Homicide rates in El Salvador are set to be at their lowest in years, yet the number of disappearances has increased dramatically in the same time, suggesting that the Salvadoran government does not have as a tight grasp on security issues as initial figures may imply.
As 2018 draws to a close, the latest figures from the National Civil Police of El Salvador (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) tell a tale of two countries.
Murder rates in 2018 have dropped to their lowest levels since the 2012 gang truce, with 3,151 homicides registered as of December 7. However, 3,382 people have been reported missing, almost 200 more than the year before.
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This year, seven to 10 Salvadorans disappeared on average each day, El Diario reported. The number of those going missing has increased steadily over the years, and 2018 will end with 2,000 more names on the list of disappeared than three years ago.
On December 11, the Attorney General’s Office announced a new strategy aimed at facilitating a more effective response to reports of missing persons. Developed in conjunction with the Canadian government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the protocol allows authorities to begin searching for a person as soon as they are reported missing.
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The Salvadoran government is pushing reduced homicide figures to celebrate a successful crackdown on crime, yet as disappearances continue to rise, it seems that these figures are a mere illusion and that levels of insecurity remain much the same.
Since 2015, homicide rates have seen a consistent year-on-year decrease, with current numbers standing at around 50 percent less than those reported three years ago. The figures for disappearances have worked as an almost inverse mirror image, steadily rising each year. The net total of victims remains much the same.
There are various reasons why a greater number of people may be listed as missing, rather than murdered.
The first has to do with the motives of the perpetrators themselves.
During the truce of 2012, there was a similar dip in homicides and rise in disappearances. It was believed that gang members were hiding corpses to proliferate a semblance of peace.
Although the truce is no longer in effect, there are other reasons why gangs may be covering their tracks. Harsh anti-gang measures have led to a rise in arrests and prosecutions. Criminals may be doing away with the evidence in hopes of heightened immunity.
The second reason is more political.
With presidential elections coming up in February, security is at the forefront of every voter’s mind. If the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) party wishes to retain power, it is essential to keep homicide rates down.
By listing many who are almost certainly dead as missing, the government can keep up appearances of having made serious inroads into the country’s violent crime problem.
Thirdly, is the government’s recurrent inability to tackle disappearances.
Both Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez and PNC Director Howard Cotto have indicated that there is no centralized, official register for those who have disappeared, according to El Mundo. This lack of administrative infrastructure renders search attempts extremely difficult.
The new urgent action protocol aims to establish a coherent database of disappearances and should ensure search mechanisms are more efficient. However, the strategy is mostly reactionary and does little to address the security issues that create a climate in which so many disappearances can take place.
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