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.
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.
Originally published in War On The Rocks
Authorities arrested scores of suspected gang members following surge in gang violence in March, prompting concerns locally and internationally over citizens’ rights. Following most lethal killing spree in March, which prompted imposition of state of emergency 26 March, authorities took number of steps to tackle gang violence which drew concerns about citizens’ rights. Legislative Assembly 5 April approved changes to criminal code, imposing ten to 15 years imprisonment for reports that could be interpreted as sharing messages coming from gangs; Association of Journalists of El Salvador immediately expressed concern and described it as “gag measure”. Numerous other rights groups condemned govt’s legislative measures; notably, NGO Human Rights Watch 8 April expressed concerns that “sweeping legal amendments” since late March “violate basic due process guarantees and children’s rights”. Authorities continued to arrest suspected gang members during month. Parliamentarians 19 April passed law to build new jails and 24 April renewed state of exception for 30 more days. Bukele 27 April announced over 20,000 alleged gang members arrested since state of emergency. Head of Police Workers Union Marvin Reyes 12 April denounced being obliged to reach detention quotas. Bukele 5 April threatened to stop feeding imprisoned gang members if gangs attempted to retaliate. Labour Minister Rolando Castro 28 April said 1 May labour demonstrations banned in light of state of exception. Internationally, U.S. State Department 10 April criticised penal code reform, said “law lends itself to attempts to censor the media (…) and silence critics”, and expressed support for El Salvador’s fight against gangs; President Bukele next day argued current U.S. administration is “only supporting the gangs and their ‘civil liberties’”. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 5 April expressed concern about measures introduced since late March to counter rise in gang violence, said some of those arrested “reportedly been subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, also expressed concerns about criminal trials held in abstentia and rights of teenagers associated with gangs. NGO Amnesty International 25 April commented govt’s measures to address gang-related killings “have created a perfect storm of human rights violations”.
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.
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.
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.