A new report describes recent shifts in the characteristics of violence in El Salvador, and it offers recommendations for how to deal with these developments, focusing particularly on the need to tailor violence reduction and prevention strategies to specific local conditions.
The report (pdf) was released on September 21 by the Central American Development and Social Change Research Institute (Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social - INCIDE) and Open Society Foundations, one of InSight Crime's main funders.
It describes various aspects of violence in El Salvador in recent years, including the effects of criminal violence on different communities as well as the responses of security forces, government agencies and other actors to changing security conditions in the country.
The report links recent changes in patterns of violence in El Salvador to the government-brokered truce between the country's main street gangs, which took effect in April 2012 before unraveling in June 2013.
According to the authors, while the truce did significantly reduce homicides during the time it was in effect, it also allowed the gangs to expand their social and territorial control, thereby setting the stage for the substantial increase in violence observed in subsequent years.
El Salvador earned the dubious distiction of the world's most murderous country not at war in 2015, as the national homicide rate reached 103 per 100,000 citizens. Statistics cited in the INCIDE report showed that multiple homicides increased by 126 percent from 2010 to 2015, while femicides skyrocketed by 750 percent over that same period.
Recent statistics show that El Salvador's murder rate has experienced a steady decline since the beginning of 2016. INCIDE's report links the decrease to "extraordinary measures" implemented earlier this year by the government to combat gangs, but others have suggested that a March pact by gang leaders to reduce violence is behind the drop.
Clashes between security forces and criminal groups also increased substantially following the end of the gang truce. From 2013 to 2015, the number of such confrontations rose from 142 to 676 -- an increase of more than 370 percent, the report states.
The death toll, however, has been somewhat lopsided. Of the 498 total killings generated by such clashes from 2013 to 2015, 454 of the victims -- that is, 91 percent -- were alleged gang members. Security forces represented just 9 percent of the casualties.
Violence has also shifted away from urban centers to rural areas. Statistics cited by INCIDE show that the majority of murders in El Salvador since 2012 have occurred in areas outside of major metropolitan centers, a reversal of the pattern seen before the truce.
The report states that this shift has had an "enormous negative impact" on rural communities like the municipality of Jiquilisco in Usulután department, which was the focus of one case study carried out by the researchers.
The authors write that the increase in violence committed by criminal groups in rural areas has resulted in widespread forced displacement and dispossession of property, as well as "constant stress" among citizens that is negatively affecting their mental health.
These impacts have been exacerbated by the lack of cooperation between local populations and security forces, which the report links to fears of reprisals by crime groups and lack of trust in authorities. Citizens' lack of confidence is driven by the security forces inability to stem the violence as well as their propensity for targeting young community members for aggressive treatment based on often unfounded suspicions about their involvement in gang activity.
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The INCIDE researchers also carried out a case study in Morazán department, one of the least violent areas of El Salvador, in order to compare the characteristics of violence there to those observed in more heavily affected areas like Jiquilisco.
The report indicates that the direct effects of violence on communities in Morazán were not as severe as they appeared to be in other areas, but that the shifting patterns of violence described above had indirect impacts similar to those observed in places like Jiquilisco.
Residents of Morazán reported that they were afraid to travel to other, more violent areas for fear of being victimized by criminal groups there. They also reported concern regarding the arrival of people displaced from such areas, some of whom were believed to be gang members attempting to recruit local youths for criminal activities.
The researchers determined that the increase in violence in Morazán, though less pronounced than that observed elsewhere, had nevertheless resulted in negative economic effects including a decrease in tourism and investment in certain areas.
However, the report also states that residents of Morazán maintained more cooperative relationships with local security forces and officials, and they did not exhibit the same passivity with regard to increasing violence observed among residents of Jiquilisco.
Instead of largely resigning themselves to acceptance of the situation, Morazán residents appeared motivated to create informal networks of communication regarding security issues, and to invest a greater share of resources in the development of young people in order to encourage them to avoid participation in criminal activities. Morazán was a stronghold of leftist guerrillas during El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war.
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In sum, the report concludes that the impacts of changing patterns of violence on communities in El Salvador differ substantially based on specific local conditions. Communities where criminal groups hold greater territorial control tend to have higher levels of violence. And the level of cooperation between local authorities, community leaders and the population as a whole appeared to be a key determinant of security outcomes.
In light of these findings, the report put forth several recommendations for security officials confronting these shifting dynamics of violence. The authors recommend that authorities develop an "integrated policy of violence prevention" that "would be sufficiently flexible to be adapted to the particularities of different territories and the specificities of the existing social fabric at the local level."
The report suggests prioritizing the establishment of territorial control over communities controlled by criminal groups in a gradual manner that includes not only actions by security forces, but also "the reconstruction and strengthening of the community social fabric, support for social integration, productive employment and education of young people, and psychological attention for victims." The report also recommends a constant evaluation and revision of policies based on observed outcomes.
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In a recent interview with Revista Factum, the report's principal researcher, INCIDE founder Alexander Segovia, summarized his conclusions based on the research presented in the document.
"I think there has to be a change of perspectives, to revise the way the issue of violence and insecurity has been dealt with, from the design of public policies to the participation of different actors that make up society," Segovia said.
"What this study shows is that a key actor, which until now has not been considered as it should be, is the organized population, the population that lives in these territories daily, that suffers the effects [of violence] and that is coming up with creative responses," he continued. "But until now, public policies have not seriously considered that actor that is so fundamental for resolving the problem."