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.
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.
Originally published in War On The Rocks
Govt extended state of emergency for fourth time amid continued crackdown on gangs, and new evidence of release of MS-13 gang leaders came to light. National police 18 July reported that authorities had arrested over 46,000 alleged gang members since state of emergency began in late March, and which govt 20 July extended by another month for fourth time. Human Rights Prosecutor Apolonio Tobar 4 July said his office had received 2,673 complaints of human rights violations related to state of emergency implementation. Tobar 11 July visited country’s fullest prisons and acknowledged overcrowding problems, but did not mention deaths in custody, which news agencies early July reported to be over 50 since late March. As govt’s crackdown on gangs continued apace, clashes between gangs and security forces increased. Notably, unknown assailants 13 July shot dead one soldier in rural community of Chalatenango (north west), which has strong MS-13 gang presence; three gang members were killed and ten more arrested 10 July after shootout with security forces in rural area of Sonsonate (west). President Bukele 21 July said new jail under construction in Tecoluca municipality of San Vicente department (centre) would be ready in 60 days and will be able to house up to 40,000 gang members. New evidence surfaced in connection with release from prison and subsequent escape abroad of top MS-13 leaders. El Faro news outlet 11 July published report showing pictures and videos of MS-13 leader Elmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook”, posted on social media by his partner between late 2021 and early 2022, which seemed to confirm that he was released from prison and subsequently left El Salvador, reportedly with govt’s help. Guatemalan news outlet No-Ficción 12 July reported that authorities in late 2021 released another key MS-13 leader, known as “Viejo Santos”, having served sentence, despite U.S. in 2013 designating him one of MS-13’s most important leaders; he was rearrested in Guatemala in April. U.S. State Dept 20 July added six current and former Salvadoran officials to list of corrupt actors in Central America known as Engel list, including head of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party.
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 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.
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.