggests "a lack of serious and rigorous controls in the administration mechanisms in El Salvador's Armed Forces."
It's also unclear what happens to the alleged gangsters after they're discharged from the military. Those who are discovered to have criminal pasts are handed over to judicial authorities, but others are allowed to go free. Defense Ministry spokesman Guillermo Alfaro told Fusion the armed forces doesn't know how many of the 223 alleged gangsters who were discharged this year are in a judicial process, because once they're out of uniform they're no longer the army's problem.
El Salvador is in the midst of its worst spike in violence since the country's civil war in the early 1990s. The country's murder rate this year has jumped by 55%, as the police and military target the country's gangs in a offensive that former gang negotiates have likened to a frontal war.