PDVSA Subsidiaries in Central America Slapped With Sanctions

The US Treasury Department extended economic sanctions imposed on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-run oil company, to two of its subsidiaries in Central America, increasing the pressure on some of the staunchest foreign allies of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime. A spokesman for the Treasury Department confirmed to InSight Crime that sanctions had been slapped on Alba Petróleos in El Salvador and Albanisa in Nicaragua, both PDVSA’s subsidiaries under the control of the governing parties in each of the countries. “As a result of our designation of PDVSA, the sanctions also apply to any entity in which PDVSA has direct or indirect ownership of 50 percent or more,” the spokesman said.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

On January 28, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department issued sanctions against PDVSA stating that “Venezuela’s state-run oil company… has long been a vehicle for corruption… for the personal gain of corrupt Venezuelan officials and businessmen.” Official documents of the Venezuelan oil company state that PDV Caribe, one of PDVSA’s subsidiaries, owns 60 percent of Alba Petróleos. The latter is a private-public venture funded in 2006 in El Salvador and is heavily linked to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). In Nicaragua, PDVSA owns 51 percent of Alba de Nicaragua (Albanisa). The other 49 percent is owned by municipalities under the control of Daniel Ortega’s regime, according to an investigation by Connectas, and confirmed by official documents InSight Crime had access to. The sanctions state, among other things, that no American person or company can carry out any trade or transactions of any kind with these companies. For more than a decade, PDVSA has been at the center of a series of regional corruption scandals and has faced repeated accusations of money laundering.

InSight Crime Analysis

These sanctions on PDVSA subsidiaries, Alba Petróleos and Albanisa, shine a spotlight once again on the Central American partners of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. This also ratchets up international pressure on Salvadorian and Nicaraguan interest groups which have supported Venezuela. Since Alba Petróleos was founded, it has been under the control of José Luis Merino, known as “Ramiro Vásquez”, a former FMLN guerrilla captain, who later became a federal deputy and government official.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Over the past decade, Merino has been scrutinized by multiple US agencies and his name is even mentioned in a file opened by the El Salvador Attorney General’s Office for alleged arms trafficking. Merino, nonetheless, holds immunity in El Salvador, since the current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, appointed him deputy foreign affairs minister in 2016. In 2017, 14 US congressmen requested that the Trump administration investigate Merino for “longstanding associations with organized crime networks subject to criminal investigations in the US.” In March 2018, American authorities detained Fred Merino, brother of José Luis, in Houston in connection with the same investigation. Fred Merino has also long been a major figure within Alba Petróleos. Venezuelan oil and the profits it has brought to Alba Petróleos have also served to finance FMLN election campaigns, it was confirmed last January, by a consultant close to the presidential candidate of said party for the February 3 elections. Asdrúbal Chávez Jiménez was one of the first directors of Alba Petróleos, cousin of the late Hugo Chávez and one of the directors of PDVSA since 2004. Nicolás Maduro appointed him minister of oil and mining in 2014. That same year, according to an investigation led by US federal prosecutors, $1.2 billion were redirected from the Venezuelan state-run oil company to personal accounts of Maduro’s regimen officials. In Nicaragua, according to Connectas, Albanisa was one of the main financial fronts for the regime of Daniel Ortega, who used Venezuelan money to feed the social aid programs and political alliances that have kept him in power. Last July, the Treasury Department issued sanctions against Francisco López Centeno, Albanisa’s vice president and a close ally to Daniel Ortega, for “misappropriation of state assets…corruption related to government contracts…[and] bribery.” In practice, the US sanctions will have different consequences for Alba Petróleos and Albanisa. In El Salvador, the FMLN’s government ends on June 1 and the local oil company is almost bankrupt. This means the main implications for officials linked to this Venezuelan oil scandal will likely be prosecutions on corruption charges. In Nicaragua, Albanisa’s financial drought and the sanctions it now faces adds pressure to the Ortega government, which has been in turmoil since launching a brutal repression campaign against its own citizens. However, Ortega has previously survived several rounds of sanctions coming from Washington DC.

The Top Three Security Challenges Facing El Salvador’s President-Elect Nayib Bukele

It is straight to business for El Salvador’s president-elect Nayib Bukele as he faces unparalleled expectations when it comes to tackling the country’s security policy. Some sources close to the president are giving the impression that Salvadorans will see daring, new proposals, but others fear Bukele will fall back on tried and not so true policies that have promised much but delivered little. InSight Crime delves into three of the major issues affecting El Salvador’s public security and anti-crime efforts, which the new president will have to deal with upon taking a seat in his office at the presidential palace.

1. Gang Activity

Within the plan presented during his campaign, Bukele published a National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) document that was supposed to be restricted from public view. It was a map showing the Salvadoran territory under control of the two dominant gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. A PNC official told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity that the Bukele team received the information from someone within the PNC. An investigation has been opened to discover who was responsible for the leak, according to Diario El Mundo. Bukele’s plan describes the criminal landscape in El Salvador in crystal clear terms that have been obvious to Salvadorans for over a decade and a half: the gangs have been expanding their control through extortion and the indiscriminate use of violence in large swaths of the country for years. “The expansion of these criminal groups is undeniable, as is the impact on the lives of ordinary citizens,” the plan states. The two administrations prior to Bukele’s belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). Both of them opted for widespread “mano dura” (“iron fist”) policies that included instituting so-called extraordinary measures in the prisons and giving the police free rein when pursuing gang members in the streets. From the latter sprung a new version of the death squads that had plagued the country in its more turbulent years — this time embedded in the police force.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

However, the maps published by the Bukele team showed that the mano dura policies changed little; the territorial control of the gangs remains intact today. One figure that has improved is the homicide rate, which dropped by 15 percent in 2018.  The start of the year saw a spike in killings that included several murders of police officers, but official reports show that by the end of January daily homicides had decreased to nine, then to seven so far this month. Though authorities blame most of El Salvador’s murders on the gangs, Bukele has shown a willingness to find ways to manage them. When he was mayor of San Salvador, Bukele and his advisors held talks with gangs in order to ensure government presence in some of the capital’s hardest hit neighborhoods, according to a June 2018 report published by El Faro.

2. Police Reform

Since 2015, the Salvadoran justice system has prosecuted half a dozen cases in which high-ranking members of the police force, soldiers and other officials have been accused of homicide, attempted homicide, intimidation, torture and other crimes. President-elect Bukele’s security plan, however, continues to emphasize the repressive component of the PNC and maintains the military’s active role in criminal intelligence work and public security. Still largely unknown is what action the new government will take to effectively purge both armed institutions of the actors corrupting them, especially the PNC. What will soon be known, though, is the names of the police officials who will be appointed to head the PNC and if any of them carry past accusations against them.

SEE ALSO: The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador’s Police

Another sign of what can be expected from the Bukele administration is what happens to Defense Minister David Munguía Payés. The intelligence apparatuses that General Payés currently runs have been linked to extrajudicial executions and other crimes. Many will be watching closely to see how much power he wields under the new president.

