Despite being one of the world’s most violent countries, El Salvador enjoyed one of its most peaceful months in years in July, but President Nayib Bukele may be far too early in taking the credit.
With a rate of five homicides per day, or 154 in total, July 2019 was the country’s second least violent month of the 21st century, only behind April 2013 with 143 homicides, according to police data cited in El Faro. Since January 2001, an average month in El Salvador has seen just over 300 killings.
The country even capped off the month with a murder-free day on July 31, which has only happened eight times in the last 19 years. The last time was on January 13, 2017.
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Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s recently-inaugurated president, has been quick to attribute this success to his new security plan. That plan, known as the Territorial Control Plan (Plan Control Territorial), aims to boost military and police presence in areas under gang control, and is viewed by some as a return to the hardline policies implemented by past administrations.
“To be honest, we didn’t expect the reduction to be so quick and so large,” he told El Faro, although he admitted other factors had probably also had an impact.
The decrease in the nation’s elevated homicide rate marks the continuation of a trend which has seen a steady drop in killings since 2016.
In the first half of 2019, El Salvador recorded 1,407 murders – a 12.2 percent reduction on the previous year.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although Bukele is claiming responsibility for the drop-off in killings, it is far too early to credit his recently implemented security plan for this success. His new strategy came into force on June 20 and this latest drop in El Salvador’s homicide rate marks the continuation of a downward trend lasting several years.
On the contrary, Bukele's apparent penchant for hardline security policies, known locally as “mano dura,” could undo El Salvador’s recent progress in lowering its homicide count.
Bukele's plan came into force on June 20 and centers on sending military and police forces to the streets to retake gang-controlled municipalities. So far, the president has ordered the deployment of 3,000 military troops to support security operations.
The president initially promised to present a more complete security plan, but his proposals for tackling gang violence have thus far focused on tough measures – a staple of previous administrations. These strategies have repeatedly failed to make an impact in El Salvador, instead contributing to increasing violence.
Bukele has also raised eyebrows by appointing police chiefs with a history of repression. The new director of the National Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, has previously been investigated by Salvadoran authorities for suspected human rights abuses, and during the prior administration oversaw special police units which reportedly contained gang extermination units.
In addition, it is difficult for the government’s statistics to be taken at face value after it recently announced that it would no longer register homicides resulting from confrontations between security forces and suspected gang members.
Though the government appears to have backtracked on this policy by including 22 homicides committed by state security forces in July’s figures, the announcement has sparked concerns that the state may seek to artificially reduce the country’s homicide rate, or hide potential abuses committed by its security forces.