HomeNewsAnalysisSonsonate: El Salvador’s Most Violent Region
ANALYSIS

Sonsonate: El Salvador’s Most Violent Region

EL SALVADOR / 19 JUL 2011 BY ROMAIN LE COUR GRANDMAISON EN

Sonsonate, in western El Salvador, has the highest murder rate in the country. Located on a strategic drug route to Guatemala, the province is infested with local gangs, who may be developing ties to Mexican traffickers.

In recent years, Central American has become an increasingly important route for trafficking drugs from South America up to Mexico and the United States. El Salvador is a key location on this journey north, and is home to a vital cocaine pathway, known as El Caminito, which stretches from the Honduran border to the Guatemalan border.

Located on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, close to Guatemala, the province of Sonsonate is strategic territory for drug traffickers. Its main port, Acajutla, is a crucial hub for drug shipments, and its proximity to Guatemala ensures quick ground transfer to Mexico.

Violence is not a new phenomenon in the region. As a report from La Prensa Grafica details, Sonsonate has been the most violent province of El Salvador since 2009. The following year saw 88 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. This is significantly more than the next-highest regions; La Libertad, with 80 per 100,000, and San Salvador with 78. So far in 2011, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine, homicides are up 8.5 percent in Sonsonate compared to the same period in 2010, with 235 murders reported between January and June. According to the newspaper, several massacres have occurred during this period, while Acajutla has seen a significant spike in violence.

The authorities have several explanations for why violence is rising in Sonsonante. As La Prensa Grafica reports, the National Police (PNC), say that rivalries among local gangs account for many killings in a region that is highly controlled by these “pandillas.” In fact, the police state that only two municipalities are not under gang control in the province. The sheer number of these criminal groups drives clashes, with a number of small-scale groups fighting for a piece of territory, sometimes block by block. Authorities have also said that violence has gone up in Sonsonate as a result of the release from prison of several gang leaders from the area. According to reports, their return likely provoked struggles with rivals for control of the region.

The killings in Sonsonate could also be due in part to a “balloon effect” caused by anti-gang policies in other parts of the country. With law enforcement efforts concentrated on the capital, San Salvador, the “maras” are forced to move to peripheral areas of the district, and to other regions. In the provinces of La Union and Cabañas, east of San Salvador, homicide rates have risen in 2011. The figures suggest that police deployment may be moving the violence from place to place, rather than eradicating it.

The official explanation — that violence in Sonsonate is mostly caused by local rivalries between gangs — is partly right. Most of El Salvador’s gang members are no more than ill-trained, badly-equipped “pandilleros” (members of street gangs) who have no formal links to Mexican cartels, and are not involved in the international export of cocaine. The gangs often lack a clear organization or hierarchy.

Still, even if powerful Mexican groups like the Zetas haven’t yet managed to strengthen ties with the pandilleros, this does not mean they won’t attempt to do so in the future. With the Mexican cartels spreading their tentacles through Central America, and Guatemala becoming a refuge for organized criminal groups, Sonsonate could represent a highly valuable transshipment hub for these transnational criminal organizations.

In one example of Sonsonate’s increased importance as a trafficking hub, authorities seized 480 barrels of precursor chemicals in Acajutla on June 1. These substances are used to produce synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstasy. The shipment, which came from China and was probably en route to Guatemala and then Mexico, illustrates the importance of Sonsonate’s role in the drug trade. The seizure follows the interception of 56 tons of the same products in Acajutla in May. Precursor chemicals are forbidden in El Salvador, and the quantities of the drugs, as well as the distance they traveled, show a level of professionalism that does not usually characterize pandilla activities.

Controlling Sonsonate means controlling what enters and leaves Acajutla, but it is doubtful that the local pandillas have the discipline, organization and international contacts to organize shipments from China to El Salvador on their own. The trade, then, is most likely in the hand of more experienced players, using local gangs as intermediaries. Control of the Salvadoran Pacific corridor would represent a crucial move in the Central American expansion of Mexican organizations.

While rising violence in Sonsonate may be caused by local rivalries between pandillas, these recent seizures suggest that the Mexican cartels could be interfering. Although their role is still unclear, their presence may fuel existing local tensions.

Compartir icon icon icon

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.

Related Content

BARRIO 18 / 12 APR 2017

A new report by a leading watchdog and policy group says that Central America's Northern Triangle governments should find a…

EL SALVADOR / 26 MAR 2018

José Luis Merino, a high-ranking and controversial government official in El Salvador, has been the subject of a US-led investigation…

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME / 20 FEB 2012

Recent seizures of illegally trafficked timber in Guatemala suggests there is an organized smuggling ring sophisticated enough to transport the…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

We Have Updated Our Website

4 FEB 2021

Welcome to our new home page. We have revamped the site to create a better display and reader experience.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Events – Border Crime: The Northern Triangle and Tri-Border Area

ARGENTINA / 25 JAN 2021

Through several rounds of extensive field investigations, our researchers have analyzed and mapped out the main illicit economies and criminal groups present in 39 border departments spread across the six countries of study – the Northern Triangle trio of Guatemala, Honduras, and El…

BRIEF

InSight Crime’s ‘Memo Fantasma’ Investigation Wins Simón Bolívar National Journalism Prize

COLOMBIA / 20 NOV 2020

The staff at InSight Crime was awarded the prestigious Simón Bolívar national journalism prize in Colombia for its two-year investigation into the drug trafficker known as “Memo Fantasma,” which was…

ANALYSIS

InSight Crime – From Uncovering Organized Crime to Finding What Works

COLOMBIA / 12 NOV 2020

This project began 10 years ago as an effort to address a problem: the lack of daily coverage, investigative stories and analysis of organized crime in the Americas. …

ANALYSIS

InSight Crime – Ten Years of Investigating Organized Crime in the Americas

FEATURED / 2 NOV 2020

In early 2009, Steven Dudley was in Medellín, Colombia. His assignment: speak to a jailed paramilitary leader in the Itagui prison, just south of the city. Following his interview inside…