Ivette Toledo sits in front of a shrine to her two children, Eduardo (20) and Karen (18) in her house in El Salvador. Both went missing in September last year. Photo: Photo: Víctor Peña for VICE World News. 

The Dark Truth About El Salvador’s Plummeting Murder Rate

President Nayib Bukele takes credit for a sharp drop in gang murders. But a mother’s search for her missing children tells a more complicated story.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — In mid November, Ivette Toledo went to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in San Salvador to look at pictures of teeth. Her only two children — 20-year-old Eduardo and 18-year-old Karen — had disappeared on September 18, and the police had just found the body of a male in a clandestine grave. 

Toledo knew right away that the teeth weren’t Eduardo’s. Her son had two rows of unusually straight teeth with a single canine off-kilter. “These were all crooked,” Toledo explained.  


By then, it was Toledo’s daily routine to wake up and head straight to the forensic medicine building near the historic city center. She made friends with some of the workers there, and every morning they greeted her with binders full of pictures of recently discovered bodies. Toledo is in her 40s, with light brown streaks in her hair and a disarmingly direct way of addressing people she’s just met.

“I’ve gotten to know many mothers who’ve lost their children,” she said. “Some of them just lay in bed all day. I’ve learned that I can’t be passive.” 

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Ivette Toledo holds photos of her children Eduardo (20) and Karen (18), sitting in her home in La Libertad, El Salvador. Photo: Víctor Peña​ for VICE World News.

It wasn’t irrational of Toledo to go look at the binders every day; new bodies turned up often enough that it made sense. But it wasn’t supposed to be happening anymore in the new El Salvador—or at least it was supposed to be happening a lot less. Karen and Eduardo disappeared in the middle of a historic drop in the country’s notoriously high rates of violent crime.

El Salvador is home to the world’s most infamous gangs, the MS-13 and 18th Street. Not long ago it was routinely described by the international press as the most dangerous country outside of an active war zone. Things are different now: From an average of 18 murders a day in 2015, the country is down to just three. 

One man takes the credit for this apparent transformation: Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s millennial president, one of the youngest and most popular heads of state in the world. Though he’s best known globally for making his tiny Central American country the first to recognize Bitcoin as legal tender (and for the trollish crypto-bro persona he’s cultivated on Twitter), within El Salvador he owes much of his popularity to the achievements he claims on public safety. 


He’s successfully portrayed himself as the first president to ever truly get a handle on the problem of the gangs, with the numbers to prove it. And he attributes the decline in violence purely to his security plan, a nebulous policy known as the Territorial Control Plan. 

For the most part, Bukele has managed to keep a tight grip on this story. But for a few weeks at the end of last year, it began to fray at the edges, revealing a much darker and more complicated truth. And Ivette Toledo, a working-class single mother with no political affiliations, found herself at the center of it all. 

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President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador claims to have solved the country's gang violence problem, but the reality on the ground says otherwise. (Photo by Alex Pena/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Karen and Eduardo Guerrero were last seen on a leafy street in Santa Tecla, a small city in the San Salvador metro area. There is nothing menacing about it, not even a stray piece of gang graffiti. Toledo took me there to make a point. “My children disappeared at 1 p.m.,” she said. “This happened to them in broad daylight. It wasn’t nighttime. They weren’t drinking or partying.”

Her children grew up during a period in Salvadoran history when a loose collection of maras, or street gangs, became sophisticated and fearsome criminal structures. MS-13 and 18th Street (now divided into two factions, Revolucionarios and Sureños) originated in the 1980s in California among Salvadoran youth, to whom the gangs offered a much-needed sense of belonging and protection. Many were refugees and their children from the civil war in El Salvador. Stints in American prisons toughened and organized the young men, thousands of whom were then deported back to El Salvador in the 1990s and early 2000s, where the post-war landscape of trauma, easy access to firearms, and weak state institutions offered a perfect environment for organized crime to grow.


Over time, the patchwork of municipalities and neighborhoods that makes up greater San Salvador became what locals commonly describe as a minefield. Different clicas of different gangs controlled different patches of the city, and merely crossing the invisible borders between them became a dangerous undertaking. The typical pastimes of youth — drinking, smoking, associating with strangers—became frequently lethal.

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A soldier on an anti-gang patrol outside San Salvador. Photo: Juanita Ceballos for VICE World News.

