I don't like writing about the crime problem in El Salvador or the ongoing wave of homicides striking all parts of the country. There's too much grief, pain and hopelessness in confronting the problem. And it is clear that the current government, like governments before it, has no idea how to turn the tide. But it's too important a topic not to cover.
The Voices on the Border blog puts the bloody statistics into context:
[In the first 36 days of 2010], around 440 murders have been reported in El Salvador. The victims range from political activists, presumably killed for their opinions and public pronouncements, to bus drivers, robbed and murdered by groups locally called delincuentes. Recently in Suchitoto, 7 people were killed in a single incident, now being pronounced a massacre by community members. If this pattern of violence continues consistently, the country could expect to experience near 5,000 homicides this year.
In comparison, New York City, whose population size is similar to El Salvador’s, reports only 412 homicides for the entirety of 2009. Los Angeles, which historically has a relatively high crime rate, reports 51 murders this year, and 747 in 2009. However, the population of Los Angeles is at least 9,862,049 (2008 Census), with nearly 2 million additional inhabitants than the 2008 population of El Salvador. Besides population differences, the LA murder rate equals only 62 deaths per month.
As a consequence, El Salvador continues to have the highest murder rate in the Western hemisphere, and one of the highest in the world.
In recent weeks, the violence seems to have increased even more if that is possible. Saturday night, masked assailants arrived at a restaurant outside of Tonacatepeque, 30 miles from San Salvador. Looking for members of Mara 18, they separated women from the men, inspected the men for tattoos, and despite not finding tattoos according to the report in El Faro, opened fire with M-16 assault rifles and 9 millimeter pistols, killing 5 men and wounding 6 whose ages ranged from 21 to 54 years. This attack followed by a week a massacre in normally peaceful Suchitoto, where seven were killed with the same types of weapons. Some of those killed in Suchitoto were reportedly linked to gangs. Links between the two massacres are being investigated.
So were these killings by "squadrons of social cleansing" enacting vigilante justice to rid El Salvador of gangs? Were these deaths the product of gang rivalries? We'll probably never know, given the state of criminal justice in El Salvador.
Adding to the terror of Salvadorans, grenades have been used in some recent attacks. In mid-January, 20 were wounded when assailants on motorcycles tossed a grenade into a bus parking lot in downtown San Salvador.
The Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America (IDHUCA) issued a statement deploring the ongoing violence as a violation of the basic human right of security, noting the failure of those government organizations whose role is guarantee the safety of the country's citizens. The IDHUCA pointedly noted the fact that having troops in the streets to patrol high crime areas has had no positive effect on the murder rate.
One of the events motivating the IDHUCA to speak out are the death threats received by the country's human rights ombudsman, Oscar Luna. Luna received phone calls threatening his life from an anonymous "anti-delinquency extermination group," which gave him 48 hours to leave the country and announced its intentions to begin the social cleansing and extermination of delinquents. Are the murders in Suchitoto and Tonacatapeque part of that plan?
The country's business organizations are complaining loudly. During a national meeting of business leaders at the end of January, the president of the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), bitterly complained that Mauricio Funes had no plan to combat crime. He warned that the president, who was willing to apologize to the country for the government's killing of civilians during the civil war, was going to have to apologize for all the civilians murdered with a government incapable of protecting them.
When interviewed, the Minister of Public Security, Manuel Melgar, inspires little confidence. In a recent interview in El Faro, Melgar was asked when a public security policy would be unveiled. Melgar avoided the question, stating that you don't want the criminals to know what you are going to do, and that matters of public security could not al be made public. The only point he would acknowledge was a possible plan to control guns in the country. Asked about the role of the armed forces, Melgar stated that their role was for the president to decide, and refused to be drawn into discussions about a wider scope of action for the army.
The archbishop of the Catholic church in San Salvador, Monseñor José Escobar Alas, expressed support on Sunday for the government's anti-crime plan, and its consultation with all elements of society, and urged each group in El Salvador to unite against criminality.
It's starting to become clear that the government's failures to date, whatever its good intentions, are leading "extermination groups" to take the law into their own hands. That's a recipe for a spiral of violence. I fear for the poor communities caught in the crossfire.