Antonio Garcia knows the San Salvador detention center well. As a member of the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, the 28-year-old has been in and out five times in the past two years, adding new graffiti to the walls each visit.
"I always get back to my homeboys at the end," says Mr. Garcia, hitching up his baggy white pants and shrugging. He is here, this time, charged with aggravated assault. Other times it has been robbery; once, it was murder.
But by the end of last week, Garcia was already back on the street, one of thousands of examples of the revolving door that is El Salvador's energetic but so-far ineffectual system of cracking down on gangs. He hopes to travel soon to Virginia or Miami, he muses, to spend time with fellow gang members.
"We are dealing with the same gangsters," says Kevin Kozak, a US Homeland Security agent, in El Salvador to work on antigang measures between the two countries. "They carry out a crime in El Salvador and come to the states to ... commit a felony in L.A., and then head this way to cool down." MS13 members have been found in 31 states, linked to more than three dozen homicides over the past two years in North Carolina, Virginia, and California.
Salvadoran President Antonio Saca took office last year pledging to make his country safe from the likes of Garcia by locking up and isolating the gang leaders for extended periods of time, and scaring the rank-and-file members into toning down the violence.
Seven months ago he launched his "Operation Super Hard Hand," a program that expanded the already broad police powers - simply sporting a gang tattoo is now reason enough for arrest - and netted more than 4,000 alleged gang members in police raids. And yet homicide rates are soaring.
January saw 295 killings in this small country of 6 million - a rate of nine per day, according to Violeta Polanco, spokeswoman for the National Civil Police, and up 55 percent from the previous January, before the plan was launched. By comparison, New York, with a population of 7.4 million, had just over 550 murders all last year.
The problem, say officials, is that the police are unable to make proper cases against the arrested gangsters, and they quickly end up back on the streets, increasingly defiant and violent. Of the 4,000 young men arrested, less than 40 have been prosecuted, says Ms. Polanco. Similarly, under former President Francisco Flores's 2003 "hard hand" plan, the precursor to the current program, 19,275 gang members were arrested, with less than 1,000 of them jailed.