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A Remarkable Event in El Salvador: A Day Without Murder


Reserve soldiers and National Civil Police officers were arrayed before the news media in San Salvador last year during a push to dismantle gangs. Credit Salvador Melendez/Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — It might have been any other day in El Salvador, but as the hours ticked into evening it became notable not for what happened, but for what didn’t.

An entire day had passed without a single murder in one of the world’s most violent places.

There was no particular reason the count was zero on Wednesday, Howard Cotto, the director of the National Civil Police, told local reporters the next day. Indeed, the police had registered 99 murders in the first 10 days of 2017 — an average of almost 10 a day.

Gang violence in El Salvador, an impoverished Central American country of 6.5 million, has given it one of the highest murder rates of any nation that is not at war. Youth gangs battle one another over extortion rackets that extend to the smallest of businesses, and no one seems to be immune from the bloodshed, which is also exacting a toll on the police.

Mr. Cotto noted that violence began to decline last year, which ended with 5,278 murders. Although the average was more than 14 a day, it was still 20 percent fewer than in 2015.

Yet even with the decline, the murder rate was more than 80 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, compared with five per 100,000 in the United States in 2015, according to the most recent F.B.I. figures.

Two years ago, the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén threw out a fraying truce that the previous government had worked out with the gangs. A crackdown sent heavily armed security forces into the streets.

Police commanders gave their officers virtually free rein to shoot “if they must” in encounters with criminals and promised legal support in cases filed against them.

The most powerful gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and two rival factions of Barrio 18, responded with a new wave of violence and targeted police officers and soldiers.

The violence has fueled an exodus. Each year since 2013, tens of thousands of Salvadorans, many of them women and children, have braved the journey across Guatemala and Mexico to seek protection in the United States.

About 40 percent of Salvadorans would like to leave the country, according to a year-end survey published this week by the Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University José Simeón Cañas in San Salvador. The percentage is the highest in a decade, the institute said.

More than 17 percent said that somebody in their family had been forced to leave El Salvador because of threats and violence. The survey is based on interviews with 1,262 Salvadoran adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Wednesday’s pause in killing did not last.

On Thursday, two gunmen riding a motorcycle fatally shot an off-duty police officer in a town north of San Salvador, the capital, according to the attorney general’s office. That night the owner of a car wash in the capital was killed in a violent San Salvador suburb, and the police suspected that her death was related to extortion payments often demanded of business owners, according to local news reports.

Spokesmen for Mara Salvatrucha, the nation’s largest gang, recently proposed a dialogue with the government that they said could ultimately lead to the gang’s dissolution, according to the online newspaper El Faro. Such negotiations are deeply unpopular with Salvadoran citizens.

“They have to stop murdering citizens, extorting families, killing police, murdering soldiers,” Vice President Óscar Ortiz told the local newspaper El Mundo in response the gang’s overture.

He promised that the government would continue its crackdown. “We will not stop, we will continue attacking those who insist on acting outside of the law, and this year we will do it even harder,” he said.

Source: NYT > World

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