SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Homicides in El Salvador fell over 50% in President Nayib Bukele’s first year in office, with officials citing tougher enforcement, while a study on Wednesday suggests gangs may have eased up on violence and made informal deals with authorities.
Homicides were already in decline in El Salvador, which has recently had one of the world’s highest murder rates, when Bukele took office in June 2019.
From then through May, murders fell 51.3% from the prior year, official data show. During the first half of 2020, homicides decreased 62.5% compared with 2019, touching historic lows.
Bukele has attributed the improvement to an increased police and military presence on the streets, and tighter security in jails controlled by the powerful Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs.
Nevertheless, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report that its analysis suggested other factors have contributed to the drop alongside Bukele’s crackdown.
“While the public celebrates his well-known ‘iron fist’ policies, the reasons for success might lie in quiet, informal understandings between gangs and the government,” ICG said.
“Several civil society representatives and politicians believe that gangs have decided to lower homicides, possibly as a consequence of an informal non-aggression pact with authorities.”
ICG noted it had no evidence of any direct talks between officials and gangs. El Salvador’s government has denied carrying out any negotiations.
“There has not been any contact (with gangs), obviously we’re not going to have any contact,” Salvadoran security minister Rogelio Rivas said in a recent interview with Reuters.
In the nearly 50-page document that cites statistical analysis and interviews with people including high-level politicians and former gang members, ICG also stressed that the exact causes for the lower homicide rate are unclear.
Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Bill Berkrot