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
Amid ongoing political tensions, President Bukele took confrontational stance against U.S. officials who voiced concern over his rule of law record. In heated argument on Twitter, Bukele 1 April urged U.S. voters not to vote for U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres after she called him a “narcissistic dictator”; U.S. Congressman Albio Sires 14 April decried Bukele’s call as “foreign election interference” that could amount to “national security threat”. After U.S. State Dept 5 April called on Bukele to “restore separation of powers”, Bukele 7-8 April refused to meet with U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga during his country visit. Zúñiga 7 April pledged $2mn to support International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES), while group of 16 civil society organisations same day reiterated call on Legislative Assembly to expand CICIES’ mandate, including possibility to be plaintiff, before newly-elected Assembly takes office 1 May. Bukele immediately dismissed proposal as “worst thing we could do”, also said “nothing that outgoing Assembly approves will ever come into force”. Following Feb legislative elections, which saw Bukele’s party gain control of legislature, Supreme Electoral Tribunal 11 April said it had dismissed 40 electoral complaints; 15 April said institution’s electronic system had suffered some 15,000 attacks during vote counting. Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber 15 April admitted case against June 2019 appointment of Mauricio Arriaza Chicas as police chief, on grounds that Chicas’ military rank of lieutenant could violate constitutional provision mandating civilian police head; Chicas is one of Bukele’s staunchest allies.
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.