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El Salvador sees drop in murders but rise in disappearances

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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Reports of disappearances are up 8 percent so far this year in El Salvador compared to 2011, calling into question the achievements of a gang truce which has slashed murders by some 60 percent in the last two months.

In the first four months of 2012, 692 people were reported missing to the government forensic office, Medicina Legal, compared to 636 during the same period last year, reports La Prensa Grafica – an 8 percent rise. This year's statistics only apply to San Salvador, but according to the newspaper, disappearances outside the capital are not usually registered.

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The number of disappeared could undermine the achievements of a gang truce  in the country, which has seen murders drop by around 60 percent since the country's two main gangs made a ceasefire in early March. Leaders of Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) agreed to stop killing each other's members and suspend attacks on members of the security forces for an undefined period, which appears to still be ongoing.

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There were 255 murders registered in March, some 147 in April, and 76 in the first 15 days of May. This averages at about six killings a day, down some 60 percent from the first two months of the year.

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If we assume, however, that the vast majority of the disappeared are now dead, March and April would have seen 391 and 294 murders, respectively, using the number of disappeared cited by La Prensa Grafica. This would effectively wipe out the security gains of the gang truce.

In reality the effect would not be as dramatic as this, because those who went missing before the gang truce were not counted in the murder figures for that period either. There has not been a dramatic jump in disappearances reported since the truce – the number stood at 197 in January, 212 in February, 136 in March and 147 in April. This would leave 2012 on course for the same level of reported disappearances as last year, which saw 2,076. The decrease in killings, then, would still stand.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that the phenomenon of disappearing murder victims, so that their bodies are never found, could make a substantial difference to the rate of killings and could undermine the gains of the truce. The true number of the disappeared is likely far higher than those reported, however, as some families do not report their relatives missing, for fear of reprisals.

The government has been careful to lower expectations over the truce, pointing out that it will not be able to bring gang violence to an end. The fact that disappearances, which are often attributed to gangs, have continued at a steady rate attests to this.

– Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.


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