El Salvador's Murder Rate Declines From Highest In The World To Among The Lowest In 2023 Under Bukele's Rule

A little more than two decades ago, El Salvador had the highest intentional homicide rate in the world at 139 per 100,000, a shocking figure on par with civil war-torn nations. In 2023, the country's murder rate dropped to 2.4, closer to that of Canada or Lithuania than one would expect for a nation with a history of rampant violence. How did El Salvador go from a country with an unsustainable level of murder to one of the safest in the world in just a few years under the leadership of President Nayib Bukele?

El Salvador was born in 1821 as part of the Central American Republic but quickly split from Mexico to become an independent entity. From 1841 onwards, the country experienced a tumultuous path, including civil war, extreme economic inequality, corrupt governments (both democratic and authoritarian), and various uprisings, civil wars, and border tussles. The ruling class was made up of a small number of wealthy families who rotated power by rigging elections. Chronic peasant opposition and unrest became more intense in the 20th century as leftist ideologies took hold in the countryside. The unrest led to the formation of gangs, and by the 1970s, the country was ripe for a civil war. In 1979, a military coup overthrew the government, and the new regime received support from the United States. This led to the formation of left-wing guerrilla fighters, and the subsequent civil war lasted from 1979 to 1992, killing at least 80,000 people and displacing more than half a million.

During this time, thousands of Salvadorans fled to the United States, settling in impoverished suburbs of Los Angeles. They formed their own community and began to form gangs, originally to protect themselves from other rival immigrant groups. These gangs, many of which were formed by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, began to spread to El Salvador itself in the 1990s. This led to an increasingly violent, fractured nation, with gangs becoming a major security threat. By the 2010s, the country had the world's highest murder rate.

In 2019, Nayib Bukele was elected president with a promise to combat the country's gang problem. He imposed tough measures that critics call undemocratic, including a mandatory prison sentence for any citizen caught with a gun and tight restrictions on journalism. He also launched a mano dura, or hard-line, approach to security and a Territorial Control Plan. These measures have reportedly led to a rapid decline in crime. The country's murder rate dropped to 2.4 per 100,000 in 2023, among the lowest in the world. While Bukele's methods have been questioned, and some characterize them as authoritarian, many Salvadorans credit him with turning around the nation's safety.

The country still faces challenges, including corruption, and the restrictions on journalism and other civil liberties are a cause for concern. However, El Salvador's dramatic drop in murder rate brings up questions of how far a government can go to achieve safety and stability for its citizens.