Anti-gang offensive in El Salvador cuts murder rate

Members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang captured by soldiers during an operation to recover neighborhoods controlled by gangs, in Quezaltepeque, a town 15 km from San Salvador, on June 7, 2016 (AFP Photo/Marvin Recinos )
El Salvador, ranked one of the most dangerous countries in the world, has nearly halved its staggeringly bloody monthly murder rate amid a fierce crackdown on fearsome gangs.
But analysts pointed out that the number of homicides this year is still above where it was the same time last year, and warned that the government offensive against the gangs needs to continue to break them apart.
Justice and Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez said Thursday that the "extraordinary measures" El Salvador has employed "have managed to reduce the crime rate by more than 50 percent."
Isolating gang bosses in prison, sending in elite troops and police to arrest gang members, and erasing gang graffiti from the streets of at least one town all appear to be bearing fruit.
Some 353 murders were recorded in each of the months of May and April, according to the Institute for Forensic Medicine.
While that is still high, it is significantly less than the 611 homicides in March, 644 in February and 740 in January.
However the total number of murders so far this year, 2,721, is still higher than the 2,188 registered for the same period in 2015.
That underlines El Salvador\’s notoriety as the country with the most murders per capita in the world outside of a war zone.
El Salvador\’s government in April started its crackdown in a bid to roll back that reputation and to challenge the perception that it had lost control of swathes of territory to the gangs.
Ramirez acknowledged that "to maintain security and the positive results so far, we have to keep control over the penitentiaries," where gang bosses are now barred from receiving visitors and cell phone signals are blocked.
Juan Ramon Medrano, a university professor and analyst, told AFP that the first phase of the government\’s plan to reduce the number of murders "is working."
But, he said, "the current success is going to depend on keeping up a sustainable tactical offense over the duration."
No let-up should be given in the efforts to bust the gangs\’ leadership and to prevent them winning back turf from the authorities, he said.
The head of the national police force, Howard Cotto, also said that, beyond the operations by the security forces, "citizen participation in prevention tasks, such as tip-offs," had an important role to play.
Part of the reason El Salvador has made progress this time against the gangs is that it has put thousands of soldiers onto its streets to back up the police.
The deployment helps to contain gang members, who are said to number around 70,000, of which some 13,000 are already behind bars.
The operations have resulted in the deaths of several gang members and the arrest of dozens on various charges.
"What is happening is a remilitarization of public security," an analyst, Roberto Canas, told AFP.
Under the urban operations and pressure of the joint army-police crackdown, the gangs "are changing" and in some cases are moving out to rural areas to escape the law enforcement heat, he said.
Jannet Aguilar, director of the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America, said the gangs "are being neutralized" but were not disappearing from the communities they lived in.
"The gangs are in a time of falling back. But recent history has shown that they soon manage to get around the application of the law, to be able to develop the illegal economy they thrive on."
A recent study by El Salvador\’s central bank estimated that the cost of the violence in the country to the state, households and businesses was $4 billion, or 16 percent of gross domestic product.
The government has allocated around half that amount over the next five years to finance its security plan, branded "Secure El Salvador."
Late last month, lawmakers approved a government bond issue worth $152 million which will go to giving pay hikes to the police, army and prisons on the frontline of the fight against the gangs.
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