3. Corruption

During the campaign, Bukele’s team focused heavily on how it will address corruption. Starting in October 2018, allusions were made to the creation of an international anti-graft commission akin to Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). But Bukele made clear his intention to tackle corruption with a similar entity in the speech he gave the night of February 3, the day he officially won the presidential election with close to 54 percent of the vote. He and his advisors now have a more concrete proposal for what they are calling the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en El Salvador – CICIES). However, there may also be cause for concern. Accusations of corruption and regulatory violations weigh on Bukele himself, and El Salvador’s politicians and business elites are bound to resist any anti-graft body. Local politicians have already expressed reluctance to create such a commission, including Bukele’s fellow members of the political party he ran under, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA). Some of them have been investigated for alleged illicit enrichment. What’s more, El Salvador’s main business association made a statement insisting that a CICIES is unnecessary. The business class was perhaps worried after witnessing the CICIG investigations unfold in Guatemala against some of that country’s elites. In response, Bukele’s colleagues were quick to downplay his affiliation with GANA — which has already been known for past corruption — saying it was simply a vehicle to the presidency. They added that the president-elect will have plenty of space to sidestep any obstacles intended to impede projects like the CICIES. With the elections over and Bukele’s presidency set to begin, it is now time to keep tabs on his first steps, not only in establishing his proposed anti-graft commission, but also in how he decides to combat El Salvador’s insecurity, crime and violence.

Major Odebrecht Corruption Cases and Investigations in 2019

Since beginning in Brazil with the “Operation Car Wash” (“Operação Lava Jato”) investigation in 2014, the Odebrecht corruption scandal has been headline news across Latin America. Presidents, lawmakers, and business tycoons alike have been charged and jailed across the region. Here, InSight Crime presents a round-up of investigations or trials against prominent figures in Latin America and the Caribbean. Mexico: Mexico has shown a lethargic approach to the Odebrecht scandal. The only high-profile name being investigated for the largest corruption scandal to rock Latin America is Emilio Lozoya Austin. The former president of the state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), who served under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, is accused of conducting a corruption scheme that involved ghost companies between 2012 and 2016. In addition, Mexican prosecutors believe that Austin used the hefty bribes received from Odebrecht to fund the electoral campaigns of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), including that of Peña Nieto. Many in Mexico believe that the lack of accountability and prosecution by the federal government was a way for the former and current administration to protect those who were involved with Odebrecht.  In a country known for its high levels of impunity, it remains to be seen if this case will eventually lead to more far-reaching investigations. In February, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed that the investigation into Odebrecht would continue, which may see more inquiries begin soon. Dominican Republic: Preliminary Odebrecht hearings have dominated news headlines in the Dominican Republic in recent weeks. Known for its entrenched corruption, the Caribbean nation is currently investigating seven people that reportedly received more than $92 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction giant. Two names that stand out from the investigation are current Senator Tommy Galán and former Public Works Minister Víctor Díaz Rúa. Both men are members of the Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana – PLD), which is gearing up for the 2020 presidential election.  A guilty conviction could potentially tarnish the image of the party and hamper its chances at retaining power as the current president, Danilo Medina, is also a member of the PLD. El Salvador: Former president Mauricio Funes is being investigated for allegedly embezzling $351 million. Odebrecht is suspected of paying out between $1-3 million to Funes during 2009 presidential campaign. Funes, who was president from 2009 to 2014, is also under judicial investigation for reportedly paying off deputies in order to obtain favorable votes in the Legislative Assembly during his presidency. The ex-president has four arrest warrants out against him for corruption cases. He is now residing in Nicaragua protected by political asylum granted by President Daniel Ortega. However, the spokesperson of newly-elected president Nayib Bukele announced that the government will begin talks with Nicaragua to demand Funes’ deportation. Guatemala: Guatemala’s current investigation into Odebrecht is centered on the former minister of infrastructure, and current fugitive, Alejandro Sinibaldi. The Attorney General’s Office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) claim that Sinibaldi led a criminal structure within the Communications Ministry. Sinibaldi is currently under an Interpol search warrant and an additional eight people with close ties to him are being sought by authorities, including his brothers, Alvaro and Luis Rodrigo Sinibaldi. Another key figure being investigated in Guatemala is former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón, who was arrested in the United States in January 2018. Baldizón is accused of allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht officials to help them with public works contracts in the Central American nation. After a failed attempt to seek asylum in the United States, Baldizón decided to withdraw his request and is now pending extradition to Guatemala. A constitutional crisis has unfolded in Guatemala after President Jimmy Morales decided to ban the CICIG from the country, a move that has been met with public and international backlash. As a result of the absence of the CICIG, the latest hearing against Sinibaldi and Baldizón was suspended and rescheduled for February 27, 2019. It remains to be seen what impact the ongoing crisis with the CICIG will have on the future of the case.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

