The “Territorial Control Plan” is, according to the Salvadoran government, responsible for the country’s progression from being one of the most violent countries in the world to, in January 2020, recording its lowest number of homicides since the Civil War.
The country’s President, Nayib Bukele, is confident his plan will get the financial green light as the only way to ensure the numbers continue to decrease. Many analysts, however, say the historic reduction in violence is unlikely to be the result of a security strategy that, in their opinion, offers nothing new beyond the strategies put forward by previous governments.
Despite this, the official figures clearly indicate a significant decrease in the number of homicides in El Salvador, where the rate per 100,000 inhabitants fell from 51 in 2018 to 35.8 in 2019. And the downward trend has been even more pronounced since President Bukele took office in June 2019 and announced his plan to improve the country’s security. Since July, the monthly homicide rate has remained below the 200 mark. A record low was recorded in January with 119 homicides and a daily average of 3.8, – 60% less than in January 2018 -.
Several analysts attribute the reduction in violence to factors unrelated to government policy. They believe it’s more likely the gangs have forged a pact to stop the killings in order to avoid confrontations with security forces, leaving them free to maintain control of their territories and continue to engage in extortion. Other researchers think the reduction in homicides is a mirage; the result of a gang-initiated goodwill gesture towards the new Executive. This tactic, employed by gangs in the past, effectively attempts to blackmail President Bukele with the unspoken threat of rising homicide statistics should they wish to make their voice heard or demand a concession.
The “Territorial Control Plan” is divided into seven phases, two of which have already been implemented. Phase 1 involved the deployment of hundreds of police officers and members of the armed forces onto the streets. The prevision for phase 2 includes reconstructing the social fabric and training young people. Phase 3 is pending the approval of a US$109 million dollar loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration to fortify El Salvador’s security forces. Phases 4 to 7 have not yet been made public.
The government believes the continual presence of the security forces in the most problematic conflict zones is crucial. Previously, they had been present for 72 hours at most, and once they retired, the criminal world sprang into action once more.
Financial sustainability is one of the most significant challenges for the strategy, which also promotes community engagement as a way of ensuring the latest figures can be maintained.
There is, after all, a limit to what the security forces can achieve in terms of repressing the violence. Without active participation from the community, the results will be difficult to sustain over time. Some analysts are in favour of investing in social reform and employment projects, which they say would help to reduce the homicide rate and not just the rate of criminal prosecution.