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.
Govt continued crackdown on gangs amid seventh renewal of state of exception since March; relations with Western partners grew more strained.
Authorities launched major military operation targeting gang members. Gang-related homicide early Oct prompted govt to launch massive military operation in Comasagua municipality (centre west). Over 2,000 soldiers and police 2 Oct surrounded and closed off town of 12,000 inhabitants to search for members of MS-13 gang, and arrested at least 155 gang members in following days; Attorney General’s Office 16 Oct charged detainees with “illicit association” and other crimes.
State of exception renewed for seventh time amid concerns over human rights. Then human rights ombudsperson Apolonio Tobar 14 Oct released report revealing that between 27 March (when state of exception was first imposed) and 3 Oct, his office had received 3,777 complaints of human rights violations; despite allegations, Legislative Assembly same day renewed state of exception for seventh time. Although measure remains popular among Salvadorans, survey published 18 Oct by Central American University revealed growing awareness of state of exception’s limitations; notably, 51% of interviewees feared it would not solve gang issue and over 30% knew someone unjustly detained.
New allegations against senior figures of past collusion with gangs emerged. Attorney General’s Office 13 Oct formally accused former ARENA party presidential candidate Norman Quijano of negotiating with gangs to gain electoral support in 2014 elections. Meanwhile, news outlet El Faro 27 Oct published new evidence that authorities released senior MS-13 gang leader Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” from prison in November 2021, despite multiple upstanding sentences adding up to over four decades in prison.
In other important developments. El Salvador was one of three countries to abstain in Organization of American States General Assembly’s resolution 7 Oct denouncing Nicaraguan President Ortega’s crackdown on dissent; 12 Oct did not participate in UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s pledged annexation of four Ukrainian territories.
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 indispen...
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 p...
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.
The plunging homicide rate in El Salvador has sparked debate about the role of the new president’s hardline policies. Much of it transpires on Twitter, where his champions and critics engage in rows that could pre-empt reasoned discussion of how to keep tamping down violence.
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