Panama: Former President Ricardo Martinelli, who is under arrest, and other people with close ties to his presidency are currently under investigation for allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht. Panamanian prosecutors indicate that from 2009 to 2014, the duration of Martinelli’s presidency, payments surpassing $96 million were awarded for infrastructure projects such as road improvement in Chanis, the Tocumen Airport expansion, the urban renewal of Curundú, improvements to Line 1 of the Metro, and many others. As a result, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office in Panama launched an investigation against the former economy minister Frank de Lima, who is accused of receiving at least $7 million in improper payments. Another high-level name that is currently under investigation is the former minister of public works, Jaime Ford. Ford is linked to accepting illegal bribes from the Brazilian company, as well as being accused of overpricing the Arraijan-La Chorrera Highway project for illicit purposes. Colombia: In Colombia, Odebrecht paid at least $32.5 million in bribes to ensure contracts for the building of the Ruta del Sol highway and other infrastructure projects. Colombia’s Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez has found himself in the spotlight  after Jorge Enrique Pizano, an auditor, revealed secret recordings in which he talked about contract irregularities with Martínez, who was at that time an attorney for Corficolombiana, a minor partner of Odebrecht. Pizano’s tapes with Martinez came to light in a television interview. Pizano, who was suffering from cancer and ultimately died of a heart attack, provided the interview on the condition that they only broadcast it in the event of his death. Congress has opened an investigation into Martinez’s statements about the Obredecht scandal, and he is under pressure to resign. Martinez’s conflict of interest doesn’t stop with Corficolombiana. He was also legal advisor to Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Colombia’s richest man and founder of the conglomerate Grupo Aval. Grupo Aval is a part owner of Corficolombiana and is currently cooperating in a US Justice Department investigation, according to Reuters. Former Senator Otto Nicolás Bula Bula, who was sentenced to two years in jail for bribery, has been the government’s key witness in unraveling the graft scheme. The investigation has ensnared a number of government officials during the administrations of both former presidents Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, including former senator Bernardo Miguel Elías. Ecuador: Ecuador’s Odebrecht case illustrates a close-knit corruption structure that took place under the presidency of Rafael Correa. His childhood friend and ex-vice president, Jorge Glas, who is already serving a jail term for the corruption scandal, has been accused by Luis Mameri, Odebrecht’s vice president in Latin America, of accepting further bribes than initially known through a company named Glory International. In September 2018, the Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office opened a preliminary investigation against eight people for allegedly indulging in organized crime within Odebrecht’s corruption scheme. Among those investigated is former President Rafael Correa, who is currently residing and seeking asylum in Belgium. In addition, former legal secretary of the presidency Alexis Mera, former Interior Minister José Serrano, and former Attorney General Diego García are also being investigated for their role in the Hydroelectric San Francisco Project. Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office recently announced that an additional 11 preliminary investigations were going to be targeting Rafael Correa, Alexis Mera, and Jorge Glas. The latest announcement solidifies Ecuador’s efforts to punish those involved in this corruption scandal.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Peru: To say that the Odebrecht scandal has rocked the political class in Peru would be an understatement. Maria Sokolich, Peru’s new attorney general following the controversial resignation of Pedro Chávarry, is currently overseeing the investigation into some of the country’s top politicians, which are holding or have held the highest office in this country. Current president Martín Vizcarra is being investigated for an alleged link between his company and Odebrecht between 2006 and 2008. His predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has an ongoing investigation against him — which forced his resignation in March 2018 — for alleged consultancies that his company, Westfield Capital, made to Odebrecht between November 2004 and December 2007. Former president Alan García, who was denied an asylum request in Uruguay after the allegations came to light, is accused of taking bribes during the construction of the Lima Metro. The two other former presidents being investigated for allegedly taking bribes are Alejandro Toledo and Ollanta Humala. In March, Odebrecht’s former executive in Peru, Jorge Barata, is expected to declare this in Brazil. Barata’s testimony could potentially create new shockwaves in the Andean nation. Recently, Odebrecht has announced it will cooperate with the Peruvian government. Its former executives in the country are set to be interviewed, which may yet lead to further revelations. Argentina: The Odebrecht investigation in Argentina threatens dozens of former high-level officials linked to public works projects during the presidencies of Néstor Carlos Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015). Most notably are the investigations into Julio de Vido and Daniel Cameron. Julio de Vido, a former minister of federal planning under Fernández, turned himself into authorities in October 2018. De Vido is accused of being part of the “Road Works” scandal, which involves the alleged embezzlement of public funds through tender processes for road works in the former president’s home province of Santa Cruz, as well as other infrastructure projects under his supervision. Meanwhile, former Energy Minister Daniel Cameron is being investigated as part of a case known as “Skanska II,” where irregularities in the expansion of gas pipelines in the country are being linked to a corruption scheme with the collaboration of Odebrecht. However, the level of corruption into the Kirchners’ is more profound. Reports suggest that an additional 14 businessmen and five former employees are also being investigated for many illicit activities in cooperation with the Brazilian construction giant. Bolivia: Bolivia’s has a history of favorable dealings with Brazilian companies that dates back to 1987. In that year, then-Energy Minister Carlos Morales Landívar was accused of using his political influence to favor the Brazilian company, Andrade Gutierrez. Now, Landívar is being accused of being involved in 2003 with Camargo Correa — among the 13 major companies in Brazil under investigation in the Lava Jato case — when he was minister of services and public works. However, the names directly linked to the Odebrecht case are the former president and current 2019 presidential hopeful Carlos Mesa and his successor, Supreme Court Justice and former president Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé. Both are being investigated for allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht during their presidencies, which spanned between 2003 and 2006. Mesa’s investigation could play a pivotal role in the presidential elections that are to be held in October. A conviction in Mesa’s case could leave the door wide open for Evo Morales to be reelected. Brazil: Over the past five years in Brazil, more than 77 company executives have agreed to plea bargains, one president was impeached, another former president is currently in jail, and his successor is now also being investigated as a result of the Odebrecht scandal. That’s just a slight glimpse of the far-reaching impact that the Lava Jato case has had on South America’s largest nation. On February 6, currently jailed former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was indicted for additional charges that would add 13 extra years to his current sentence. Lula is accused of receiving illicit benefits during his mandate from 2003 to 2010. In addition to Lula, other people close to his inner circle have been accused and arrested for corruption. One of those people, former Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha, has been in prison since 2016. Cunha is accused of receiving a $5 million bribe. However, despite his current arrest, Brazilian prosecutors have requested further charges against him. Meanwhile, Aécio Neves, a former governor and 2014 presidential candidate, is accused of receiving bribes in exchange for support for legislation mainly regarding works that were of interest to Odebrecht when he was governor of Minas Gerais state. Neves’ investigation is ongoing while he maintains a seat as a senator for Minas Gerais. Lastly, former President Michel Temer (2016-2018) has made headlines as Brazil’s federal police have asked for him to be charged with bribery and money laundering. According to officials, while vice-president in 2014, Temer and his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro – PMDB) received more than $2 million from Odebrecht. Now that Sérgio Moro, who was once leading the Lava Jato corruption probe, is the new justice minister under President Jair Bolsonaro, close attention will be focused on sweeping new legislation that he has proposed to combat corruption.  

El Salvador Tycoon, ex-AG Accused of Heading Organized Crime Structure

A court in El Salvador has ruled that a corruption network run by a former attorney general and powerful businessman constituted an organized criminal structure, officially confirming what many had believed for years. Officials in El Salvador said that former Attorney General Luis Martínez and prominent businessman Enrique Rais created an organized criminal association that was “led by a decision making center that gave orders to buy justice,” the Attorney General’s Office said in a January 25 tweet. Authorities arrested both Martínez and Rais in August 2016 on judicial corruption charges for conspiring to defraud the justice system on several occasions. The case at the center of the investigation involves a multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving two former partners in Rais’ waste disposal company, MIDES S.A. de C.V.. Authorities allege Martínez and Rais entered into an “improper” relationship to advance the latter’s legal agenda.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

The judges determined that Martínez and Rais, along with others, corrupted the justice system using a structure that met the requirements established by the country’s organized crime law: It was a hierarchical organization composed of two or more people with defined roles who acted together with the intention of committing a crime, according to La Prensa Gráfica. The structure had three levels, according to the judges. The businessmen, led by Rais, gave orders to their group of lawyers who then allegedly bribed public officials. In one instance, a legal medicine expert confessed to receiving $5,000 in exchange for lying about supposed psychological problems that Rais and one of his co-conspirators allegedly had in an official report, according to La Prensa Gráfica. The business tycoon has since fled to Switzerland where he is hiding out to avoid the charges he faces in El Salvador. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The court’s ruling that the corruption ring led by Rais and Martínez constituted an organized criminal structure is not surprising, but it is significant, as it shows authorities in El Salvador clearly identifying this type of organization as such. Rais was the perfect example of the intersection between organized crime, powerful elites and the state in El Salvador. Travelers in airplanes owned by Rais reportedly included Martínez, former Honduras President Porfirio Lobo and outgoing El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, as well as a number of other members of his administration. Rais’ planes were seized by US authorities in Florida, but the case calling for their forfeiture was later dropped and the aircraft returned.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Rais was also an important political player who helped propel Martínez to attorney general in 2012, lobbying through the controversial politician José Luis Merino of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and Guillermo Gallegos of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA).  Martínez is currently accused of turning the Attorney General’s Office into a pay-to-play shop, where he was gifted vehicles, credit cards, trips and monthly bonuses of up to $20,000 for stopping or delaying corruption investigations. The links between elites in El Salvador and organized crime stretch back years, but times may be changing after the recent election of Nayib Bukele as the country’s next president. His election ended 30 years of two-party rule. The president-elect ran largely on an anti-corruption ticket pledging to root out graft in part by installing an internationally-backed commission against impunity and corruption.

New El Salvador President Will Face Old El Salvador Problem

A spike in police slayings have El Salvador’s officers on edge as some called on social media for extrajudicial executions of suspected members of the street gangs, an issue that will be front and center for the country’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele.  It was the day after one of their own had been killed by suspected gang members, but at a police station in downtown San Salvador, you wouldn’t have known the difference. There was no special meeting, no remembrance or service to honor Omar Rivas’s time in the police. There were no special instructions given to the other beat cops who worked alongside him in San Salvador’s historic center. There was no special investigation launched to see if Rivera’s January 14 murder was related to his work downtown. The presumption was that Rivera had been killed like so many others: surprised by an enemy that seems to be evolving and everywhere at the same time. He is one of nine police killed in January 2019, compared to 32 police and two administrators killed in all of 2018. The pace has police on edge. Officers in the station that day were restless but felt helpless and afraid. The suspected gang members who’d killed Rivas had reportedly entered his house, where his wife and daughter were, and shot him six times. The rumor circulating in the station that day, unconfirmed, was that they had been wearing police uniforms and ski masks, and carrying high caliber weapons. “That’s my biggest fear,” one policeman told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, “that they come dressed as us.”

