El Salvador homicides drop; experts point to virus lock-down

El Salvador's once-startling homicide numbers have fallen  again, and some experts say the lock-down for the coronavirus pandemic may be playing a role

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- El Salvador's once-startling homicide numbers have fallen again, the government reported Wednesday, and some experts said the lock-down for the coronavirus pandemic may be playing a role.

Videos and audios have circulated of street gang members enforcing the lock-down, though the government says the decline is due to law enforcement measures.

The Central American country said there were 65 homicides in March, an average of 2.1 a day in a country that once saw as many as 600 slayings in some months.

Public Safety and Justice Minister Rogelio Rivas wrote in his Twitter account that “during this period (March) there were four days without a single murder,” something once almost unheard of in El Salvador, where street gangs virtually control some neighborhoods.

“These achievements are due to the Territorial Control plan and the work of our officers of the National Civil Police and the armed forces,” Rivas wrote.

But Jeannette Aguilar, who studies crime and violence at a local university, said, “The curfew measures have reduced the probability that these crimes will be committed, and that is what is showing up in the statistics.”

“I think the current conditions of the emergency over COVID-19 have without doubt played a role in the decline of homicides, precisely because there are restrictions on being in the street,” Aguilar said.

El Salvador had about 37.5 homicides per 100,000 people in 2019, down from 50.3 in 2018 and far below the 103 recorded in 2015.

“The quarantine is without doubt one of the variables that is causing a reduction of homicides, because when there are limits on movement, it is harder for gang members and other criminals to move around unnoticed,” said Juan Carlos Fernández Saca at José Matías Delgado University.

Harder to prove are suggestions that the infamous Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 street gangs may themselves be enforcing curfews and social distancing measures.

On Tuesday, audio tapes circulated of Mara Salvatrucha gang members threatening people who violated social distancing measures.

Video has also circulated of masked gang members hitting people with baseball bats for not adhering to quarantine or curfew measures.

Attorney General Raul Melara said prosecutors are investigating the videos and audios.

“Nobody should take the law into their own hands," Melara wrote in his Twitter account.