Graffiti in El Salvador. (AP)

Graffiti in El Salvador. (AP)

LatAm in Focus: The Strange Case of El Salvador's Plummeting Homicide Rate

By Carin Zissis

Was President Nayib Bukele's tough-on-crime approach the solution? International Crisis Group's Tiziano Breda says there’s more to the story.

“It’s still a very fragile and very easily reversible equilibrium.”

Still, the rate has dropped to record lows under Bukele, with the government crediting its security strategy, known as the Territorial Control Plan. Breda expressed doubts, saying: “Most of the measures that have been taken resemble the attempts from previous administrations, which didn’t provide these stark and immediate results.”

So how did Bukele do it? In a July 2020 report titled Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Gang Violence, the ICG suggests there are other reasons behind plummeting crime. “We think it’s more likely to be the gangs’ decision to scale back the use of violence…probably as part of an informal understanding between gangs and authorities,” says Breda. This wouldn’t be the first time a Salvadoran government negotiated a gang truce. The 2015 surge in violence took place after the last truce fell apart.But there are reasons why this time around provides a new opportunity, says Breda, who notes that Bukele’s popularity means he has a great deal of political capital to engage in dialogue with the gangs. To some degree there’s little choice; gangs are active in 90 percent of El Salvador and involve some 400,000 people in a country with a population of 6.5 million. Interacting with gangs is “unavoidable” on a local level even when entering or exiting communities, says Breda, who adds that how Bukele decides to wield his influence has much to do with him having an eye on next year’s legislative elections.

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Luisa Leme produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at