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El Salvador’s startling murder rate is dropping

The government claims the drop is due to its "iron fist" crackdown on the country's notorious gangs. Gang leaders say it is because they negotiated a truce.
Photo de José Cabezas/Reuters

El Salvador's record-beating murder rate has fallen dramatically in recent months, with the number of people killed this June around half those murdered in the same month last year.

Howard Cotto, head of the national police has claimed that this was due to the government's iron fist policy against the country's infamous street gangs. Gang members themselves say it had more to do with an informal truce.


Cotto said that the number of homicides fell in June to 331, the third consecutive monthly fall, and just under half the number killed in June 2015. He also said there were falls in the number of cases of armed robbery and extortion, and that police had clashed 290 times with criminals.

In 2015, El Salvador became the most violent peacetime nation in the world when homicide rates reached an historic high of 104 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. The murder rate continued to hit new records in the first three months of 2016.

President Salvador Sánchez has repeatedly insisted that the answer to the crisis is to intensify the crackdown even further.

In March, however, the government launched a nationwide operation to tackle gang related violence, which includes a controversial authorization to use lethal force, and the creation of a special unit to combat criminals.

A month later, El Salvadoran legislature approved legal changes that formally classify the gangs as terrorist organizations. In May, an operation inside the country's jails took place in which the main leaders of the gangs were moved to other prisons.

"The blows that the criminal organizations have received this year are unparalleled compared to any other year," Cotto told reporters on Friday.

However, others say the falling murder rate has more to do with an informal truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and two rival factions of the Barrio 18. Leaders from the three gangs announced the ceasefire via a YouTube video posted in March.


"We want to show the people, the current government, and the international representations that there is no need to propose measures that just come to violate our constitution and all the laws coming from it," one of the gang leaders said in the video.

The gangs previously agreed to a truce in 2012, and murders fell by 40 percent nationwide during the next 18 months. Extortion and other crimes reportedly continued, however, and the discovery of mass graves suggested that the killings may have simply continued clandestinely.

Watch: Gangs of El Salvador (Full Length)

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