World

Homicides in El Salvador spiked by nearly 70% last year as gang violence soars

FILE - In this May 28, 2015, file photo, the sister of Alberto Hernández Escalante mourns over the body of her brother, found in a clandestine grave, in a rural area near Caserio el Chumpe, El Salvador. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

FILE - In this May 28, 2015, file photo, the sister of Alberto Hernández Escalante mourns over the body of her brother, found in a clandestine grave, in a rural area near Caserio el Chumpe, El Salvador. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

Killings spiked by nearly 70 percent last year in this gang-plagued Central American nation, authorities said Monday, resulting in a homicide rate that could make it the world's most violent country.

National Police director Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde said El Salvador officially registered at least 6,657 homicides in 2015, up from 3,942 the previous year.

The overall yearly homicide rate was the country's highest ever at 104 per 100,000 inhabitants, putting it in a position to take over the dubious title of the world's murder capital from neighboring Honduras.

"It puts us at the head of the world's most violent nations," including Honduras and Venezuela, said Jeannette Aguilar, a researcher at José Simeon Canas Central America University.

Honduras has led the world in homicide rates in recent years. It hit 92 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011, according to World Bank data, before declining somewhat since then. Security Ministry spokesman Leonel Sauceda said Monday that Honduras' homicide rate dropped from 68 per 100,000 people in 2014 to 61 per 100,000 last year.

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Venezuela, meanwhile, has seen its homicide rate tick upward. The South American nation has not released official statistics since 2013, when authorities put it at 39 per 100,000 inhabitants. But last week a non-governmental group that tracks violence put Venezuela's 2015 homicide rate at around 90 per 100,000 people.

Authorities in El Salvador blame most of the killings here on gangs that are deeply involved in drug trafficking, extortion rackets and other criminal activity. The "maras," as they are known, have a heavy presence in poor neighborhoods across the country and have increasingly moved into rural areas as well.

Authorities say most of the homicide victims are gang members slain by rivals.

The wave of violence in El Salvador came after a truce between the country's two largest gangs fell apart, and despite police initiatives to crack down on organized crime.

"The homicide rate reflects the inability of the Salvadoran state and the Salvadoran society to guarantee the most fundamental right there can be in a society, which is life," Aguilar said.

The country's 2014 homicide total also was a significant rise from the previous year, when 1,429 killings were registered.

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