Three years after the launch of a much-touted citizen security initiative in El Salvador, officials say the program has helped significantly reduce crime and violence. But while national murder rates have declined, other evidence suggests some important drivers of criminality remain unaddressed.

El Salvador’s National Council on Citizen Security officially launched the 124-point Plan Secure El Salvador (Plan El Salvador Seguro – PESS) on July 16, 2015.

The initiative’s five main objectives center on preventing crime and violence, making improvements to the criminal justice system, rehabilitating and reintegrating inmates into society, attending to and protecting victims, and strengthening the institutions that are responsible for citizen security.

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Salvadoran authorities say the plan has led to a decrease in homicides and other crimes like extortion. In 2015, when the program was implemented, El Salvador’s murder rate reached 103 per 100,000 citizens, the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Following the implementation of the plan, the homicide rate dropped to around 80 per 100,000 in 2016 and to 60 per 100,000 in 2017.

Deputy Security Minister Raúl López hailed Plan Secure El Salvador in a recent interview, saying that “the numbers speak for themselves.” And US Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes has credited the program for a drop in the number of people fleeing the country for the United States. (This assertion appears to be contradicted by a recent United Nations report showing the number of asylum seekers from El Salvador has more than doubled since 2015.)

At the same time, critics say the 50 municipalities that the plan initially targeted were selected based on faulty criteria, and crime rates in some of those areas have actually increased.

Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has conceded the latter point. But rather than recommending a renewed focus on the comprehensive approach laid out in Plan Secure El Salvador, Meléndez has said the government should “intervene” in crime-ridden municipalities and “address the issue with force.”

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While officials say Plan Secure El Salvador is working, a closer look at criminal dynamics and other indicators suggests that the significant decline in the national murder rate and other crimes doesn’t tell the whole story.

El Salvador’s declining homicide rate is indeed a positive development, though the country is still the most violent in the region after Venezuela. In addition, Salvadoran citizens are feeling safer; a recent report from the Gallup polling organization found a “marked improvement” in perceptions of security there.

But Florida International University professor José Miguel Cruz questioned whether the improvement was as significant as it appears on the surface. Cruz told InSight Crime that falling homicide and extortion rates may be more indicative of a growing sophistication among the country’s gangs in response to extraordinary anti-gang measures, rather than a result of Plan Secure El Salvador.

“What has happened is the consolidation of gang control in many places and communities, the sophistication of the gang’s criminal activities, and the fact that gangs have increasingly moved on to other activities than extortion,” said Cruz, who has investigated gangs in El Salvador.

Beyond the statistics, there are other reasons to be skeptical of Salvadoran officials’ claims about the success of Plan Secure El Salvador.

For example, two of Plan Secure El Salvador’s main aims are to strengthen security forces and the justice system. But credible allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings by police and military alike — few of which have been punished — suggest security forces remain abusive and unaccountable. Moreover, the justice system is still characterized by widespread impunity for crimes of all sorts.

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Cruz told InSight Crime that the limited progress Plan Secure El Salvador has made stems from a lack of adequate attention to the root causes driving crime and violence in the country, such as a lack of access to education and legitimate economic opportunities.

According to Cruz, instead of focusing solely on trying to improve weak security and judicial institutions, the program “really needs to invest and allocate more resources to education and training opportunities for the youth, low-income communities and in rural areas.”

“The big problem is that there is not any sensible policy of training, education, or providing people with new and competitive skills in the current job market,” Cruz told InSight Crime. “If you don’t do that, gangs will continue to be the first choice for many youth.”

Additionally, Cruz said Plan Secure El Salvador could benefit from a comprehensive assessment to figure out if the program is working, where it’s working and where it needs to be improved.

“Nobody has conducted a scientific evaluation of Plan Secure El Salvador as far as I know,” Cruz told InSight Crime. “We have seen a decrease in homicides in the last couple of years while Plan Secure El Salvador has been around, but in the absence of real data linking both things, it’s very hard to know if this [decline] is the result of Plan Secure El Salvador.”

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