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El Salvador’s Already Horrific Murder Rate Is Getting Much Worse

The number of murders in the first two months of this year was more than double the number in the same period of 2015.
Imagen por Roberto Escobar/EPA

El Salvador has not experienced such a bloody start to the year since the small Central American country was submerged in a brutal civil war that ended a generation ago.

The first two months of 2016 ended with 1,399 murders, more than double the number for the same period in 2015 when homicide rates had already reached a historic high for the post-war period. This turned El Salvador into the most violent peacetime nation in the world.


With an estimated 104 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, El Salvador snatched the dubious title from neighboring Honduras. Now, it seems, things are getting even worse with the tiny country of 6.3 million inhabitants laboring under an average of 24 people killed a day in January and 22 during February.

The bloodshed prompted the US Peace Corps to suspend its program in El Salvador "due to the ongoing security environment" in early January.

Related: The Neverending War in El Salvador

The violence in El Salvador — as in Honduras — is linked to the bitter rivalry between youth gangs, most notably the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

The gang problem in Central America has its roots in mass deportations of gang members from the US at a time when weak institutions in the region's small countries emerging from civil wars just couldn't cope.

The government in El Salvador has responded with multiple efforts to crack down on the gangs, none of which have worked.

The only strategy that appears to have led to a reduction in the murder rate was a government-sponsored gang truce in 2012. The killing got worse again after the truce began to break down 15 months later.

Watch: Gangs of El Salvador (Full Length)

Some observers blame the explosion of violence since last year, when murders were 70 percent up on 2014, on the government's decision to transfer top gang leaders to maximum-security prisons, cutting off communications with lower level leaders on the ground.

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

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