This past month was the bloodiest yet for El Salvador in a year marked by spiking violence and insecurity. Some 677 people were murdered during June, many of them victimized by ongoing battles between the country’s gangs, and the gangs and government forces. In total, the lives of nearly 3,000 people have been claimed by violence in the first half of 2015 alone. El Salvador has not witnessed murderousness on this scale since the end of its civil war nearly twenty-five years ago.
Some had hoped that the nationwide celebration of Oscar Romero’s beatification would slow the violence. El Salvador’s gangs had, in fact, signaled their willingness to lay down their weapons in honor of the archbishop, but the agreement did not hold. The country effectively shut down for part of May as hundreds of thousands of Catholics celebrated Romero’s life, but the killings continued. By way of comparison, fewer civilians were killed in ISIS-controlled Iraq that month than were murdered in Central America’s tiniest country.
Far from thinking creatively about possible solutions to the epidemic, the Salvadoran government has chosen to double-down on its “strong hand” approach to combating the gangs. It recently announced that 600 special forces commandos would be trained to carry out “surgical” operations against the maras—from raiding gangster hideouts to rescuing hostages taken by mareros in attacks on public institutions.
Initiatives of this kind betray the government’s panic. Faced with a situation that has largely escaped his control, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén likely feels compelled to exhibit strength and command. Moreover, he may actually have come to believe that winning the war against the gangs demands an escalation in violence. But history is clear on the folly of this thinking. Militarized responses have failed to yield positive results in the past, and actually contribute to the gang’s growing power over time.
Alternative paths to peace are available. Indeed, there are communities sprinkled throughout El Salvador that have enjoyed relative calm even as surrounding areas descend into conflict. While causal connections are difficult to identify, the trends are clear enough. Murder-free hamlets tend to feature community policing and robust civil societies. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, they are often characterized by “small populations, between 1,000 and 4,000 people, strong community organizations, and resources like clean water, after-school programs, public wifi, and local training and job-creation programs.”
For most Salvadorans, however, peace and security are a long way off. As the government prepares to ramp up its fight against the gangs, body counts continue to rise. With an average of twenty-three murders a day, El Salvador unhappily has established itself as the most violent country in the world not officially at war. And yet the war continues.
Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.