Toledo raised Karen and Eduardo alone; their father migrated to the U.S. when they were little. As they entered adolescence, she did her best to protect them. “There are many things my kids didn’t get to enjoy, things I kept them from to keep them safe,” she said. “No young person here is truly free.” 

On Sept. 18, Karen went to her best friend’s house in Santa Tecla, and later texted Eduardo, who was home with Toledo, to pick her up. The kids were in the habit of staying in constant contact with their mother, texting or calling when they moved from one place to another. So when Toledo felt like too much time had passed without a message, she called them both. “I knew something was wrong when they didn’t pick up,” she said. She texted and called everyone she could think of, but nobody could account for Karen and Eduardo. 

As night fell, Toledo’s panic turned to terror. She spent hours scouring the neighborhood where they’d gone missing. She had their friends make posts on social media. She dispatched a relative to the local police station, but the police said they needed to wait longer before reporting them missing and sent the relative home. After a sleepless night, Toledo went to the police station herself in the morning and insisted on filing a missing persons report. 


From that point on, Toledo’s strategy was to make as much noise as possible. She organized a small march through Santa Tecla, with relatives and friends chanting, “We want Karen! We want Eduardo!” She spoke liberally with the press, developing contacts with reporters at most of the major papers. The story gathered steam. 

Around this time, the government assigned Toledo a therapist. The therapist was helpful, but she was also fixated on getting Toledo to stop talking to the media. One of the first things Toledo recalls her saying was: “We’re going to work on teaching you how to be quiet.”


In a crowded chicken restaurant at lunchtime, I sat with two commanders from El Salvador’s National Civil Police to negotiate access to a police patrol for our documentary crew. I took the opportunity to ask some questions, starting with: What changed when Nayib Bukele took power?

“The first thing was communications,” said one of the commanders, short and stocky with a perfectly pressed uniform and gold jewelry. Bukele assembled a formidable media team with professional photographers and quality gear, and he had them go out on patrol with the police to create promotional videos for social media.

“They use drones to follow us on emergency calls or to crime scenes,” the commander said. “It elevates us, makes us look good. Like, ‘Look at all the equipment they have’.” 


Nayib Bukele once ran a marketing firm, and two people who advised him early in his career say he’s a marketing executive at heart—concerned first and foremost with image, he’s more likely to get directly involved in the details of publicity stunts than policy measures.

The son of a wealthy businessman of Palestinian ancestry, Bukele rose to power in the midst of a profound crisis of legitimacy in the two-party system that ruled El Salvador since the end of its civil war in 1992, one of several parallel Cold War proxy conflicts in the region between left-wing guerrillas and U.S.-backed military regimes. After the war, each side created its own party: on the left, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), founded by former guerrillas; on the right, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), founded by a former army major and leader of extrajudicial death squads. 

Bukele’s father had close ties to the FMLN, and that’s where Bukele himself started his political career. But by the time Bukele became mayor of San Salvador in 2015, the FMLN’s reputation was in the dirt. Just like ARENA before it, the Frente had chronically abused and misused power, displaying both endemic corruption and a total inability to handle the problem of violence and the gangs. So Bukele broke dramatically with the FMLN and created his own party, and when he ran for president in 2019 he presented himself as a political outsider, to great success: He won in a landslide and entered office with approval ratings around 90 percent.


Less than two months later, on Aug. 1, 2019, the new president announced on Twitter, in what would become a sort of social media ritual, that the day had ended without a single homicide in El Salvador. His chief of police followed up: “God guides the Territorial Control Plan.”

The name of the Territorial Control Plan plays on the fundamental problem of public safety in El Salvador. In much of the country’s territory, it’s not the state but the gangs who are in control. They are a parallel government that imposes the rules and metes out the punishments. They even collect the taxes: The maras’ principal source of revenue is the systematic extortion of businesses large and small, which many accept as a cost of doing business. The maras have evolved far from their origins as social groups or brotherhoods for marginalized youth into bona fide mafias, with diversified business interests both licit and illicit. 

This was the enemy Bukele promised to finally uproot. But from the start, his administration was opaque about the details of the Territorial Control Plan. As far as anyone could tell, it consisted mainly of increasing the presence of police officers and soldiers in gang-prone neighborhoods to deter crime—certainly not a groundbreaking idea. 

