Two decades after the end of its civil war, El Salvador has been trying to limit the influence of criminal gangs that control large portions of the country. Once afflicted by the world’s highest murder rate, the country now sees fewer homicides, but the gangs have tightened their grip upon turf where they run extortion rackets and exercise other forms of social control. Every year, the dangers of daily life push tens of thousands of Salvadorans to hazard the journey north to the U.S. border. Through its fieldwork and advocacy, Crisis Group presses for crime prevention, rehabilitation and socio-economic reform policies that can make El Salvador a safer place to live.
Following a spate of murders, the Salvadoran government ordered mass roundups of suspected criminal gang members, throwing more than 53,000 in jail. The clampdown is popular but unsustainable. Authorities should develop a path out of gang life that members can choose.
Justice system struggled under state of exception, and Congress granted President Bukele leave of absence to contest Feb 2024 polls.
Authorities renewed state of exception amid concerns of violations in prisons. Legislative Assembly 8 Nov extended state of exception for twentieth time. Mass arrests put pressure on justice system, with 85% of 5,000 people released from prison between March 2022 and July 2023 still awaiting trial. Human rights organisations continued to denounce violations in prison. Notably, NGO Cristosal 1 Nov reported that 191 persons had died in custody since March 2022. Meanwhile, authorities in Mexico 8 Nov arrested Salvadoran MS-13 gang leader Elmer Canales, 9 Nov extradited him to U.S.; U.S. claimed authorities released him from prison in El Salvador in Jan 2021, boosting claims widely reported in Salvadoran media that President Bukele negotiated directly with gangs to reduce violence.
Election Tribunal approved Bukele’s bid for second term. Electoral Tribunal - which is elected by govt-controlled Congress – 3 Nov approved President Bukele’s candidacy for 2024 presidential election despite constitutional ban on consecutive presidential re-election. Bukele 28 Nov said he would ask Congress for leave of absence from presidency for six months to allow him to run; Congress 30 Nov granted permission for period 1 Dec to 31 May 2024, with current head of National Directorate of Municipal Works due to replace Bukele in his duties.
In late March, El Salvador’s criminal gangs spearheaded a killing spree that left 87 people dead over a weekend. In response, President Nayib Bukele imposed a state of exception and launched a #WarOnGangs that has jailed over 53,000 alleged gang members in six months, elevating the country’s prison population rate to the world’s highest. Tiziano Breda, Crisis Group’s Analyst for Central America; Susan Cruz, Consultant; and Roberto Valencia, Journalist, discuss the consequences of this popular and controversial strategy.
El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele set in motion a massive crackdown on suspected gang members when he declared a state of emergency in March. In this photo essay, Crisis Group experts explain how the government's response to gangs affects women.
This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group experts Tiziano Breda and Ivan Briscoe about politics in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras and why Central Americans are leaving for the United States.
San Salvador’s millennial President Nayib Bukele simultaneously represents an opportunity to end gangs’ chokehold on his country and risks the disintegration of a fragile democracy carved out of the 1980s civil war. He needs to be more transparent, but deserves more support.
As the coronavirus rages in Mexico and the northerly Central American countries, criminal outfits have adapted, often enlarging their turf. To fight organised crime more effectively, governments should combine policing with programs to aid the vulnerable and create attractive alternatives to illegal economic activity.
Online Event to discuss International Crisis Group's report on the drop in homicide rates in El Salvador and the security policies of President Nayib Bukele.
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