HomeNewsAnalysisAre El Salvador’s Gangs Behind Historic Murder Drop?
ANALYSIS

Are El Salvador’s Gangs Behind Historic Murder Drop?

BARRIO 18 / 20 JAN 2020 BY ALEX PAPADOVASSILAKIS* EN

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

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

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.

InSight Crime Analysis

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.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Flirts with ‘Mano Dura’ Security Policies Again

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.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

HOMICIDES / 27 MAR 2019

Recent data shows that Mexican Marines have become much more lethal in clashes with civilians, raising concerns of accountability at…

HONDURAS / 12 JUL 2018

Honduras authorities recently seized five airplanes thought to have been used to transport drugs through a remote region of the…

EL SALVADOR / 16 MAR 2014

Six gangs in El Salvador have announced they wish to continue a two-year old truce during the new presidential term,…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Who Are Memo Fantasma and Sergio Roberto de Carvalho?

24 JUN 2022

Inside the criminal career of Memo Fantasma  In March 2020, InSight Crime revealed the identity and whereabouts of Memo Fantasma, a paramilitary commander and drug trafficker living in…

THE ORGANIZATION

Environmental and Academic Praise

17 JUN 2022

InSight Crime’s six-part series on the plunder of the Peruvian Amazon continues to inform the debate on environmental security in the region. Our Environmental Crimes Project Manager, María Fernanda Ramírez,…

LA ORGANIZACIÓN

Series on Plunder of Peru’s Amazon Makes Headlines

10 JUN 2022

Since launching on June 2, InSight Crime’s six-part series on environmental crime in Peru’s Amazon has been well-received. Detailing the shocking impunity enjoyed by those plundering the rainforest, the investigation…

THE ORGANIZATION

Duarte’s Death Makes Waves

3 JUN 2022

The announcement of the death of Gentil Duarte, one of the top dissident commanders of the defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), continues to reverberate in Venezuela and Colombia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Cattle Trafficking Acclaim, Investigation into Peru’s Amazon 

27 MAY 2022

On May 18, InSight Crime launched its most recent investigation into cattle trafficking between Central America and Mexico. It showed precisely how beef, illicitly produced in Honduras, Guatemala…