El Salvador wields heavy hand to contain murder rate

Shaven-headed and stripped to their underwear, prisoners in a jail in El Salvador sat crammed in rows on the floor, guarded by heavily armed police. Some wore masks against coronavirus. Most were marked with the tattoos of the country’s deadly gangs.

It was a deliberate humiliation by the government — punishment for a surge of homicides last weekend. A day later, hardline president Nayib Bukele posted images on social media of prison authorities sealing cells with metalworking equipment under a tough gang clampdown, which includes shoot-to-kill powers for police.

“We’re going to make the gang members who committed these murders regret taking this decision for the rest of their lives,” the 38-year-old president tweeted this week. “We’re going to stop homicides, I promise.”

El Salvador was indeed on course for a drop in murders this year after the homicide rate fell to 50 per 100,000 in 2019 from 103 in 2015. But that was before last weekend, when a killing spree began in which 85 died over the course of four days.

“The gangs are demonstrating . . . they still have the capacity to turn the [homicide] taps on and off at will,” said Óscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist at the respected online publication El Faro and author of a book on violence in the region.

The spike in violence is all the more surprising because Mr Bukele imposed one of the region’s most draconian coronavirus lockdowns on March 22, even before Central America’s tiniest country registered any cases.

For the following two days, El Salvador — which five years ago was the world’s deadliest peacetime nation — achieved the unthinkable: there were no murders.

“Reducing homicides has been one of the insignias of this government and it’s no mean feat,” said Mr Martínez.

The government blamed the gangs — which have an estimated 62,000 members in the country — for the recent killing spree. But Jeannette Aguilar, a UN security researcher, said some murders bore the hallmarks of “extermination groups”, which may include security, police and civilian members.

Rights defenders, meanwhile, accuse Mr Bukele of using the pandemic to bulldoze institutional checks and balances, and warn his high-stakes war on gangs could backfire. The president has put inmates under lockdown in their cells, mixed members of rival gangs and told security forces they can use lethal force.

José Miguel Vivanco, Americas executive director at advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said the prison crackdown revealed Mr Bukele’s “autocratic tendencies”.

Since February, the president has marched security forces into the legislature and spurned a ruling of the country’s top court, decreeing measures via tweet.

There is no also no guarantee his anti-gang tactics will work: a truce between El Salvador’s biggest gangs, MS-18 and Barrio 18, declared in 2012, slashed the murder rate by 53 per cent in 15 months. But it began to unravel after little more than a year. By March 2015, the murder rate was the highest in a decade.

“There is a risk . . . of gangs joining forces to fight not each other, but the police,” said Mr Martínez.

Achieving a lasting reduction in homicides in El Salvador will be tough if the record of other populist leaders in Latin America is any guide. “Violence is increasing in many parts of the region despite sweeping coronavirus quarantine measures”, said Robert Muggah, research director at Igarapé, a security think-tank in Rio de Janeiro.

A police office in Rio points his gun in protest at coronavirus measures. Even with hardline policing, in the first two months of 2020, murders rose nearly 8 per cent © REUTERS

With hardline policing and looser gun controls, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro achieved the lowest murder rate in Brazil since 2007. But in the first two months of 2020, murders rose nearly 8 per cent according to Brazil’s Monitor da Violência, a group of research institutes. 

In the state of São Paulo, murders leapt 10 per cent over the past three months compared to the same period in 2019. In the Amazonian state of Amapá, killings jumped 64 per cent in January and February. In the northeastern state of Ceará, all violent crimes, including homicide, have spiked by 99 per cent in March alone, Igarapé said.

Mexico’s leftist nationalist Andrés Manuel López Obrador has taken the opposite approach to Brazil and El Salvador — his policy dubbed “hugs not bullets” is based on justice and humanity, he says. But the number of murders still rose 8.5 per cent in March to 3,000, about 7 per cent higher than when he took office in 2018. The number of homicides remains only a whisker below the all-time high of 3,074 reached last July.

A police office sprays a pedestrian to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Oaxaca, Mexico. Andrés Manuel López Obrador has taken the opposite approach to Brazil and El Salvador © AFP via Getty Images

Mr López Obrador has created a new National Guard, boosting the number of police on the ground. But the new force had a rate of just one drug-related arrest for every 104 National Guard officers, said Ricardo Márquez Blas, a security analyst and former official.

“Homicides have not gone down — it’s not an issue of [more] police, it’s a problem of efficiency,” he said.

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