El Salvador's recent spike in homicides may be related to the recent transfer of gang leaders to a high-security prison, but unlike previous upticks in violence, officials are not speculating as to who or what is responsible.
El Salvador is now registering an average of 14 murders a day, up from about 11 just a month ago. According to El Salvador's national forensic institute, the Central American country registered 805 homicides between January 1 and March 11 this year, compared to the 794 homicides registered during the first three months of 2014.
Some of the attacks included:
- Four young men, between the ages of 17 to 27, found tied up and covered in machete wounds in Cuscatlan department.
- An attack against a family that left one person dead and two injured, including a 3-year-old girl, in San Salvador.
- A 28-year-old shot while working at a carwash.
- The killing of a former gang member turned evangelical pastor.
There have also been 10 police, two military officers and five prison guards killed so far this year, along with several attacks against military and police patrols. In another case that drew attention, the prosecutor who headed the homicide unit in El Salvador's fifth-largest city was shot a reported 15 times while leaving his home.
However, thus far security officials in El Salvador have been reluctant to say that there is a relationship between these killings and the recent transfer of leaders of the country's two largest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, to a maximum-security prison.
El Salvador brokered a truce with these two gangs in 2012, and moved their leaders to prisons with less stringent security and more visitation rights in exchange for reduced violence. The truce eventually unraveled amid accusations that the homicide rate was artificially low, and after President Salvador Sanchez assumed office in June 2014, his administration emphasized they would not seek to negotiate with the gangs again.
In comments made to the media, director of El Salvador's national forensic institute (IML) Jose Fortin Magaña cautioned it may be too soon to say that there is a relationship between the gang truce's reversal and the rising homicides.
"There isn't data that shows us the number of crimes went up after the inmates were transferred [on February 19], but there were days in which more deaths were reported than others," he told newspaper El Mundo.
He also told another newspaper that there wasn't enough evidence "to make such suppositions."
The country's attorney general nevertheless reacted strongly to these comments, asserting that Fortin's remarks were "irresponsible" for even implying there was a relationship between the prison transfer and the uptick in killings.
El Salvador Minister of Security Benito Lara also appeared to pick his words carefully when speaking to newspaper La Prensa Grafica.
"Look, every action we do is going to have a reaction," he said, adding that the government was planning to take "extraordinary measures" to combat the rising violence.
InSight Crime Analysis
During previous upticks in violence, government officials have been quick to lay the blame on the gangs. Their reluctance to do so now reflects the delicate politics surrounding the failed gang truce.
It is clearly not in the government's interest for its top security officials to assert that government policy -- namely, the total reversal of the truce that dramatically lowered homicides in El Salvador -- has actually made things worse. And given the low rate at which homicides are actually solved in El Salvador, it would be a herculean task to determine which homicides are related to gang leaders possibly ordering an intensification of violence (to "punish" the government for going back on the gang truce) and which ones are not.
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There are also reasons to believe that this increase in homicides involves multiple actors, not just the gang-on-gang violence that comes with a failed truce. In the words of El Salvador's head of police internal affairs, the security forces see themselves as "at war" with the gangs, and the death toll is certainly reminiscent of a country in a major conflict.
Some of the violence may be due to extrajudicial killings. In his comments to El Mundo, El Salvador's forensic director indicated that there are some clues that death squads could be behind some of the murders.
"In some cases we know that the victims are made to kneel and then shot in the back," he said.
Meanwhile, gang leaders are leading their own protests of the transfer. They recently held a three-day hunger strike and presented a complaint before a judge about conditions in the prison where they are now being held. In a reflection of the government's stance that it will not negotiate with gang leaders anytime soon, the national head of the penal system said it planned to make no changes to the facility.