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Just who is who in the fight is blurring, and many police are more willing to use any means necessary to beat back an enemy they think the government hasn’t the will to do so. It is an issue President-elect Nayib Bukele, who won in convincing fashion February 3, will have to address. International observers and media have raised concern about extrajudicial executions. The problem is not new. Dating back to the country’s civil war, security forces and civilians alike have used extrajudicial means to settle their differences. Still, the tit-for-tat between the street gangs and the security forces has some new dimensions, among them Twitter accounts that anonymously promote another, more permanent solution to the gang problem. “Do not forgive, give gas to all lookouts and gang-bangers or women and collaborators with those son-of-bitch gangsters,” a tweet from Exterminio (@exterminio10_7), or Exterminator, reads. “Now is the time to clean them up just like they do us…” Exterminio describes him or herself as “not the boss nor the best,” but emphasizes that “here only those with balls are allowed and anyone who shits [themselves] or is a traitor gets it in the mouth.” The account chronicles this battle in graphic detail with pictures of bloodied “lacras,” or “eyesores,” as Exterminio and others call the gang members, and videos of captured ones squirming during an interrogation. Some suspected gang members lie dead on the streets, others next to their beds. Exterminio celebrates their deaths, laments their capture, and pleads with his fellow police to leave the death squads alone to do their business. “Please, those in blue, don’t pursue the units that you find cleaning up places,” Exterminio wrote recently. “The mission is to eliminate the eyesores.” Other accounts are less focused but equally forceful. Comandante Tornado (@cuernodedisco), or Commander Tornado, combines the word “parasite” with “eyesore,” and likes to post pictures of his fast food binges, but also litters his feed with photos of dead suspected gang members, which he stamps with his twitter handle. “Here we talk straight, if you want to hear about how everything is great you are in the wrong account,” Tornado writes. The gangs have upped the ante and increased their capabilities and firepower. Judicial documents show the gangs have been buying police uniforms and gear since at least 2015, and they have issued special orders to collect money to purchase assault weapons and give their members rudimentary instructions on how to shoot them. To be sure, the gangs appear to be more proactive and aggressive. Previous killings of police and military, who lost 17 soldiers in 2018, happened in public spaces. Rivera’s home invasion, as well as the ambush of a patrol a few days later that left two other police dead, shocked officers. Some told InSight Crime that they were frustrated that no one was speaking up for them. Their commanders were largely silent. No one wanted to ruffle any political feathers. “There is no specific plan to attack members of the police,” Police Commander Howard Cotto declared in early January, a few days after suspected gang members had gunned down a member of the police’s Special Forces as he waited for a bus to ride to work.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Homicides Thrust MS13 Back Into Official Discourse

In mid-January, officials at the Attorney General’s Office contradicted Cotto, telling InSight Crime that in late December the gangs had decided to increase the pressure, in part to force the political parties to deal directly with them prior to presidential elections. For his part, Bukele, the former San Salvador mayor, has already had dealings with the gangs, negotiating via intermediaries the development of parts of the city center to make way for business and tourist activities. The newly elected president will have to walk a fine line. Congress allocated $2 million in extra funds for the police in January, and support of the hard-line tactics is entrenched. The police themselves have also responded. Cotto briefly suspended breaks between shifts in January, as those were the time periods in which the police were most targeted. And by the end of the month, more than 300 suspected gang members had been detained, police officials said. Several others had been killed, as chronicled in the Twitter accounts like Exterminio’s. “We’re not making a lot of noise to rip out their cabbage,” read a recent tweet. “As the saying goes, those who eat in silence, eat as much as they want.” Top Image Credit: AP Photo/Salvador Melendez

The Collaborators in El Salvador: The Witness’s Girlfriend Goes Free

The use of protected witnesses by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has increased by 15 times in the last 11 years. The case of a young woman accused by her boyfriend of collaborating with the Barrio 18 Sureños gang, and later acquitted by the courts, illustrates the excessive use of questionable testimonies as the only evidence against these criminal organizations.

The Murder

The murderer said that the dead man, before he died, was very drunk. On Christmas Day in 2014, a 70-year-old woman went to the police in her municipality to report the disappearance of her 40-year-old son. Tall, brown-eyed and dark-skinned, he wore a blue shirt and pants and a black backpack. Neighbors told her he had been threatened by a Barrio 18 gang member. It was not the first time this had happened to her. Her other son had been murdered in 2012. She now feared yet another was coming.

*This report is part of The Collaborators series, a journalistic project about the current role of women in Central American gangs carried out by El Intercambio, financed by Internews, and published in partnership with InSight Crime.

Two years after the disappearance, the parents of that tall, dark-skinned man learned on television that the police had found some bones at the bottom of a ravine. Besides the bones, there was a black backpack, the very one the man wore on Christmas day. The dead man on TV was her son. When the prosecution interviewed the man’s widow, she pointed to the possible culprit: the Barrio 18 Sureños, a faction of the Barrio 18, one of Central America’s largest gangs.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

Years ago, the government isolated Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang leaders in prisons to hinder their organizations. The break within the Barrio 18 was irreversible. In 2006, two enemy factions were born: the Sureños, who followed the rules of their gang in California under orders of veteran deported prisoners; and the Revolucionarios, who sought to have a more local personality without foreign orders, and whose leaders were outside El Salvador’s prisons. By 2016, the owner of the black backpack had been buried for two years at the bottom of the ravine, a victim of that inter-gang war. The Attorney General’s Office already knew, the witness had told him. That witness was a member of the gang, he was one of the three murderers and fingered 76 people from the Barrio 18’s Sureños faction for participating in 20 similar homicides. This type of witness in El Salvador, the “snitch”, is called a criteriado. In the last 11 years, 663 people in the country received a reduced sentence and a temporary stay in exchange for providing information, according to the type of negotiation carried out by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office. This ploy has become recurrent in gang cases: the testimony of a single person can be enough for the prosecution to accuse dozens of people. The use of protected witnesses multiplied by 15 times in the last 11 years, but without much success. Fifty-four percent of the informants have withdrawn from the program. “The defendant received a call from Z where he was told that the brother of B was [drunk], so [the defendant] left where he was with Hebe. He was told to [take] B’s brother to a house and to warn them,” said a report from the prosecutor’s office on the witness’s statement. Hebe is not her name, but for her safety, she will take the alias of the Greek goddess of youth and eternal beauty. According to the witness, after Hebe left, two other gang members arrived at the house. Between the three of them, they hung the old woman’s son from his belt until he was dead. They waited until it was nighttime to take the body from the house and throw it down a nearby ravine. They even followed the body down to the bottom, dug a hole, and buried it. On August 16, 2018, Hebe, 19, stood in front of the judge wearing blue pants, sneakers, and a black long-sleeved shirt. She is accused of illicit association, meaning that she is charged with joining with at least two people to commit a crime. It plays well for such defendants to go to trial and be sentenced to a minimum of three years in prison. Hebe’s dark eyes with mascara looked at the protected witness, covered from head to toe with a dark cloth, like the executioner who cuts off his head. “Do you know who’s talking to you?” “No, I do not know who you are.” “We were a couple, yes or no?” “No.” She won’t admit it at the hearing, but before and after, Hebe says the witness, the criteriado, was her boyfriend. The alleged boyfriend incriminated her and accused her of participating in the murder of the old woman’s son. The prosecution also accused her of illicit association. That is why she spent a month and a half in jail, three months in pre-trial detention and eight months more with an obligation to go to court and sign a form every 15 days until she was acquitted.
A woman and her son pass in front of a sign demanding justice in the case of Ivy Gutierrez, a young woman falsely accused of extortion by police in 2016. She was acquitted by a judge in 2018.

