Murder Rates Were Staggering in Latin America. The Virus Has Brought Some Quiet, for Now.

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Empty streets in Bogotá, Colombia on April 2, 2020. Colombia has been under a nationwide lockdown since March 20. Governments around the world have imposed travel restrictions, curfews and quarantines to help control the spread of the virus, and by doing so they have also inadvertently lowered criminality and violence. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)

Kirk Semple and Azam Ahmed

c.2020 The New York Times Company

 

MEXICO CITY — In El Salvador, the number of murders plunged by nearly half between February and March. Neighboring Honduras has also seen a falloff in killings in recent weeks, as has Colombia and the most populous state in Mexico.

As nations around the world contend with a growing number of fatalities caused by the coronavirus, some are simultaneously experiencing an unanticipated — and welcome — decline in a different form of death: murder.

Governments around the world have imposed travel restrictions, curfews and quarantines to help control the spread of the virus, and by doing so they have also inadvertently lowered criminality and violence — for the moment, at least.

The trend has been particularly notable in Latin America, the region with the highest homicide rates in the world outside of war.

“It’s taking people off the streets,” Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City, said of the pandemic and governments’ efforts to combat it. “The rule of thumb is: The stricter the lockdown, the bigger the effect on crimes committed against strangers on the street.”

In addition, analysts say, not only have the lockdowns led to fewer opportunities for crime — like extortion, muggings and even murder — but the virus has even taken some criminals out of action as they, too, hunker down in their homes, wary of infection. In several places, criminal gangs have even led efforts to impose curfews in neighborhoods and regions where they hold sway.

El Salvador began its coronavirus lockdown before almost any of its neighbors, closing its borders in mid-March, and shutting down schools and many businesses. On March 22, the government ordered all Salvadorans to remain quarantined in their homes; people caught in the street without the proper permissions were sent to quarantine centers.

The measures have helped lead to drops in homicides in recent weeks.

“We are in a pandemic and our priority is to fight against it, but today many lives were saved,” the president, Nayib Bukele, said on Twitter, hailing the achievement.