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.
President Bukele looked set for re-election in February; Minister of Justice announced start of trials against gang leadership as authorities again renewed state of exception.
Poll suggested Bukele poised for victory in Feb election. Salvadorans will head to polls on 4 Feb to elect president, vice-president and legislative assembly, with possible runoff in March if no presidential candidate secures over 50% of vote. This appeared unlikely, however, after Francisco Gavidia University Centre for Citizen Studies 16 Jan presented their final poll prior to election day, which gave Bukele (who is constitutionally banned from seeking immediate re-election) 71% lead over his nearest rivals.
Authorities renewed state of exception as trials of gang leadership began. Congress 9 Jan extended state of exception until 10 Feb amid continued criticism from human rights groups. Minister of Justice Gustavo Villatoro 4 Jan declared that El Salvador’s 2023 homicide rate was lowest in Latin America; he added that authorities had arrested 75,163 “terrorists” under measure and that approximately 18,000-20,000 gang members are still at large. Trial to prosecute 494 gang leaders 22 Jan commenced. Meanwhile, Legislative Assembly 3 Jan approved reform granting Attorney General capacity to declare persons or entities “national terrorists”, and to petition for their inclusion on UN Security Council terrorist list.
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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