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Is El Salvador the safest country in Latin America?

Nayib Bukele delivers a message to El Salvador's citizens as he celebrates his third year in office. Credit: Getty

July 14, 2023 - 7:00am

Since taking office in June 2019, El Salvador’s social-media savvy president, Nayib Bukele, has cracked down harshly on the country’s criminal gangs. Touting his achievements on Twitter this week, he claimed that “we turned the world’s murder capital into the safest country in Latin America”. But is this true?

Bukele has variously described himself as a “philosopher king” and the “world’s coolest dictator”. And his crime-fighting methods are certainly not ones you’d associate with a conventional leader.

Shortly after taking office, he announced his Territorial Control Plan, which saw the deployment of heavily armed police and military personnel in neighbourhoods controlled by criminal gangs. More than 4,000 people were arrested in the first few weeks alone. The Plan’s implementation coincided with a dramatic decline in the homicide rate from 53 per 100,000 in 2018 to 18 per 100,000 by 2021.

Note that Bukele’s government is accused of having negotiated a truce with the gangs, whereby they agreed to reduce the number of homicides in exchange for more favourable prison conditions and other benefits. He denies the accusation.

Any truce that was negotiated appears to have fallen apart on 27th March 2022, when there were 62 murders in a single day. The government then declared a “State of Exception”, under which some constitutional rights were suspended and additional military personnel were deployed. By July 2023, around 70,000 suspected gang members had been arrested — giving El Salvador the world’s highest incarceration rate.

The homicide rate again fell dramatically, reaching 7.8 per 100,000 in 2022. This is still higher than in some other Latin American countries, such as Chile — which according to the thinktank InSight Crime had a homicide rate of 4.6 per 100,000 last year. So is Bukele’s claim that El Salvador is the “safest country in Latin America” false?

Apparently not. The website El Salvador INFO reports that the Salvadorian National Police recorded 74 homicides in the first six months of the year. (I was able to verify this figure by reviewing tweets sent by the National Police at the end of each month). If we double 74 and then divide by 6.3 million, we get a predicted rate for the whole year of 2.3 per 100,000. This is noticeably lower than the 2021/2022 figure for every other country in Latin America.

Looking at figures published by El Salvador INFO, there is no evidence that homicides are more frequent in the second half of the year. So unless something unexpected happens, we should expect about 150 homicides by year’s end. One caveat is that official figures do not include individuals who died in confrontations with security forces — though adding these would only increase the total by around 25%.

Going by homicide data, there is good reason to believe that El Salvador is in fact the “safest country in Latin America”. For one that as recently as 2015 had a homicide rate of over 100 per 100,000 (among the highest in the world) this is a remarkable achievement. The question remains as to whether it has come at the expense of human rights, as Bukele’s critics allege, and if that trade-off was worth it.


Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer.

NoahCarl90

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Billy Bob
Billy Bob
11 months ago

I’d wager most citizens previously fearful of the gangs think it’s definitely worth it

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Precisely!
Security trumps ‘human rights’ every time, and rightly so.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago

I am surprised it is not a human right to live your life free of the fear of being murdered, to be protected from murderers.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

It was under the ‘Pax Romana’.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

It was under the ‘Pax Romana’.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago

I am surprised it is not a human right to live your life free of the fear of being murdered, to be protected from murderers.

Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

This would be similar to Duterte in the Philippines. While the West was busy trashing him as a ruthless dictator, the general Filipino population seemed happy that someone was finally dealing with the rampant crime.

Last edited 11 months ago by Ali W
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Precisely!
Security trumps ‘human rights’ every time, and rightly so.

Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

This would be similar to Duterte in the Philippines. While the West was busy trashing him as a ruthless dictator, the general Filipino population seemed happy that someone was finally dealing with the rampant crime.

