Official data shows homicides have decreased significantly in El Salvador during the past year, but contrary to statements by the authorities, the government's extraordinary anti-gang measures are not the only reason for the steep decline.
The director of El Salvador's National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC), Howard Cotto, said 493 homicides were registered in January and February 2017, 65 percent less than those committed in the first two months of last year, reported El Diario de Hoy.
With an average of 8.4 killings per day, January and February 2017 homicide totals are remarkably close to the figures registered following the government-facilitated truce struck between the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs in 2012. During the truce, homicide tallies fell to seven per day before skyrocketing again after the truce collapsed in 2014. Murders eventuallly reached an astounding 18 per day in 2015, the most violent year since the end of El Salvador's civil war in the early 1990s.
Cotto said the recent decrease in homicides "is a result of the extraordinary security measures" implemented by the government.
El Salvador's Congress passed a package of heavy-handed measures in April 2016, in an effort to tighten restrictions on incarcerated gang members and prevent them from ordering crimes from behind bars. The measures were eventually extended in February 2017, and are expected to be implemented until 2018.
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While the decline in homicide rates is a significant accomplishment for Salvadoran authorities, the implementation of the anti-gang measures alone cannot account for the reduction of violence across the country.
To be sure, the heavy-handed measures appear to have had an impact. But parallel to these official policies, the MS13 and Barrio 18 leadership have allegedly instructed their members to halt killings. It's not clear to what extent this directive has been followed, but the sharp reduction in homides following the 2012 truce shows the gangs are capable of elevating or lowering the national homicide rate at will.
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Furthermore, human rights abuses by state forces remain a major concern. There have been reports of Salvadoran security forces taking part in extrajudicial killings against criminal groups. At the same time, there are growing indications that death squads have spread across the country, systematically targeting suspected gang members.