El Salvador’s gangs have inflicted nothing but misery on the population. For 30 years, people have lived in fear of being extorted, kidnapped, raped, or murdered by members of MS-13 or Barrio 18 – rival groups that were founded in Los Angeles and later exported to El Salvador through mass deportations.
It is no surprise then that President Nayib Bukele’s “war on gangs” has proven so popular. The authorities have imprisoned over 50,000 alleged gang members since declaring a state of emergency in response to a spate of gang-related killings in late March and the murder rate has dropped dramatically – although official figures exclude those killed by security forces and Reuters recently uncovered discrepancies over the number of bodies recovered from mass graves.
But public security should not come at the expense of massive human rights violations. As Amnesty International has documented, the authorities have dismantled judicial independence and committed torture and thousands of arbitrary detentions and violations of due process. Meanwhile, at least 73 detainees have died in state custody.
With over 1% of its population behind bars – some just for looking “suspicious” or “nervous” – El Salvador has surpassed the United States to claim the world’s highest incarceration rate. This is not the answer to a complex problem with deep-rooted socioeconomic causes.
Nor is President Bukele’s security strategy as innovative or sustainable as he would have people believe. The state of emergency, recently extended for a sixth month, bears close resemblance to the “iron fist” crackdowns of past governments in 2003 and 2004, which brought an initial drop in homicides followed by a sharp spike from 2004 to 2006.
One significant difference is that while judges swiftly released many people who were wrongly detained during past operations, the current government has seized control of the judiciary, enabling it to carry out its strategy of arbitrary arrests and mass illegal incarceration unencumbered by checks or balances.
Instead of eviscerating human rights and judicial independence, the authorities should address the longstanding inequalities that leave children from El Salvador’s most marginalized communities vulnerable to gang recruitment.
As José Miguel Rodríguez, a former MS-13 member, told me: “repression doesn’t change a gang member”. He believes young people from poor neighborhoods would be much less likely to join gangs if they had genuine educational and employment opportunities. Similarly, older gang members would be more inclined to retire if it were not almost impossible for them to find dignified employment or avoid constant police harassment.
Repression doesn’t change a gang memberJosé Miguel Rodríguez
Attempts to address El Salvador’s gang problem through rehabilitation and social reintegration have mostly been limited to the modest efforts of a handful of evangelical churches, but even these have become untenable under the current crackdown. One pastor, who requested his name be withheld for fear of reprisal, told me the state of emergency has undone years of work, with the authorities arresting all the former gang members who were undergoing rehabilitation at his church, along with many others who had previously done so and successfully reintegrated into society.
In another case, the wife of a former MS-13 member from Honduras told Amnesty International that he left the gang in 2018 upon completing a prison sentence for robbery in California. Deported to his homeland that year, he moved to El Salvador where he worked in call centers to support her and their children. On 30 March police raided their home in search of drugs or guns. They found neither but arrested the man upon confirming he had gang tattoos.
His wife shared police and employment records with Amnesty International confirming there were no prior or current charges against him in El Salvador as of July 2021 and proving he had worked in call centers from 2019 to 2022. Despite him showing the police these documents, she says he was placed in pretrial detention for alleged membership of an illegal group, alongside hundreds of other defendants in one of the opaque mass hearings that have become the norm in recent weeks.
President Bukele, who jokingly calls himself “the world’s coolest dictator”, has sought to shape public perception of his policies by limiting access to information and stigmatizing critical journalists, forcing some into exile. He has repeatedly attacked Juan Martínez, a journalist and anthropologist who specializes in covering the gangs, calling him “trash” on Twitter in April and prompting an avalanche of threats and attacks from his zealous social media followers and a swathe of senior government officials.
Martínez, who was forced to leave El Salvador, told me the authorities are trying to discredit all those who pose a threat to the government’s carefully crafted narratives. This includes his brothers Óscar and Carlos, who recently published shocking evidence in the digital outlet El Faro that the collapse of a secret government pact with MS-13 was behind the outbreak of violence in March and the subsequent “war on gangs”.
Many journalists have had Pegasus spyware used against them and the government recently passed a vaguely worded law permitting 15-year prison sentences for those who “reproduce or transmit messages or statements originating or presumably originating” from gangs, if those messages “could generate anxiety and panic”.
Another local journalist who works the gang beat told me he noticed men photographing him, following his car and surveilling his home last year – something he had never experienced under previous governments. He fears being criminalized under the new gag law and worries the president’s verbal onslaughts could encourage physical violence against journalists. He too has considered leaving the country but does not want to uproot or abandon his family.
El Salvador must not continue down this pathway of contempt for human rights.
The only way to protect the population and deliver justice for the gangs’ victims is to guarantee robust investigations, due process, and fair trials, while simultaneously tackling the root causes of violent crime and facilitating rehabilitation and social reintegration.
President Bukele must change course immediately.