Last edited 11 months ago by Ali W
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
11 months ago

I’d wager most citizens previously fearful of the gangs think it’s definitely worth it

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
11 months ago

Is it worth the expense of human rights? Easy, just ask the Salvadorans since only their opinion matters — they say this guy has a +90% approval rating. There’s nothing more to say.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
11 months ago

Is it worth the expense of human rights? Easy, just ask the Salvadorans since only their opinion matters — they say this guy has a +90% approval rating. There’s nothing more to say.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
11 months ago

I’ve seen vids of the super-prisons built specifically to house MS13 gang members. Bukele has done sterling work for El Salvadorans, and has a phenomenal approval rating according to outside researchers.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
11 months ago

I’ve seen vids of the super-prisons built specifically to house MS13 gang members. Bukele has done sterling work for El Salvadorans, and has a phenomenal approval rating according to outside researchers.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
11 months ago

Who would have thought that locking up criminals would cause crime to go down? Shame none of the politicians in this country will take a blind bit of notice. Had a quick read up on which civil liberties were suspended (due process being the main one) but it would have been nice if this had been elaborated upon in the article rather than just a blanket term used. In this country if you just imprisoned those who had been found guilty the crime rate would drop precipitously. The trouble is that criminals are given multiple chances both being let off and then short sentences to habituate themselves to a life of crime.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
11 months ago

Who would have thought that locking up criminals would cause crime to go down? Shame none of the politicians in this country will take a blind bit of notice. Had a quick read up on which civil liberties were suspended (due process being the main one) but it would have been nice if this had been elaborated upon in the article rather than just a blanket term used. In this country if you just imprisoned those who had been found guilty the crime rate would drop precipitously. The trouble is that criminals are given multiple chances both being let off and then short sentences to habituate themselves to a life of crime.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
11 months ago

The concept of anarcho-tyranny (Paul Gottfried) is overlooked in this piece. In a state that has a monopoly on violence any actual manifestation of violence is sanctioned by the state and serves the state’s purposes.
We see this in the UK with the different treatment of Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and BLM protesters (pushing the state ideology), which can be contrasted with the treatment of anti-lockdown, anti-NetZero or anti-immigration protests.
In the USA January 6th protesters are in jail, whereas BLM protesters are not. The threat of AntiFa violence if Trump was elected in 2020 was communicated through the activities of BLM, and admitted in the famous Time magazine confession of the “fortification” of that result.
The doctrine of institutional racism is about aligning police forces with one of the liberal state’s client groups, and before you know it policemen’s boots have rainbow laces. In memoriam George Floyd.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
11 months ago

The concept of anarcho-tyranny (Paul Gottfried) is overlooked in this piece. In a state that has a monopoly on violence any actual manifestation of violence is sanctioned by the state and serves the state’s purposes.
We see this in the UK with the different treatment of Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and BLM protesters (pushing the state ideology), which can be contrasted with the treatment of anti-lockdown, anti-NetZero or anti-immigration protests.
In the USA January 6th protesters are in jail, whereas BLM protesters are not. The threat of AntiFa violence if Trump was elected in 2020 was communicated through the activities of BLM, and admitted in the famous Time magazine confession of the “fortification” of that result.
The doctrine of institutional racism is about aligning police forces with one of the liberal state’s client groups, and before you know it policemen’s boots have rainbow laces. In memoriam George Floyd.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
11 months ago

Perhaps if human rights came with commensurate human responsibilities, we could protect and maintain human rights for those that have earned them. That might even then be an incentive for thugs who don’t yet make the grade to clean their act up.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
11 months ago

Perhaps if human rights came with commensurate human responsibilities, we could protect and maintain human rights for those that have earned them. That might even then be an incentive for thugs who don’t yet make the grade to clean their act up.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
11 months ago

The hobbesian war of all against all, versus state monopoly of power. Most people value their collective security more than other less basic needs, like individual freedoms

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
11 months ago

Isn’t it more that what you call ‘collective security’ – ie release from the Hobbesian state – is the precondition for any other índividual freedoms? That is, it’s not that it competes with these other freedoms and is finally judged to be more important; rather, it is a necessary condition for them to exist at all.

