El Salvador is a country with a troubled past and a troubled present. It is home to two of the most powerful and violent criminal gangs in the world – the Calle 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13). And it is haunted by the constant presence of violence. Ravaged by a civil war in the 1980s and 90s, this Central American nation has the highest concentration of gang members of all of the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries1 – and its homicide and gun violence rates are shockingly high – well above global averages.
In 2011, El Salvador, this country of just over six million2, saw nearly 70 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. That year it had over 4,000 homicides, just under half the number of murders seen in the US, a country over fifty times its size.3
El Salvador is not just a country haunted by violent death. It is also a country where the gun is ubiquitous. In 2011, 70 per cent of homicides there were at the end of a gun.4 And thousands more are seriously wounded by gunfire every year. Despite
a gang truce in 2012 between the Calle 18 and the MS-13, violence in El Salvador remains an ugly part of everyday life there.
Understanding how guns end up in the hands of criminals is vital if we are to begin to understand something about the daily horrors of shootings and murders. Yet very little research has been done on arms trafficking anywhere south of the US-Mexico border.
In this report, THE DEVIL’S TRADE, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) travelled to El Salvador and found that the number of illegal guns in El Salvador matches, and prob- ably vastly exceeds, the estimated 250,000 legitimately owned guns in the country.
It also found that obstacles and resistance from those with financial interests in the gun trade have crushed any attempts at firearms law reform. And that corruption in the sectors of the government responsible for gun law enforcement is rampant.
THE DEVIL’S TRADE also found that very few guns are being successfully removed from circulation in El Salvador – or in Central America generally. Even confiscated weapons often make their way back into illicit circulation. With such access to weap- ons, Salvadoran criminal groups’ ability to commit widespread violence with impunity remains uncontested, and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future despite attempts to broker a truce among the gangs.