Huge jumps in their respective homicide rates have put El Salvador and Venezuela in contention for the dubious title of the world's murder capital. Both countries seem set to surpass Honduras, which has seen a decline.
A surge of El Salvador gang violence this year has pushed up homicides in the country by about 70 percent from 2014, making it a top contender to overtake Honduras as the world's most murderous nation.
But an NGO that tracks crime in Venezuela said that country's homicide rate has also risen in 2015, putting it on track to perhaps equal El Salvador.
Miguel Fortin, head of the National Forensics Institute in El Salvador, said the year will end with about 6,650 Salvadorans murdered, compared to 3,912 last year.
With a population of some 6.4 million people, that would equate to around 104 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, above the rate last registered in neighboring Honduras, which was the most deadly country in 2012.
"This has been the most violent year in El Salvador in terms of murders," Fortin said. "It's a real pandemic."
The death toll is the worst registered in El Salvador since the end of a bloody 1980-1992 civil war that is estimated to have claimed the lives of around 75,000 people.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates that 27,875 killings occurred this year, pushing the homicide rate in Venezuela up to 90 per 100,000 inhabitants. Last year, the observatory counted 82 killings per 100,000 people, while in 1998 the rate was only 19 per 100,000.
The report published Monday is based on press reports, victim surveys and officials' comments. Venezuelan authorities generally dispute the group's findings and say the homicide rate is much lower.
According to the most recent United Nations Global Study on Homicide, published in 2014, Honduras had 90.4 murders per 100,000 in 2012 when it topped the list. Venezuela had the second highest rate of 53.7 and El Salvador had 41.2.
But by 2014, the Honduran rate had fallen below 70, according to the country's president and data from the National Autonomous University of Honduras' Observatory of Violence program.
El Salvador's police blame the spike in murders on gang violence, which included dozens of attacks on police officers as well as brutal assaults on bus drivers in the summer.
Violence has risen steadily in El Salvador since a 2012 truce between the country's two main gangs - the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 - began unraveling last year.
The truce had helped reduce the Central American nation's murder rate in mid-2013 to around five per day, a 10-year low.
bik/bk (Reuters, AP)