Statistics from El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) continue to contradict government assertions that the majority of the nation’s homicide victims are gang members, raising concerns authorities may be prioritizing their own political standing above security and justice.
Citing police statistics, Spanish news agency EFE reported 27.8 percent of murder victims in El Salvador during the first eight months of 2015 were gang members. Similarly, El Diario de Hoy recently found that police identified just 24 percent of all homicide victims during the second half of August as either gang members or associated with gangs.
These figures run counter to the government narrative that the majority of El Salvador’s murders are gang-related. High-level security officials have said that about 85 percent of all homicide victims in August were gang members.
“They’re killing each other off,” Deputy Security Minister Juan Javier Martinez was quoted by EFE as saying. He went on to say deaths should be expected as security forces confront the gangs.
This is not the first time police data on homicides has contradicted government assertions. In July, police reports obtained by El Faro said 30 percent of murder victims were gang members, yet Security Minister Benito Lara stated the percentage of gang-related deaths was double the police figure.
InSight Crime Analysis
Properly identifying murder victims is a difficult and resource-intensive process. Labeling the majority of murders as gang-related is politically expedient, since it implies that the victims were involved in criminal activity and thus partly to blame for their own deaths.
However, there are a number of risks involved with this. By writing off killings as gang-on-gang violence, the government is let off the hook from conducting a proper murder investigation, decreasing the likelihood that perpetrators will ever be brought to justice and fomenting an environment of lawlessness.
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Additionally, saying gang members are the overwhelming victims — and victimizers — of violent crime fosters greater acceptance of militarized crime-fighting strategies. Salvadoran security officials have taken an increasingly hardline approach to combating the gangs, as clashes between security forces and criminals continue to rise. While the gangs are undoubtedly principal drivers of the violence, this emphasis by authorities draws attention away from other security concerns affecting the general population.
Finally, labeling victims as gang members carries a huge social stigma that is difficult to shake once it has been applied. Mano Dura (“Iron Fist”) security policies have previously led to the mass incarceration of gang members in not only El Salvador, but Guatemala and Honduras as well.