The homicide rate in El Salvador has spiked after authorities in the Central American nation saw a substantial reduction in murders in 2018, raising important questions about the role of the country’s gangs in the electoral process just weeks before presidential elections and the government’s strategies to combat them.
After closing 2018 with a murder rate of 51 per 100,000 citizens — half of what it was in some of the country’s most violent years in 2015 and 2016 — authorities recorded more than 200 homicides in just the first 20 days of 2019, including a number of police officers.
InSight Crime spoke to investigator and security expert Jeannette Aguilar, the former director of the Public Opinion Institute at Central American University in El Salvador, to address the current dynamics of violence in the country ahead of presidential elections on February 3.
InSight Crime (IC): What is behind the recent rise in homicides in the country?
Jeannette Aguilar (JA): It is difficult to explain the sudden ups and downs given the complexity of the violence in El Salvador and the different actors responsible. I think the rise in January may be the result of several factors converging at once: an increase in executions by death squad-style groups — mainly composed of police officers — which seem to be intensifying their operations in recent days, the gangs responding to this violence, and the electoral season.
Recent history shows that elections, especially during the month leading up to them, usually produce an atypical increase in violent deaths, which has been associated with pacts formed between opposition parties and the gangs to politically affect their adversaries. In this case, it’s essential to look at the possible pacts that the two main opposition parties, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) and the Grand Alliance for National Unity — New Ideas (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA-Nuevas Ideas) party, have carried out with the gangs.
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In addition, negotiations that the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) party entered into with the gangs in past elections has facilitated an environment of greater confrontation between members of the various structures that serve different parties.
Gangs, on their own, have also undertaken strategies to harm the government’s image, including increasing homicides. During election time, they obviously know that this has a greater political cost to the party in office.
IC: In this analysis, how important are extrajudicial killings attributed to security forces, especially the National Police?
JA: The hypothesis that there has been an increase in attacks by death squads against gang members or alleged gang members should not be ruled out. We still are not fully aware of the impact that death squads have on violent deaths at the national level. In my opinion, these deaths are becoming more and more frequent. In the case of homicides registered so far this year, more than 70 percent of the recorded victims of violent deaths are gang members or people linked to these groups, according to the police.
The police death squads are continuously modifying their modus operandi. It seems that they are now carrying out death squad-style executions. They arrive at night to remove the victims, execute them, and make the bodies disappear. One incident involved a special gun known as the “mata policías,” or “police killer,” which is exclusively issued to the army, was found with a gang member on December 30. This triggered an alert and a new call within informal police communication networks to eliminate these [gang] structures. At the same time, we have also seen an increase in police murders in January.
IC: Are the government’s claims about the reduction in homicides and security strategies that have allegedly weakened the gangs contradictory?
JA: The great paradox of the government’s security policy in recent years, which was designed like a war plan, is that it has reduced the murders committed by gang members while exacerbating conditions that foster an increase in the deaths of gang members, their relatives, alleged gang members and collaborators, and creating other conflict dynamics that are increasing levels of violence in communities.
IC: What does it say that this is occurring just a few weeks before presidential elections?
JA: On the one hand, this shows the increasingly relevant role that illegal actors and the use of violence as a political instrument have during critical times, such as elections. This is a consequence of the empowerment that the country’s political mafias have fostered among the gangs by unscrupulously exploiting the violence produced by these structures for electoral purposes.
The participation of gangs in specific actions to affect the electoral process or certain political parties shows that, far from being weakened as the government has indicated, these organizations are increasingly becoming essential actors in preserving a corrupt political system.
IC: Is the January homicide rebound significant in statistical terms?
JA: If it turns into a pattern or trend that lasts for several months, we would be tripling the daily average of violent deaths seen in 2018 and approaching levels recorded in 2015 [when El Salvador was one of the most violent countries in Latin America].
*This interview was edited for clarity and length.