Argument

El Salvador’s Homicide Rate Hit a Historic Low in 2020

But the reasons behind the drop are unclear, and broader security and economic reforms are urgently needed.

A Salvadoran police officer guards a crime scene where a member of the National Civil Police was allegedly killed by gang members, in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, on Oct. 17, 2017.
A Salvadoran police officer guards a crime scene where a member of the National Civil Police was allegedly killed by gang members, in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, on Oct. 17, 2017. MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 27, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele announced via Twitter that the country had gone 48 hours without a reported homicide—a significant feat. In El Salvador, gangs have exerted control over entire communities for decades through extortion, disappearances, and frequent killings. “There is still much to do, two days without homicides doesn’t mean that El Salvador doesn’t still suffer from violence and delinquency,” Bukele wrote. “But two consecutive days without homicides was something unthinkable before, when we were the murder capital of the world.”

El Salvador has made notable advances in reducing homicides since it earned the undesirable title of deadliest country outside a war zone in 2015 with more than 6,600 murders in a country of almost 6.5 million people. Five years later, the country closed out 2020 with the lowest homicide rate in more than two decades with 1,322 homicides, according to government statistics.

Although reducing homicides is an important part of improving security in El Salvador, many experts say relying on homicide statistics as the only indicator risks missing the big picture—gang control has only become more entrenched. Homicides are just one way that gangs exert control on communities. They show their force through extortion, threats, and sexual violence as well. Even though crime statistics have gone down, there is little evidence—such as fewer active gang members or increased entry into the formal workforce by former gang members—showing government policies have actually dismantled the structures that enact this violence, meaning crime could spike again at any moment.

In El Salvador, understanding the reason behind the drop in homicides is just as important as the numbers themselves, according to Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group, which focuses on studying, preventing, and resolving conflict. Although the government has claimed its policies are at the root of the drop, Breda believes other factors may be at play.

Homicides are just one way that gangs exert control on communities.

Bukele credits his security plan—known as the Territorial Control Plan—for El Salvador’s historic drop in homicides. The plan specifically targets 22 out of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities by increasing law enforcement presence and building community centers to provide a safe space for youth to spend their free time and prevent gang recruitment. But an analysis by the International Crisis Group in July 2020 found the reduction of homicides in El Salvador was nationwide, rather than restricted to these targeted communities, undercutting the claim that the plan can be credited with the overall decrease. The creation of social programs included in the plan was only 20 percent complete at the time of the report, and the small scale of these programs could not account for the nationwide drop. Plus, the plan does not explain sporadic spikes in violence, including a period of five days in April 2020 with more than 80 murders.

Breda suspects that the pandemic played a role in homicide reduction, as demonstrated in neighboring countries. In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, homicide rates dropped temporarily during lockdowns, when fewer people were in the streets, only to spike again as restrictions eased. Each country ended the year with a homicide rate lower than the year before, although the difference from the previous year was starkest in El Salvador. Although the lockdown was one factor in El Salvador, it is not sufficient to explain the drastic drop.

In September 2020, Salvadoran investigative media outlet El Faro revealed that members of Bukele’s government had been meeting with high-level members of MS-13 in prisons since at least July 2019. The report alleged that reduction of homicides was among the concessions that gang leaders had agreed to in exchange for prison privileges, including the reversal of a government decision to merge cells of opposing gang members. Bukele has denied negotiations occurred but has not offered any explanation as to why documentation exists of these visits by members of his government.

Past negotiations between officials and gangs in El Salvador have led to a spike in murders when they fell apart, leading to El Salvador’s most homicidal year in 2015. Breda fears this could happen again. “If you buy the government’s narrative, that would mean the gangs’ presence in the neighborhoods would have been reduced and less members would be out in the streets,” Breda said. “But to the contrary, what we hear from people on the streets is it’s not like that. [The gangs] have not vanished. They’ve just scaled back their forms of violence.”

