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
Rare attack on political activists left two dead, while political tensions ran high ahead of legislative and municipal elections planned for Feb. Unidentified assailant 31 Jan opened fire on leftist opposition party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) members in capital San Salvador, killing two and wounding three others. President Bukele shortly after suggested attack had been staged by FMLN, sparking outrage. On occasion of anniversary of Jan 1992 peace accords that ended 12-year civil war, Bukele lashed out at two peace accord signatories, opposition parties FMLN and Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Bukele 16 Jan said anniversary day would no longer commemorate “agreement between corrupt actors”, but remember conflict’s victims; Bukele in Dec had called peace accords “farce” signed by parties’ leadership for their own benefit. New reports of irregularities in prison system emerged, hinting at possible govt-gangs dialogue process. Notably, online newspaper El Faro 12 Jan claimed director of prisons authorised in Oct transfer of MS-13 gang leader Chino Milo from maximum-security jail Izalco Fase III to hospital for “medical emergency” despite lack of apparent health problems; Milo is close to one of MS-13’s heads who is reportedly having conversations with govt officials. U.S. prosecutors 14 Jan charged 14 MS-13 senior leaders, 11 of whom are in El Salvador, with terrorism. Meanwhile, court 5 Jan found former President Tony Saca and his wife guilty of illicit enrichment and ordered them to repay govt $4.4mn. Judge 6 Jan ordered new trial against former President Mauricio Funes on money-laundering charges. Judge investigating 1981 El Mozote massacre of around 1,000 civilians allegedly perpetrated by military officers was granted access to Catholic Church’s archives 25 Jan, after Archbishop of San Salvador Escobar Alas initially opposed inspection. In joint statement, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras govts 11 Jan said they will coordinate efforts to curb irregular migration. Guatemalan authorities 18 Jan said at least 300 Salvadorans had entered country through Nueva Anguiatú crossing point same day, trying to join caravan of Honduran migrants en route to U.S. (see Honduras); 25 Jan returned over 100 Salvadorans to their home country.
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.