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Data shows scale of gang killings in Central America

Violence-prone Latin American and Caribbean countries have been added to ACLED’s open-source conflict database – a first look.

Father and son walk in a caravan of migrants en route to U.S. in San Salvador. Jose Cabezas/Reuters
A father and son among a group of migrants in San Salvador heading for the United States.

A civilian in El Salvador is about as likely to get killed as one in Burkina Faso, new data shows. 

Violence, mainly involving criminal gangs, took the lives of 428 civilian Salvadorians in 2019. Compared with El Salvador’s total population of about 6.5 million, that puts it third in the world for violent deaths of civilians, according to an expanded open-source dataset. 

Syria suffered 4,165 civilian deaths out of a UN-estimated population of 17.5 million, Burkina Faso's rate was 6.32.

The ranking, produced by The New Humanitarian, combines UN population data and conflict fatalities with the latest figures from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), and includes countries that had more than 250 civilian deaths during the year. 

When compared with the size of the overall population, the number of deaths in acts of “violence against civilians” listed by ACLED offers a rough idea of how intense a country’s violence is. Three of the deadliest 12 countries are in Central and South America.

The level of violence in Central America is not new. Aid groups have been ringing alarm bells about the situation for years. The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, has described the risks of “societal collapse”, while Médecins Sans Frontières said recently the situation is “comparable to that in war zones where MSF has been working for decades”.

The humanitarian situation in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the so-called “Northern Triangle” – is rated as “medium severity” in an index maintained by ACAPS, a humanitarian needs analysis service.

Gang violence, intimidation, and economic precarity have created an urban humanitarian crisis in the region and also helped to drive migration, particularly through Mexico to the US border, while fuelling an epidemic of abuse of women too.

What is unusual about the ACLED data release is that like-for-like data on violence across different regions is not always available: for example, El Salvador is listed as having the highest homicide rate in the world, but UN data offers no recent figure for Syria. 

The new dataset on Latin America and the Caribbean extends ACLED’s previous coverage, adding over 40,000 records to its existing database, which covered much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. 

ACLED’s data includes map coordinates, references to source material, and names of the organisations – now including 170 gang names – involved in the events it tracks. 

It’s not only about violence: the new dataset includes listings of 19,500 demonstrations. Using media reports and collaborations with other monitors, ACLED records political protests, conflict, and armed unrest in near real-time. The new expansion adds about 40 countries and territories under the same methodology

ACLED also now provides data on high levels of violence in Mexico, which recorded the highest number of civilian deaths in 2019 of all the countries tracked.

* Due to an error interpreting the ACLED data, an earlier version of this article only counted civilian fatalities from one type of incident, not from all causes. The graph and article have been adjusted to reflect the new data verified by ACLED. We regret the error.

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