May was reportedly the most violent month in El Salvador in the last 20 years, and there is little sign that any respite from the violence lies ahead.
La Prensa Grafica reported that 16 people were killed on May 31, bringing the total number of homicides for the month of May to 622. That day also marked the close of President Sanchez Ceren’s first full year in office.
Sanchez, a former guerrilla leader, campaigned on a platform that championed his credentials to fight organized crime and improve citizen insecurity. Since his election, his administration’s security strategy has been characterized by the complete reversal of the gang truce that was at the center of the previous government’s approach. On May 30, Sanchez noted on Twitter that citizen security is a “complex subject that will not be resolved overnight.”
The final homicide tally for the month of May comes after a reported drop in violence on May 23-24, during the nationwide celebrations for the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Leaders of the MS13 and Barrio 18 took credit for the drop in homicides, asserting they had declared a ceasefire to honor the late Archbishop.
InSight Crime Analysis
El Salvador’s dramatic escalation of violence — which includes increased hostilities between the gangs and the police — is the latest indication that the country is indeed essentially “at war.” El Salvador had previously seen its most violent month in a decade in March.
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Earlier this year, the Sanchez government released a plan for reducing violence in the long-term, with a billion-dollar proposal that emphasized crime prevention over a more militarized policy. Such an approach would presumably be complemented by the $1 billion aid package that the US has allocated for Central America, which also emphasizes a “softer” approach.
While this influx of US assistance would undoubtedly be a gamechanger for El Salvador if allocated appropriately, in practice President Sanchez has promoted a more hardline strategy, recently announcing the deployment of the military to the streets. With these record homicide numbers coming in, the government is undoubtedly under pressure to act as though it is taking dramatic action to address the security crisis. But regardless of any long or short-term plan for reducing homicides, the uncomfortable truth may be that for now, the gang leaders have a much greater ability to control El Salvador’s homicide levels rather than any state authority.