A new report by an El Salvador watchdog group warns that pacts between gangs and public officials to lower homicides in El Salvador are promoting the wider use of forced disappearances, showing how gangs are still using violence to maintain political and territorial control.
Using data from the Attorney General's Office and the National Police, investigators examined some 20,000 disappearances from 2014 to 2019, according to the report published in April by the Foundation of Studies for the Application of Law (Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho - FESPAD), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting rule of law in El Salvador.
Municipalities with the highest number of disappearance cases correlated with the strongest gang presence and the highest crime rates, according to the report.
"Empirical evidence indicates most disappearances occur in environments dominated by insecurity, exclusion, inequality and a strong gang presence. This favors the stigmatization of victims and their families," the report's authors wrote.
As the number of missing person cases rose in recent years in El Salvador, hidden mass graves were also found more frequently. Between 2014 and 2016, the Attorney General’s Office identified 158 hidden graves -- nearly double the 80 discovered during the eight years prior, according to FESPAD.
Investigators point to 2013 as an "inflection point" for mass graves. Their proliferation, according to the report, came a year after the country’s three main gangs -- the MS13, Barrio 18 Sureños and the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios -- agreed to put an end to killings. Government-backed mediators brokered the so-called truce, exchanging benefits for imprisoned gang leaders for reductions in violence.
The truce coincided with an abrupt increase in reports of disappearances, according to the investigators.
The victims "had presumably been killed in the context of the negotiation between the government and the gangs," the report's authors write.
InSight Crime Analysis
Carrying out forced disappearances serves a dual purpose for El Salvador's gangs.
First, disappearances have been used as an "efficient practice" by gangs to guarantee impunity while still invoking terror among local communities, according to the report.
Gangs still largely depend on territorial and social control, with extortion being their main source of revenue. Disappearances can serve to reinforce this control, which explains why they correlate with a strong gang presence.
Second, gangs learned from the truce that their political capital stems from their ability to control homicide numbers. Disappearances can stand in when public killings are not possible, helping to maintain gang order and cohesion.
For example, gang leaders authorize killings as an extreme form of discipline for betrayals or suspected betrayals. Young leaders of individual cliques may also want to remove rivals but not run afoul of imprisoned gang leaders who are leveraging a reduction in violence to obtain benefits.
This might explain why there was a dip in recorded homicides and a rise in disappearances during and after the truce.
Political parties have made pacts with gangs, often just prior to critical elections or at other moments when public officials want to proliferate a semblance of peace and security.
For example, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has credited his territorial control plan and crackdown on gangs for the country's recent plunge in killings. But Bukele has also allegedly negotiated with the MS13 to reduce homicides.