El Salvador saw an average of five murders a day in April, according to police statistics, down 58 percent from the same month last year, as a ceasefire between rival gangs apparently continues to hold.
Killings in El Salvador sharply declined from March 9. Before this date, the average for 2012 stood at 13 to 14 murders a day, representing a drop of more than 60 percent.
In the days leading up to March 9, the authorities moved some 30 gang leaders to lower security prisons, followed by an immediate decline in killings. News website El Faro reported that the transfer was part of a deal between the government and the gang leaders to cut violence, which was quickly denied by the authorities. Days later, Bishop Fabio Colindres came forward to say that the Church had negotiated a truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, but had not offered any concessions to the gangs. According to the official account, the transfers were made to allow the leaders to more easily communicate the order to halt killings to their subordinates on the outside.
After the announcement of April's figures, Security Minister David Munguia Payes said that the truce had contributed to the decrease in murders, but the government's security strategy was the primary reason why violence is falling, reports La Prensa Grafica.
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Munguia has been reluctant to place too much emphasis on the ceasefire agreement, pointing out that "real results" against crime will come only as part of concerted government actions. These include a specialized anti-gang police unit made up of more than 300 officers which began operations last week, schemes to provide work for former gang members, and legal reform to make it easier for the authorities to prosecute and jail gang members.
The minister also argues that around half of the current killings are still carried out by gangs, explaining that the MS-13 and Barrio 18 still suffer from internal dissent, and that there are other gangs who have not been included in the truce.
He is right that the truce will need to be reinforced with broader measures -- its brokers have given no guarantees for how long the ceasefire will last, and killings could in theory resume at any moment. However, it appears that the reduction in murders to date is likely due almost entirely to the agreement, given that the other measures are all longer-terms projects that will take some time to have an impact.
Indeed, in a recent interview with La Prensa Grafica, the minister said that he expected to see results from the new police unit within six months. He said that within a month the unit would be expanded to 450 officers, including a section dedicated to intelligence and investigative work.
Munguia also said that the legal reforms they are currently working on include a provision for the authorities to declare targeted states of emergency. "The authorities should be provided with better tools," he said "What we have in El Salvador is not common crime, we are talking about well organized structures."
According to Munguia, there are some 60,000 gang members in the country, operating in half of all municipalities.