El Salvador murders plummet by over half in 2022 amid gang crackdown

FILE PHOTO: El Salvador conducts anti-drug military operation on Christmas Eve

Tue, January 3, 2023 at 2:56 PM EST

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Murders in El Salvador tumbled 56.8% in 2022 amid a widespread crackdown on gang violence, the government said on Tuesday, extending a sharp drop in killings in a nation which for years had one of the world's worst murder rates.

Authorities registered a total of 496 homicides last year, down from 1,147 in 2021, Defense Minister Francis Merino said.

The tally does not count deaths of gang members killed in encounters with security forces, which would raise the total to 600.

The government did not provide a homicide rate, but in any case the numbers are a sharp drop from a peak of 103 killings per 100,000 residents in 2015, according to government data.

President Nayib Bukele asked Congress to approve a temporary state of emergency after a surge in violence in March, suspending certain constitutional rights in order to combat the notorious Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs.

The controversial measure, which has been extended numerous times and remains in effect, set off a militarized offensive that has led to over 60,000 arrests of alleged gang affiliates.

Rights groups have raised questions about alleged abuses during the state of emergency, including possible arrests of innocent people and cover-ups of deaths of detainees in state custody.

"The reduction in homicides is a result of the state of exception, because that number of criminals is no longer on the streets harming the population," Merino said.

Polls show a majority of Salvadorans approve of the crackdown, which has set up a military presence in neighborhoods considered at high risk of gang violence.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Brendan O'Boyle; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)