El Salvador ended 2019 with its lowest murder rate in years. But though the government has taken credit for the drop, there are signs that a conscious gang decision to lower violence, or even some kind of agreement between gangs and the state, may be driving down homicides.
The Central American nation, considered one of the world’s most violent countries, finished the year with approximately 28.7 percent fewer homicides than in 2018, according to official data published in Univision.
According to the figures, El Salvador recorded 2,383 homicides in 2019 -- 963 fewer than the previous year, which registered 3,346 murders.
That equates to an average rate of seven homicides per day, down from nine in 2018, 11 in 2017, and 18 in 2015, the year in which El Salvador became the bloodiest nation in the western hemisphere.
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The radical drop-off in homicides began in July 2019, shortly after President Nayib Bukele took office and began implementing a new security plan, known as the Territorial Control Plan (Plan Control Territorial).
The country’s Security Minister, Rogelio Rivas, has said that the Territorial Control Plan’s implementation helped contribute to a 60 percent reduction in homicides during the first seven months of Bukele’s presidency -- a drop the minister claims has “saved 1,000 lives.”
When Bukele took office in June 2019, there was a national average of 8.91 murders per day. The next month, that figure dropped to 5 per day -- a dramatic decline which kept up almost every month until the end of the year.
By December, the average daily murder rate was 3.87, according to a presidential source cited in Univision, meaning El Salvador capped off the year with its most peaceful month since its civil war ended in 1992.
Salvadoran authorities reported a homicide rate of 36 per 100,000 inhabitants for the second half of 2019 -- a figure lower than any annual ratio during the last three decades, according to data collected by World Bank starting in 1994.
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The drop-off in homicides has provided a major popularity boost for the Bukele presidency, but several analysts argue that factors unrelated to state policy are driving down murders in El Salvador.
Mario Vega, a prominent pastor who has worked extensively with the country’s main gangs -- the MS13, Barrio 18 Revolutionaries and Barrio 18 Sureños -- described the Territorial Control Plan as a “tool for publicity,” with “no innovations” compared to the hardline policies of previous governments. He told InSight Crime that El Salvador’s reduction in homicides is rather part of a region-wide behavioral change which has seen gangs in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unilaterally decide to cool down killings, which in turn has driven down the homicide rate across the region in recent years.
This view is partially echoed by Salvadoran analyst Roberto Valencia, who in an October 2019 op-ed in the Washington Post argued that the reduction in homicides can be explained as an attempt by gangs to “calm territories and not invite further retaliation [from the state].” He adds that, by reducing homicides, the gangs may also be sending a good will message to President Bukele.
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There has also been some speculation that the government may have reached some kind of deal with the gangs to deflate the murder rate. Indeed, the last time El Salvador recorded a homicide drop of this magnitude was in the wake of a truce signed between gangs and the administration of former President Mauricio Funes in 2012, which saw homicides rates fall from 70.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 to 41.7 per 100,000 the following year.
Jeanette Aguilar, a Salvadoran security expert, told InSight Crime that the decline in homicides in the second half of 2019 was likely due to a withdrawal not only from gangs, but also from state forces and extermination squads which clash with the MS13 and both factions of the Barrio 18. “There are some indications and information from police sources which suggest the existence of an agreement between the government and the three main gangs,” according to Aguilar, though she added that the details of the agreement’s nature remain unclear.
In various regions of the country, there are indications that the gangs have made the decision to spill less blood, or that some sort of agreement exists between such groups and the state, according to two high- and mid-ranking police officials that spoke to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The official line, however, is much more ambiguous. Speaking to InSight Crime, Mauricio Arriaza, El Salvador’s national chief of police, touted Bukele’s leadership as pivotal to the reduction of violent deaths reported in El Salvador in 2019.
Arriaza added that the Territorial Control Plan’s success goes beyond forceful police measures, and is also a result of increased cooperation between security institutions and collaboration with communities that support the government’s security initiatives.
*Héctor Silva Ávalos contributed reporting for this article.