“What changed was the image,” says José Miguel Cruz, a Salvadoran academic at Florida International University and expert on the maras. “The Twitter account of the National Police started posting constantly, about every little thing they did. Not just, ‘We locked up some gang members,’ but also ‘We helped push a stranded car,’ or ‘We helped an old lady cross the street’.” 


What the plan lacked in policy substance, Bukele made up for in political drama. In February 2020, in what became the first of many alarm bells signaling Bukele’s overt authoritarianism, the young president marched a group of soldiers into congress to demand the opposition fund the Territorial Control Plan. He then delivered a theatrically impassioned speech outside the congressional building, calling the results of the Plan “irrefutable” and the members of congress who refused to fund it “delinquents.”

It worked: In the eyes of the majority, Bukele was a hero willing to stand for the people against the corrupt old order. But in certain corners of the National Police, discontent was brewing about the gap between image and truth. One night in San Salvador, we met with a 20-year veteran of the National Police who has patrolled some of the capital’s most violent neighborhoods. He agreed to be interviewed anonymously. “There are things we know from working in the field that are kept under wraps,” he said. For starters, gang extortion—the most direct measure of their influence—continues apace. “People don’t report these crimes out of fear. They tell us this explicitly.” 

Police patrols may have increased, and violence may have gone down, but the gangs are no less powerful. “They have always been in control,” the officer said. “There’s no other way to look at it.”


Those famous days without a murder that Bukele touts on Twitter? “What they do is they move those homicides to the official statistics for the following day.” 

“And then there’s the issue of the disappearances. Nobody even knows how many there are,” the officer said. A murder only counts as a murder if there’s a body. “When people try to report these crimes, the police tell them all sorts of things: ‘Maybe she ran away with her boyfriend.’ Or, ‘Maybe he left for the United States’. We’re told to keep these kinds of cases quiet.”

On Nov. 8, Toledo’s phone blew up with text messages. People were sending her links to a video of Bukele’s minister of justice, Gustavo Villatoro, announcing at a press conference that two people had been arrested in connection to Karen and Eduardo’s disappearance. This seemed like good news—until the minister, without presenting any evidence, implicated the siblings in their fate. “There’s a relationship between the victims and perpetrators,” he said. “And that relationship has to do with the sale or consumption of drugs.”

Villatoro also spoke a provable lie: He said Toledo waited more than 48 hours to file a missing persons report, when the official police record shows she filed the report the morning after the disappearance. Then, in what Toledo couldn’t help but feel as a personal dig, the minister looked straight into the cameras and said: “I want to make a vehement call to parents. Please, pay attention to what your children are doing.”


Toledo felt a strong impulse to hide. She was afraid. To casually associate someone with criminal or drug activity in El Salvador has serious implications: It suggests affiliation with a given gang, which can turn a whole family into a target of harassment or worse from its rivals. 

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A mural with 18th Street gang graffiti outside San Salvador. Photo: Juanita Ceballos for VICE World News.

But then she got a call from a reporter and felt compelled to defend herself. She talked with Idalia Zepeda, her pro-bono lawyer from a human rights organization focused on disappearances, and together they decided to organize their own press conference. Reporters and photographers from every major outlet in El Salvador were there as Toledo read from a prepared statement.

“I want to clarify without a shadow of a doubt that my daughter, Karen Iveth, and my son, Henry Eduardo Guerrero Toledo, had no ties to gangs,” she said. “There are many mothers in my situation, and we’re not living through this because we’re to blame.”

Then she went off script, addressing the minister directly. “Señor ministro,” she said. “Since you claim to know so much about them, I ask you to please tell me: Where are Karen and Eduardo Guerrero? Where are my children?”

If the government’s intention had been to push the case out of the public eye, the minister’s speech achieved exactly the opposite. Toledo dominated the news cycle. There was a trending hashtag on Twitter—the sort of thing Bukele pays close attention to—that went, #SiDesaparezco, “If I Disappear.” 


“If I disappear,” people wrote: “Don’t blame my mom” … “I don’t drink” … “I don’t do drugs” … “I do drink, but please look for me anyway.”

“This is something that could happen to you or your daughter or your niece,” Zepeda, Toledo’s lawyer, later told me. “That’s precisely why the government tries to connect disappeared people to the gangs: to justify their disappearance in the eyes of the public. But even if someone does have ties to the gangs, even if someone has gone down a bad path in life, that doesn’t justify their disappearance or their murder.” 

