Eight months since El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele announced a war on gangs, an estimated 2% of the country’s adult population – or roughly 100,000 people – are now behind bars.
Bukele’s crackdown this year, prompted by a bloody killing spree by gangs that saw dozens of people killed in March, placed El Salvador in a prolonged state of emergency and relaxed important constitutional rights, like due process and freedom of association.
This mano dura or “iron fist” anti-gang policy appears to be working, with homicide rates falling in the country, according to Tiziano Breda, a Central America expert at the Crisis Group.
And Bukele himself is now enjoying renown many leaders can only dream of – with an 86% approval rating in an October survey of 12 Latin American countries by CID Gallup, making him the most popular leader in the region, despite the alleged rights violations.
But is it sustainable? Regional watchers warn that the popularity of Bukele’s policy could see copycat measures in the region, with other countries in Latin America already enforcing similar extra-legal measures to tackle their own gang problems.
And as Jonathan D. Rosen, an assistant professor at New Jersey City University, who has co-authored several books on organized crime, drug trafficking and security in the Americas, points out, history has shown that mano dura policies have a way of biting back.
El Salvador is home to some of the world’s most notorious gangs, including Barrio 18 and MS-13. The latter emerged in Los Angeles in the 1980s among Salvadoran immigrants who had fled their homeland amid a violent civil war funded in part by the United States. It grew to include other Central American migrants, and in the 1990s, many were deported to their home countries, causing an explosion of violence there, say experts.
Before Bukele’s crackdown, an estimated 70,000 active gang members across the country made it “virtually impossible for politicians and state officials to avoid engaging with them if they wish to, among other things, carry out an election campaign or provide services in poor neighborhoods,” according to a report by the Crisis Group.
But rights groups fear the effort to root them out has taken a toll of its own, resulting in the arrest of 58,000 people between March and November 2022, overstuffed jails, and the militarization of Salvadorean society as forces patrol the streets.
Widespread human rights violations have allegedly followed Bukele’s dragnet – torture and ill treatment in detention, and arbitrary arrests as the police and army target low-income neighborhoods, according to a HRW report released on December 7.
Many of the arrests in the past year appear to be based on questionable evidence, such as the person’s appearance, background or anonymous tip-offs “and uncorroborated allegations on social media,” HRW writes.
On December 3, Bukele’s war on gangs escalated when security forces “completely fenced off” the country’s most populous municipality, Soyapango, as he described in a Twitter post. Bukele also shared a video showing gun-toting troops marching in the area.
Juan Pappier, a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told CNN that the authoritarian measures in Soyapango constituted “a perfect recipe for abuse,” impeding on people’s freedom of movement.
“There’s a trend in Latin America, of believing that in order to address very serious security concerns you need to suspend rights,” Pappier told CNN.
Pappier points to the example of Chile, which has had an extended state of emergency in response to violence in the country’s south, which was extended for a month in late November, and Ecuador, where the government announced similar measures in response to gang violence in prisons in November.
In recent weeks, Honduras’ leftist leader Xiomara Castro, who ran for government on a human rights platform, launched a month-long partial state of emergency amid outcry against extortion levels, suspending constitutional rights in certain regions as she cracks down on criminal groups.
And on Tuesday, Jamaica – which has one of the highest murder rates in the Caribbean (per 100,000 people) – declared a widespread state of emergency on Tuesday, which allows security forces to arrest people and search buildings without warrants.
Previous Salvadoran governments have tried to tackle gangs with similar strategies only to worsen the outcome.
Former President Antonio Saca – who pleaded guilty in 2018 of embezzling $300 million in public funds – unveiled a plan known as “super mano dura,” where analysts say mass imprisonment led to gangs consolidating their power behind bars.
“The deployment of the military and police to combat gangs resulted in the gangs fighting not only with each other but also with the government. In 2015, El Salvador surpassed Honduras as the most violent country in the world, with a murder rate of more than 100 per 100,000 inhabitants. The country has seen more violence in recent years than during the civil war,” according to a 2020 study by Rosen.
Tackling crime remained the top of the agenda in 2019, when Bukele swept into power promising to end corruption and gang violence. The millennial styled himself as an iconoclast with his embrace of bitcoin and fondness of backward baseball caps, but fears quickly mounted about his authoritarian tendencies.
Critical journalists and civil society members were allegedly targeted by his administration, and in 2020, he sent armed troops into Congress as he demanded that lawmakers approve his plan to secure a loan to tackle gang violence. Last September, a constitutional court stacked with his allies, according to non-profit Freedom House, cleared the way for Bukele to run for two consecutive terms.
In 2022, El Salvador’s government denied responsibility for hacking the cell phones of at least 35 journalists and other members of civil society by using the spying program known as Pegasus.
As the country’s murder rate began to fall in 2020, reports emerged of Bukele’s government allegedly cutting a deal with gangs.
According to a US Treasury Department statement, Bukele’s administration was accused of providing financial incentives to MS -13 and Barrio 18 in 2020 to “ensure that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low.”
Bukele’s government has denied the allegations, with Bukele describing it on Twitter as an “obvious lie.”
There is some consensus among security watchers that Bukele’s truce with the gangs fell apart “in late March (2022) which prompted the MS-16 to do the killing spree to pressure the government to give concessions,” said Breda.
The alleged move backfired, and Bukele announced a state of emergency and the suspension of several constitutional rights.
Accurate statistics have been hard to get hold of as authorities kept the data private, according to HRW. But citing a National Civil Police document they obtained, there was a 50% decrease in homicides between January and the end of October compared to the same period the last year, the rights group said in its report.
Other analysts agree. “From what we hear from communities living close to gangs, they confirm that most of the gangs are on their knees, (many) have fled or hiding in rural areas, of course this is affecting more the rank-and-file members rather than the leadership (of the gangs),” Breda said.
Rights experts have noted the US’ recent silence on the prolonged crackdown.
After initially being tough on Bukele’s attacks on the rule of law, “most recently we have seen ambiguous positions, which seems to be part of the Biden administration obsession in preventing migration,” Pappier said.
Less crime will compel fewer people to leave the country and seek asylum in the US in the short term, he said. Though Pappier doubts it will last, as many families have lost their sole breadwinner in the crime sweep. “Some of them are scared of police…so the deprivations of rights also have a cost and can also generate its own migration,” he said.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that “gang violence is a serious problem, and El Salvador and the United States have a vested interest in ensuring that these violent criminals are off the streets. At the same time, we have urged President Nayib Bukele and his administration to address the gang threat in a way that respects and protects the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of El Salvador.”
The spokesperson reiterated the US’ belief that the state of emergency “is an unsustainable policy that has raised serious concerns about human rights violations, arbitrary detentions, and deaths.”
El Salvador now has the perfect conditions for recruiting new gang members, Pappier adds. “People with no connection to gangs are getting arrested, are in prisons, and are completely deprived of their livelihoods – that is the perfect kind of person to recruit,” Pappier said.
So will Bukele listen? “Have you noticed how the mainstream media and NGOs have intensified their attacks in recent days?” El Salvador’s President wrote on Twitter a day after HRW’s report was published.
“It is not that they are interested in El Salvador (they never were), their fear is that we will succeed, because other governments will want to imitate it. They fear the power of example.”