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.
Originally published in War On The Rocks
President Bukele moved to take control of judiciary, further straining relations with U.S. Newly inaugurated govt-controlled Legislative Assembly 1 May voted to remove all five justices of Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, who had previously ruled against Bukele’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic; although Constitutional Chamber immediately declared move unconstitutional, four of five removed magistrates resigned in following days. Lawmakers overnight 1-2 May also dismissed Attorney General Raúl Melara, who had been investigating allegations of govt corruption and negotiations with gangs, over accusations of political affiliation. Washington slammed moves as dangerous power grab; notably, U.S. Special Envoy for Central America Ricardo Zuñiga 11 May decried removals as “unconstitutional”. Legislative Assembly 5 May approved legislation shielding officials from corruption investigations in COVID-19-related purchases since March 2020. U.S. Congresswoman 18 May disclosed names of five senior Salvadorian officials whom State Dept accused of corruption or involvement in narco-trafficking; Bukele immediately criticised list for not including opposition ARENA party representative, and Legislative Assembly next day ratified 2019 cooperation agreement with China in alleged response to U.S. pressure. U.S. development agency USAID 21 May redirected assistance away from National Police and Institute for Access to Public Information to civil society organisations; Bukele 25 May warned it would be illegal for USAID to fund opposition movements.
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.
The murder rate in El Salvador, once the world’s highest, is falling fast. President Nayib Bukele attributes the good news to his harsh anti-gang crackdown, but other factors are likely also salient. The government should explore policing and socio-economic reforms to calm the country’s streets.
Intense gang warfare continues to plague El Salvador, undeterred by successive governments’ heavy-handed and militarised repression policies. More investment in holistic violence prevention strategies and economic alternatives to criminal violence are necessary if the country's chronic insecurity crisis is to be alleviated.
Central American gangs are responsible for brutal acts of violence, abuse of women and forced displacement of thousands. Governments must go beyond punitive measures and address the social and economic roots of gang culture, tackle extortion schemes and invest in communities.
The reduction of homicides [in El Salvador] seemed not to be due to government security strategy, but rather a gang decision.
Un pacto de Estado por la paz en El Salvador [entre el Partido FMLN y Arena que] suponga un compromiso con los cinco ejes del Plan El Salvador Seguro [es un paso indispensable].
Reprimir y perseguir el crimen [en El Salvador] es necesario, pero tratar por igual a los supuestos criminales y al casi medio millón de personas que viven bajo su yugo puede llegar a ser contraproducente.
The murder rate in El Salvador, once the world’s highest, is falling fast. President Nayib Bukele attributes the good news to his harsh anti-gang crackdown, but other factors are likely also salient. The government should explore policing and socio-economic reforms to calm the country’s streets. These interviews were recorded in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, in December 2019. During our field research we met with representatives from civil society, ex-gang members, politicians and government officials.
As the coronavirus spreads, and the U.S. presidential election looms, the Trump administration and Mexican government continue to deport migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some deportees are carrying the virus. Central American states should press their northern neighbours for more stringent health measures.