The homicide rate in El Salvador has risen suddenly in recent weeks, the result of a fierce turf war between the two main criminal gangs. According to the national police, 481 people were murdered in March alone, the highest monthly homicide rate in the past 10 years.
The rise in crime is blamed on the collapse of a truce between the two gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18. In 2014, 3,875 murders took place, compared with 2,490 in 2013. The crime rate had previously dropped by half when the two gangs had signed the truce in 2011.
Although crime is a serious problem, reports say millions of foreigners visit this Central American country every year. The U.S. State Department says Americans who visit for an extended period are vulnerable to extortion. Imprisoned gang leaders have been known to threaten businessmen using cell phones, while their gang members on the street carry out their threats.
There have also been cases in which criminals observe and follow customers making withdrawals at ATMs and banks, then rob them on the road or at upon return to their place of residence. “Some victims unwittingly wander into gang-controlled territory,” adds the report.
Many cases go unreported because people suspect that some police officers work hand-in-gloves with the criminals. “A majority of serious crimes are never solved; only six of the 33 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2010 have resulted in convictions,” says the U.S. State Department.
Since the truce collapsed, the police have also become the target of criminals, with nearly 40 officers killed in 2014. Police are now admitting that they are at war with the country’s gangs.
Some reports say Mexican drug cartels are taking advantage of weak public institutions and corruption in El Salvador and are recruiting members to transport narcotics to North America.