El Salvador reported more homicides in March than in any other month over the past 10 years, a high-water mark for violence in an evolving criminal dynamic that is taking on overtones of a low intensity war.
El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) registered 481 homicides during the month of March, for an average rate of 16 murders per day, according to La Prensa Grafica. The previous record for murders during the last 10 years was in October 2009, when the PNC recorded 437.
El Salvador’s homicide figures during the past month represent a 52 percent increase from March 2014. At that time, former director of the PNC, Rigoberto Pleites, told Salvadoran media the country’s 2012 gang truce was “technically finished” due to the rising number of homicides.
According to authorities, El Salvador witnessed six massacres last month, including the killing of eight individuals at a truck stop on March 29.
El Salvador also registered 243 missing persons from January 1 through February 22, for an average of 4.5 disappearances per day, reported El Salvador.com.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although El Salvador has long struggled with high rates of violence, the conflict has taken on a more confrontational tone between security forces and gangs since the breakdown of the 2012 truce between the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs. Last week, for example, an alleged gang member threw a grenade at a police station in the northern department of Cabañas. Nearly 40 police officers were killed in 2014 as a result of this high level of aggression against security forces, and so far 2015 is projected to slightly outpace last year’s number.
Salvadoran police have responded in kind, and in January the director of the PNC told his officers to shoot at criminals without fear of repercussions. In February, a police official summed up the current security conditions in El Salvador by saying “we’re at war” with the country’s gangs. These public comments by high-level security officials are likely attempts to show their support for the rank and file police officers, who are the most vulnerable to gang violence and have reported feeling overmatched by well-armed criminal groups.
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However, El Salvador’s record-high murder rate last month suggests matching violence with more violence is not an effective security strategy. In contrast, Ecuador has significantly lowered homicides from 2011 levels in part by professionalizing the country’s police forces and improving relations between security personnel and local communities.
The battle between security forces and gangs in El Salvador appears to be a pattern that will shape violence during 2015.