What El Salvador’s murder rate teaches us about government and organized crime

A recent NYT article explores whether a deal between gangs and the El Salvadoran government to give incarcerated gang members better living conditions is responsible for the drop in homicides in the country. Homicides in El Salvador Dip, and Questions Arise

The possibility that the reduction in violence resulted from a secret deal between the government and gang leaders to halt killings in exchange for better prison conditions has rattled El Salvador’s political establishment and led to various explanations from government leaders.

What kind of ivory tower must you be living in to be rattled by government and gangs working together to limit violence? The Washington Post reports that “El Salvador and neighboring Honduras have the highest homicide rates in the world with 66 and 82.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively, in 2010.” To compare, the number is 4.7 for the US.

The deal seems like a no-brainer. When an average of 14 people are dying every day, do whatever you need to do. The criminals are still off the streets, and fewer people are dying. They’ve gotten the number down to 5 per day.

We think of organized crime and government as opposed. But the similarities far outnumber the differences. Both provide protection and social services, such as money lending, and even education and health care. Both hold a monopoly on violence in the regions they control. Both are fundamentally coercive. Bureaucrats don’t want this type of cooperation happening, or getting out. They know that seeing the state working with gangs, and not against them, reveals just how similar they are. Even more than that, it shows that government’s perceived legitimacy is just that, perceived. Government is organized crime with the patina of legitimacy derived from the chimera of choice.

Not really related, but I love this song.

Photo by Participatory Learning.

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