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A Bargain Worth Making? Bukele and The Gangs of El Salvador
A Bargain Worth Making? Bukele and The Gangs of El Salvador

A Bargain Worth Making? Bukele and The Gangs of El Salvador

Originally published in War On The Rocks

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.

Not long before the pandemic touched down in El Salvador, which over the years has been the Central American country hardest hit by gang violence, the nation was inching toward a precarious peace. In downtown San Salvador, the capital, tags daubed by gangs on roadside walls had been painted over with graffiti. When we visited the nearby neighborhood of Iberia, a traditional gang fiefdom, their presence was also less apparent, though certain rules still had to be obeyed. We lowered our car windows as we entered, a practice MS-13 imposes to spot outsiders. Minutes later, a young man approached us, selling packets of potato chips and asking a few pointed questions. “It must be the muchachos wanting to know who you are,” observed a local police officer.

Deciphering what is going on in El Salvador’s underworld, what drives the ebb and flow of killings, is far from simple. Widely seen as one of the more stable democracies in Central America, in 2009 it experienced an impeccably peaceful handover of power from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a party representing the counter-insurgent side in the 1980s civil war, to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a party formed by its retired guerrillas. Six years later, however, El Salvador gained notoriety as the world’s murder capital, with a rate of 103 homicides per 100,000 people spearheaded by irrepressibly brutal gangs (pandillas) rooted in the country’s poor urban communities — most notoriously, MS-13 and the two factions of the 18th Street Gang, the Southerners and the Revolutionaries.

Read the full article on War On The Rocks' website.

Contributors

Program Director, Latin America and Caribbean
itbriscoe
Analyst, Central America
TizBreda