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
President Bukele gained control of legislature amid persistent tensions between govt and electoral authorities. Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) 19 March announced final results of legislative and local elections held in Feb, giving Bukele’s party Nuevas Ideas absolute majority in Legislative Assembly with 56 of 84 seats, and 152 of 262 municipalities. TSE had delayed proclamation by a few days after Nuevas Ideas 16 March filed petition claiming electoral body was trying to reduce number of party’s city councillors in at least 83 municipalities. Earlier in month, police 1-2 March said they had found abandoned ballots in Chalatenango (north) and San Rafael Obrajuelo (centre) municipalities, but TSE head 11 March insisted that 100% of ballots had been counted. Meanwhile, after employees’ union of Legislative Assembly 10 March denounced existence of at least 1,000 ghost jobs in Congress, Attorney General’s Office 15 March opened investigation and next day searched Assembly, gathering more than a thousand documents. Organization of American States-backed International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador 25 March called on govt to carry out series of legal reforms to enhance fight against corruption. Association of Journalists in El Salvador 1 March reported at least 58 infringements of journalists’ activities on election day, including 40% by National Police. Supreme Court 5 March admitted claim for protection from digital newspaper El Faro against finance ministry’s audit, which included request for information about newspaper’s subscribers. Govt immediately said court was protecting El Faro’s “NGO-like agenda disguised as journalism”. Authorities 2 March detained MS-13 leader Hugo Armando Quinteros Mineros in Santiago de María municipality, Usulután department (east); U.S. authorities had charged him with terrorism in Jan. Criminal court 5 March sentenced 128 suspected gang members to between three and 415 years in prison for murder and terrorist activities.
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.