A Closer Look at El Salvador’s Homicide Stats

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The judicial forensic office in El Salvador has contradicted the government’s homicide data yet again, claiming that the country has not seen a day without a murder in nearly three years.

When the Salvadoran government announced on April 14 that the country had seen its first murder-free day since 2009, the administration of President Mauricio Funes chalked it up to improved law enforcement. However, most analysts recognized it as a symbol that the government-facilitated truce between the country’s two largest street gangs — Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 — was paying off. Since then, the Funes administration has pointed to falling homicide rates and another day without homicides (August 24) as further evidence that security in El Salvador is improving drastically.

Officials in the Supreme Court’s Office of Legal Medicine (IML), however, are wary of this optimism. On September 6 El Salvador’s La Prensa Grafica reported that, despite the government’s claims, forensic authorities at the IML had not logged a single day without a murder. According to IML director Jose Miguel Fortin, both days cited by the government saw at least one homicide. “There is no country in the world where there are no homicides [in a day], except maybe the Vatican,” Fortin said.

InSight Crime Analysis

The IML’s homicide data has been consistently higher than the statistics cited by the administration, which is kept by the Ministry of Security. Although the Funes government says that there was an average of 5.06 homicides daily in the country, the IML puts the figure at 5.4.

For his part, Funes dismissed the difference in figures, saying that he prefers to work with the Ministry of Security’s data. “It does not seem pertinent to give a press conference just to say it is not true that there were two days without killings in the country,” the president said, a likely insinuation that the IML had been pushing a political agenda.

This is not the first time that the government has clashed with the IML over murder statistics. On June 1 the forensics institute reported that there had been 876 cases of disappearances from January 1 to April 30 2012, which is twice as many as the number reported for the same period the year before. This led some to conclude that the government could be cushioning the homicide statistics in order to present its involvement in the truce in a better light. However, just two weeks before, the IML had said there were only 692 disappearances in the first four months of the year.

As InSight Crime has pointed out, this casts doubt on the reliability of the IML’s data. It has also been questioned by Security Minister David Munguia, who told El Faro that the forensic institute frequently does not remove a person’s name off of its list of disappearances once they have been found.

While the source of differences in homicide statistics could be — like the disappearances figures — procedural, the tension between the IML and the administration could be related to a larger political battle. The IML is under the authority of the Salvadoran Supreme Court, which in recent months has been enmeshed in a clash with both the legislative and executive branches over a 2011 law which sought to limit the influence of the judiciary. This escalated into a full blown constitutional crisis, and for a brief time the country had two rival Supreme Courts. Though the crisis was resolved (partially through Funes’ mediation) in August, the president likely made some political enemies in the process, and the prospect for the politicization of homicide data cannot be ruled out.

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