Report: Few El Salvador Homicides Involve Gang Members

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A new investigative report calls into question whether recent violence in El Salvador is mainly the result of confrontations between gangs.

El Salvador saw well over 600 homicides in May — the nation’s deadliest month in over 20 years, according to La Prensa Grafica. Security officials have implied that the majority of the victims are the result of gang-on-gang violence or internal purges within street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) or the Barrio 18. However, local newspaper El Diario de Hoy investigated a sampling of murder cases from five municipalities, and determined that less than half of the victims had clear links to street gangs. 

Relying on statistics from police and the national forensic office, as well as on-the-ground reporting, El Diario de Hoy examined 58 homicide cases registered in May, and determined that only 21 victims had definitive gang affiliations. 

The newspaper reported there were several cases which the police had classified murder victims as gang members, while other witnesses or community residents would say otherwise. Police often “rashly” labeled a murder case as gang-related if a victim had tattoos of any kind, had known any gang members, or lived in gang-infested area, the report said.

El Diario de Hoy’s investigation also found that most victims were male and that most murders in the sample set had taken place in rural areas. This marked a shift from five years ago when most homicides happened in city centers, the report said. 

InSight Crime Analysis

While a single investigation into a small sampling of homicide cases does not conclusively refute assertions that most of El Salvador’s homicides are gang-related, it does point to the larger problem in determining who is a gang member. 

Gangs themselves differentiate between those who have been formally initiated into the gang, recruits who have not yet undergone this initiation ritual, and a wide network of collaborators that includes young men, women, children, and the elderly. While collaborators may perform key tasks for the gangs — collecting extortion payments, or selling drugs — they are not technically “gang members” as such. Authorities may not be applying this more nuanced understanding of what constitutes a “gang member” when investigating homicides. 

Given the government’s inability to address El Salvador’s ongoing security crisis, officials may see some advantage in writing off the murders as gang-on-gang violence, with the implication that average civilians are left out of the fray. However, not only is this a highly questionable assertion, the justice system can’t deprioritize murder cases simply because the victims were known gang members. Although police have said they are “at war” with street gangs, they are still required to fully investigate all murders, and failing to do so in the case of dead gang members could lead to an increased sense of lawlessness in an already volatile situation. 

A video report on El Diaro de Hoy’s investigation El Salvador homicides 

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