Understanding and addressing violence in El Salvador and Honduras

Rachel Meyer
ICIP collaborator
Rachel Meyer

Rachel Meyer

Under provocative headlines such as "Most Dangerous Countries in the World", El Salvador and Honduras have garnered attention for having, outside of war zones, the highest murder rates in the world. Time Magazine recently reported that Honduras' San Pedro Sula now holds the title of the world's most violent city, beating out Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which held the spot for the last three years running. Another Central American country, Guatemala, is not too far behind, prompting the coining of the term "Northern Triangle" as shorthand for the geographical region that has become home to so much bloodshed.

The ceaseless violence prompts many observers to consider its causes. Some focus on the civil wars and political violence of the 1980s, whose weapons and fighters were suddenly left without direction once peace agreements were signed. Others point to the process of democratization that swept the region after those peace agreements were signed, which overemphasized the procedural aspects of democracy (political parties and regular elections) without addressing the human aspects that make those institutions work (rebuilding societal relationships, fighting impunity, corruption). Still others blame poverty and vast inequality in the region. Surely, there is some truth in each of these claims and improving our understanding of the causes of violence will only increase the potential for effective public policies that appear to be still lacking.

There is an important initiative underway in El Salvador that has the potential to set the country on a different path. In the spring of 2012, incarcerated leaders of El Salvador's two most notorious gangs negotiated a truce with eventual backing from the government. The gangs agreed to a ceasefire in exchange for better prison conditions – though not reduced sentences. Homicide rates dropped immediately and dramatically and, so far, the rates have stayed low. Despite some claims that the drop in homicides has led to spikes in other kinds of violence such as disappearances, there is no evidence to support this. Yet, this breath of hopeful air in Salvadoran society raises many questions and offers few answers. Will the truce last? Will the gangs come to hold the government hostage by demanding more concessions in return for continued cooperation? How will the rest of Salvadoran society react to these marginalized members and will they be willing to offer a second chance to those seeking a new life? Will the private sector offer jobs to ex-gang members so that they can have legitimate alternatives to gang life?

Violence in Honduras, by contrast, shows no signs of abating. Under pressure from public figures like Julieta Castellano, director of the largest Honduran university, whose 22-year old son was murdered by the national police last year, President Lobo has reluctantly agreed to purge police who fail a confidence test. Deep structural reforms have also been recommended to overhaul the police and the judiciary, but in the short term the military, also with a poor human rights record, is still being used for domestic policing under a declared state of emergency. Recent headlines suggest that purged police officers may not go quietly, which is troubling in light of the political turmoil that resulted in the 2009 coup d'état.

Under public pressure, both El Salvador and Honduras implemented "Iron Fist" policies in the 2000s to little avail. During the same period, some Latin American leaders took risks on unconventional policies and were surprised by the results. Former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus reduced homicide rates and violence in Colombia's capital by hiring mimes to publicly shame bad drivers, closing bars early and organizing evening events just for women, while asking fathers to stay home with their children. There is no roadmap to guide policymakers or citizens forward to a more peaceful future, but the gang truce appears to be the most promising new idea in El Salvador. Meanwhile, as the Honduran military continues to police its citizens and homicide rates continue to climb, an old refrain comes to mind: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Keeping in mind the very serious nature of the problem, it is well worth remembering that all measures, including the truly innovative, need to be on the table in the months and years to come.