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Explosion of gang violence grips El Salvador, setting record


Soldiers at a checkpoint in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, on Sunday.

By Maria Abi-Habib and Bryan Avelar


El Salvador declared a state of emergency Sunday as gangs went on a killing spree Saturday, randomly shooting street vendors, bus passengers and marketgoers, marking the single bloodiest day in the country on record since the end of its civil war 30 years ago.


In the early hours of Sunday morning, El Salvador’s parliament approved the emergency rule for 30 days, suspending some civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution, loosening conditions for arrest, restricting free assembly and allowing the government to intercept the communications of citizens.


The military also began restricting who could leave and enter neighborhoods under control of the notorious street gang MS-13.


The measures are an effort to stem the violence that killed at least 62 people Saturday, a record for the country of 6 million, according to government officials.


The violence threatens to tarnish the record of President Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s charismatic young leader, whose approval ratings are some of the highest in the world, hovering around 85%. Bukele, 40, campaigned on the promise of bringing law and order to El Salvador’s streets, some of the world’s most violent, and since taking office nearly three years ago he had seemed to be making good on that pledge.


However, the reduction in violence may not have been the fruit of Bukele’s security policies, but of a clandestine deal between the government and the gangs that was apparently cobbled together shortly after he was elected president, as was first revealed by the media outlet El Faro in September 2020.


In December, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on top Salvadoran officials, including the vice minister of justice and public security, for their roles negotiating “a secret truce with gang leadership.”


Bukele has denied those accusations and has championed his tough approach as the reason homicides have fallen dramatically.


Now, analysts and a U.S. official say, that agreement may be falling apart.


Under these secret negotiations, according to the Treasury Department, the government provided financial incentives to the gangs and preferential treatment for gang leaders in prison, such as access to mobile phones and prostitutes. In exchange, the gangs apparently promised to cut down on gang violence and homicides.


Bukele is the latest in a long string of Salvadoran presidents accused of negotiating with gangs and giving them incentives to keep the peace. The tactic has been used by successive governments to win elections and appeal to a population that is tired of the never-ending violence.


A resident in the capital, San Salvador, said he woke up Saturday to an explosion of gang activity, shouts, gunshots and violence after having enjoyed a few years of relative peace since Bukele was elected in 2019.


His neighbor, a young man, was killed Saturday morning as he went out to buy bread for his family in their neighborhood, controlled by MS-13. On Sunday, soldiers and police officers swarmed the area, restoring order.


“This is always the case: Homicides rise and operations are strong and soldiers walk in” after the violence is over, said Marvin, 34, who asked that his last name not be published since he lives in a gang-controlled neighborhood.


“But in about 15 days they will leave and everything will return to normal,” he added, clarifying that normal means the gangs are back to controlling the streets.


Bukele, a youthful, energetic master of social media who prefers backward baseball caps to the usual pomp and circumstance connected to the presidential office, promised to retaliate against the gangs in response to the latest violence.


“Message to the gangs: because of your actions, now your ‘homeboys’ won’t be able to see a ray of sunshine,” the president wrote on Twitter on Sunday, adding that the government has locked down prisons and no inmates are allowed to leave their cells in keeping with the state of emergency.


Security and political analysts speculated that Saturday’s violence may have been a pressure tactic by the gangs to renegotiate the terms of the purported deal they struck with Bukele’s government. The violence was random, not the result of spats between gang members or intimidation of vendors who refused to pay extortion fees, as is often the case. It ensnared anyone caught on the streets.


“The terms of the previous pact with Bukele’s government may have been untenable and the gangs may be trying to change the terms of that pact,” said Paul J. Angelo, a fellow of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Bukele is not letting a good crisis go to waste and this happened as he was already pushing the legislature to help him consolidate power.”


The Salvadoran president has been criticized in the past by rights groups for using the military to interfere with the legislature and for his decision last year to dismiss Supreme Court judges and the attorney general in what the opposition called an unconstitutional power grab.


The issuance of the state of emergency Sunday has stoked concerns that Bukele will use the weekend violence to empower himself even further.

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