Honduras: Rivers of blood / Teh Economist

A crackdown on gangs has so far made things worse

OUTSIDE the morgue in San Salvador, the family of 21-year-old Marcela Vargas waits patiently to collect her body. “I feel broken,” says her brother, Jónathan. “She was dating a guy—he wasn’t a gang member, but he had connections.” Along with her 18-year-old friend Liset she had been tied up and stabbed repeatedly. Police discovered their bodies on the banks of a stream that runs through the city’s centre on September 13th, nine days after they had disappeared.

Marcela and Liset are casualties of a ferocious clash of gangs which has plunged El Salvador into its bloodiest period since its civil war ended in 1992. Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, two maras (gangs) with a combined membership of 72,000, fight each other for control of territory across the country. Two factions of Barrio 18, the Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) and the Sureños (Southerners), are meanwhile at war with each other.

The death toll is horrific. In the first nine months of this year, 4,930 people were murdered in a country with a population of 6.5m; that murder rate is 20 times that of the United States (see chart). El Salvador has overtaken Honduras as the most violent country on earth bar those that are at war. Life in gang-controlled areas is miserable. The maras recruit children in primary school and extort protection money from businesses. Terrified parents do not let children leave the house unaccompanied; many businesses go bust. Nearly 300,000 Salvadoreans were forced to leave their homes last year, by one estimate. SEE MORE…

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