El Salvador's historically low homicide rate
President Nayib Bukele has proclaimed that El Salvador is the safest country in Latin America and now enjoys a historic level of security as a consequence of the State of Exception which has been in place since March 27. He regularly tweets about dramatically lower homicide rates and the number of days without homicides the country has enjoyed this month and this year.
The most important news of the century in our
country is not material for a single report
of the "journalists" and the "important communications media"
Strange?No, we already know that they are just political activists.We continue.. #GuerraContraPandillas
(Bukele's assertion that the independent press has not reported on homicide statistics is simply false. For example, Deutsche Welle headlined an article on August 3 with Bukele's words "El Salvador lives in peace for the first time in decades." On the same day in La Prensa Grafica, Edwin Segura and Claudia Espinoza wrote Homicides drop but without a way to compare them. Journalist Roberto Valencia regularly shares current homicide statistics from the PNC in his twitter feed. And on this blog I wrote in March 2020: The good news from El Salvador -- steep decline in murder rate).
Is the country experiencing an historically low homicide rate? That appears to be the case. Roberto Valencia’s most recent tally shows that the average daily homicide rate in 2022 has dropped by more than 2/3 since 2019:
The PNC recorded 494 homicides between January 1 and August 21, 36% less than the 767 recorded in the same period of 2021. At the current rate, El Salvador would close 2022 with 774 homicides, for a rate of 12.2 homicides per 100,000 population.The 494 officially registered homicides in El Salvador as of August 21 include 70 homicides of suspected gang members who died in alleged clashes with the PNC and armed forces.
Thus El Salvador is currently enjoying a period of time marked by a much lower level of gang violence as measured by the homicide rate. As I will discuss below, there are several items the government now excludes from homicide tallies in the tweets of the PNC and the president, but even adjusting for those exclusions, the dramatic decline is undeniable.
The director of human rights of the Passionist Social Service (SSPAS), Verónica Reyna, explained that the current government is not classifying these deaths as homicides, despite international guidelines. "The Government maintains this tendency to have these 'confrontations' [by security forces with supposed gang members] not be seen as possible homicides and deepens this problem by not recording them, which is causing the Prosecutor's Office not to investigate these cases." She concluded that, by not recording murdered prison inmates, the current government "maintains impunity in the face of possible State responsibility," which would affect possible complaints by victims under the State of Exception.
The obsession of the Bukele administration to inflate the number of days with 'zero homicides' is causing a serious deterioration in the accounting of homicidal violence. Technical criteria weigh less and less in the homicide registry, in favor of politicking.
Many hundreds of persons are reported missing or "disappeared" each year in El Salvador. The Attorney General's Office reported 1927 cases of missing persons and kidnappings during 2021 compared to a total number of homicides of 1211. In general, from 2017-2021, 60-70% of the persons reported missing were found alive and 30-40% of cases were either never resolved or there was a death. After 11 months of 2021, the Attorney General reported that 56% of those reported missing had been found alive, 1% were dead, and the remainder of cases still open. The Attorney General's office and the PNC do not report a crime statistic in El Salvador for those "missing, presumed dead."
The director of the PNC, Arriaza Chicas has previously played down accounts of disappearances, suggesting persons went missing voluntarily and would later be found to have a new home.
The biggest fear of families of the missing is that the body of their loved one will turn up in some hidden grave. Between May 2021 and February 2022, five clandestine mass graves were unearthed holding dozens of bodies. In what year those bodies may have been deposited in the graves is generally not known.
In a report on August 3, titled In El Salvador, discrepancy over deaths and mass graves alarms critics, Reuters reported:
El Salvador's National Police told Reuters that they are no longer able to provide information on disappeared persons due to an agreement between the National Civil Police, the Supreme Court, the Institute of Legal Medicine, and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. "Only the Attorney General's Office can give information," said a source from the institution without giving further details.
Meanwhile families of disappeared persons have made public their complaints that the PNC appears to be ignoring cases of disappearances while their focus is on meeting the quotas of arrests of the State of Exception.
In the time since the State of Exception began in March, the government has labelled more and more crime information as secret or "bajo reserva" and exempt from disclosure to journalists or the public through public information requests. While president Bukele tweets more and more often about "historically low levels" of homicides, his government is deliberately making it more and more difficult to independently verify those claims.
On May 4, 2022, the PNC has placed under seal information about victims of homicides and disappearances, as well as data about crime rates, jail populations, and weapons seized in operations.
Since July, the Institute for Legal Medicine (forensic examiner) has no longer been willing to release information on the number of homicides, indicating that its only role was to identify and count cadavers but not classify them as homicides.The PNC has also placed data about gender-based homicides under seal, denying a public information request from the online journalism site GatoEncerrado, which had inquired about the statistics for gender-based crimes from March 1 to June1 of this year. Those statistics had previously been routinely made available to journalists and women's groups in the country.
For Jeannette Aguilar, a public security researcher, it is no coincidence that the refusal [to provide homicide data] is extended to the three institutions that produce criminological statistics, since in the current context they seek to "impose at all costs the official narrative of zero homicides a day."
Even if we add back into the government's public homicide rates the number of deaths in prisons (73) and the number of suspects killed by police (74) or civilian bystanders(1), we must conclude that the current homicide rate will be a record low for 21st century El Salvador. We don't know the number of the disappeared who have actually perished, but since disappearances have been in the same range for most of the past 6 years, it is reasonable to assume that including a factor for "missing, presumed dead" would not change the relative ranking of 2022 as the least deadly year for homicidal violence in recent history. (If we must increase the total number of homicides in 2022 by hundreds to reflect the missing people who are actually dead, we would also be increasing the homicide totals in prior years for the same reason).
A key comment here: to state that homicides are at an all time low does not allow us to affirm that the reason for the decline is Bukele's Territorial Control Plan or the State of Exception. Especially where there is credible evidence of the government's prior negotiations with the gangs, the reduction in homicides only tells us that gangs have decided for now not to kill, but we do not know why that decision has been made. Nor can we say that murder rates will not shoot up again in coming months and years.
Nor does acknowledging the homicide rate improvements mean the government should get a pass on its human rights abuses in carrying out its security policies and the current State of Exception. Respect for human rights and a low crime rate are not mutually exclusive.
In sum, it is very important, when Bukele tweets about days with zero homicides, to ask the following questions:
- How many suspects were killed by police?
- How many detainees died in prison?
- How many people were killed by civilians in self defense?
- How many people disappeared without a trace?
- And why does the government not want to be transparent about these questions?