Sonsonate: El Salvador’s Most Violent Region

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Sonsonate, in western El Salvador, has the highest murder rate in the country. Located on a strategic drug route to Guatemala, the province is infested with local gangs, who may be developing ties to Mexican traffickers.

In recent years, Central American has become an increasingly important route for trafficking drugs from South America up to Mexico and the United States. El Salvador is a key location on this journey north, and is home to a vital cocaine pathway, known as El Caminito, which stretches from the Honduran border to the Guatemalan border.

Located on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, close to Guatemala, the province of Sonsonate is strategic territory for drug traffickers. Its main port, Acajutla, is a crucial hub for drug shipments, and its proximity to Guatemala ensures quick ground transfer to Mexico.

Violence is not a new phenomenon in the region. As a report from La Prensa Grafica details, Sonsonate has been the most violent province of El Salvador since 2009. The following year saw 88 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. This is significantly more than the next-highest regions; La Libertad, with 80 per 100,000, and San Salvador with 78. So far in 2011, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine, homicides are up 8.5 percent in Sonsonate compared to the same period in 2010, with 235 murders reported between January and June. According to the newspaper, several massacres have occurred during this period, while Acajutla has seen a significant spike in violence.

The authorities have several explanations for why violence is rising in Sonsonante. As La Prensa Grafica reports, the National Police (PNC), say that rivalries among local gangs account for many killings in a region that is highly controlled by these “pandillas.” In fact, the police state that only two municipalities are not under gang control in the province. The sheer number of these criminal groups drives clashes, with a number of small-scale groups fighting for a piece of territory, sometimes block by block. Authorities have also said that violence has gone up in Sonsonate as a result of the release from prison of several gang leaders from the area. According to reports, their return likely provoked struggles with rivals for control of the region.

The killings in Sonsonate could also be due in part to a “balloon effect” caused by anti-gang policies in other parts of the country. With law enforcement efforts concentrated on the capital, San Salvador, the “maras” are forced to move to peripheral areas of the district, and to other regions. In the provinces of La Union and Cabañas, east of San Salvador, homicide rates have risen in 2011. The figures suggest that police deployment may be moving the violence from place to place, rather than eradicating it.

The official explanation — that violence in Sonsonate is mostly caused by local rivalries between gangs — is partly right. Most of El Salvador’s gang members are no more than ill-trained, badly-equipped “pandilleros” (members of street gangs) who have no formal links to Mexican cartels, and are not involved in the international export of cocaine. The gangs often lack a clear organization or hierarchy.

Still, even if powerful Mexican groups like the Zetas haven’t yet managed to strengthen ties with the pandilleros, this does not mean they won’t attempt to do so in the future. With the Mexican cartels spreading their tentacles through Central America, and Guatemala becoming a refuge for organized criminal groups, Sonsonate could represent a highly valuable transshipment hub for these transnational criminal organizations.

In one example of Sonsonate’s increased importance as a trafficking hub, authorities seized 480 barrels of precursor chemicals in Acajutla on June 1. These substances are used to produce synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstasy. The shipment, which came from China and was probably en route to Guatemala and then Mexico, illustrates the importance of Sonsonate’s role in the drug trade. The seizure follows the interception of 56 tons of the same products in Acajutla in May. Precursor chemicals are forbidden in El Salvador, and the quantities of the drugs, as well as the distance they traveled, show a level of professionalism that does not usually characterize pandilla activities.

Controlling Sonsonate means controlling what enters and leaves Acajutla, but it is doubtful that the local pandillas have the discipline, organization and international contacts to organize shipments from China to El Salvador on their own. The trade, then, is most likely in the hand of more experienced players, using local gangs as intermediaries. Control of the Salvadoran Pacific corridor would represent a crucial move in the Central American expansion of Mexican organizations.

While rising violence in Sonsonate may be caused by local rivalries between pandillas, these recent seizures suggest that the Mexican cartels could be interfering. Although their role is still unclear, their presence may fuel existing local tensions.

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