Later that day, while Toledo was out, multiple police squad cars went to her house escorting Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, the director of the National Police. Toledo eventually met with him; he was conciliatory, reassuring her that the government had never meant to disparage her family, that things had gotten out of hand, that they would do everything in their power to find her children. 

Toledo was wary. The sudden change in tone seemed like just another approach to getting her to stay quiet. “I’m a big problem for them,” she told me at the time. The police posted a round-the-clock detail of two uniformed officers on the street outside her house, and Toledo couldn’t help but feel they were there to intimidate as much as protect her. 

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"If something happens to you, that's your fault." An mid-ranking member of MS-13, who spoke to VICE World News for this report on condition of anonymity. Photo: Juanita Ceballos for VICE World News.

We changed vehicles three times and drove in erratic patterns around the same 10-block radius. A mid-ranking member of MS-13 had agreed to meet with us that morning, and we needed to make sure we weren’t being followed. He greeted us in the courtyard of a small, ramshackle house: a fat, shirtless man in basketball shorts, holding a revolver. His face was caked in makeup that nearly covered his tattoos, and he wore contact lenses that turned his eyes a strange yellow color. This was his disguise for moving around the city. 

He began to pepper us with questions. I could see in the gap behind the cylinder of his revolver that the gun was loaded and decided to answer the questions honestly. “Have you met with the other gang?” Yes. “Have you met with the police?” Yes. “Anyone else in the government?” No, but not for lack of trying. 

One of his teenage underlings brought us a few cans of beer (it was around 10 in the morning) and we started the interview. In the days leading up to our meeting, which were also the days immediately after Toledo’s press conference, there had been a sudden and dramatic spike in homicides—measurable homicides, bodies on the streets—and the word was that MS-13 was behind it. 

“We call it semana loca,” the gang leader said. Crazy week. “It’s when we increase the murders in a week, or in 24 hours, whatever we want. But we control it. We control the level of violence.” Like turning a volume knob: “When we want to increase the murders, we do, and we destabilize the country. And when we want to decrease the murders, we do.”


They do this to send a message. “So that the government knows that they’re not the ones in charge here,” he said.

The idea that it’s the maras themselves and not the government or its policies that determine the country’s murder rate is consistent with the most explosive story to emerge in El Salvador in the last two years: that Bukele’s government has held extensive secret negotiations with the gangs to lower the murder rate. Bukele denies the claim.

“Of course he denies it,” the gang leader said. “He’s a smart motherfucker. He knows how to manipulate the people.” But is it true? “Yes. It’s true.”

Making secret deals with the gangs is profoundly unpopular with the Salvadoran people. The practice was used by previous administrations— the same corrupt politicians Bukele built his entire brand on opposing. The first agreement, known in El Salvador simply as “the truce,” took place in 2012, under the government of the FMLN. It was a truce between the gangs themselves as well as between the gangs and the government, and it accounted for a sudden and precipitous drop in violence.

For a time it seemed that the truce might make the transition into a formal peace process, complete with involvement from the Organization of American States. But faced with public backlash, the government of the FMLN refused to take ownership of it. By 2014, the fragile agreement disintegrated, and murders skyrocketed. But politicians from both parties had found a blueprint to follow, and from that point on it became commonplace for officials to negotiate with the maras—always secretly—for a reduction in violence and for support during elections. In return, the gangs got everything from better conditions in the prisons to direct cash transfers. 


Even before Bukele was president, in June 2018, the investigative outlet El Faro revealed he had negotiated with MS-13 and both factions of 18th Street when he was mayor of San Salvador. And the practice continued into his presidency: In August 2021, El Faro documented secret prison meetings between Bukele officials and leaders from all three gangs, as well as efforts by the administration to bury evidence of the meetings.

In December, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two Bukele officials, alleging they had brokered deals wherein the government gave the gangs money and prison perks (including cellphones and sex workers) in exchange for lower murder numbers and electoral support. (Treasury hasn’t provided concrete evidence to support these allegations, and Bukele continues to deny them vehemently.) 

This string of negotiations is the key to understanding the murky reality of violence in El Salvador, said Jeannette Aguilar, a researcher and expert on gang violence and disappearances. “The gangs are now political actors,” she said. “They negotiate with the government, one mafia to another.” 