Last edited 11 months ago by Russell Sharpe
Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
11 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

Yes, or refer to Maslow’s hierarchy.
But the El Salvadorans are being asked whether they care about a few potential human rights violations, in the context of this state enforced attempt to improve collective security, so they are in conflict here.
(& no they don’t generally care about potentially innocent people being caught up in the clamp-down, if it causes a general social improvement)

Last edited 11 months ago by Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
11 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

Yes, or refer to Maslow’s hierarchy.
But the El Salvadorans are being asked whether they care about a few potential human rights violations, in the context of this state enforced attempt to improve collective security, so they are in conflict here.
(& no they don’t generally care about potentially innocent people being caught up in the clamp-down, if it causes a general social improvement)

Last edited 11 months ago by Benedict Waterson
Simon Tavanyar
Simon Tavanyar
11 months ago

Yes. Why do we have to re-learn the balance of individual vs collective rights with every change of the political wind? Don’t we learn ANYTHING from history?

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Tavanyar

Is it not a universal truth that people never learn from history. In the same way, when an author includes acquaintances in their novels, the acquaintances do not recognise themselves. Pesky problem of self-knowledge.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Tavanyar

Is it not a universal truth that people never learn from history. In the same way, when an author includes acquaintances in their novels, the acquaintances do not recognise themselves. Pesky problem of self-knowledge.

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
11 months ago

Isn’t it more that what you call ‘collective security’ – ie release from the Hobbesian state – is the precondition for any other índividual freedoms? That is, it’s not that it competes with these other freedoms and is finally judged to be more important; rather, it is a necessary condition for them to exist at all.

Last edited 11 months ago by Russell Sharpe
Simon Tavanyar
Simon Tavanyar
11 months ago

Yes. Why do we have to re-learn the balance of individual vs collective rights with every change of the political wind? Don’t we learn ANYTHING from history?

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
11 months ago

The hobbesian war of all against all, versus state monopoly of power. Most people value their collective security more than other less basic needs, like individual freedoms

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
11 months ago

A fascinating example of a solution to a terrible problem. When a society becomes anarchic and it becomes impossible to address lawlessness according to western ideas of the rule of law, then the choice is stark: anarchy for most and the rule of law for some. I think that the rule of law (by which I mean due process under the law in the Anglo-American sense) may be a luxury only afforded to ordered societies. I suspect that it works to the detriment of disordered societies and may not be a luxury for them, but a vice.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
11 months ago

A fascinating example of a solution to a terrible problem. When a society becomes anarchic and it becomes impossible to address lawlessness according to western ideas of the rule of law, then the choice is stark: anarchy for most and the rule of law for some. I think that the rule of law (by which I mean due process under the law in the Anglo-American sense) may be a luxury only afforded to ordered societies. I suspect that it works to the detriment of disordered societies and may not be a luxury for them, but a vice.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago

and I thought that Bukele was some form of mass Japanese self abuse?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago

and I thought that Bukele was some form of mass Japanese self abuse?

Cynthia W.
Cynthia W.
11 months ago

The Salvadoran ladies at my church think Bukele is a cutie pie.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
11 months ago

The link to the US Treasury document states that Bukele secretly provided financial incentives to ensure that the number of “confirmed homicides remained low.

Is it possible that homicides are still taking place, but are simply “unconfirmed” and so not tallied?

It would be something if the government ended up assisting in ensuring certain homicides took place and remained “unconfirmed”, in order to maintain Bukele’s image!

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
11 months ago

The link to the US Treasury document states that Bukele secretly provided financial incentives to ensure that the number of “confirmed homicides remained low.

Is it possible that homicides are still taking place, but are simply “unconfirmed” and so not tallied?

It would be something if the government ended up assisting in ensuring certain homicides took place and remained “unconfirmed”, in order to maintain Bukele’s image!