SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Murders in El Salvador shot up in May, surpassing previous homicide rates in one of the world's deadliest countries and pushing the president to claim criminal groups were trying to destabilize the government.
The number of murders in May more than doubled from the same month last year, when homicides had fallen back from one of the world's highest murder rates, with 81 people killed just over the last weekend.
With 356 homicides so far in May compared with 174 in the same month last year, the murder rate has surpassed the highs seen in early 2012 before a truce between the country's powerful street gangs, according to Miguel Fortin, head of the prosecutor's office forensic unit.
Fortin said the 81 murders over the last weekend overwhelmed forensic officials, who could not keep up with the demand to investigate crime scenes. "While they were doing one autopsy, the next order would arrive," he told reporters.
The truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival gang Barrio 18 helped cut the Central American country's murder rate in mid-2013 to around five per day, a 10-year low, from an early 2012 high of 14 per day, one of the world's highest.
But after last year's low, violence started rising again and homicides jumped 44 percent in the first three months of 2014, compared with the start of last year, to a pace of around 10 a day. May's homicide rate so far is 14.3 per day, Fortin said.
Mauricio Funes, the outgoing president of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) that was formed by ex-guerrillas from the country's civil war, said at least some of the violence had been caused by groups with "political motivations."
"They want to give the impression that there is a failed state that is incapable of facing crime," Funes said on Monday in the final week of his administration.
The FMLN's Salvador Sanchez Ceren takes office on Sunday. He narrowly won a second-round vote in March over his right wing opponent Norman Quijano to become the first ex-rebel leader elected to the presidency.
The country's 1980-92 civil war left the country bitterly divided and Sanchez Ceren's narrow victory stoked further divisions after Quijano, from the ultra-right Arena party, alleged widespread fraud and refused to accept results.
Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Lisa Shumaker