By Eric Hershberg
A surge in violence in El Salvador over the past five-plus years demands a more comprehensive and inclusive strategy than the ongoing Plan El Salvador Seguro. A rigorous and highly readable study released last month by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social (INCIDE) employs quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate that the pattern of violence in El Salvador has worsened. Murders increased 66 percent in the 2010-2015 period; the murder rate of 102.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 made it the most violent year in decades. Multiple-victim murders increased 126 percent in the same period, and murders of women skyrocketed 750 percent – from 40 in 2012 to 340 in 2015. Gang-on-gang violence has produced a 72 percent increase in deaths, while armed confrontations between gangs and state personnel are growing more frequent. Kidnappings and disappearance have surged. For the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992, El Salvador has experienced forced displacements, both within the country and to other countries, most notably an unprecedented flow of rural Salvadorans into Nicaragua.
The 2012-2013 truce among the gangs and the government of then-President Mauricio Funes reduced violence somewhat, but INCIDE notes that it also allowed gangs to consolidate their control over territory while government planners failed to address the deeper causes of the violence. While documenting that Salvador Seguro has had some positive results and won support, the study posits that the current strategy of frontal attack on gangs has also eroded the social and community fabric that represents an essential intangible asset for durable success in reducing violence. Many communities live in fear of violence from all sides. The INCIDE report emphasizes that the causes of spiraling violence are complex, deeply rooted, and require integrated responses tailored to specific conditions in different territories. What is needed, says INCIDE, would be a strategy that:
- Shuns one-size-fits-all national solutions. The government has failed for years to understand that the drivers of violence and stability are different across territories throughout the country. INCIDE advocates the creation of a “territorial map” detailing each community’s security situation, the resources it can bring to bear against violence, and what it needs from national-level programs in order to strengthen local communities.
- Empowers those local communities. A comparison between two locales – in Morazán and Jiquilisco – revealed that the former, which has fewer police and army personnel than the latter, has been able to maintain a more normal way of life because it has strong social organizations and a social commitment to preventing violence through informal vigilance, youth programs, and cooperation with authorities. Jiquilisco lacks these assets and lives essentially in lock-down mode.
More research and better-targeted territorial strategies are certainly essential, but even INCIDE’s Director, Alexander Segovia (who was a senior aide to President Funes and principal author of the INCIDE study), wouldn’t say they will guarantee success. In an extensive interview with the on-line magazine Revista Factum, he blamed the failure to stem the violence on the “negligence of the economic, political, and intellectual elites” of the country. He asserted that El Salvador must “change perspectives – to examine how it’s been dealing with the topic of violence and insecurity, from the design of public policies to the participation of the different actors who make up society.” Prevailing approaches emphasizing sectoral solutions – strengthening agriculture, industry or tourism in affected areas – have been too piecemeal to bring results. INCIDE’s research underscores the need for a more inclusive, comprehensive approach tailored to specific local conditions. Mobilizing and fostering cohesion in communities victimized by the violence may be a lot more difficult, but it is also potentially the most successful means to a solution.
September 26, 2016