Wave of Violence Ushers in El Salvador’s New Year

El Salvador's murder rate increased significantly throughout 2014.
El Salvador’s murder rate increased significantly throughout 2014. (Pixabay)

EspañolAn increase in violence has marked the beginning of 2015 in El Salvador. Up to January 11, the country has experienced an average of 15 murders per day, six more than last year’s rate for the same month.

The surge, however, can be traced back to the end of 2014. In December, authorities documented 412 cases of homicide, almost doubling the rate recorded in the same month of the previous year (208).

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The most recent data may indicate a new trend, given the 2014 annual homicide rate — 68.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants — was significantly higher than the 43.7 per 100,000 the previous year.

Despite these figures, Salvadoran authorities believe the public are overreacting. Benito Lara, minister of Justice and Public Safety, said in a televised interview on January 5 that “crime in this country isn’t high. What we have to do is distinguish reality from perception.”

The national government blames the upturn in homicides to turf wars between street gangs over drug distribution and extortion rackets. According to the Justice and Public Safety minister, as many as 50 percent of all murder victims are gang members.

Lara argued that that the increase in the murder rate from November to January is the result of isolated incidents, pointing to October 2014 when there were much fewer homicides. The minister also said he does not expect the surge in violence in the country to have “any impact on the upcoming elections” scheduled for March.

Deal with the Devil

On Monday, January 5, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén acknowledged that his predecessor, Mauricio Funes, cut a deal with street gangs in March 2012. He said the plan was meant to curb homicides and crime, but that his administration rejects such a strategy.

“We cannot go back to trying to understand each other and negotiating with the gangs, because that is outside the law. Gang members have decided to become outlaws, so it’s our duty to go after them, punish them, and let the justice system determine their [prison] sentences,” the president said shortly after a meeting with the National Civil Police (PNC) to discuss the increased crime rates in 2014.

In 2014, authorities recorded 3,942 homicides in El Salvador, a 63 percent increase from the 2,492 in 2013, according to data provided by the Institute of Forensic Medicine (IML).

The “truce” between the gangs and the Funes administration in 2012 aimed at minimizing disputes over territories and reducing the number of homicides in the country. During the 14 months the truce was in effect, the murder rate in the country dropped to just five per day. The trend continued until the national government decided to abort the process.

A Failed State?

The National Association of Private Firms (ANEP) and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) have both come out against the rise in murders of civilians and police officers, criticizing the “passive stance” of national authorities. During a press conference, CCI President Luis Cardenal voiced his concern that El Salvador may devolve into a “failed state.”

“A failed state is one that does not control its territory, and here we do not control it anymore,” said Cardenal.

“It’s a good sign that @SanchezCeren admitted the truce was a mistake: it promotes corruption and strengthens the gangs.” Arnoldo Jiménez [ANEP executive director]

The CCI president believes the Salvadoran government is unable to enforce the law in gang-controlled territories, and decided to hire the security consulting firm created by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in an attempt to find a way out to the violence.

“We take the government’s and the president’s word in good faith that they’re willing to work together [with us] to solve a problem that affects us all,” Cardenal said.

For his part, ANEP Executive Director Arnoldo Jiménez said he believes “all of civil society is interesting in supporting the government at the Security Council, so that crime is addressed, the law is served, and impunity goes down.”

For Cardenal, the government’s public acknowledgement of the truce is a promising sign that it can change its strategy to combat crime. “The fact that the president has admitted it already constitutes progress. It’s a good sign that [the government] can say: ‘this hasn’t worked, and we’re not going to keep doing it.'”

“The truce cemented the extortion of businesses and families and gave strength to existing structures as accepted by authorities.”

“If there’s any consistency in the president’s assertion that he’s against the truce strategy,” Jiménez alerted, “he must address the penitentiary benefits granted to the gangs.”

Jiménez argues the state should annul the agreement and send 30 gang leaders back to maximum security prisons who had been transferred to less secure institutions.

Translation by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

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