El Salvador, one of the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America, has become safer in recent years – so have its neighbors Guatemala and Honduras. But it’s more nuanced than that. El Salvador and the rest of the Northern Triangle is safer than previous decades, when rampaging civil wars rampaged consumed the region. Nowadays, though, marauding militias have been replaced by drug traffickers and other gangs.
This is cause for concern and is one of the dominant forces driving migrants to leave for the United States – but the rate and extent of the reduction in violent crime is admirable.
Perhaps other non-warring states can take note. Mexico, Brazil, perhaps Colombia?
violence in the so-called Northern Triangle is still tragically commonplace. But for a region that has at times seemed out of ideas for stopping violence, the drop is an encouraging sign. The question now is whether the region’s politicians will double down on prevention strategies that work, or revert to heavy-handed measures that do not.
El Salvador is perhaps the most instructive example. It ranked as the world’s most violent country in 2016, but since then has seen a marked drop in lethal violence. The murder rate dropped from a peak of 103 per 100,000 in 2015 to around 60 per 100,000 in 2017. While that is still three times higher than the Latin American average, a concerted focus on communities experiencing concentrated disadvantage could continue to drive down El Salvador’s murder rate.
El Salvador’s security services still frequently resort to aggressive tactics to repress the country’s most notorious gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. But alongside a controversial hard-line policy and emergency measures adopted by El Salvador’s government in 2015 is a more balanced and comprehensive approach focused on preventing the risk factors that drive up violence in the first place.
The El Salvador Seguro plan is a $2 billion anti-violence initiative adopted in 2008 with support from the United Nations (UN), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a dedicated national council. The program focuses on four priorities: violence prevention and job creation, expanding state presence in the 50 municipalities, improving prison infrastructure, and spreading services for victims of crime.
Along the way, El Salvador’s public security budget swelled from $120 million in 2008 to $775 million in 2014. The government claims that the improvement of policing and investigation capacity and prison conditions is yielding some positive outcomes. Sustaining that progress will depend on whether the government decides to scale up its war on gangs or continue to pursue preventive measures.
Given recent successes of preventive efforts, El Salvador has an opportunity to shake the mano dura habit for good. But with national elections slated for later this year, the government and the opposition may be tempted instead to compete with each other on the “tough on crime” front.