El Salvador, still recovering from its 1980-1992 civil war, is beset with endemic poverty and police corruption. Since the late 1990s, waves of violent crime have hit the country, making its murder rate one of the world’s highest. Most killings are perpetrated by gangs extorting money or fighting for control of city districts. 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.
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
Tensions mounted between President Bukele and electoral authorities ahead of Feb 2021 elections and allegations of govt mismanagement of COVID-19 funds persisted. Bukele 5 Dec said Supreme Electoral Tribunal was hiring private security contractors to transport ballots ahead of legislative and municipal elections scheduled for Feb, suggesting that tribunal is plotting electoral fraud. Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública’s opinion poll, which surveyed 1,265 people, 8 Dec showed 64% of electorate intended to vote for Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party in upcoming elections. Meanwhile, govt’s COVID-19-related spending remained under scrutiny after news outlet El Faro late Nov reported allegations of misuse of funds for hotels repurposed as quarantine centres; Court of Accounts 1 Dec accused finance ministry of blocking its auditors from investigating other possible irregularities. Police Chief Mauricio Arriaza Chicas 8 Dec resigned as deputy security minister ahead of vote in Legislative Assembly on whether his immunity should be lifted following alleged breach of duties; opposition accuses him of failing to make Finance Minister Alejandro Zelaya comply with lawmakers’ order to give account of govt’s COVID-19 spending. Attorney General’s office 15 Dec opened judicial proceedings against Arriaza over “dereliction of duty” charges; judge 23 Dec dropped charges citing procedural flaws. Head of El Salvador Journalists’ Association 16 Dec reported 114 attacks on press freedom between Jan and Nov, said such attacks had risen by 281% during Bukele’s first year in office. U.S. 7 Dec extended Temporary Protected Status for Salvadoran nationals, which allows them to live and work in U.S., until Oct 2021. U.S. Congress 22 Dec passed bill requiring upcoming U.S. President Biden to submit to Congress list of corrupt officials in Northern Triangle, and curtailing military funding for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
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.
Over the last three years, gang violence has killed nearly 20,000 people in El Salvador, propelling tens of thousands northward in search of safety. With U.S. help, the Salvadoran government should try to counter gangs with crime prevention as much as with law enforcement.