Disappearances in El Salvador have risen 18 percent in 2013, according to police figures, adding to fears that gangs are keeping the murder rate down by hiding bodies in an attempt to protect the integrity of the country’s gang truce.
In the first six months of 2013, police received reports of 949 disappearances — 145 more than over the same period in 2012, and 221 more than in 2011, reported La Prensa Grafica.
According to Justice and Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo, 466 of the reported disappeared — 49 percent of the total — were later found alive. However, 59 people — 6 percent of the total — were found murdered and the rest remain missing.
Of those found alive, the most common reasons for having disappeared were family issues, health problems and problems with drug and alcohol abuse, according to the authorities.
The country’s most affected departments were San Salvador, Santa Ana, San Miguel and La Libertad.
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The issue of rising disappearances has periodically emerged to cast doubt over the gains made in the truce struck between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs — which has seen the official murder rate drop by almost half.
Critics argue the real number of murders may be much higher, as the gangs, not wanting to put the truce and the advantages it offers them in jeopardy, have taken to hiding the bodies of their victims to keep the figures low.
In 2012, there were 2,576 murders in the country, according to police — a 41 percent drop on the year before. However, if a sizable proportion of the 483 people reported missing that were later found dead or remain missing are victims of gang activity, then the true number of dead would be significantly closer to the 2011 figure of 4,371 homicides.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that the figures themselves are disputed, not least because government forensic institute Medicina Legal keeps its own figures, which are consistently higher than the official police statistics.