Did El Salvador cut a deal with the gangs to bring down violence?

With the world’s second-highest homicide rate, (around 66 per 100,000 people) it’s not surprising that El Salvador might take drastic measures to stop the killing. But a sudden drop in homicides is raising questions about just what the infamous MS-13 gang is getting in return: An intelligence report prepared in February and provided by the ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

With the world's second-highest homicide rate, (around 66 per 100,000 people) it's not surprising that El Salvador might take drastic measures to stop the killing. But a sudden drop in homicides is raising questions about just what the infamous MS-13 gang is getting in return:

An intelligence report prepared in February and provided by the government official asserts that top members of the ministry “offered, if it is necessary, to make deals or negotiate with subjects who have power inside organized crime structures to reduce homicides.”

There is no dispute that, in an unprecedented move, 30 of the top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 criminal gangs were transferred on March 8 and 9 from a maximum-security prison, where many had been for over a decade, to prisons with perks including family visits.

With the world’s second-highest homicide rate, (around 66 per 100,000 people) it’s not surprising that El Salvador might take drastic measures to stop the killing. But a sudden drop in homicides is raising questions about just what the infamous MS-13 gang is getting in return:

An intelligence report prepared in February and provided by the government official asserts that top members of the ministry “offered, if it is necessary, to make deals or negotiate with subjects who have power inside organized crime structures to reduce homicides.”

There is no dispute that, in an unprecedented move, 30 of the top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 criminal gangs were transferred on March 8 and 9 from a maximum-security prison, where many had been for over a decade, to prisons with perks including family visits.

In the ensuing days, killings in El Salvador dropped to five a day, and sometimes even fewer, from the typical 14. All told, homicides nationwide dropped to 186 in the first 21 days of March from 411 in January and 402 in February.

Zero-tolerance crime fighting strategies generally seem to be going out of favor in the region. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who had vowed on the campaign trail to crush the cartels, was in the news last week for hosting a regional conference on drug legalization.  

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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