El Salvador’s leader has eroded rights to tackle violence. Is it working?
By Bryan Avelar and Oscar López
The soldiers arrived at dawn, shutting down an entire municipality in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, stopping cars, forcing passengers off buses and ordering men to lift their shirts and show that they didn’t have gang tattoos.
For many in this once gang-infested community, the show of force was welcome.
“Before, it was the gangsters that were in charge,” said María, a shop owner who asked that her last name not be published for her safety. “Now, there are almost no gang members.”
When an eruption of gang violence in March left more than 60 people dead during the country’s single bloodiest day since El Salvador’s civil war 30 years ago, the government of President Nayib Bukele moved quickly to declare a state of emergency, suspending key constitutional rights.
The measure was supposed to be temporary, a means to swiftly restore public order and give the government greater latitude to impose a nationwide crackdown on organized crime groups, like the brutal MS-13 gang, that had long terrorized this Central American nation.
But more than eight months later, the emergency decree is still in place, the military patrols the streets, mass arrests are a daily occurrence and jails are filled to the brim, edging El Salvador toward what is effectively a police state.
Now a report from Human Rights Watch released last week offers a comprehensive review of Bukele’s heavy-handed approach, documenting a campaign of arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in custody under the state of emergency.
“It’s the perfect recipe for abuses and violations of human rights,” said Juan Pappier, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The president’s press secretary did not respond to a request for comment, but Bukele, in a speech to the National Police last month, rejected international criticism of his tactics and praised law enforcement for tackling crime.
“You are bringing peace to the Salvadoran people,” he said.
Despite the condemnation outside El Salvador and among rights groups at home, Bukele’s policy appears to be achieving some of its goals: Homicides have dropped sharply, while neighborhoods once so gang-infested that they were considered unsafe to enter are experiencing a relative calm.
Between January and the end of October, 463 people were killed in El Salvador, a 50% drop compared with the same period last year, according to a national police document obtained by Human Rights Watch and a Salvadoran advocacy group, Cristosal, which also worked on the report examining the state of emergency.
The emerging picture underscores a fundamental tension: In a country traumatized by chronic gang warfare, the crackdown has brought a respite from the violence, outweighing fears of democratic backsliding and giving an increasingly autocratic leader leverage to carry out his policies.
“I couldn’t come into this neighborhood because of the gangsters,” said Ricardo, a 37-year-old street merchant in the Las Margaritas neighborhood of San Salvador, who asked that his last name not be revealed for his security.
Extortion, a key revenue stream for gangs, also appears to have plunged. According to the country’s security minister, extortion cases have fallen by 80% since the state of emergency began. The figure is difficult to verify independently, but several business leaders interviewed by The New York Times said extortion had gone down significantly.
While a lack of transparency by the Bukele government makes it hard to assess the credibility of official crime data, experts say there is little doubt that there has been a notable reduction in violence since the start of the emergency decree.
“This crackdown has been unprecedented,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst at the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization. “Without a doubt this has weakened the gangs.”
But if criminal groups have been crippled, so too have many of El Salvador’s civil liberties.
Since March, the Legislative Assembly, controlled by Bukele’s party, has approved legislation allowing judges to imprison children as young as 12, limiting freedom of expression, expanding the use of pretrial detention and permitting prosecutors and judges to try people in absentia.
Yet, Bukele’s approval ratings, according to polls, have remained above 80%, suggesting that many Salvadorans crave greater safety, even if it means a more repressive system.
“They were so desperate because of the levels of violence and the control of the gangs,” said José Miguel Cruz, an expert on El Salvador’s gang violence at Florida International University, “that they will accept that sort of deal with the devil.”
A rise in gang violence in countries across the region has prompted some governments to adopt similar harsh responses. The government of Honduras declared a state of emergency last week in two of the country’s largest cities to tackle gang violence, suspending some constitutional rights. Jamaica imposed a similar emergency decree last month in Kingston, the capital, and in other parts of the country.
Still, even if there is less violence in El Salvador, such a dip is likely to be temporary without addressing the root causes, including grinding poverty and corruption, some analysts warn.
And indiscriminately imprisoning young men who may have done nothing wrong alongside gang members could result in a large population of disaffected youth who might make easier recruits for gangs.
“Similar policies of mass incarceration and an iron fist in El Salvador and the rest of the region have shown that in the long term they don’t achieve sustainable results and bring back surges of violence,” Pappier said.
The state of emergency has been used as a blunt instrument, according to the Human Rights Watch report, with police commanders establishing a quota system requiring officers to arrest a certain number of people every day.
The prison system is at a breaking point, with close to 100,000 people behind bars as of November, more than three times the capacity of the country’s penal system. At least 90 people have died in custody since the state of emergency began. Human Rights Watch documented at least two cases in which authorities appeared to have failed to provide detainees necessary medication.