Regardless of the factor, or combination of factors, driving the drop in homicides, gang presence and control have only increased in 2020, according to security experts and community leaders on the ground. During the pandemic, gangs have taken the opportunity to consolidate their status in communities as the de facto authority, taking temperatures, handing out food to struggling families, and monitoring who enters and leaves. “The territorial control is something that has grown,” said an expert in migration working in El Salvador who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of her work. “There’s no place in the country where the gangs don’t have presence. They’re everywhere, from the most remote towns where the bus doesn’t even arrive and there’s no electricity, and they exercise the same control everywhere.”

Salvadorans living in these communities disagree on what the homicide statistics mean for their personal safety. One religious leader working in a gang-controlled community on the outskirts of San Salvador, who asked to remain anonymous for his security, has felt safer in the past year. He is starting to believe that these security gains could be long term. “As a society, we hope that this isn’t just a political smokescreen,” he said. “It’s going in the right direction, and we hope that it lasts.”

He’s not alone in this view. Bukele’s policies continue to be popular among citizens, who turned out in high numbers to vote for his party in legislative elections on Feb. 28, handing the party a majority of seats in the country’s congress. This support will make it easier for Bukele to pass his plans without dealing with opposition.

Other Salvadorans doubt that much has changed. “They recognize that homicides have dropped. Taxi drivers, street vendors, people in the communities will all say that,” said Rick Jones, an El Salvador-based analyst with three decades of experience in peace building in Central America. “Do they feel all that much safer, or has that diminished the gang’s presence? They say no.”

Security conditions in El Salvador will continue to be of interest to the new administration in Washington. As the Biden administration takes on the daunting task of attempting to improve security in Central America, it will have to reckon with complex questions of what it means to transform country conditions and how it will know improvements are significant and sustainable.

In recent years, the high level of violence experienced by ordinary citizens has been a major driver of migration from El Salvador. Since 2014, more than 375,000 Salvadorans have arrived at the border, according to U.S. government statistics, and many are asylum seekers. In a 2015 survey, Doctors Without Borders found that nearly 40 percent of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala left after experiencing an assault, a threat, forced gang recruitment attempt, or extortion.

The growing understanding of push factors for migration led the Obama administration to launch the Alliance for Prosperity aid package to “address the structural causes of irregular migration” through targeted programs to reduce violence, provide job opportunities, and root out corruption. U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to take a similar approach, with a promised $4 billion aid package that prioritizes building “security and prosperity” in Central America to reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving at the border. Violence reduction is a key pillar of that plan.

“Homicide rate is only one push factor of migration, and homicide rate is also just one component of violence in the country.”

“Homicide rate is only one push factor of migration, and homicide rate is also just one component of violence in the country,” said Ken Baker, co-founder and CEO of Glasswing, a nongovernmental organization that works with youth in El Salvador. “There’s still a real question of durability. Is what we’re seeing going to continue or is violence going to pick up again?”

If security gains don’t prove lasting, another surge of Salvadoran migrants could end up fleeing the country in the future. To see a long-term decrease in violence in El Salvador, Jones recommends steps that will lead to long-term security gains, not just a temporary homicide reduction. These include reducing gang recruitment, promoting pathways to leave gang life, and rehabilitation for people leaving prison.

And in the short term, there are some indicators that other factors, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, are playing a bigger role in driving migration. According to a study by the San Salvador-based research group University Institute of Public Opinion, more than 50 percent of Salvadorans who wanted to migrate in 2020 said the main reason was to improve their economic situation. Only 7 percent of Salvadorans in this survey said violence was the main reason.

The pandemic will affect migration for years to come, according to experts. They believe an uptick in migration is likely after the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, and that factors including domestic violence, climate change, corruption, and job loss will continue to play a role. If the current administration wants to understand why Salvadorans leave, policymakers must look beyond gang violence to complex, ongoing factors.

Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America. Twitter: @AnnaCat_Brigida

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