Gun violenceAOAV's Key Research Papers

The Devil’s Trade: an investigation into guns and violence in El Salvador

Gun violence is a part of everyday life in El Salvador. In a country that 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 where guns are readily available, it is of no surprise that the Central American country experiences some of the world’s highest homicide rates year after year.

The homicide rate in El Salvador in 2009 was 222 per cent more than the average rate in Latin America and the Caribbean. An end to the bloodshed is nowhere in sight.

The Devil’s Trade: Guns and Violence in El Salvador, a new report by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), investigates the ways in which violent groups arm and equip themselves. It finds that the number of illegal guns in the country far exceeds estimates, and that relatively few guns are removed from circulation.

The report also examines El Salvador’s history of violence. The country endured a particularly brutal civil war in the 1980s and 90s, where it is estimated that 75,000 people were killed and many more subjected to severe violations of human rights. After the conflict, the government failed to destroy stockpiles it had built up during the war, including the arms that it had confiscated from guerrillas.

Today, weapons are being diverted from military stockpiles. Sources, both from the government and gangs, described to AOAV how easy it is to access the weapons either directly or indirectly through corrupt military personnel. There is even less control over the arms caches held by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the civil war era.

Other sources of weapons include the black market and arms trafficked through the uncontrolled north-eastern border with Honduras.

AOAV also recognises that there is a lack of centralised and reliable data on firearms in El Salvador. This means it is difficult to estimate the number of illicit guns in the country as well as the number of guns stockpiled, but the experts we spoke to were clear: the country is awash with guns.

The Devil’s Trade concludes that powerful parties with financial interests in the gun trade have crushed attempts to reform firearms law, and that corruption in gun law enforcement is rampant. Those interviewed during AOAV’s investigation indicated that firearm sellers have strong links to the military, and this cosy relationship allows gun stores to selectively enforce firearms law.

By examining how guns end up in the hands of criminals, this report brings us closer to understanding the driving forces behind the daily horrors of shootings and murders that plague El Salvador.
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Report by: Jacob Parakilas and Iain Overton

With thanks to: Jenna Corderoy, Alexander Renderos, Steven Smith

Cover Illustration: Gangland guns in El Salvador by Adam Hinton

Clarifications or corrections from interested parties are welcome

Design: Matt Bellamy