SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – El Salvador recently celebrated a historic feat: last month, the country did not record a single murder two days in a row.
In a nation that has led the world in per capita murders for years, the 48 hours without murder was marked by a sudden drop in violent crime. The killings decreased from 114 in February to 65 in March.
Driving the decline was not a ceasefire or a new police strategy, but a week-long national quarantine to slow the spread of the corona virus.
The street gangs that have terrorized El Salvador for a long time have now shifted their attention from extortion and killing to a more pressing issue: enforcing social distance restrictions, often with threats and baseball bats.
The gangs took on their role as public health thugs after President Nayib Bukele ordered a 30-day ban that began on March 22.
In many parts of the country, the gangs are more effective than government agencies. Her tactics include disseminating records of messaging applications that threaten people who break the rules.
“We don’t want to see anyone on the street,” says one photo. “When you go out, it’s better to just go to the store, and you’d better wear a mask.”
The gangs have also produced videos in which masked members beat people for not adhering to the quarantine.
In other Latin American and Caribbean countries, the number of homicides has declined similarly since home orders were issued.
In Colombia, where guerrilla leaders have ordered a month-long ceasefire for a nationwide quarantine, the murders have dropped by half.
In Guatemala and Honduras, murders have dropped by about a third, largely because fewer people have to threaten and kill on the streets.
In a part of the world where widespread poverty and low levels of public health investment could make the coronavirus particularly devastating, killing reduction is welcome welcome news.
It is also a rare respite for a region where only 8% of the world’s population lives, but almost a third of the murders.
El Salvador has been characterized by organized crime since the 1990s when US deportees brought two gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.
The government has said that in this nation of just over 6 million people, almost half a million people are connected to the gangs who make money by extorting money from small businesses and smuggling and selling drugs.
In recent years, the government has called what it calls criminal groups and has sent soldiers armed with automatic weapons and dressed in black balaclavas to gang-controlled areas.
The country’s heads of state and government say that their strategy is working and point to a decline in the highest homicide rates in 2015. However, human rights organizations have blamed gangs for an increase in enforced disappearance, suggesting that they are simply changing their tactics. Many believe that the gangs have made pacts with the government to keep corpses off the streets.
“The gangs have maintained their territorial control and outperform the state in many areas,” said Celia Medrano, program director of the Cristosal human rights group.
The fact that gangs seem to be enforcing quarantine “only confirms that they are in control,” she said.
In San Salvador, the country’s capital, the streets are incredibly empty.
On the day the national ban began, gang members in a neighborhood controlled by Mara Salvatrucha warned residents to follow the rules. “They said,” We don’t want the virus here, “said a 25-year-old neighborhood deliverer who fearfully asked to be identified only by his first name, Miguel.
“People are not afraid of the police, but of the gang,” he said.
He said the gangs fear that high infection rates could damage their business in the long term and attract unwanted government attention.
At the moment the gangs seem ready to take some losses.
In a neighborhood controlled by a branch of the Barrio 18 gang in San Salvador, killers have told small business owners and taxi drivers that they are exempt from paying extortion fees (Renta) while the quarantine is ongoing.
However, it is unclear how long the newly won peace will last.
“As soon as the quarantine ends, you have to pay what you owe,” said a barber in the neighborhood who only wanted to be identified by his first name Rafael. “I think the quarantine murders will increase because the gang won’t waive the debt and kill anyone who doesn’t pay.”
Here and across Latin America, where a wave of income inequality protest movements have taken place in several countries over the past year, concerns about possible social unrest will grow if the closures continue.
“El Salvador’s fragile economy could collapse,” said Jeannete Aguilar, a security analyst in San Salvador. Half of the country’s population works in the informal economy, and only a few have savings.
Transfers from abroad, which make up around 20% of the country’s GDP, are already declining.
“Quarantine is different when your fridge is empty,” she said. “There could be a huge increase in robberies and other crimes because people are desperate and hungry.”
It is among a growing number of experts who believe that a global recession – and the likelihood of violence associated with it – could trigger new waves of migration to the United States.
“The economic plight that this crisis will leave when it is over will only fuel and influence the structural conditions that cause thousands of people to flee their countries,” said Tiziano Breda, a Guatemala-based international analyst Crisis Group.
He said that gangs in Guatemala had already developed due to corona virus restrictions, including the suspension of bus routes that robbed them of their income.
Some gangs have shifted to blackmailing people in their homes rather than in their offices, he said.
He fears that gangs could also target government-sponsored $ 130 per family subsidies to counter the economic devastation that the coronavirus is expected to bring to one of the poorest countries in the world.
“They are waiting to find out what source of income they can replace,” said Breda.
A nation in the region where crime has not declined is Mexico, which recorded 2,585 murders in March according to preliminary government data. That is more than every month in almost two years.
April begins in a similarly bloody way. At the weekend, 19 people died in a shootout between rival drug cartels in the northern border state of Chihuahua.
A major reason that violence in Mexico has not decreased is that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador responded much more slowly to the corona virus threat than other countries in the region. Just last week, Mexico asked “nonessential” workers to stay home, and the country has not imposed any travel restrictions or curfews.
In some parts of Mexico, armed groups have prepared for a possible ban. Gangs in Tamaulipas and Michoacan have been reported to distribute food and other supplies to local residents this week.
In Guerrero state, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed gangs and self-proclaimed self-defense groups, some checkpoints have been set up in their communities to keep the virus out, said Falko Ernst, senior analyst for Mexico at the International Crisis Group.
He fears that in parts of the country where law and order are largely lacking, the coronavirus may only encourage armed groups, especially as Mexican soldiers and other federal forces move from peacekeeping activities to efforts to contain the coronavirus.
“We run the risk that these conflicts will continue to be triggered,” said Ernst.
(Linthicum reported from Mexico City and O’Toole from Washington. Renderos, a special correspondent, reported from San Salvador.)
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