El Salvador’s bloody year has bolstered the arguments of those arguing for a non-violent solution to the country’s crime wave over those advocating an “iron fist” approach. Today, the situation in El Salvador validates Dr. King’s admonition that violence begets more violence.
Last month, El Salvador suffered 677 homicides. That follows a violent May with 635 people murdered in the gang warfare between two of the world’s most violent street gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. These two months of bloodletting have come after a government-negotiated truce fell apart. Rather than redouble its efforts to shore up the truce, the government has responded by putting more military units on the streets and unshackling the police and military to take justice into their own hands. Predictably, the gangs reacted with targeted killings of the military and police and by killing members of their families.
Studies have shown that the region’s violent history has paved the way for acceptance of more violence today. This includes using violence as a tool of controlling the media. Journalists too have learned the lesson, often self-censoring to avoid becoming a target.
The result has been that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the facts behind the grisly headlines, and there are few journalists willing to do so.
However, if El Salvador is the most recent epicenter of the region’s plague of violence then it also comes equipped with some of the region’s better journalists. That started with the revamping of El Diario de Hoy some years ago, but today it is represented by El Faro, the leading internet publication in Central America. El Faro is known for its investigative work and its pithy commentary about politics and culture.
One of the independent journalists to come out of the rough and tumble of Salvadoran newspapers and El Faro is Hector Silva Avalos. Silva has not only investigated the recent wave of homicides in his home country but his recent book Infiltrados is a brave recitation of the origins of the corruption that ails the Salvadoran national police. Recently, Silva pointed out that El Salvador may be about to supplant Honduras as the world’s most dangerous country, not only because of the rise in Salvadoran homicide statistics but because the Honduran government may actively be cooking the books.
Silva says he covered a recent event in Washington, D.C. where President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras claimed his government had taken control of his country’s homicide problem and the country’s murder rate was trending downward.
So, Silva did what journalists should do: he checked other sources. Silva went to the respected Observatoria de Violencia, the organization the United Nations trusts for its official figures on crime in Honduras. His sources there reacted to the president’s news. “They laughed in my face,” Silva remembers. “Is he saying that? Is he? Well, it’s not true.”
Official Honduran statistics for 2014 list 66 murders per 100,000 people, a significant decrease from 2012 when United Nations’ figures put the rate at more than 90 homicides per 100,000. President Hernández claims this year will see more reductions.
By comparison, El Salvador’s homicide rate registered 61 per 100,000 last year and is climbing. The real test will be if the Honduran president’s numbers coincide with the Observatoria’s figures at the end of the year. Here, at the mid-way part of the year, Silva’s work points to discrepancies in whether Honduran statistics are decreasing or increasing.
Certainly, business and investment are hurt in your country when it is hung with the label of being the “most violent in the world“, something Honduras has struggled with for years.
As Silva notes, to win votes, politicians, even those on the left, need to be seen by the public as looking tough on crime, hence the popularity of “iron fist” promises amongst campaigning politicians. That is why the gang truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 that had homicide rates in El Salvador at less than a third of what they are today was a doomed proposition as the country went through a presidential election and changed presidents. Certainly, the government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has worked to improve the country’s educational and social welfare systems which can provide long-term solutions to the violence. But his government has also downplayed the effectiveness of the gang truce, something his predecessor also seemed to hold at arm’s length.
But aside from publicly acknowledging the value of non-violent methods, governments facing such violence in Central America and Latin America need to start with one simple change. They need to be transparent about homicide figures and truthful with voters about the causes of these problems. Systemic, endemic violence will never be ended as long as citizens and policymakers lack trustworthy, objective statistics on crime and murder rates. Because, as El Salvador’s numbers demonstrate, non-violence and negotiation is what led to a dramatic reduction in murder rates. Citizens should know that. Only then will they likely vote for a more productive, humane and effective strategy for combating the plague of crime and violence.