The Act of Falling in Love

“Girl, you haven’t seen the cops up there?” The girl, who was walking through her town, turned around, looked and recognized him. In July 2018, in a cafe in the capital San Salvador’s hotel zone, the girl recalled with a mischievous smile arriving at that crossroads in January 2016. Hebe said that the witness and her met as children, but they had not seen each other for years. After they reconnected, a Facebook friend request came from him. She accepted. But she did not anything to do with a gang member, she said. “Hebe, I love you.” On the night of October 12, 2016, in front of her house, he asked her if she wanted to hang out with him. “Yes, I will” Hebe recalled with innocent irony. The same year that the witness protection program came into operation, Salvadoran gangs prohibited women from becoming members. Until 2006, women had held leadership positions in both gangs. But they were expelled due to a lack of confidence. The suspicion came because some were informants for the police and the prosecution.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile

Women became standard witnesses. In the absence of loyalty, there were punishments: some were raped, some murdered. However, the gang logic contrasts with reality. Up until December 2017, 65 percent of witnesses in the protection program had been men. Since El Salvador established the use of cooperating witnesses in 2006, there has not been one year in which women represented more than 35 percent of witnesses, but they seem to be the ones who lost the trust of those from above. They went on to occupy a new role, purely logistical, at the lowest level of the gang, as collaborators. They do not have access to meetings or scheduling, and cannot give orders. They collect and carry money, keep and move weapons. They hold accounts, act as frontwomen to receive and send international remittances. They steal. They kill. The same as the men. But they are far from the leaders. A few days before the hearing, Hebe was silent and squeezed into a table at a fast food restaurant that she agreed to go to with her mother. Talk more mom. She talks more, although she often smiled when her evangelical mother talked about “the witness.” “He was the town murderer,” the mother said without regard. Hebe blushed silently. “Why did you fixate on a gang member?” “I don’t know, maybe sweet girls like bad guys. Oh, no, I’m not going to walk with one of those ever, right? But the unexpected can happen,” she joked, a few days later when her mother wasn’t listening.

The Arrest

In late July 2017, four policemen knocked on Hebe’s door at 2:35 a.m. Her father answered. They had come to arrest his daughter, accused of homicide and illicit association. Hebe refuses to meet her father today, as he never visited her in prison or attended her court visits. dad is a man we won’t meet. He is very present in Hebe’s conversation, but absent during the time she spent in prison and during her visits to the court because he had to work. Four years before, when she was 14, Hebe and her older brother, accused by “the witness” of another murder and illicit association but later acquitted, had to leave the public school where they studied because it was in a part of town controlled by the MS13. They lived in a Barrio 18-controlled area. As a consequence, her father took the family to live elsewhere for a year and a half. Although they later returned, Hebe still had to change schools.
In the department of San Salvador, one of the poorest and most violent municipalities has a wall with a painted image of the police repressing citizens.
In El Salvador, hundreds of neighborhoods are virtually off-limits. Hebe changed the point where we picked her up for the interview on three occasions. She lives among a group of 18 municipalities that, in 2013, when the government agreed to a truce to end the bloodshed with the gangs, was declared free of violence. This was a euphemism to explain that the gangs were not going to attack each other or anyone in that territory. The spectacular drop in homicides, which reduced the number of murders in the country to less than half, lasted just six months until a cornered government that hid its main role in the negotiation and a growing number of murdered gang members who weakened the truce. The following government buried the truce altogether. Since then, El Salvador has ranked among the most homicidal countries in the world. On December 28, 2016, two months after starting to date “the witness,” Hebe ended up moving to her boyfriend’s house. He bought the food and she learned to cook for two. “It wasn’t the chacha [domestic work] for anyone, only for him and me,” Hebe said. She said she did not do favors for the Barrio 18 Sureños, but the witness gave her about $30 per day to buy what she wanted. The money was kept by her mother. One month they had $750, more than twice the minimum wage in El Salvador. Her older brother came to visit and smoke marijuana. In return, he would warn if the police might arrive. The girlfriend accepted money from the gang to live. The mother saved the gang’s money. The brother did favors for the gang. The father tolerated the relationship of his daughter with a gang member. To this family, everyone felt like an outsider compared to the Barrio 18 Sureños, but the boundaries of this relationship were still undefined.

The Tattoo

The witness apparently had a privileged memory. In his statement, he recalled in what year he met each of the gang members and collaborators, such as Hebe. He described their height, weight, birthmarks, tattoos and why he knew them. In 2017, 10 years after becoming a member of the Barrio 18 Sureños, the witness sold out all of his clique and alleged collaborators. But throughout three thick folders, the witness never said that Hebe was his girlfriend. It is she who today says that “she was accompanied” by him. El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has been relying on this type of informant for more than a decade. The problem is that in many cases, the witness is only interested in obtaining a reduced sentence and other special benefits is the only source of information. The institution does not cross-check the data provided, and many cases fall apart before coming to trial due to a lack of evidence. Or as happened with Hebe, the defendants are acquitted by a judge. “What do you think you were looking for in the bad guy?” “I wanted to rebel because I was angry with my dad. Maybe after accompanying me [as my boyfriend] it was, I felt that I could defend myself, I even got into trouble in town and I never said anything,” Hebe said.
After a year of being with the gang member, Hebe now dates a young man from her church. She met him a year ago and says that he is a “good guy.”
Hebe spoke sweetly of the three times she got into trouble for the witness. It was because of jealousy. He was with her, after all. And with three others. She said she twice left her boyfriend. Days before the final time, shortly before being arrested, the witness told Hebe, “I have a question, are you afraid of me?” Why would she be scared, she asked out loud while grabbing his cell phone. This story of death and love have parallel lives, but not converging. When going through the file of Hebe’s case and story, the witness is both and is not a boyfriend. There is only one detail over which they agreed: the reason for the murder.  ****** On August 16, 2018, Hebe got up at 5:00 a.m. without knowing she was going to face the man dressed as an executioner, the witness. The lawyer insisted that she face the witness. She didn’t want to, she was undecided, but on second thought, she saw how to trap this s-called “witness” with a simple question. how to prove that “the witness” was lying with a single question. “Do you have an 18 on your chest?” “Say that again.” “Do you have an 18 on your chest?” “Yes.” “Thank you, that is all.” The day in which all the defendants went free is the same day in which Hebe publicly became the ex-girlfriend of the gang member who sold out her family.

*This report is part of The Collaborators series, a journalistic project about the current role of women in Central American gangs carried out by El Intercambio, financed by Internews, and published in partnership with InSight Crime.


How Would El Salvador’s Presidential Candidates Tackle Organized Crime?

The citizens of El Salvador are set to elect a new president on February 3 amid an uptick in deadly violence in January, which has thrust the country’s security situation back into the spotlight. There is growing acknowledgment of the need for a significant shift in security policy. And all the presidential candidates are discussing preventive measures to address crime and violence in a more thorough way than in years past.  That said, detailed proposals of how best to address violent crime, the country’s two most prominent gangs — Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 — and their growing influence over the country’s electoral process, as well as the weaponization of the national police, have largely remained absent from the official political discourse. As Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada noted in a recent interview, “finding a political solution to the structural causes that permit organized crime (mainly gangs)” is likely to be the biggest challenge El Salvador’s next president will face. Below, InSight Crime looks at the security platforms proposed by the three most viable candidates.

