El Salvador's Feb. 2 presidential election was overshadowed by a dramatic spike in the country's homicide rate less than a year after a truce between warring criminal gangs had led many Salvadorans to hope that their country was back from the brink. Most alarming was the December discovery of 44 bodies in 14 mass graves in a wooded area of Villa Lourdes, a suburb of the capital San Salvador and a notorious gang stronghold. Many of the bullet-ridden bodies were mutilated and half-naked. Authorities accuse the Barrio 18 gang of depositing their victims in the clandestine graves. A March 2012 truce between Barrio 18 and its deadly rivals, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), was credited with slashing El Salvador’s homicides from more than 4,000 in 2011 to just 2,500 over the past two years. For at least 15 months after the truce took effect, the number of killings per day averaged 5.5, up from 14 before. But January 2014 saw a daily average of 7.7. This made easy propaganda for the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) to bait the ruling left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as soft on crime.

Falling just short of an outright victory in the vote, the FMLN's Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the incumbent vice president, will now face ARENA's Norman Quijano, the conservative former mayor of San Salvador, in a March 7 run-off. But the new gang violence seemed a little too redolent of the right-wing death-squad terror that tore El Salvador in the 1980s -- and ARENA was founded by the late Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, a graduate of the US Army's School of the Americas who was named by El Salvador's Truth Commission as a mastermind of the death squads. President Mauricio Funes publicly speculated that old-style death squads could be re-mobilizing to jack up the body count and scare voters. "I worry that there is a relationship or there could be a relationship between this insistence on the part of ARENA that Salvadorans are tired of the crime wave sweeping the country, with the increase in homicides,” Funes said in a press release. FMLN spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana also warned that ARENA could be waging a "black campaign" to create fear.

The Foundation for the Study of the Application of Law (FESPAD), a Salvadoran legal aid clinic and research group, likewise asserted that "extermination groups" were behind the violence, in a systematic campaign. "There is information that armed groups have been menacing various communities in the country since December," FESPAD's Nelson Flores told anti-corruption website Transperencia Activa.

Meanwhile, MS-13 and Barrio 18, for all their spectacular violence, are likely made up of middle-level narco-runners, while the flow of cocaine through El Salvador is believed to be increasingly controlled by a more businesslike organization, the Texis Cartel, based in the municipality of Texistepeque. One of its purported leaders, Jesús Sanabria Zamora, a businessman and former councilor in the Metapán municipal government, was sentenced to 14 years in prison January 22 by a court in Santa Ana, the department where both Texistepeque and  Metapán are located. One of Sanabria's seven associates also received 14 years, while the other six got 12 years. The seven were arrested in January 2012 in Texistepeque after negotiating the sale of five kilos of cocaine for $122,587 with undercover National Civil Police agents. Observers called it a rare blow against an organization well entrenched in El Salvador's conservative political establishment.