Homicides in El Salvador reach record as gang violence grows

March was the deadliest month in El Salvador in 10 years. The government record 481 murders, or more than 15 a day.

Salvador Melendez/AP
Salvadorian police detain a man in the town of San Juan Opico on April 1. Authorities say a recent spike in violence is the result of gangs trying to pressure the government to negotiate issues raised as part of a two-year truce that fell apart in 2014.

El Salvador had more homicides in March than any other single month in a decade, a dark milestone that some attribute to the collapse of a gang truce and one that could mark a trend of greater violence to come.

Data from the National Civil Police show 481 homicides recorded last month, or more than 15 a day. April's start is no better, with 73 killings reported in the first five days. At this rate, El Salvador is on pace to surpass Honduras as the deadliest peace-time country in the world.

Gang-on-gang violence, as well as attacks on police and Salvadorans in general is spiking in what authorities say is an attempt by gangs to pressure the government to negotiate issues raised as part of a two-year truce that fell apart in 2014. Others see it as a reaction to the new government's iron-fist approach to the country's two major gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street.

Since taking office in June, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has openly opposed any negotiations with gangs, which according to various estimates have as many as 70,000 members in a country of six million inhabitants. Some 10,000 of them are in prison.

President Sanchez Ceren, a former guerrilla leader during El Salvador's civil war, sent gang leaders back to maximum-security prisons from the less-restrictive facilities where they were moved just before the truce. His administration also has allowed National Police officers to carry their arms outside of work and advised them to use their weapons without fear in the line of duty or in defense of lives, including their own. Many of the gang attacks have targeted police.

So far this year, gang members have killed 20 police officers, compared to 39 in all of 2014, according to official figures.

"The gangs deliberately want to run up the numbers, deliberately increase the figures to try to pressure, to try to corner the institutions and the entire country," Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde, director of the National Civil Police, said recently.

For some close to the gangs however, the government's new policies are provoking the violence.

"Everything that is happening was predictable. This could be stopped in a matter of days," said former legislator and guerrilla Raul Mijango, who from 2012 to 2013 participated in negotiating the truce. "The decision to transfer the gang leaders to the maximum security prison known as 'Zacatraz' spurred the reaction of the gangs, which increased their attacks on police and the community."

The truce, negotiated under previous President Mauricio Funes, is credited for a drop in homicides from an average of 14 per day to five over 16 months. Critics of the truce said that gangs were manipulating the homicide count by burying their victims to hide them, although there were no solid numbers to prove that. But Salvadorans in gang-controlled areas said the truce enabled gangs to boost their power and increasingly prey on everyday citizens through extortion and terror.

Homicides numbers started rising again in June 2013 and never came back down.

A team from the International Red Cross, including President Peter Maurer, is heading to El Salvador in the coming days to assess the situation and talk about ways to help. The Red Cross already works in difficult neighborhoods, where they expect violence to get worse, and in improving prison conditions and protection of prisoners' rights.

"We're going to share our concerns about the deterioration of the situation in the last weeks and months," said Juan Pedro Schaerer, head of the regional delegation for Mexico, Central America, and Cuba. "Because of the increase in armed violence, there's an increase in people being detained, and that has resulted in prison overcrowding and a series of problems."

Observers and experts agree the rising violence is linked to the end of the truce.

Returning gang leaders to the maximum-security prison means they can no longer maintain control over gang members in the streets, who see no incentive to reduce violence when authorities have promised to pursue them at any cost, said Ana Tager, Latin America regional director for non-governmental organization Interpeace.

"The guys in the street see that their leaders were betting on something that didn't happen, that did not work," she said. "The guy in the street wants to seize his opportunity and nothing else."

Sonja Wolf, researcher with the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, said the government failed to carry through on promises, such as creating opportunities for gang members to reintegrate with society.

"When a government, whichever, responds favorably to the demands of gangs, they can decide to lower the violence. When the gangs realize they are not getting the results they expected, they can decide – as it appears they have – to increase the violence," Ms. Wolf said.

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