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Homicide numbers plummet in Latin American countries during coronavirus quarantines

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In the crime-torn country of El Salvador, homicide numbers have dropped at the time when coronavirus measures like social distancing took hold. This trend has extended across several Latin American countries, leaving one expert to call it a "silver-lining" to the coronavirus pandemic.

Social-distancing has so far proved to be one of the most effective tools in slowing the spread of coronavirus and apparently, crime, too. Earlier this month, Salvadorian president Nayib Bukele said March only had 65 homicides — compared to months in years past where that tally would near 1,000. February registered 114 homicides.

"Much remains to be done and we are in the midst of a pandemic. But we saved many Salvadorans this month," Bukele said. 

The country reported a historic first in March: El Salvador did not record a single homicide for 48 hours — a feat for a nation that had the highest per-capital killings in the world. 

Bukele has also received help from an unlikely source since he imposed a 30-day lockdown March 22. According to the Los Angeles Times, gangs have taken on the role of enforcing social distancing, threatening offenders with threats and bats. They've reportedly made videos showing members hitting people who don't obey the measures. 

Soldiers patrol the historic center of San Salvador during a total lockdown of the population as a measure to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in El Salvador. Getty

And like El Salvador, Colombia and Honduras  have also seen lower homicide rates. Dr. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, linked the decrease to measures to control the spread of coronavirus. 

"The drop in homicides in the region is perhaps the only silver-lining from the coronavirus," Arnson said. "It's happening because a lot of countries have adopted severe quarantine measures, including El Salvador, including Colombia and a number of other countries in the region ... Some of the reduction is due to the fact that people are hunkering down and staying home are not out in public spaces as much."

Mexico, on the other hand, just experienced its deadliest month under Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador's administration — with more than 2,500 murders in March, according to the Mexican government. Despite coronavirus measures there, they've only been "encouraged" rather than "mandated," said Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the human rights non-profit Washington Office on Latin America. She told CBS News that the virus hasn't impacted criminal networks in the country. 

"In the case of Mexico, in spite of the efforts of the government to encourage to stay at home and limit activities, that hasn't disrupted the criminal networks themselves and conflicts amongst each other to control routes and to confront the Mexican government," Meyer said. 

Despite optimism with a drop in homicides in some Latin American countries, Arnson said there's a troubling rise of gender-based violence when people are stuck at home.

"This is a region already with very high rates of vulnerability for women, and for children, especially girls and young women," she said. "There have been innumerable reports of a worsening of the situation of gender-based violence while people are being forced to stay at home."

"During these quarantines, the incidence is higher and people don't have anywhere to go," she added.

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