El Salvador declares state of emergency, Terrorist attacks in Israel, and Humanitarian truce announced in Ethiopia
El Salvador: Government declares state of emergency amid wave of gang killings
El Salvador has declared a state of emergency (SOE), temporarily suspending some civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution, amid a surge in gang-related homicides. The emergency measures will remain in force for 30 days and allow the government to impose restrictions on free assembly, restrict movement in certain neighborhoods, monitor citizens’ communications, and loosen conditions for arrest. On March 26, 62 murders were reported in the country – compared to 78 homicides recorded in the entire month of February – marking the most violent 24-hour period in the last 30 years. More than three-quarters of the reported killings occurred in San Salvador, Ahuachapán, Chalatenango, Santa Ana, Sonsonate, and the department of La Libertad. The recent homicides are linked to El Salvador’s most notorious gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, which control many neighborhoods in the capital. According to the National Police, more than 1,400 suspects have been arrested since the implementation of the SOE on March 27, including five MS-13 leaders who allegedly ordered the killings. The spike in recent homicides stands in contrast to the significant overall decline in reported homicides in El Salvador since President Nayib Bukele took office in 2019; the country’s homicide rate currently stands at 17.6 per 100,000 people, compared to 103 per 100,000 in 2015. Last year, the number of targeted killings dropped to 1,140 incidents – a 30-year low. President Bukele attributed the reduction in violence to his militarized approach to security in gang-controlled neighborhoods. However, the US Department of Treasury challenged that argument by accusing Bukele’s government of negotiating a pact with incarcerated gang leaders to reduce homicides and support Bukele’s party in the legislative elections in exchange for preferential treatment inside prisons – an allegation Bukele has repeatedly denied. Despite the overall decline in homicides, the country witnessed sudden spikes in violence in January and November last year, with up to 46 homicides registered across the country in a three-day period. At the time, Bukele claimed that the targeted killings were connected to territorial disputes between the gangs, although data showed that some of the victims had no links to organized crime. The March 26 violence also involved indiscriminate shootings against civilians, suggesting the killings may have been a tactic to pressure the government into renegotiating the terms of its alleged deal with organized criminal groups. Moreover, spikes in homicides followed by peace could signify an emerging trend of brief periods of extreme gang-related violence staged to demonstrate power without causing significant interruptions to gangs’ illicit businesses. Such episodes are likely to trigger significant military mobilizations and have the potential to disrupt travel and business operations in affected areas.
Israel: Third terrorist attack in a week heightens growing security concerns
Israeli security forces will remain on high alert in the near term following three significant terrorist attacks in the country in just under a week. Taking place in Beersheba on March 22 and Hadera on March 27, the first two attacks were reportedly carried out by Arab-Israeli citizens who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (IS); two of the three assailants had previously served criminal sentences for attempting to travel to Syria to join the group. The attack in Beersheba resulted in four fatalities – making it the deadliest terrorist incident targeting Israeli civilians since 2016 – while the shooting in Hadera killed two people and marked the first IS-claimed attack on Israeli soil since 2017. On March 29, another shooting attack in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak killed four civilians and one police officer; the assailant was reportedly a Palestinian man from the West Bank with ties to the Fatah movement. There is currently no available evidence to suggest a connection between the recent attacks, though Israeli authorities have described them as a “murderous Arab terror wave.” IS-linked attacks against Israeli targets have historically been rare for a variety of reasons, and it is not yet clear whether the two recent incidents represent a shift in the threat posed by IS militants. However, Israeli authorities believe the attackers were locally radicalized, which has led officials to warn of possible future attacks. Several raids conducted after the incidents resulted in the arrest of 12 people with suspected IS ties and the seizure of weapons and ammunition. Israel has placed its police force on the highest level of alert, bolstered police presence in major city centers and high-traffic areas and set up checkpoints along major highways. IDF troops will also deploy to the West Bank, where recent clashes have killed 10 Palestinians. The overall security situation in the country remains tense in the lead-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan beginning April 1, which this year overlaps with the Jewish holiday of Passover (April 15-23) and Christian Easter holiday (April 17). Worsening tensions and a heightened security presence echo the conditions that precipitated the 11-day war in Gaza during 2021’s Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr holiday. During the brief conflict, an estimated 250 people were killed, and around 4,300 rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza, while the Israeli military claims to have destroyed 1,000 militant targets in Gaza. Should security conditions continue to deteriorate ahead of the holiday, renewed conflict cannot be fully ruled out.
Ethiopia: Central government and Tigray forces agree to humanitarian truce
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has agreed to a truce with the Ethiopian government in a 16-month conflict, marking the first time both sides have expressed their willingness to end hostilities. The war erupted in late 2020 over a disagreement between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray ruling party, TPLF, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced roughly two million more. The UN, the US, the EU, and China supported the ceasefire, although no information regarding a formal agreement has been released. The truce aims to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to northern Ethiopia, where 40% of the population faces starvation. Humanitarian efforts have been significantly hampered by the conflict, administrative constraints, and supply shortages. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claims that no trucks had reached Tigray since Dec. 15; humanitarian convoys have been looted en-route, and 72 UN drivers were arrested on unspecified charges in the Afar region in November last year. While both the TPLF and the central government have made statements declaring their commitment to the truce, a durable peace is unlikely as humanitarian aid routes remain obstructed, and scattered clashes between regional militias in the Amhara and Afar regions – which may not honor the declared truce – and TPLF-allied forces have continued. A spokesperson in Amhara declared they would allow aid to reach Tigray under the condition that Tigray forces withdraw from the disputed Western Zone, an area that makes up approximately 25% of the Tigray region. However, Tigray forces have been hesitant to retreat for fear of another invasion of federal troops into the region. In the absence of government enforcement of the truce and full cooperation by all actors involved in the conflict, sporadic confrontations between Tigray forces and government-allied militias are likely to continue in the short term. Continued clashes will further complicate the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, likely leading to more casualties in northern Ethiopia amid the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.