By Anastasia Moloney
SAN SALVADOR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ana was on her way to a busy food stall in El Salvador's capital when rival gang members drove by and started firing.
The 18-year-old narrowly escaped being caught in the crossfire but another girl was killed by a stray bullet.
"People were mopping up her blood off the street. It could have been me. I used to go to school with her. She was innocent, she wasn't a gang member. She was just 16," said Ana, who declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals.
"Things like that can happen at anytime. The violence is worse than ever. It's practically a war," she said, walking along the narrow streets of a notorious gang-controlled neighborhood in a poor eastern suburb of San Salvador.
"You never know if you go out on the street whether you'll come back alive. It's terrifying."
Such fear dominates the lives of many in the small Central American nation of 6.4 million people, which has been gripped by gang violence for decades.
Violence stemming from a bitter rivalry largely between the country's two most powerful gangs - Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) has pushed murder rates to record levels, making El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries outside a war zone.
More Salvadorans have been killed since the end of the country's 12-year civil war in 1992, than during the entire conflict in which 75,000 people lost their lives as leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas battled U.S.-backed state security forces.
As a result, thousands of people have been driven from their homes to seek refuge from the maras, as gang members are known, in the United States.
Tired of being victims of gang-related turf wars and extortion, many Salvadorans back a government crackdown on the gangs who have carved up city neighborhoods in their fight for territorial control and extortion rackets.
But finding a balance between society's thirst for justice and the need to address the root causes of violence, such as a lack of jobs, a corrupt police force and easy access to guns, will be crucial if El Salvador is to have peace, experts say.
Hopes were raised after a 2012 truce between rival gangs was brokered during the previous government, but it was short-lived. By early 2014 the truce had collapsed, leading to a rise in murders with gangs increasingly targeting the police.
The government led by President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former FMLN guerrilla commander who helped negotiate the peace accords, has responded by setting up a 1,000-strong security force to clamp down on the gangs and capture their top leaders.
In April, the authorities also transferred 300 jailed gang leaders to maximum security prisons where the government said they would be held in isolation, a bold tactic in a country where large chunks of the prisons are controlled by gangs.
Analysts say the government's zero tolerance approach risks escalating the conflict into an all-out war between the gangs, whose ranks number around 70,000, and the security forces.
"It's not even a hardline or an iron-fist approach but a brutal one. It's a military response to a social conflict," said Jeannette Aguilar, head of the University Institute of Public Opinion in San Salvador.
"The lack of security is a huge concern for citizens, who are desperate for a quick response. The risk for the government is that if it doesn't appear to be strong it risks losing votes in the 2019 presidential elections," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The government crackdown has also fanned fears of human rights abuses being committed by security forces against innocent people, especially young men, who could be mistaken for being maras, Aguilar said.
"You don't need 1,000 armed forces to go after 100 gang leaders. You need better police intelligence," she added.
In April, El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman concluded that state security forces were responsible for the extra-judicial killings of 13 people, including teenagers, in two separate police operations last year.
"SAFE EL SALVADOR"
Presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas insisted the clampdown was not disproportionate to the size of the problem, adding it was one of a range of measures being used to tackle the gangs.
He said the government is forging ahead with its $2 billion five-year plan to stem violence, known as Safe El Salvador, which includes crime prevention, education, and reintegration programs for ex-gang members.
"We know that repression per se is not the solution. Repression is only part of an integral strategy," Chicas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The government, however, is adamant that its strategy does not include negotiating with gang leaders.
"Our strategy is not to enter in a dialogue, nor any communication or negotiations with criminal groups in any way," Chicas said.
"... what they seek through a process of dialogue is to gain political space, legitimacy and to control more territory."
For Raul Mijango, a former congressmen and key negotiator in the 2012 gang truce, talking to the gangs is the only way to stem violence.
The ceasefire was credited for bringing about a sharp drop in El Salvador's murder rates in 2012, but critics say it helped the maras to expand and regroup, and gave them political clout.
"The most successful action taken against violence has been the truce. The people who generate violence must be part of the solution too," said Mijango, who was arrested by police on May 3 on allegations of being an associate of gang members.
Mijango said the government's approach to the maras was likely to bring more bloodshed.
"Repression doesn't solve the problem, it only escalates it. Attacking violence with violence only generates more violence. Before it was just one war between the gangs, now it's also a war between the gangs and police," he said.
Despite the crackdown, Santiago, a high-ranking gang leader, who describes himself as a "representative" of Barrio 18, said his group was open to talks with the authorities.
"The main issue facing the country today is us, the gangs. We are willing to negotiate with the government and have a dialogue," Santiago told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)