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.   

On August 18, he retweeted a post from the National Civilian Police (PNC) which stated there were zero homicides on August 17 and showing daily homicide counts for the month:

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"


No, we already know that they are just political activists.

We continue.. #GuerraContraPandillas

In light of the president’s invitation here for us to discuss the homicide statistics, this post will take a serious look at these numbers.  In fact, we can agree with the president that current homicide rates are a very welcome reduction in homicide totals from the bloody years from 2000 forward. But because the government has been changing its definition of homicides, refusing to be transparent with the data, and opting instead to use homicide figures primarily as part of its public relations strategies, we cannot know the actual number of homicides occurring in El Salvador.  

(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.

A projected homicide rate of 774 for 2022 would be dramatically lower than levels of homicidal violence in the past two decades.  The following chart from LPG shows annual homicide totals for 2005-21:

From a height of more than 6500 homicides committed in 2015, the death toll had declined to only 1211 in 2021. The only two years with fewer than 2000 killed were 2020 and 2021 during Bukele's presidency, and homicide deaths in 2012 and 2013 during the first gang truce never dropped below 2500.

These annual statistics come from a collaboration in prior governments (the Mesa Tripartita) among the forensic examiner's office (IML), the national civilian police (PNC) and the attorney general's office (FGR) and are generally viewed as credible.  (To be sure, getting access to government statistics on homicides has never been easy, as Carlos Martinez of El Faro related back in 2010).

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.

In looking at homicide rates, the first question which must be asked is "what are we counting?" -- in other words " what is a homicide?"  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime describes homicide using the International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes as "unlawful death inflicted upon a person with the intent to cause death or serious injury."  By incorporating the word "unlawful," under the UN definition, the legal use of lethal force by police or armed forces would not produce a homicide, while a death caused by the use of excessive force by police, or an extrajudicial killing, would be counted.  Since one must decide whether force was "excessive" or not and whether a killing by security forces was justified, there will be obvious difficulties in tallying homicides using this measure.

 A different definition appears in the "Bogota Protocol regarding the quality of homicide data for Latin America and the Caribbean" developed in a conference with persons from government, civil society, academia and multilateral organizations in 2015.  Under that protocol, all intentional deaths caused by the use of force by one person against another would be counted as homicides, regardless of whether the act was through a legal use of force by security forces or in the context of armed aggression.

For the purposes of El Salvador's homicide count, perhaps the most important difference in these two measures is whether persons killed by the police would be classified as homicides.  Prior to the Bukele government, homicide totals were more in line with the Bogota Protocol, and included suspects killed by security forces in armed encounters.  

Today, however, the government is eliminating from homicide figures any case in which the security forces kill a gang member in a confrontation. That decision was made early in the Bukele administration.  After security forces killed 35 purported gang members in the first 45 days after Bukele took power, the PNC announced that it would no longer include the killing of gang members in confrontations with police as homicides. In 2022, that means the government has subtracted 70 deaths from the total through August 21. 

As a recent example, on August 19, security forces killed two men in their 20s suspected to be gang members near Santa Ana, but in a tweet that day the PNC declared August 19 a day with zero homicides: 

Second, the government has now extended the first exception to also exclude persons killed by civilians defending themselves against an attacker or robber.  Thus on July 26, a civilian killed a robber on a bus, but that killing was not included in the homicide totals, producing another "day without homicides":

Third, the government has not included any of the persons who have died in prisons, despite the fact that some of these deaths have shown signs of beating, torture or other violence.  According to a report in La Prensa Grafica on August 26, sources within the forensic examiner's office (IML) indicate there have been 73 prisoners who have died within the country's prisons during the State of Exception. 35 of the prisoners died violent deaths while in prison, while 22 died of medical neglect and the remainder for undetermined causes.   

Human rights advocates worry about the impact of manipulating these statistics reports La Prensa Grafica:
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.
Crime reporter Roberto Valencia tweeted on July 8:
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.
So far, we have only been talking about homicide statistics where there is a dead body. But victim advocates rightly point out that any discussion of homicides must also look at the question of persons who have been kidnapped and forcibly disappeared, or those who are simply "missing." The absence of a body does not mean that someone was not killed, and some suggest that there is a reluctance on the part of the government to look for bodies in order to keep the homicide statistics low.   

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.

Since June 2022 the Attorney General has placed under seal all data related to clandestine graves and cemeteries for a period of two years on grounds that it could prejudice ongoing investigations. 

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.     

In May La Prensa Gráfica shared with readers that the government had hired a consultant for $11,000 to develop a new framework for reporting homicide and disappearance statistics. That consultant has been working at Diario El Salvador, the government newspaper providing the Bukele regime's spin on the news. 

In July, La Prensa Gráfica reported that the Mesa Tripartita had not been meeting to share homicide data since February of this year, leading Salvadoran crime researcher Jeanette Aguilar to comment:
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?


@moralespetrus said…
It would be interesting to double check with the people on the streets and the hot and troubled neighbors where gangs have had total control in the past decades
Patrick C. said…
Killings by police by definition are not homicides.
Tim said…
Clearly Patrick did not read the article.