Hugo Martínez – FMLN

After taking office in 2014, Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s time as president of El Salvador is coming to a close. His ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) — in power for the last 10 years — has well-known politician Hugo Martínez campaigning on the political party’s behalf. For his part, Martínez has proposed a vague security platform that’s short on detail and centers on using “all the public force to guarantee security and tranquility.” Specifically, Martínez’s platform stresses that building up the capacity of the national police and deploying them nationwide will improve security and strengthen the much-touted citizen security initiative Plan Secure El Salvador (Plan El Salvador Seguro – PESS) launched in 2015 by Sánchez Cerén, though the plan’s efficacy remains uncertain.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

His plan would “promote the greatest deployment of the state to reinforce violence prevention strategies and defeat crime,” in addition to “ensuring the state’s territorial control by combining police intelligence with scientific investigation of crimes.” While prevention has been in the FMLN’s past security narratives, the party appears to be pushing again for a more “mano dura” approach, promoting heavy-handed security strategies and weaponizing the police. Authorities have deployed and extended extraordinary security measures against the country’s gangs for years under current President Sánchez Cerén and those who came before him. But while officials have used these measures to explain drops in the country’s homicide rate and tout alleged security gains, insecurity remains and it’s more likely that a variety of complex factors are contributing to the decrease in violence. Martínez himself admitted in a recent debate that “progress has been made, but not enough has been done.” However, it doesn’t appear that Martínez and the FMLN — which reached agreements with the gangs to influence presidential elections in the past — have any clear proposals to address El Salvador’s gangs or short- and long-term security concerns despite claims that this would be a “priority” for his administration.

Nayib Bukele – GANA

Recent polls show that former FMLN member and former San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele continues to maintain a lead in the race for president and could even win the elections outright, running on behalf of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) opposition party. With regard to public security, Bukele’s platform focuses heavily on prevention and finding new ways to improve the capacity of security forces using technology. Bukele is proposing that El Salvador’s national police and armed forces help design and implement intervention programs in schools that are designed to establish anti-violence practices. The presidential hopeful is also proposing to establish alliances with civil society organizations to reduce the conditions that cause violence and marginalization and increase risk factors, among other things. “The problem with the criminal groups that attack security forces is they cannot be treated exclusively from a crime-fighting optic, since it is a social problem where the lack of opportunities and life choices begin to produce a vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and violence,” Bukele’s plan states.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

In addition to prevention, Bukele proposed increasing the technical capacity of the national police and creating a border protection plan against transnational drug trafficking coordinated by various security institutions. The so-called Northern Triangle region of Central America has grown in importance recently as a key transshipment point for drug loads arriving from South America amid a boom in cocaine production. However, criminal groups have in the past shown an ability to outwit authorities and their high-tech resources with basic technology, such as Global Positioning System (GPS). Bukele is also proposing the creation of an internationally-backed commission against impunity and corruption for El Salvador, similar to the anti-graft bodies in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras that have sent former presidents and vice presidents to prison, and investigated the alleged criminality of other powerful elites. Still, serious questions remain about Bukele’s ability to confront the gangs and insecurity in the country, especially through an anti-corruption commission. During his time as San Salvador mayor, for example, Bukele made deals with the gangs and promised to give them benefits in exchange for “providing security and giving access to territories under their control for campaign activities.” This and other questionable actions would put him directly in the crosshairs of such a commission.

Carlos Calleja – ARENA

In a move that goes against much of what the ultra-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) political party has campaigned on in the past regarding citizen security — ARENA was the party that first unveiled Plan Mano Dura in 2003 — presidential nominee Carlos Calleja’s security proposals focus heavily on preventive measures rather than repression to thwart the spread of crime and violence. “It is important to point out that what has been done so far has not worked, we have to look for a bold solution, a comprehensive vision … and execute more prevention programs,” Calleja said during a recent debate. In part, Calleja has pledged continued support for the National Council for Citizen Security and Coexistence (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Ciudadana y Convivencia – CNSCC), which was created in 2014 to promote dialogue and agreement on public policies involving citizen security. As for working to dismantle the country’s criminal structures, Calleja has vowed to coordinate public services and social policies, in addition to improving accountability within the national police, restructuring the institution and allocating more resources towards training, forensic capabilities and police intelligence. Reforming El Salvador’s police force — defined in recent years by extrajudicial killings, human rights violations and death squads — is critical, but past plans to do so have so far fallen short. ARENA and its members have also had dubious relationships of their own with the gangs during past election seasons, casting doubt on the party’s promise to meaningfully address one of the main factors driving insecurity. In 2014, the ARENA-affiliated mayor of San Salvador gave the MS13 tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for their support for the party’s presidential candidate at the time.

Political Mafias Helped Empower Gangs, says El Salvador Security Expert

The homicide rate in El Salvador has spiked after authorities in the Central American nation saw a substantial reduction in murders in 2018, raising important questions about the role of the country’s gangs in the electoral process just weeks before presidential elections and the government’s strategies to combat them. After closing 2018 with a murder rate of 51 per 100,000 citizens — half of what it was in some of the country’s most violent years in 2015 and 2016 — authorities recorded more than 200 homicides in just the first 20 days of 2019, including a number of police officers. InSight Crime spoke to investigator and security expert Jeannette Aguilar, the former director of the Public Opinion Institute at Central American University in El Salvador, to address the current dynamics of violence in the country ahead of presidential elections on February 3. InSight Crime (IC): What is behind the recent rise in homicides in the country? Jeannette Aguilar (JA): It is difficult to explain the sudden ups and downs given the complexity of the violence in El Salvador and the different actors responsible. I think the rise in January may be the result of several factors converging at once: an increase in executions by death squad-style groups — mainly composed of police officers — which seem to be intensifying their operations in recent days, the gangs responding to this violence, and the electoral season. Recent history shows that elections, especially during the month leading up to them, usually produce an atypical increase in violent deaths, which has been associated with pacts formed between opposition parties and the gangs to politically affect their adversaries. In this case, it’s essential to look at the possible pacts that the two main opposition parties, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) and the Grand Alliance for National Unity — New Ideas (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA-Nuevas Ideas) party, have carried out with the gangs.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

In addition, negotiations that the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) party entered into with the gangs in past elections has facilitated an environment of greater confrontation between members of the various structures that serve different parties. Gangs, on their own, have also undertaken strategies to harm the government’s image, including increasing homicides. During election time, they obviously know that this has a greater political cost to the party in office. IC: In this analysis, how important are extrajudicial killings attributed to security forces, especially the National Police? JA: The hypothesis that there has been an increase in attacks by death squads against gang members or alleged gang members should not be ruled out. We still are not fully aware of the impact that death squads have on violent deaths at the national level. In my opinion, these deaths are becoming more and more frequent. In the case of homicides registered so far this year, more than 70 percent of the recorded victims of violent deaths are gang members or people linked to these groups, according to the police.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Police Using WhatsApp, Facebook to Run Death Squads

The police death squads are continuously modifying their modus operandi. It seems that they are now carrying out death squad-style executions. They arrive at night to remove the victims, execute them, and make the bodies disappear. One incident involved a special gun known as the “mata policías,” or “police killer,” which is exclusively issued to the army, was found with a gang member on December 30. This triggered an alert and a new call within informal police communication networks to eliminate these [gang] structures. At the same time, we have also seen an increase in police murders in January. IC: Are the government’s claims about the reduction in homicides and security strategies that have allegedly weakened the gangs contradictory? JA: The great paradox of the government’s security policy in recent years, which was designed like a war plan, is that it has reduced the murders committed by gang members while exacerbating conditions that foster an increase in the deaths of gang members, their relatives, alleged gang members and collaborators, and creating other conflict dynamics that are increasing levels of violence in communities. IC: What does it say that this is occurring just a few weeks before presidential elections? JA: On the one hand, this shows the increasingly relevant role that illegal actors and the use of violence as a political instrument have during critical times, such as elections. This is a consequence of the empowerment that the country’s political mafias have fostered among the gangs by unscrupulously exploiting the violence produced by these structures for electoral purposes. The participation of gangs in specific actions to affect the electoral process or certain political parties shows that, far from being weakened as the government has indicated, these organizations are increasingly becoming essential actors in preserving a corrupt political system. IC: Is the January homicide rebound significant in statistical terms? JA: If it turns into a pattern or trend that lasts for several months, we would be tripling the daily average of violent deaths seen in 2018 and approaching levels recorded in 2015 [when El Salvador was one of the most violent countries in Latin America]. *This interview was edited for clarity and length.

