Report Underscores Crime Reduction, Abuse by El Salvador Govt

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A recent report by El Salvador’s ombudsman credits the government’s new security measures with reducing crime, but condemns their adverse impact on prisoners’ rights, raising questions about the efficacy of the country’s anti-crime programs inside and outside prison walls.

The ombudsman’s June 2017 report evaluates the effect of the country’s “extraordinary measures” on crime reduction and human rights. From permanent lockdowns to the suspension of prison visits, electronic communication, and hearings at faraway courts, the measures are designed to restrict contact between prisoners and the outside world, with the ultimate objective of thwarting criminal activity planned and executed by gang members detained in Salvadoran penitentiaries.  

The report praises the measures for significantly reducing the country’s homicide levels from 6,071 to 4,881 murders between 2015 and 2016, while noting that rates of extortion, forced disappearance, and robbery remained stable.

Nonetheless, it criticizes the measures for violating prisoners’ “rights to health, security, due process, and re-adaptation programs.” 

Inmates’ complaints of abuse at the hands of Salvadoran authorities skyrocketed in April and May 2016 — when the security program first went into effect — provoking more than 2,000 interventions in prisons by the ombudsman’s office. According to the report, permanent lockdowns have resulted in more than 47 prison deaths between January and November 2016.

InSight Crime Analysis

The ombudsman’s positive assessment of the program’s effect on homicide reduction is far less convincing than the report’s conclusions about prisoner abuse. The report provides no causal link substantiating its view that the new security measures were in fact responsible for El Salvador’s declining homicide rate.

Any direct relationship between the program and crime levels outside prison walls is tenuous at best given that the report’s crime data accounted only for officially registered cases. What’s more, gangs themselves have taken credit for the decreased levels of violence after mandating in March 2016 that their rank-and-file members put a halt to their killings. 

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The report seems to be part of a broader effort to ensure that the government, and not the gangs, controls the narrative on homicides. This is not the first time in recent months that Salvadoran officials have attributed the country’s declining murder rate to the government’s security measures with little more than scant evidence.

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