San Salvador: The US has quietly funded and equipped elite paramilitary police officers in El Salvador who are accused of illegally executing gang members, according to a report.
A police unit -- Special Reaction Forces (FES) -- that killed 43 alleged gang members in the first six months of 2017 received significant US funding, CNN said citing a forthcoming United Nations (UN) report.
Several of those deaths have been investigated as murders by the Salvadoran Police.
Although the FES was disbanded in 2018, many of its officers have joined a new elite force that currently receives US funding.
The US administrations have pumped millions of dollars into Salvadoran law enforcement and military to shore up the government's Firm Hand programme, launched in 2003.
In the report to be released in June and accessed in advance by CNN, the country's police might be accused of "a pattern of behaviour by security personnel amounting to extrajudicial executions".
The exact recipients and nature of US funding are, however, shrouded in secrecy.
Publicly available documents rarely specify which units benefit from the $67.9 million (Dh249 million) in aid given in 2016 and the $72.7 million in 2017, but they do say that "vetted units" get mentors from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration.
Two sources told CNN that the FES was the recipient of US assistance.
A spokesperson for the US Embassy in El Salvador admitted for the first time that the US had supplied assistance to the FES unit.
But he said that "the US government takes allegations of extrajudicial killings extremely seriously, and has consistently expressed concerns regarding allegations of security force abuses, the need for accountability, and the critical role of rights-respecting security forces in a healthy democracy".
The spokesperson added that all Salvadoran police units receiving US assistance were heavily vetted, and must show a "fundamental commitment to effective police mechanisms and respect for human rights" or the assistance stops. The US Embassy would not say if the FES received lethal aid.
The US assistance to the FES and its successor exposes the compromises undertaken in the fight against groups like MS-13, a Salvadoran criminal gang that started in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
It has since spread across the US and has around tens of thousands of core members in El Salvador. MS-13 recruits have been described by the US government as a "transnational threat" and as "animals" by President Donald Trump.