The ongoing murder epidemic

On Tuesday, I pointed to a columnist writing about the need for prevention efforts to deal with Central America and El Salvador's high murder rates. The next day, a report was released by the Latin American Technological Information Network (RITLA), which gave the statistics for the murder rate among the population ages 15 - 24. As the BBC reports:
Latin America has the highest murder rates in the world for people aged between 15 and 24, according to a study by a Brazilian research group.

Using data from 83 countries, the group found that the probability of a young person being murdered in Latin America is 30 times higher than in Europe.

The grimmest figures are for El Salvador, where the murder rate among young people is 92 per 100,000 people.

A key factor there is the presence of violent youth gangs, the report says.

The study, called Map of Violence: The Young People of Latin America, was compiled by researchers at the Latin American Technological Information Network, Ritla.

The Brasilia-based group compared murder rates for 2007 in 83 countries, both for the overall population and for the 15-to-24 age bracket.
1. El Salvador: 92.3
2. Colombia: 73.4
3. Venezuela: 64.2
4. Guatemala: 55.4
5. Brazil: 51.6
15. South Africa: 16.6
70. Greece: 0.5
76. Japan: 0.3

"The probability of a young Latin American being a murder victim is 30 times higher than for a European, and more than 70 times greater than for young people in countries like Greece, Hungary, England, Austria... or Ireland," the report said.

The comparative study found that the murder rate for young people was 36.6 for every 100,000 people in Latin America while in Africa it was 16.1, North America 12, Asia 2.4, Oceania 1.6 and Europe 1.2, although there are variations within a particular region.

The report also found that the top four countries for youth murder rates also headed the overall murder rate table: El Salvador (total murders per 100,000 - 48.8), Colombia (43.8), Venezuela (29.5) and Guatemala (28.5).
November in El Salvador has seen an upsurge in murders. Through November 23, there had been 230 murders this month in El Salvador according to the National Police. They attribute 70% of the murders to the gangs. One example of this activity is a number of recent attacks on bus drivers and conductors. Extortionists have burned buses and killed bus drivers and conductors as they enforce a $1000 tribute for each bus passing operating in their territory. President Saca called on bus owners not to pay the extortionists, but to report them to the authorities, although for years the government has been unable to increase the level of safety for the private bus system. Photographer Jesus Flores, calling the attacks on the bus system a form of "terrorism," has a blog post with images from this weeks attacks.

In the midst of this grim news, there are specific prevention initiatives which have shown success. Earlier this month the Washington Office on Latin America released a report titled "Daring to Care: Community-Based Responses to Youth Gang Violence in Central America and Central-American Immigrant Communities in the United States .” The report looks at anti-gang initiatives which are working in Central American immigrant communities in the US and in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Among the reports conclusions are the following:
While there is no easy formula for creating an effective program, and different approaches may be warranted in different contexts, there are certain lessons that emerge from the cases profiled in this report. Some of those lessons are:

  1. The most successful gang prevention programs are those that are community led and bring together diverse actors such as schools, local government, healthcare centers, religious institutions and police.

  2. Effective programs are usually designed by local or municipal government agencies and by community actors; national government agencies ought to provide technical assistance, guidance, and funding for local initiatives.

  3. Communities vary, and gang violence prevention programs must be tailored to the conditions found in specific communities. The root causes of gang membership and their impact on a community differ and require varied approaches. Each program profiled in this publication began by analyzing the situation in its community and developed specific local responses based on that analysis.
In previous posts I have mentioned other organizations working on gang-prevention such as
Barefoot Angels and Homies Unidos. There needs to be a massive increase in support for such community-based initiatives if El Salvador is going to turn the page on this plague. Unfortunately, none of the major candidates for president of El Salvador seems to be outlining such an approach. While they certainly mention the need to address the insecurity which Salvadorans feel, concrete proposals are few and far between.

