Over three months after El Salvador’s two largest street gangs agreed to a cease-fire, homicides, extortion, and disappearances are all reportedly down. While some of the statistics kept by different government agencies are contradictory, the overall security gains are undeniable.
June 19 will mark 100 days since the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs reportedly agreed to order a drop in killings, several days after top gang leaders were moved into prison facilities with more relaxed security conditions.
A comparison between this year and last year’s monthly homicide tally by the National Police show the dramatic decrease in killings:
|March 2011||March 2012|
|April 2011||April 2012|
|May 2011||May 2012|
National Police statistics on homicides have differed from those kept by the Public Forensic Institute (Medicina Legal), which has released slightly higher murder counts for each month.
The Forensic Institute also keeps a much higher count for disappearances reported since the cease-fire was brokered, reporting 877 disappearances between January and April, while the police count just 677 disappearances up till June 10. As InSight Crime has reported, a high number of disappearances could undermine some of the apparent achievements of the gang truce.
Reports of extortion are also dropping compared to last year, although anonymous extortion is on the rise, police have said.
According to the head of El Salvador’s anti-gang police unit, there are currently 60,000 gang members in the country.
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Some of the discrepancies between the police data and the Forensic Institute make it difficult to judge the true extent of the security gains seen under the gang cease-fire. Security Minister David Munguia told El Faro that the discrepancy exists because the Forensic Institute does not remove a “disappeared” person from their database if they are reported found again.
El Faro’s analysis of the data concludes, “definitively, neither the National Police nor the Forensic Institute have registered an increase in reports of disappearances since March 8, 2012.”
As El Faro points out, another theory behind the increased disappearances is that more gang members could be burying their dead. But for now, this number is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate.
If the cease-fire continues to show security gains, it will become more likely that more government officials will tout the advances, even as they emphasize that the truce could break at any time. Munguia, one of the most prominent skeptics of the cease-fire, said recently that he hoped El Salvador’s average daily murder rate would drop from five to three by the year’s end, emphasizing that this would be achieved primarily through the efforts of the security forces.·
It’s also possible that the cease-fire could crack due to killings committed by groups other than the MS-13 and Barrio 18. One of the brokers of the truce, lawmaker and ex-guerrilla commander Raúl Mijango, told the AFP there were “dark interests” interested in sabotaging some of the gains of the cease-fire. There are death squads killing and harassing gang members in some parts of the country, he added.
But it will be tough to distinguish between the killings allegedly committed by these deaths squads versus those that involve gang infighting. One prominent gang leader in El Salvador’s fourth largest city was recently killed after he was released from jail, in an act that police said was related to a “gang purge.”
(See video of celebrations to mark 100 days of truce in one prison, below.)
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