For the first time in a long time, the candidates who will be in the El Salvador ballot they do not propose miracle formulas to end gang violence. While it is true that they are Parliamentary election and not presidential, this time the parties do not demand the death penalty, the curfew, the heavy hand or the ‘tough super hand’, as a candidate proposed years ago. The issue of violence has simply disappeared from the debate.
After decades of bloody gang violence, homicide rates have plummeted in El Salvador during the government of Here’s to watching, who came to power in June 2019. In these 20 months in office, El Salvador went from being the most violent country in the world without a declared war to having the lowest rates in the region.
For Nayib Bukele, whose New Ideas party will achieve this Sunday, according to all polls, a landslide victory in the legislative elections, the reduction is due to his security plan, for which he has deployed 5,000 soldiers to the small Central American country. The newspaper revelations The lighthouse, however, point out that the decline is due to a pact with the MS-13, Barrio 18 Sureños and Barrio 18 Revolucionario gangs, an ‘army’ of 60,000 gang members in a country of seven million inhabitants. In any case, the objective fact is that in 2015 the country counted 20 murders a day and today there are around four. Six years ago, El Salvador had a death rate of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants and today it is 19. Beyond the Excel table, such a decrease represents a great change for the population: take the bus without fear, look at the cell phone on the street or take a taxi at night.
According to Francisco Mancilla, security commissioner in the municipality of Apopa, on the outskirts of San Salvador, “not having to deal with a high number of homicides makes it possible to allocate more troops to prevention and to speak with the community. A calm situation allows commerce and businesses to be reactivated in colonies where it was previously impossible to work because of crime ”, this officer in command of 850 agents tells EL PAÍS.
The Bukele administration boasts that the country has the lowest daily death rate since the end of the civil war (1980-1992) due, among other measures, to the fact that the police and the army have doubled their presence in the 22 municipalities with higher rates of violence, while it has tightened confinement measures in prisons in an attempt to cut off communications between incarcerated leaders and the street. For some experts consulted, more than a pact between the government with the gangs in exchange for prison benefits or privileges for some leaders, it is a fragile agreement that is still laying its foundations.
That has not prevented the president from showing himself as an inflexible president in the face of violence. During the more than year and a half that he has been in office, Bukele has exhibited his harshest tone to speak of a sensitive subject in a country torn by violence. In April 2020, when multiple murders left more than 80 dead in a span of five days, Bukele authorized the police to shoot to kill to subdue the gangs. From his Twitter account, he distributed images inside the high security prisons in El Salvador that showed inmates from different gangs forced to share cells without seeing the sun. Three months later, on July 22, 2020, the young president wrote “El Salvador lives one more day without homicides,” along with an image of fully armed soldiers. The message would have made anyone rub their eyes just five years ago.
The decline in violence “is undeniable,” says José María Tojeira, rector of the Central American University (UCA). “It is something that can be seen on the street and this gives a respite to the population that lives subjected to daily violence and not being able to go to the corner store, to school or simply to move in the city,” he adds in interview at the university campus in San Salvador.
On the militarization strategy behind, an analysis of Insight Crime revealed that 31 municipalities that were not part of the Territorial Control plan had a decrease in homicides similar to that of the 22 that were included in it. In its publication, El Faro detailed that the government had been negotiating with the MS-13 for a year in exchange for a reduction in homicides and support for these elections. However, homicides were already declining before Bukele took office and in 2018, during the government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, they had fallen by half compared to three years earlier.
However, gang violence is far from resolved. The new risk is that gangs now enter considerably less through extortion due to the pacification of the streets and confinement, so in case of non-compliance, the response could be worse.
Negotiating with gangs is a taboo subject in El Salvador because of how unpopular it would be to speak with those who have bled the country for decades, but it has been a common resource in other governments as well. Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), today a fugitive in Nicaragua, denied having spoken with the gang members until the press revealed the pact. The breaking of the truce in force between 2012 and 2013 caused a rebound without proceeding that showed the risks of the negotiation.
Official Police data continues to count more than 60,000 active gang members from the three gangs, a figure that has not changed since 2010. The structure remains intact and extortions occur throughout the country.
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