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Progress Watch

Good news from Central America: Homicides fall in Guatemala, El Salvador

Attributed, in part, to an evolution away from hardline 'iron fist' policy approaches to crime and violence, El Salvador and Guatemala saw homicides fall in 2012 from record highs.

By Correspondent / January 16, 2013

Mexico City

More than 300 days and counting. That’s how long the historic “truce” between rival Salvadoran gangs has lasted, helping reduce homicide, prison violence, and extortion in the Central American nation.

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Since the March pact, the Salvadoran government, along with churches, civil society, and the private sector, have all had a hand in the turnaround, which represents an evolution from the hardline "iron fist" policy approaches of the past.

Homicides in El Salvador dropped 40 percent in 2012, from 4,371 the previous year to 2,576, the lowest level since 2003.

And El Salvador is not alone.

Guatemala has seen a decline as well. The full sum of the reasons behind last year's decline in homicides in both countries – and the sustainability of the trend – is still being studied. Yet, multifaceted initiatives, as well as programs to strengthen states’ institutional capacity, are helping reshape the security landscape in Guatemala and El Salvador, which have seen homicide rates fall from record highs.

While military and police forces remain critical to security efforts in the region, the mano dura “is no longer the be all, end all answer” to fighting gang violence and drug trafficking, says Jason Marczak, policy director of the New York-based Council of the Americas.

Local circumstances vary substantially, but Guatemala, too, has broadened its security strategy beyond the “iron fist” method that dominated the region's approach to violence and crime over the past decade. Homicides declined there for a third straight year, dipping nearly 9 percent in 2012 to 5,174 murders. 

“I think the examples of what is working in El Salvador can serve as a reference point for what can be accomplished in Guatemala and Honduras and how to do it,” says Mr. Marczak.

Peace pact lasts

The truce many in El Salvador believed couldn't last has evolved into a more complex peace process, according to those who guided the pact.

The truce has served as an example of how all members of society can play a role in sustaining peace.

Take Josué Alvarado, the Salvadoran founder of Maryland-based Rio Grande Foods. In El Salvador, where the company employs more than 450 people, Mr. Alvarado started recruiting ex-members of the feared MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs into a “reinsertion” program that includes faith-based rehabilitation through local churches, psychological treatment by the state health authority, workshop space loaned by the municipality, and vocational training provided by the company.

Other gangs in addition to the MS-13 and Barrio 18 have also pledged to end street violence. As a result of the directive, extortion – a primary source of gang income and a dangerous menace to small businesses – has edged down by 10 percent. Imprisoned gang members have largely kept the peace inside penitentiaries as well.


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