In September, homicides in El Salvador declined to levels that the Central American nation hasn’t seen since a truce was agreed upon between the country's two most powerful gangs in 2012, but questions remain as to what is driving the decrease in violence.
Authorities in El Salvador recorded 192 homicides in September 2018, 57 percent less than the 442 homicides recorded in the same period the previous year, National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC) Chief Howard Cotto said in an October 1 tweet.
September was the only month to close with less than 200 homicides since the end of a controversial truce made between the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs in 2012, which led to a temporarily dramatic fall in homicides at the time, La Prensa Gráfica reported. The truce ended after a little more than two years in 2014 after President Salvador Sánchez Cerén refused to continue negotiations with the gangs and instead returned some of their leaders to a maximum security prison.
Homicide rates in the country have been relatively stable in 2018, but the 2,560 homicides recorded between January and September marked an 11 percent decrease from the 2,889 homicides that were recorded during the same time period in 2017, according to Cotto.
(Graphic courtesy of La Prensa Gráfica)
The government has in the past attributed upticks in violence to the country's gangs, although that connection has never been entirely clear. Both the country’s gangs and security forces have been responsible for a portion of the country’s bloodshed in recent years.
However, security forces and suspected gang members are not always at the heart of the violence. Throughout the first eight months of 2015, for example, 98 percent of the 3,828 homicide victims were civilians and not suspected gang members or security force members, according to statistics from the country’s national police and Institute of Forensic Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal - IML) cited by the BBC.
El Salvador’s declining homicide rate is indeed a positive development given that the Northern Triangle nation routinely ranks among the most violent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, Cotto did not explain what is behind the decrease in homicides.
Below, InSight Crime looks at three reasons that could help explain the drop.
1. Increased Criminal Sophistication
One explanation behind the drop in homicides could be an increased level of sophistication on the part of the country’s notoriously violent gangs as authorities have doubled down on extraordinary anti-gang measures, forcing them to venture into other criminal activities.
“What has happened is the consolidation of gang control in many places and communities, the sophistication of the gang’s criminal activities, and the fact that gangs have increasingly moved on to activities other than extortion,” Florida International University professor José Miguel Cruz told InSight Crime in July in reference to the drop in homicides since 2015.
(Graphic courtesy of La Prensa Gráfica)
Indeed, a number of recent operations in El Salvador revealed that the MS13 has developed a substantial financial structure in part by trying to expand into other criminal activities like selling stolen firearms and international drug trafficking -- albeit unsuccessfully -- in addition to extortion, which has historically been the gang’s main source of income.
New revenue streams have forced the gang to become more sophisticated in the money laundering schemes they use to wash their criminal proceeds, which has also increased their financial power and in turn their economic, political and social control. Violence isn't good for business, and this growing sophistication could explain the recent drop in homicides.
2. Election Season
With campaigns officially in swing ahead of the February 2019 presidential election, the recent reduction in homicides may also be related to efforts from the country’s gangs to influence the outcome of the election.
Criminal groups in El Salvador have managed to influence the country’s political system in the past, negotiating with candidates to offer electoral support in exchange for various types of benefits. Ahead of the March 2018 legislative and municipal elections, National Police Chief Cotto warned of gang infiltration in the process. Gangs can help reduce violence for candidates -- there was a reduction in homicides leading up to the March elections -- in exchange for a reduction in heavy-handed crime fighting strategies against the gangs, for example.
During the country’s last presidential election in 2014, a number of videos showed the two main political parties, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), agreeing to pay members of the MS13 and Barrio 18 millions of dollars in exchange for political support.
3. 'Mano Dura'
Extraordinary anti-gang measures are often criticized for their questionable legality and the risk that security forces may commit abuses. Several security force units in El Salvador have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members and even running their own anti-gang death squads.
However, El Salvador's Congress recently passed a set of extraordinary prison measures that were initially approved in 2016 and extended multiple times after that permanently tightened security measures in prisons. Officials have the authority to cut off all telecommunications to and from the country's prisons as part of the measures, among other things.
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The use of cell phones is one of the primary ways that gang leaders coordinate extortion and other criminal activities with other gang members on the street. While the gangs haven't lost the capacity to communicate within the jails, the isolation of their traditional leadership behind bars has weakened their overall ability to communicate.
The threat of not being able to communicate effectively once in jail may also be impacting the way in which the gangs use violence in the streets, leading them to expand into other more sophisticated criminal activities.