25 July 2015, San Salvador, El Salvador

11 August, 2015 Hotel Attacks

On 25 July, Saturday night, suspected gang members threw a grenade into (or at the) the restaurant of the Sheraton Presidente San Salvador Hotel, reports Tim Rogers at Fusion.net. Mr. Rogers is the site’s Latin America news commentator. Rogers says that the explosion fractured the restaurant’s windows, but injured no one. The Attorney General of El Salvador, Luis Antonio Martinez Gonzalez, labeled the attack an act of terrorism.

A Reuters article says the grenade blew up in the hotel’s parking lot. An article from La Pagina (translated from Spanish) also says the device exploded in the parking lot and/or a garden area and apparently resulted in slight ear damage of a tourist.

A statement from the Sheraton (translated from Spanish) said:

“There was an incident in a garden outside the hotel. There were no injuries and our facilities were not affected and continue to operate normally. We are cooperating with authorities investigating the situation. Also, the hotel continues its commitment to ensure the welfare of our guests.”

A photo in La Pagina where the grenade exploded shows minimal damage to the hotel. It appears to be a café type area instead of the plush-looking restaurant featured on the hotel’s website.

What’s behind the violence? Warfare between two gangs: Mara Salvatrucha (aka, MS-13) and Barrio 18 (aka, 18th Street, aka, M18), reports Reuters. Similar to the cartel violence in Mexico (but less organized and not as gory), theses gangs are fighting each other and law enforcement for control of turf and multitudes of criminal rackets, including drug trafficking and extortion schemes.

One extortion scheme reportedly involves throwing grenades at businesses that have refused to make “protection” payments to a gang.

To add insult to injury, the gang violence during the Sheraton attack happened during what some news outlets say was a general strike by bus drivers in El Salvador, which resulted in the deaths of several people. Alternatively, NPR reports that Barrio 18 was behind the bus mayhem and that it forced the them to stop running over an extortion scheme.

As a result of this gang war, the murder rate in El Salvador has increased an astounding 50% in the first half of 2015, says Rogers. This equates to 2,192 deaths. Gang membership in country has swollen to an estimated 60,000, says NPR. Strictly regarding size (and not cohesiveness, weaponry, and organized fighting ability) this is roughly equivalent in size to three U.S. Marine divisions.

There is speculation that one of these gangs carried out the Sheraton attack in order to force the government to ease off law enforcement operations targeting their illegal activities and to improve prison conditions for their members who are incarcerated.

The U.S. State Department asserted after the attack:

“The U.S. Embassy is aware that criminal elements in El Salvador have threatened to escalate the level of violence by attacking hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and other public venues.  The grenade attack at a major hotel on July 25 demonstrates both a will and a capability to carry out such plans.”

The U.S. Embassy followed this statement with a warning for US citizens to review personal security plans, lower their profiles, and enhance their situational awareness to guard against a wide array of violence.

The Sheraton grenade attack appears to be another example of a violent group using attacks on the hotel and tourist industry as leverage against a government. It could also be, however, that the hotel was targeted in an extortion scheme. In a chaotic environment such as San Salvador, it could have been both.

Regardless of the exact motive, the level of violence in El Salvador has reached a point where the nation’s internal security has become untenable. While businesses, transportation, hotels, and the tourism industry are all still functional – it is not a war zone like Iraq in 2006 – all these sectors are at risk, as the Sheraton attack clearly demonstrates. The government cannot provide effective domestic security. Until it does, or until the government and businesses enter into agreements with MS-13 and Barrio 18, the danger to these sectors, including hotels, will continue.

Sources and further reading:

Tim Rogers, “Tiny country, big problems: El Salvador is in serious trouble,” Fusion.net, 30 July 2015.

Gangs demand that San Salvador’s buses stop running, but why?” NPR, 30 July 2015.

Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Increased Risk of Crime and Violence,” United States Embassy, San Salvador, El Salvador, 29 July 2015.

El Salvador bus drivers go on strike as gang violence surges,” Reuters, 29 July 2015.

Hotel colaborará en investigación sobre granada lanzada a su interior,” La Pagina, 27 July 2015.