Homicide rates in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have historically far exceeded that of the world’s other developing nations, and it’s this murderous climate which has driven so many to migrate to other countries. Fortunately though, despite the ongoing issues with poverty, corruption, and drug trafficking, the homicide rates of Central America’s Northern Triangle countries are falling.
“It was not always this bad. Street gangs arrived in El Salvador in the mid-1990s, after the United States deported hundreds of Salvadorans from Californian prisons. The returnees created extortion networks and started turf wars. Another 120,000 were sent back between 2001 and 2010. Meanwhile, cocaine traffickers began to favour a route through the Northern Triangle. In 2012, 80% of cocaine destined for the United States passed through the region, doubling its share from 2009. Much of it arrived on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, going up the northern coast and through San Pedro Sula, which became the world’s most violent city.
There are signs that the bloody tide is receding. Homicides are down from their peak in all three countries. This year the murder rate in Honduras will fall to 40 per 100,000 people, according to Migdonia Ayestas, who runs an independent violence observatory at the National University of Honduras. El Salvador’s will have fallen by half from 2015, to about 51 per 100,000. And in Guatemala, which has tended to have a lower murder rate than its neighbours, homicides are down by half since 2009, to 26 per 100,000.
The last time violence declined in El Salvador, in 2012, it was the result of a truce between Mara Salvatrucha 13 (better known as ms-13) and Barrio 18, two gangs. It later emerged that the government had secretly brokered it, trading fewer deaths for privileges like strippers and kfcdelivered to gang leaders’ prison cells. The pact soon fell apart and the violence escalated again. Cynics muse that something similar may be behind the recent decline in violence—an election is due in February. In Honduras some doubt any numbers coming from a government accused of fiddling economic figures. Others suggest that murders have dropped because those most at risk have been fleeing in greater numbers.
Scepticism is understandable. But accounting tricks or emigration would not fully explain such a dramatic drop in murders. Policies have mattered more—many of them controversial.
Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of Honduras, has sent the army to fight crime in violent areas. Guatemala also deploys soldiers to patrol rough neighbourhoods. And Óscar Ortiz, El Salvador’s vice-president, told the police in 2015 that they could shoot gang members “without any fear of suffering consequences”. Cops duly obliged and shot some 600 people the following year. Gangsters have become fearful of attracting the attention of trigger-happy cops.
Other policies are less violent. El Salvador and Honduras have levied a security tax on the rich to pay for more law enforcement. Both have created “safe houses” or “outreach centres” in the bloodiest barrios. They have tried to make prisons more effective. Mr Hernández has built new maximum-security jails that keep phones away from gang leaders, who are used to running their “cliques” from their cells.“