Since 2022, El Salvador has seen the largest crackdown on gang violence in its history, with President Nayib Bukele leading the charge. Thousands of alleged gang members have been arrested, yet many criticize the brutal methods of the police and the government.
El Salvador has always faced the problem of gang violence and crime and has had the highest rates of murders in the Western Hemisphere. In 2015, over 6,500 people were murdered in El Salvador.
The newly elected President in 2019, Nayib Bukele, pledged to deal with gang-related crime. The El Salvadoran government started with the “Territorial Control Plan” to improve security and policing in what were traditionally gang-controlled areas. This was done by increasing the deployment of army and police personnel in these areas.
President Bukele, Image Source: HCH TV
By 2021, this policy seemed to have worked, as the homicide rate had reached its lowest point in history. This showed in Bukele’s approval ratings as well, as they reached an all-time high of 85%.
However, between March 25 and 27, 2022, crime spiked suddenly, with 87 murders. 62 people were murdered in one single day. This was believed to be done by gangs in order to pressurise the government and get better negotiating terms.
Government Response to Murders
In response, Bukele declared a state of exception in El Salvador for 30 days. The State of Exception greatly increased the power of the police, taking away the right to counsel and increasing the number of days a person can be held without a charge. Similarly, the minimum age of responsibility was lowered to 12 years, and the sentences for crimes were drastically increased.
Police and army personnel were deployed in large numbers and were given the power to check and search any person, house, or vehicle based on suspicions of gang activity. Checkpoints and barricades were set up in areas with a known gang presence.
Within one month, over 15,000 people were arrested, straining the already overloaded Salvadoran prison system. Prison conditions were squalid for gang members, with 24/7 confinement to their cells and two meals a day.
Image Source: Metro UK
Due to prison overcrowding, a mega prison able to house 40,000 prisoners was constructed. It opened in January 2023 and was called the Terrorism Confinement Centre. The government also destroyed the gravestones of gang members to prevent them from being used as shrines.
In December, the government laid siege to the city of Soyapango with 10,000 soldiers, to remove gang members from the city.
While the State of Exception was initially set to last only 30 days, it has been extended 14 times in the legislative assembly of El Salvador. The most recent extension was on May 16, 2023.
Reactions in El Salvador
Image Source: Telegraph UK
Within El Salvador, the crackdown has been very popular, with some polls stating that 90% of the people support the government’s actions. The population, extremely weary of violence, supports a harsh crackdown on the gangs. The crackdown has greatly diminished and even destroyed, in some places, the power of gangs.
Many neighbourhoods reported being far safer than earlier and no longer having to pay extortion or protection money to gangs. Within El Salvador, many are willing to trade liberty in exchange for safety and protection from the gangs.
The response from the international community focused mostly on the human rights violations, arguing that the government should respect civil liberties. Many NGOs, like Human Rights Watch, argue that innocent people are being arrested with no evidence. Many also fear that El Salvador might slide into dictatorship. Corruption within El Salvador is also a matter of concern
The government, however, said that anyone innocent should not worry and that those who are innocent will be released quickly. Even those that support the government have asked the government to exercise caution and to follow up this crackdown with the building up of essential services so as to prevent people from becoming gang members in the future.
The government’s crackdown has resulted in a drastic decrease in the power of gangs in El Salvador. There is a need to follow up with the provision of services like education to secure the future of the country. Similarly, civil liberties and rights must be restored to citizens as soon as possible.