InSight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up

With a worsening crisis in Venezuela, dark days in Nicaragua, an ever more fragile peace process in Colombia, new governments and new ideas in Brazil, Mexico and beyond, 2018 was a year of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean. Homicide levels have reflected this uncertainty, rising sharply in parts, continuing to drop in others. In its Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime looks into the murder rates country by country and the factors behind them.  Venezuela: 81.4 per 100,000 Venezuela has not given up its status as the Latin American country with the highest homicide rate, at 81.4 homicides per 100,000 people, or 23,047 murders. While this number is slightly down from the 26,616 murders reported in 2017, the country remains wracked by severe political, economic, and social conflicts. A report from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV), the only public source of homicides in the country, put the murder rate at 81.4 in 2018, down from 89 in 2017. But this drop might not be cause for optimism, as it is based on 2011 population figures and does not take into account the massive migration of an estimated three million Venezuelans fleeing crisis. The OVV also found that this supposed reduction in homicides contrasts with a sharp increase in killings by security forces — 7,523 victims in 2018 as opposed to 5,535 in 2017 — accounting for an astounding 32 percent of all homicides. While the government has not published official crime statistics for 2018, InSight Crime had access to a leaked document from the Venezuelan Observatory for Public Security, a department within the Interior Ministry. This spoke of an official rate of 10,573 homicides in 2018, or just 33 per 100,000 people, showing that the government does not include cases of “resisting authority” or other categories, such as victims of stray bullets. El Salvador: 51 per 100,000 El Salvador logged 3,340 homicides in 2018, a 15 percent drop from 2017. The resulting homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 people continues the downward trend seen in El Salvador in recent years. As recently as 2016, the country topped InSight Crime’s regional rankings with an alarming rate of 81.2 per 100,000. In 2017, the rate dropped by 20 homicides per 100,000, but the country remained second on the list, only behind Venezuela. El Salvador’s homicide rate has long been linked to its two dominant and deadly gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18. Though there may be a number of causes for the reduction in killings, such as the gangs forgoing internecine wars, the government has claimed its “mano dura,” or what are euphemistically termed “medidas extraordinarias” (extraordinary measures) now, was largely responsible. That same crackdown, however, explains a United Nations report that found extrajudicial killings were on the rise and likely to go unpunished. During the first two weeks of the new year, 126 people were murdered. Police officials blamed the gangs for the bloodshed, accusing them of a show of force ahead of presidential elections on February 3. Jamaica: 47 per 100,000 In an address to the House of Representatives, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said homicides decreased by 21.9 percent last year. The country recorded 1,287 murders in 2018 for a homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 people. The police have attributed this improvement to the creation of Zones of Special Operation (ZOSO), areas in which the military joins in policing efforts. As part of his plan to bring the murder rate to 16 per 100,000 over the next decade, Holness has advocated for 20 more special security zones to be designated in 2019. Last year’s drop in homicides, however, comes after a near 20 percent rise in killings in 2017, which was linked to the poor rollout of the ZOSO plan and similar security crackdowns.

(InSight Crime map of homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Click the picture for a larger version.)

