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.
Concerns about human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, under state of exception persisted.
Govt denied allegations of rights violations under state of exception. Legislative Assembly 12 Oct extended state of exception for 19th time, with VP of assembly claiming that human rights violations committed during measure were isolated incidents. Despite claims, civil society organisations and journalists continued to document cases of arbitrary arrests and torture, and shed light on conditions within prisons. Notably, coalition of human rights organisations 18 Oct estimated inmate population of 1,620 people per 100,000, translating into 148% overcrowding rate. Meanwhile, military 11 Oct sent 3,500 soldiers into Apopa municipality, San Salvador department (centre), amid ongoing efforts to root out gangs.
Women’s groups spotlighted sexual violence at hands of military and police. Following late Sept charges brought against six soldiers involved in rape of minor, military and police came under scrutiny for abuse of power and allegations of rape from within their ranks. Notably, several feminist groups 18 Oct protested in front of army headquarters, accusing military and police of using state of exception to act with impunity; they reported, for example, that one soldier had raped an eight-year-old girl in Bajo Lempa area, Usulutan department (south east).
In other important developments. Govt and opposition 3 Oct began campaigns for Feb 2024 general elections, which President Bukele is expected to win; Bukele 26 Oct officially registered as candidate despite constitutional ban on consecutive presidential re-election.
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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