El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has credited his crime-fighting plan for a 60 percent drop in homicides this year. But the country’s violent street gangs deserve some -- if not more -- of the credit.
Between January and July 2020, El Salvador logged 697 murders, or about three a day, El Mundo reported. The tally is a massive drop from the 1,630 killings that occurred during the same period in 2019, a year that saw El Salvador reach one of its lowest murder rates in recent history.
On Twitter, Bukele continually mentions the plunge in murders, touting his Territorial Control Plan, which deployed more than 5,000 police and soldiers to gang strongholds just over a year ago.
“El Salvador Lives Another Day Without Homicides,” he posted on July 22, alongside an image of armed soldiers in full battle gear.
But is Bukele’s strategy of sending troops into the streets -- a policy that has been tried and failed numerous times in the country -- the panacea he claims it to be?
To try to answer that question, researchers with the International Crisis Group (ICG) examined homicide figures over time in municipalities covered by Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, according to a July report titled “Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador.”
The investigators used a statistical method known as “difference in difference,” which looks at real-life events as though they were scientific experiments in which one group is subjected to an intervention and another group serves as a control. In this case, the intervention was the Territorial Control Plan in 22 municipalities.
The analysis revealed that the 31 municipalities that were not part of the plan saw a similar decline in homicides as the 22 that were. Likewise, homicides were already dropping prior to when Bukele took office.
“This reduction of homicides appears to be the result of a decision on the part of the gangs,” Tiziano Breda, ICG’s analyst for Central America and one of the report’s authors, told InSight Crime.
Graphic c/o International Crisis Group
In three municipalities that were part of the Territorial Control Plan, homicides actually ticked up, he said.
“This also does not fit with the explanation that the plan is the only element behind the fall,” he said.
InSight Crime Analysis
El Salvador’s downward trend in homicides suggests that gang cells in the streets have chosen not to battle with Bukele’s troops or among themselves. There are three reasons the gangs -- which have ratcheted up homicides as a way to pressure past governments -- may have adopted this strategy.
First, the street gangs no longer see open warfare with the government as viable.
When El Salvador tallied nearly 20 murders a day in 2015, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world, the violence was in response to the disintegration of a so-called gang truce negotiated in 2012 between the MS13 and the Revolucionarios and Sureños factions of the Barrio 18 street gangs. The truce’s undoing -- which came after it was revealed that the government had secretly provided benefits to imprisoned gang leaders for reducing homicides -- led to unprecedented violence.
In its wake, authorities under President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who came to power in 2014, unleashed a campaign to crush the gangs.
Gang members killed in confrontations with security forces jumped from 142 in 2013 to 591 in 2016, according to Human Rights Watch's 2018 country report. Anti-gang death squads comprised of rogue police, soldiers and armed civilians also gunned down suspected gang members, some of whom turned out not to be.
The gangs were “really affected by this all-out war with the State,” Breda said.
After hitting its peak homicide rate of 103 homicides per 100,000 people in 2015, El Salvador saw its murder rate begin to decline. By 2018, it was cut in half to 51 per 100,000 people.
Second, young gang leaders in charge of individual cliques now wield much more authority in the streets. With their loyalties to the old guard weaker than in previous generations, some are choosing not to engage in battles that end with them dead.
They have sidelined the gangs’ longtime leadership, known as the “ranfla nacional,” that spearheaded the 2012 truce and the subsequent war with the state.
“The gangs are no longer a monolith,” Breda said.
El Salvador’s government also made it harder for imprisoned gang leaders to communicate with outside members and each other through a series of “extraordinary measures” passed in 2016, which included isolating them, holding court proceedings virtually or within prisons and restricting their visitors. The government has also repeatedly ordered mobile telephone service providers to disable their signals around prison facilities.
“This is creating a leadership outside that is more autonomous and that thinks, at times, differently than the ranfla,” Breda said.
Mario Vega, a pastor who has worked for two decades in gang-riddled neighborhoods, told InSight Crime that gang “clicas,” or cliques, have “unilaterally decided to deemphasize homicides.”
Third, the gradual decline in murders, which began about three years before Bukele took office under Sánchez Céren, indicates that gang factions and cells are no longer battling for supremacy.
According to the ICG report, individual gangs, especially those belonging to the MS13, are much more entrenched in their territories. The intense climate of confrontation with security forces has also calmed down.
“This makes one think that there has been a type of understanding constructed, of messages exchanged, etc., above all at the local level,” Breda said.
But such a peace is extremely fragile. A lone gang leader with ambitions of war can shatter it, Breda added.
“If he still has some type of control over his clique or others,” he said, “this could clearly cause a spike in violence and disrupt the current trend.”