Honduras: 40 per 100,000* Between January to November 2018, Honduras saw 3,310 murders, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras – UNAH). This would point to a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people, a minor decrease from the 42.8 per 100,000 registered in 2017, when there were 3,791 murders. After hitting a high of 85.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, Honduras’ murder rate was cut in half by 2017. As in neighboring El Salvador, security officials attributed the downward trend to a government crackdown against drug traffickers and gangs. But officials have also blamed limited year-over-year reductions in the homicide rate on the very same security strategy, saying it leads to retaliation by criminal groups. In the first two weeks of 2019, 30 people were murdered in eight separate massacres, showing that the regular cocktail of gang violence, high levels of impunity and corruption continue. Trinidad and Tobago: 37.5 per 100,000 The year proved to be the second deadliest in the country’s history with 516 homicides, behind only 2008 when 550 people were killed. Despite its relatively small population of 1.3 million people, Trinidad and Tobago has seen violence grow steadily worse in recent years. Impunity continues to be a major challenge, as the Caribbean nation’s police officials have admitted that at least 83 percent of the murder cases from last year remain unsolved. Belize: 35.9 per 100,000 Despite being the smallest country in Central America, Belize has faced a stubbornly high homicide rate. While official stats have yet to come out, local media tallied 143 murders in 2018, just two less than in 2012, the country’s most violent year. The government has denied that Belize is a staging base for criminal groups such as the Zetas and Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) from Mexico, or the MS13 from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. However, a persistently high homicide rate shows that while Belize may have stayed out of the headlines, organized crime appears to be a major threat. Mexico: 25.8 per 100,000 Enrique Peña Nieto’s tenure as Mexico’s president ended with homicides at a record high. In 2018, the country logged 33,341 murders, up from 31,174 in 2017, according to data from the National System of Public Security. This brings the murder rate to 25.8 per 100,000 up from 22.5 in 2017 and 16.2 in 2016. The spike in homicides has been spurred by the continued fragmentation of larger cartels, and the government’s inability to react to the less organized, smaller gangs, which kill for control of territory. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has reversed his security plans, advocating for the creation of a national guard and keeping the military in the streets to try and stem the bloodshed after an average of 91 people were killed per day last year. Brazil: 25 per 100,000* 2017 marked a sad record for Brazil: 175 people were killed every day.  Last year saw slight improvement, with 39,183 murders between January and September, down from 44,733 killings in the same period in 2017, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública). If this reduction held, it would bring the murder rate to 25 per 100,000 people for the year. But insecurity and violence continue to be top concerns for much of the population, as Brazil struggles to find effective ways to stop violent crime. The army was sent in to Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the latest example of a militarization strategy that has consistently failed in Latin America. Jair Bolsonaro was propelled to the presidency largely by pledging to allow police to shoot criminals and to simplify gun ownership laws. So far in 2019, criminal groups have unleashed an assault on the state of Ceará, and the government has responded to the violence with federal troops, turning northeastern Brazil into a battle zone. Such outright conflict may add to the body count, meaning Brazil will be unable to address the root causes of its consistently high murder rate. Colombia: 25 per 100,000* After seeing its lowest level of violence in 42 years in 2017, Colombia saw a small resurgence of violence in 2018, increasing to 12,311 homicides from 11,381 in 2017. This four percent rise takes the homicide rate to 25 per 100,000 people, up from 24 last year. In 2018, Colombia saw an increase and diversification of criminal groups in Colombia, including former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who have gathered into ex-FARC Mafia groups that are growing in strength, as well as members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The increasing number of FARC dissidents abandoning the peace process and the breakdown in talks with the ELN have emboldened these organizations. Furthermore, violence has risen along the border with Venezuela while social leaders have been killed as a result of fighting over control of illicit crops and land. Guatemala: 22.4 per 100,000 Guatemala continued to show marked improvements in its homicide rate, ending the year at 22.4 per 100,000 people. The country recorded 3,881 killings in 2018, down from 4,409 murders and a homicide rate of 26.1 in 2017, according to government officials. But civil society figures tell a different story. The Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM), a non-governmental organization which tracks crime in the country, said the official tally was short by over 1,000 homicides, placing the total at 4,914 and the murder rate at 28 per 100,000. Either way, Guatemala remains less plagued with violence than its Northern Triangle neighbors in Honduras and El Salvador. The findings of InSight Crime’s 2017 investigation into homicides in Guatemala remain valid. President Jimmy Morales’ war with the anti-corruption body known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) has left little room for the government to improve on rampant impunity for murders and faulty data-gathering about such crimes. Puerto Rico: 20 per 100,000 Puerto Rico saw its murder rate remain at 20 per 100,000 people in 2018, about four times that of the mainland United States. Records show that 641 people were killed last year, a dip from the 710 murders in 2017, and far below the record 1,164 homicides in 2011. Local drug gangs are largely to blame for the body count, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saying some 60 percent of homicides there are drug-related. This year, Puerto Rico has already seen a wave of killings, worrying residents and federal law enforcement. A police force struggling to maintain its ranks, as well as solve crimes, will only fuel insecurity on the island. Costa Rica: 11.7 per 100,000 With just 17 fewer homicides in 2018, Costa Rica saw its homicide rate remain relatively stable. The Central American country counted 586 murders, dropping the murder rate slightly from 12.1 to 11.7 per 100,000 people. Until last year’s drop, the homicide rate had steadily increased since 2012. The country’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) had even predicted the same for 2018. Traditionally one of Central America’s more peaceful nations, the country has suffered from rising levels of crime recently, thanks to its position as a key transit point for Colombian cocaine. The government has struggled to respond to an increase in available drugs, which has led to groups fighting for control of local markets. Uruguay: 11.2 per 100,000 Uruguay recorded a record high 382 murders in 2018. With 99 more homicides than in 2017, this marked a brutal year-over-year increase of 35 percent and a homicide rate of 11.2 per 100,000 people. These statistics are drawn from the Propuestas Foundation (Fundapro), linked to the opposition Colorado Party. Official figures have only been released for the first half of the year, showing 218 murders, as compared to 131 from January-June 2017. For one of the traditionally more peaceful and stable countries in the region, this sudden rise is alarming. Authorities are convinced fighting between organized crime groups is to blame. However, this may provide a convenient scapegoat to justify a militarized response when other problems, such as lackluster resolution and conviction rates for homicides, may also have contributed to the situation. Dominican Republic: 10.4 per 100,000* The Citizen Security Observatory reported that 801 murders were registered in the Caribbean nation during the first nine months of 2018, a drop of 145 when compared to the 946 homicides registered for the same period in 2017. Although this shows a continued downward trend that has lasted since 2011, a recent poll shows that public insecurity remains a top concern for the Dominican population. Panama: 9.6 per 100,000* In December, Panama’s Public Ministry released a report showing that there were 401 murders between January and November of 2018, about a dozen fewer than the 378 deaths in 2017. At this count, the homicide rate sits at 9.6 per 100,000 people. The report highlighted that more than 40 percent (169) of the incidents occurred in the capital, Panama City. National Police Director Alonso Vega Pino says that the slight increase is “directly related to organized crime.” Panama’s geography makes it a vital transit point for illegal trade in the region. An internal investigation into an international arms trafficking network in October 2018 illustrated the country’s ongoing challenges with confronting corruption and organized crime. Peru: 7.8 per 100,000* In 2017, Peru registered 2,487 murders, slightly up from the 2,435 in 2016, for a homicide rate of 7.8 per 100,000. No data is available for 2018 so far. The country has maintained relatively low levels of violent crime in recent decades, though institutionalized corruption is threatening resources dedicated to fighting Peru’s ongoing drug trafficking challenges. Bolivia: 6.3 per 100,000 During a televised news conference, Bolivia’s Interior Minister Carlos Romero announced that the country had registered a homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 people in 2018, a more than two percent improvement compared to the first half of 2017, when the country recorded a rate of 8.5 per 100,000. The announcement comes as the country prepares for primary presidential elections on January 27.  In the past year, opposition groups who firmly reject Evo Morales decision to run for a fourth consecutive term have conducted mass demonstrations and national strikes. The presidential elections, which will take place in October, are likely to take the focus away from national security issues at a time when Brazil’s gangs are moving into the South American nation. Ecuador: 5.7 per 100,000 Ecuador saw 975 murders in 2018, 18 more than the 957 recorded in 2017, giving the country a homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people, according to figures from the national police. Less than a decade ago, Ecuador faced murder rates three times as high, but a process of so-called “gang legalization” has helped drastically reduce killings. However, an increase in drug trafficking from Colombia to Ecuador has renewed concerns about violence. The high-profile killing of three journalists by an ex-FARC mafia group has also made cross-border security a priority for the government. Argentina: 5.2 per 100,000* In the midst of a deep economic crisis, Argentina continues to have one of the lowest homicide rates on the continent. Argentina recorded a homicide rate of 5.2 per 100,000 people in 2017, a slight decrease from 6.6 in 2015, according to Security Ministry figures. No data was available for 2018 so far. Low levels of violence, however, haven’t translated into security. In December, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich signed a decree giving federal forces greater use of deadly force. The measure, expected to be implemented six months from now, is already creating controversy and uncertainty within the Argentine population. Paraguay: 5.1 per 100,000* The latest homicide report by Paraguay’s National Observatory of Security and Citizen Coexistence indicates that a total of 350 murders were recorded between January and September of 2018. This statistic yields a murder rate of 5.1 per 100,000, considerably lower than the homicide rate of 7.8 recorded in 2017. However, Interior Minister Juan Ernesto Villamayor recently stated in a radio interview that the country must reevaluate its transnational strategies with Argentina and Brazil to combat organized crime in the region. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s most powerful gang, continues to threaten the country’s security. Chile: 2.7 per 100,000 Chile continues its reign as the country with the lowest homicide rate in Latin America. From January to October 2018, a total of 488 killings were recorded, accounting for a homicide rate of 2.7 per 100,000 people. This is even lower than the country’s homicide rate of 3.3 that was registered for the same period of time in 2017. Even with low levels of homicides, Chile has seen random acts of violence. An explosive artifact, for example, was detonated at a local bus stop in the capital city of Santiago, resulting in multiple injuries. With organized crime expected to strengthen in 2019, it remains to be seen if Chile can continue to uphold its low levels of violence. Nicaragua: N/A In 2017, Nicaragua registered a homicide rate of 7 per 100,000 people, with 431 total murders, continuing a positive trend of lower violence seen over several years. However, levels of violence soared in 2018 due to the brutal repression of civilian protesters by the regime of President Daniel Ortega. Incomplete statistics of killings have been provided by civil society and non-governmental organizations. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos – ANDPH) recorded in July that at least 448 had been killed and 595 people disappeared. Further information from the group has not been issued since it closed its offices in Nicaragua in August due to consistent government threats. * Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on partial homicide data for 2018 and the country’s 2017 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. These will be updated as full 2018 figures become available.