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EL SALVADOR: Gangs May Be Scapegoat for Soaring Murder Rate

SAN SALVADOR, Jan 25 2012 (IPS) - El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world, with one of the highest murder rates. But the authorities cannot agree on whether or not most of the killings should be laid at the door of the youth gangs known as “maras”.

This lack of agreement matters, because it prevents the implementation of effective measures against the deadly violence, according to civil society organisations.

According to the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML), whose forensic scientists have the job of removing the bodies from the crime scene, gangs may be responsible for about 10 percent of the killings, with another 18 percent committed by common criminals, and the rest by a range of other agents.

Among these may be drug traffickers, organised crime, rogue death squads, state security forces and domestic violence.

But the security minister, General David Munguía, attributes 90 percent of violent deaths to the “maras”, while the National Civil Police (PNC) blames the gangs for 30 percent of the homicides.

“This shows that the country has no policy to produce (accurate and) unified statistics to give us a more objective view of the phenomenon,” Jeannette Aguilar, head of the University Institute for Public Opinion (IUDOP) at the catholic José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA), told IPS.

IML’s official report for 2011 states that a total of 4,374 murders were committed in El Salvador last year, equivalent to a homicide rate of 70 per 100,000 population, one of the highest in the world according to several international studies.

Eighty-five percent of the murder victims were male, and 83 percent of the crimes were committed in the central department (province) of San Salvador, where the capital city is located, the IML report says.

Media coverage of the situation of skyrocketing public insecurity creates the perception that the “maras” are behind the majority of the killings.

The PNC, IML and the Attorney General’s Office which directs criminal investigations set up a tripartite board intended to reach consensus on the statistics, but there are frequent spats when one or another body refuses to accept the figures agreed by the board.

Discrepancies between the statistics include the most basic of all: the body count. The PNC reports 4,354 murders last year, 20 fewer than the IML.

“There should at least be basic agreement about the number of homicides, but we don’t even have that,” said UCA’s Aguilar.

El Salvador, together with Honduras and Guatemala, face an acute and serious crime problem caused by “mara” activities.

In El Salvador alone, with its 6.6 million people, some 29,000 youngsters have been recruited as “mara” members, according to police calculations. The largest gangs are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and Mara 18, police say.

Experts say the mara phenomenon emerged in the 1980s, when Central Americans who had entered the United States illegally were deported and arrived back in their home countries, having assimilated the lifestyles of criminal gangs in the U.S.

Poverty and social exclusion were the prevalent cultural conditions that impelled young Central Americans with no future to join the ranks of the maras.

El Salvador is experiencing new forms of violence: barbaric murders, massacres of entire families and the resurgence of clandestine cemeteries in the Salvadoran countryside, where killers bury their victims in shallow mass graves, consigning them to the long list of the disappeared.

The IML report puts the number of people disappeared in 2011 as over 2,000.

IML and PNC statistics about the proportion of homicides attributable to the maras differ markedly from those provided by minister Munguía, who has nevertheless stated that the figure of 90 percent is not mere speculation, but is the result of how the cases are classified.

The main criticism leveled at the Security Ministry is that it writes its information reports and designs its general plans to tackle and reduce criminal violence without taking into account the details of investigations by the PNC and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which are the bodies responsible for identifying the person or persons behind each murder.

“The minister’s information is considerably mistaken, unacceptable and not credible,” Mauricio Figueroa, head of the Quetzalcoatl Foundation and a representative of the Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Youth Violence (CCPVJ), told IPS.

Munguía was defence minister until Nov. 22, 2011, when moderate leftwing President Mauricio Funes appointed him to the fight against crime, a move that drew criticism from organisations and experts in the field who feared it would lead to the militarisation of public security.

Experts complain that Funes’s plans to tackle the mara phenomenon have basically followed the same model as the preceding governments in the 10 years prior to his June 2009 accession to the presidency.

Those governments, of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), put the fight against civilian crimes in the hands of the armed forces. Their strategies, known as “mano dura” (iron fist, or hardline) and “súper mano dura”, achieved no results.

When Funes came to power as the candidate of the ex guerrilla group (now a political party) Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), he immediately deployed 2,500 soldiers to work with the PNC on public security details. In 2010, he increased the number of troops deployed and extended their presence on the streets for a further year.

In saying the gangs are responsible for 90 percent of homicides, “the minister is trying to justify the introduction of new versions of those (“mano dura”) plans, said Figueroa, of the Quetzalcoatl Foundation.

Among other measures, the minister has announced he will seek congressional approval to declare a state of emergency in the areas with the highest crime rates, which will involve restrictions to people’s right of assembly and freedom of movement.

Analysts emphasise that it will be difficult to get positive results in the fight against crime, and especially in the case of murders, without an effective diagnosis of the country’s crime phenomenon, which will require having reliable statistics about the perpetrators of the killings.

“You have to know what you’re up against, who are committing the murders, where they hold their gatherings,” said Aguilar. “All this information is needed in order to pursue an effective plan to beat crime,” said the head of IUDOP.

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    Peace on Earth