FOR THE young man from Baracoa, in the north of Honduras, it was the sister he lost—kidnapped and never heard from again. For a family from Tegucigalpa, the capital, it was the neighbours: two young brothers, killed for refusing to join a local gang. Speak to enough migrants from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and it quickly becomes apparent that everyone has a story. There is always someone. And anyone could be next.
Even by the dismal standards of Latin America, violence in the Northern Triangle is both horrific and endemic. Médecins Sans Frontières, a charity, last year described the experience of people living in its three countries as “not unlike that of individuals living through war”. More than 7,000 lives were lost to violence in Honduras in 2011, about the same number as in Syria, which had more than twice as many people and was stumbling into civil war. That year Honduras had the highest homicide rate of any country not at war, at 86 per 100,000 people. The number in Mexico, itself extremely violent, was 20.
It was not always this bad. Street gangs arrived in El Salvador in the mid-1990s, after the United States deported hundreds of Salvadorans from Californian prisons. The returnees created extortion networks and started turf wars. Another 120,000 were sent back between 2001 and 2010. Meanwhile, cocaine traffickers began to favour a route through the Northern Triangle. In 2012, 80% of cocaine destined for the United States passed through the region, doubling its share from 2009. Much of it arrived on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, going up the northern coast and through San Pedro Sula, which became the world’s most violent city.
There are signs that the bloody tide is receding. Homicides are down from their peak in all three countries. This year the murder rate in Honduras will fall to 40 per 100,000 people, according to Migdonia Ayestas, who runs an independent violence observatory at the National University of Honduras. El Salvador’s will have fallen by half from 2015, to about 51 per 100,000. And in Guatemala, which has tended to have a lower murder rate than its neighbours, homicides are down by half since 2009, to 26 per 100,000.
The last time violence declined in El Salvador, in 2012, it was the result of a truce between Mara Salvatrucha 13 (better known as MS-13) and Barrio 18, two gangs. It later emerged that the government had secretly brokered it, trading fewer deaths for privileges like strippers and KFC delivered to gang leaders’ prison cells. The pact soon fell apart and the violence escalated again. Cynics muse that something similar may be behind the recent decline in violence—an election is due in February. In Honduras some doubt any numbers coming from a government accused of fiddling economic figures. Others suggest that murders have dropped because those most at risk have been fleeing in greater numbers.
Scepticism is understandable. But accounting tricks or emigration would not fully explain such a dramatic drop in murders. Policies have mattered more—many of them controversial.
Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of Honduras, has sent the army to fight crime in violent areas. Guatemala also deploys soldiers to patrol rough neighbourhoods. And Óscar Ortiz, El Salvador’s vice-president, told the police in 2015 that they could shoot gang members “without any fear of suffering consequences”. Cops duly obliged and shot some 600 people the following year. Gangsters have become fearful of attracting the attention of trigger-happy cops.
Other policies are less violent. El Salvador and Honduras have levied a security tax on the rich to pay for more law enforcement. Both have created “safe houses” or “outreach centres” in the bloodiest barrios. They have tried to make prisons more effective. Mr Hernández has built new maximum-security jails that keep phones away from gang leaders, who are used to running their “cliques” from their cells.
El Salvador also puts gang leaders in solitary confinement. But it is kinder to lowlier criminals. With newly digitised prison records, petty crooks should no longer share cells with violent gangsters. “Yo Cambio” (“I change”), a prison programme, offers low-risk offenders two days off their sentences for every day spent volunteering or learning practical skills. Last month the fourth “Yo Cambio” festival in San Salvador exhibited inmates’ hammocks, ceramics, cakes and other wares. That could lead to better rehabilitation and less recidivism.
Law enforcement is also improving, if slowly. In 2016 Honduras, where fewer people trusted the police than anywhere else in Latin America, purged a third of its force. It has built a new training academy and doubled training time for new cops to 12 months, enough to teach recruits newfangled concepts such as ethics and human rights, says Hugo Velásquez, who runs the academy in La Paz, in central Honduras. GPS technology for cops’ cars and phones helps bosses assign the nearest suitable officers to each emergency—and alerts them if one fails to show up. Guatemala too has been reforming its police force.
Honduras has also made progress in tackling trans-national drug trafficking. More soldiers have been posted to the Mosquito Coast. A new task force has improved co-ordination between agencies. And a recent willingness to extradite criminals to the United States has put the fear of Uncle Sam into captured goons, who become talkative to avoid American jails. Many big fish have been locked up. The president’s brother, Antonio, was arrested last month in Miami on trafficking charges.
Even with the recent drops, the murder rate in all three countries is well above the Latin American average of 22 per 100,000. Extortion remains common, and threats of violence can be enough to frighten people into complying—or fleeing. Police enter violent neighbourhoods for brief raids, but fail to wrestle control back from gangs for good. Reasserting the authority of the state means open conflict with the gangs, says José Miguel Cruz, a political scientist at Florida International University. So progress could actually boost the murder rate that the three countries have tried so hard to bring down.