I also want to address messages I received from two readers about this issue after my last post. One reader accused me of always putting El Salvador in a bad light and said that El Salvador's crime problem is no different than New York. Unfortunately, the statistics show that El Salvador's problem is much worse than in New York or other urban areas in the US. (That does not mean that all, or even most of El Salvador suffers from gang-driven murders. Departments such as Chalatenango and Morozan have a quite low incidence of murder, for example.). But if you don't acknowledge there is a problem you can't have a discussion about what can be done to fix it.

The other comment, from a regular reader, is that what El Salvador needs is more police, more weaponry and a tougher approach to crime. Frankly, get tough policies in El Salvador have never shown any reduction in the level of criminality. What El Salvador needs is smarter policing, better courts and prosecutors, and not necessarily more firepower. But that approach must be accompanied by the kinds of community-based prevention efforts and local policing described in the WOLA report.


Anonymous said…
El Salvador needs to follow the example of Peru. The Sendero Luminoso learned the hard way that if the people can fight back, being the bully on the block is not as much fun. Give the common people guns. The common people are sick of the gangs, and the extortion and the murders. It is no wonder that the gangs don't mess around in Chalate; there are to many guns floating around and just like in Texas, if you think there might be someone behind the door that is armed, maybe you don't go through the door. The answer is not more cops with guns, because they are afraid to uphold the law due to the PDDH and don't do anything anyway. Muzzle the PDDH, change the laws so they have some teeth, open the back doors of the airplanes bringing gangbangers home to El Salvador and let em take a dive into the ocean over La Libertad, and bring back the death penalty, and you might start to get a handle on the situation. It all comes down to the lack of respect for the law that is endemic in society here. It starts with corrupt politicians, shows itself in the lack of respect for others behind the wheel, and ends with hoodlums stealing from those that can afford it least: the poor folks.
Anonymous said…

During the war the Salvadoran death squads and military took people they captured, and often tortured, up in airplanes and helicopters and threw them out into the sea. In June 2007 some of the people detained in the mobilization against the privatization of water in Suchitoto were transported by the PNC in a helicopter and threatened with being tossed out alive. Even though not physical torture this is barbaric psychological torture.

The PDDH was set up by the Peace Accords to try and address this these types of human rights abuses. Various of the PDDH Ombudspersons have received death threats for their work.

I am not sure if you're a troll, or a right-wing lurker looking to provoke.

The rule of a law, or your "respect" of said norms starts with a culture of democracy, peace, transparency, and popular participation.

Your right wing solutions for extrajudicial executions and human rights violations were the reasons the armed struggle in El Salvador happened.
Anonymous said…
There's nothing wrong with law abiding citizens legally carrying firearms. I live in Texas and I am far from conservative, but its naive to think that guns is what is causing crime. If you like at states like California and new york with very staunch gun laws, they have a higher rate of crime than in Texas.

Criminals will be criminals no matter what. They will get a hold of guns no matter what. It is a person's right to protect themselves. Prevention, Prevention, Prevention. Its the only way. People can not seem to wrap their head around this.
Danny Burridge said…
The main reason that young people join gangs is because they dont have any other economic or social opportunities. They are often too poor to go to school, and they are well aware that any level of education is no guarantee of a job. The vast majority of jobs dont provide for a dignified life anyway. Their families are torn apart by immigration, and they lack any type of viable social support fabric. Gangs offer identity, status, belonging, power, and income (as little as it may be for those on the bottom) So you will have youth joining gangs as long as they dont have other opportunities.

So prevention is the key indeed. But to prevent the social conditions which generate gang activity, El Salvador must revert the neoliberal economic policies which have stripped away the social support system for its citizens. The Salvadoran government must invest in education, health care, housing, the arts, recreation, credits and technical assistance for small businesses and farmers, and it must control the national market so it benefits all Salvadorans. These would be good places to start to combat the gang problem, along with supporting the community prevention initiatives, and creating a functional court system.

But according to Medicina Legal, and in contradiction of the PNC, gangs are only responsible for 25% of homicides in El Salvador. See this link:

This figure is similar to that of Tutela Legal of the Archdiocese of San Salvador which maintains that about only 30% of homicides are committed by gang members and about 70% are committed by death squads and social extermination groups- often times involving the PCN themselves- not something they would necessarily be eager to talk about.