Aguilar likes to point out a fact that, surprisingly, comes up rarely in conversations about Bukele: The murder rate started dropping steadily in 2017, two years before he took office. “I do believe murders have gone down,” Aguilar said. But it’s not because of anything Bukele has done, she said; it’s because “dead bodies are now a currency of exchange.” When the gangs realized they could control the number of homicides in the country and use it as a point of leverage with the government, they started bringing the numbers down. That way, they could bring them up again as needed: semana loca.


And the homicide numbers alone give an incomplete picture. Aguilar published an extensive study of disappearances in El Salvador last year. She caveats the numbers heavily: It’s impossible to know how many people have disappeared, not least because the government keeps inconsistent and unreliable figures. Nevertheless, disappearances appeared to go up around the time that murders went down with the original truce in 2012. 

Aguilar doesn’t believe that disappearances account for the entire decline in homicides. But more of the deaths that do happen are hidden. “All the murder rate tells you is the number of bodies you’ve found,” she said. Instead of killing people and leaving them on the street, the gangs bury them in clandestine graves. “It’s become systematic,” Aguilar said. “It’s their standard operating procedure.” 

Towards the end of our interview with the MS-13 leader, I asked him why seemingly innocent young people go missing. “If you’re a teenager, and you go out to a club, you’re ignoring the fact that this country is a violent place,” he said. “And if something happens to you, that’s your fault.”

But, I said, there are people who make an effort to steer clear of trouble, and they go missing anyway. It was the only moment he looked uncomfortable. “Look,” he said, “there are some of us who only kill for a reason. I’m one of those people who only kills someone if I really have to.”

“But there are others who don’t think that way,” he added. “Do you understand what I’m saying? There are some that like to kill just to kill.”


Ivette Toledo lives in a small, three-room house on a busy residential street. When we visited her there in November, the police officers posted outside asked us for IDs. It was only a few days after the justice minister accused her children of being involved in drugs. In the middle of everything, Toledo still had a wry sense of humor. “Come in,” she said. “The secret drug lab is down the stairs in the back.” 

Karen and Eduardo lived in adjacent rooms, each just large enough to fit a bed and a couple pieces of furniture. Karen’s shoes were neatly stacked on a shelf in the corner of her room: a pair of black Converse, a pair of leather boots. She liked to paint, and a small, unfinished picture of a sunset over mountains and a field of wildflowers sat on her dresser. 

By this point, Karen and Eduardo had been missing for nearly two months. Stories about people whose loved ones disappear tend to focus on the unique torture of not knowing whether they’re alive or dead. But Toledo was different. “Those first couple of days, I thought I would find them alive,” she said. “But now, after all this time … knowing where we live, I just don’t think it’s possible.” She just wanted them back, “however God decides to return them to me.” 

Later that month, Toledo heard from the authorities that they had uncovered a mass grave in an undeveloped plot of land in Nuevo Cuscatlán, a small municipality on the outskirts of the capital. The gangs had apparently been using it for years; one newspaper reported that it could be the largest clandestine cemetery in the country, with maybe a hundred bodies or more.

Toledo went there herself. She wandered into the brush, but without the proper tools, there was little she could do but look around. She started having recurring dreams about the place: She would walk off a dusty street into the forest, where Karen would appear to guide her to the place where they were buried. 

Two days before Christmas, I got a message from Toledo: “It looks like they found my children.” Two bodies around their age, one male and one female, were buried together in that plot of land in Nuevo Cuscatlan. They’d been there for about three months. This time the teeth matched Eduardo’s, perfectly straight with a canine off-kilter. DNA tests soon confirmed it was them.

A week later, during a TV interview on New Year’s Eve, the minister of justice reversed his statement about Karen and Eduardo and their involvement in drugs. There was no relationship, he said, between the siblings and the gang members who killed them. 

“I feel different now,” Toledo told me. “It’s not about wondering where they are. It’s just the pain of their absence. And knowing things—things I wish I’d never had to know—about what was done to them.” 

She was still having trouble sleeping. She couldn’t be alone or in small spaces. But she could glimpse a way forward. “I haven’t brushed my hair in a week,” she said with a small laugh. “But I think today I’m going to brush my hair.”

Juanita Ceballos and Salvador Sagastizado contributed reporting to this story.