The government of El Salvador says that its official homicide data will now no longer include instances involving confrontations with security forces, a move that makes it difficult to analyze the country’s precarious security situation.
El Salvador’s national police explained to President Nayib Bukele that the homicides registered in the country will no longer include victims of alleged confrontations between security forces and suspected gang members, nor those found dead and buried in graves, El Mundo reported.
In the first 45 days of the Bukele administration, 35 suspected gang members have been killed in alleged clashes with authorities -- 22 in June and 13 in the first 15 days of July. Such incidents will no longer be included in the daily tally of violent deaths, according to El Diario de Hoy.
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This news came as police forces presented a report on the homicides committed during the first 25 days of a security plan that sent police and soldiers into the streets to retake territory dominated by the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs.
In addition to the 2,500 police officers and 3,000 soldiers sent to the capital San Salvador and other city centers as part of the operation, another 2,000 soldiers will be deployed by the end of 2019 to try and regain control in the country’s 14 departmental capitals.
El Salvador’s homicide rate has been trending downward in recent years. While still one of Latin America's most violent nations, the 3,340 homicides recorded in 2018 represented a 15 percent drop from the 3,947 homicides recorded in 2017.
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The decision to report incomplete homicide data appears to be a clear attempt to either paint a rosy picture of a security situation it is still trying to get under control, or to hide potential abuses carried out by the country's security forces.
El Salvador’s security forces have a proven track record of using excessive and often lethal force. In 2017, it was revealed that a death squad-style special police unit used social media to coordinate at least three extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. The following year, intercepted telephone conversations uncovered that high-ranking members of the country’s military commanded a clandestine death squad that executed alleged gang members.
In the past, the United States has provided funding to units accused of committing egregious abuses of force.
In addition, the new methodology for counting homicides won’t include incidents like the infamous March 2015 police massacre at the San Blas farm. The police claim an “exchange of fire” led to the killing of eight alleged gang members. But a later investigation showed the men were executed and arranged to make it appear as if they had died in a shootout with police.
And while homicides may be on the decline in El Salvador, disappearances are up. The 3,514 disappearance cases registered by the Attorney General’s Office in 2018 were more than the number of homicides recorded that year. Those later found to be dead, including in clandestine graves -- a tactic used by the country’s gangs in the past -- would not be included under the government’s new homicide records.
What’s more, the new guidelines could create a situation where homicides recorded by the Bukele administration differ significantly from the data collected by medical examiners or the Attorney General’s Office. Such conflicting numbers would make it very difficult to develop a complete understanding of any potential homicide trends, potentially stalling policies to curb violence and insecurity, among other obstacles.