El Salvador ended 2018 on a good note, according to official homicide statistics, but a recent uptick in homicides has thrust the MS13 back into the national conversation.
Government officials in El Salvador announced that last year ended with a 15 percent reduction in homicides compared to 2017. The murder rate dropped from 60 per 100,000 citizens in 2017 to 51, much lower than in 2015 and 2016 when violence between gangs and security forces made it one of the most violent countries in Latin America.
That said, a recent uptick in homicides, although not overly significant in terms of statistics, has again sounded the alarms on the capacity of the MS13 -- and the country’s gangs in general -- to challenge the state's authority with bloodshed.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Gang Truce
With a presidential election set for February 3, concerns have surfaced about the gangs’ capacity to influence the electoral process through the use of extreme violence.
A series of armed attacks between January 12 and 15 -- some of which targeted security officials -- elevated the average number of homicides to levels unseen in some time. On January 14 alone 26 citizens were murdered, according to official police reports cited by El Mundo.
In total, the National Police recorded 169 murders throughout the first 16 days of 2019, representing 10.6 murders per day, a significant increase compared to the 9.4 daily murders recorded in 2018.
Public security forces, especially the police, are among the main objectives of the gangs, authorities have said. In the first 19 days of January, nine police officers and one soldier were killed, according to a report by La Prensa Gráfica. One of these attacks happened at the weekend when a police patrol was fired upon near San Miguel, the country's third city.
The security cabinet canceled all leave due to the attacks, while police commanders announced they would ramp up pressure on gang leaders on the streets and in prisons.
InSight Crime Analysis
Homicides, and the security situation in El Salvador in general, have not been a central talking point throughout this year’s electoral campaign.
The ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) party’s candidate, Hugo Martinez, has tiptoed around the subject, motivated perhaps by questions the current administration has received regarding the excessive use of force against those living in areas under gang control. The two opposition candidates have not talked much about the topic either, possibly to avoid recognizing the ruling party’s undeniable downfall in the polls.
Indeed, the FMLN entered into agreements with the gangs during the administrations of former President Mauricio Funes and current President Salvador Sánchez Cerzen. In addition, the current mayor of San Salvador from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) political party, also pacted with the gangs. And Nayib Bukele of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) party -- the favorite to become president, according to the polls -- negotiated with the gangs while he was mayor of San Salvador.
In an effort to explain the recent homicide uptick, Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez attributed most of the homicides in recent days to the MS13. Once again, authorities have resorted to old talking points about gang members dying in clashes with the police to explain some of the murders.
The truth is that gangs, especially the MS13, have in the past used lethal violence, as well as their ability to control the rise or decline in homicides, as their main negotiating tool with the government. They did so, for example, during negotiations around the 2012 and 2013 ceasefires, as well as in response to the temporary use of extraordinary prison measures, which included restrictions on family visits, the confinement of some inmates to maximum security cells and limitations on all kinds of contact with the outside world.
Thanks in part to a gang truce five years ago, the MS13, and gangs in general, consolidated their territorial control over important sectors of society. As part of InSight Crime’s investigation into the MS13, a senior National Police official said in 2015 that this control allowed the gangs to make deals with political parties to increase their electoral armies and voter turnout.
"It’s almost logical that in territories where gang members exercise greater territorial control, their influence in any activity that involves logistics or mass mobilizations, like on election day for example, is important,” the official said.
The administration of President Sánchez Cerén has attributed the supposed weakening of the gangs to the effectiveness of the extraordinary measures deployed against them, as well as the extreme repression used by security forces in gang-controlled areas. The government has also used this to in part explain the drop in homicides in 2018. However, today there are doubts about the effectiveness of this strategy, at least with regard to the latest uptick in violence.
With a little more than two weeks before the presidential elections, this new upsurge in homicides in El Salvador has reopened questions about the true state of the country’s gangs and their ability to try and send political messages using violence.