El Salvador’s vice president has claimed that new government security measures will see the country’s street gangs “defeated” within 12 months, a bold claim that history suggests is wildly optimistic.
At a May 12 press conference, Vice President Óscar Ortiz offered assurances that within a year the government would be able to “stop and reverse” the rising levels of violence and gang control in the country.
“We cannot tolerate these groups dictating the terms of security for families,” Ortiz said. “We have to find them, pursue them, and crush them, that is our mission in these next twelve months.”
Ortiz pointed to the recently passed package of “extraordinary measures” as a “good start” in this campaign. The measures, which are designed to combat the country’s powerful “mara” street gangs, most notably the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, target the ability of imprisoned gang leaders to effectively operate from behind bars. Additionally, the government has created a new anti-gang rapid response force and passed legal reforms that reclassify gang crimes as terrorism.
Joining the vice president at the press conference was Justice and Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez. The minister pointed to falling homicide rates in recent months and what he said was a two percent drop in overall crime over the past 12 months as evidence the government’s efforts are bearing fruit.
InSight Crime Analysis
Apart from a period of brief experimentation beginning in 2012 with a now-defunct gang truce, since the early 2000s El Salvador has consistently approached its gang problem with a hardline “iron fist” security posture, and the current government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has made it clear it intends to persist with this line of action.
However, history has not reflected well on “iron fist” policies as gangs have only grown in strength and violence has worsened during the times they have been applied. So far, the current administration has been no different and Sánchez’s time in office has seen more, not less violence. El Salvador ended 2015 as the deadliest country in the Western Hemisphere and 2016 so far has seen a more than 50 percent increase in the average number of homicides a month. While murders did drop dramatically in April, it is far from clear whether the government can take credit for this.
The most dramatic decreases in daily homicide rates actually came at the beginning of April after gang leaders themselves ordered their members to stop the killing in an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade the government from enacting extraordinary measures.
Government officials have suggested that high levels of violence are a necessary cost of the administration’s security strategy, intimating that things could get worse before they get better. However, they have not demonstrated how their hard line policy will be any more effective than the iron fist efforts of past administrations that failed to rein in the violence.