El Salvador’s “War On Gangs”

The state of emergency is still in place in El Salvador after it was first announced on March 27. The president of the country, Nayib Bukele, declared war on criminal gangs after, during one weekend in March, 87 people were murdered. The state of emergency was initially supposed to last only 30 days, but it has been extended numerous times.

During December, the government intends to toughen the military control in the country. As a result, on December 3, Bukele revealed the deployment of 10,000 troops to Soyapango, a city close to San Salvador. Bukele wrote a post on Twitter stating that “8,500 soldiers and 1,500 agents have surrounded the city, while extraction teams from the police and the army are tasked with extricating all the gang members still there one by one.” Moreover, he stated that “Soyapango is totally surrounded.” The city is known to be a stronghold for gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Special forces have been searching homes for criminals while blocking all access to the city. Additionally, police have been monitoring anyone trying to leave the city and checking their identification documents. The government also assured that honest citizens have nothing to fear and only gang members will be targeted.

For many years the people of El Salvador have suffered miserably at the hands of the gangs. The population’s main security issue has been gang violence. Salvadoran gangs kidnap, rape, murder, and sexually assault people while also forcefully recruiting youngsters. Previous governments’ responses to the violence often alternated between two failed tactics: secret negotiations with gangs and strict security measures that resulted in human rights violations. Bukele’s approach has not been any different from the previous ones.

The president’s goal is to reduce the homicide rate in El Salvador to less than two a day. To do that, according to the OHCHR, the government has detained more than 57,000 people and seized 2,000 vehicles, 30,000 mobile phones and $1,300,000 dollars of assets during the emergency period. Many are being arrested based only on the way they look, their age, or whether they live in a neighbourhood dominated by a gang. The government announced the construction of a new penitentiary since the already congested facilities are bursting at the seams under the new intake. The president’s plan has so far only been limited to mass arrests. Bukele characterizes the detained people as “terrorists” and has previously said he wishes to make their lives miserable.

With the emergency decree, Bukele has been granted extraordinary powers by Congress. It also offers police broader authority to arrest and detain suspects while suspending some constitutional rights. The law suspends the right of associations, the right to learn the reason for an arrest and to consult an attorney. Additionally, the government has the right to interfere in the calls and mail of any suspect. The period of detention without charges is increased from three to fifteen days.

The arrests of thousands have flooded an already overloaded criminal justice system. Judges preside over hearings for as many as 300 defendants at once who have little chance of receiving individual care. Before any authority examines their cases in detail, defendants who were held based on insubstantial suspicions are dying imprisoned. At least 80 people held under the state of exception have passed away without being found guilty. A legislative reform that seems to have been implemented to fill the courts with the president’s allies culminated in the retirement of one-third of the nation’s most experienced judges last year. The remaining judges are under intense pressure to support the president.

The United Nations and several foreign governments have criticized the draconian approach of El Salvador to gang violence. However, many Salvadorians support the leader who governs all the country’s political and legal bodies. His popularity is related to the dramatic drop in the homicide rate. Neighbourhoods that have suffered for years from the ruthless gangs’ extortion and bloodshed are now experiencing an unheard-of time of peace. However, large-scale human rights abuses should not be made at the expense of maintaining public safety. Amnesty International has reported that the government has demolished judicial independence, used torture, and engaged in thousands of arbitrary detentions and abuses of due process. In addition, El Salvador has overtaken the United States to hold the record for the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 1% of its population incarcerated, some simply for acting “suspicious” or “nervous.” This is not the solution to a challenging issue with complex socioeconomic roots.

Furthermore, Bukele’s security plan is not as innovative as he would like the population to think. The state of emergency is remarkably similar to previous government’s “iron fist” crackdowns in 2003 and 2004, which caused homicides to decline initially before sharply increasing a few years later. Hence, the “iron fist” approach has been unsuccessful. According to some experts, the increase in the jail population helped to strengthen gang dominance inside the prisons by enabling criminals to use them as a base for their illegal activities. Nevertheless, the government will continue extending the state of emergency as there is no strategy for what to do after.

El Salvador should stop pursuing this course of disregard for human rights. To stop gang violence, the government needs significant security measures to break up criminal organizations. Besides that, they need to develop sustainable initiatives to deal with the structural factors contributing to gang membership. Any genuine effort to demolish gangs and lessen crime must tackle the structural causes of gang membership, such as the social marginalization that drives young people to join them and the absence of programs to provide ex-gang members with chances for work and access to education. Young people should be able to completely integrate into society; thus, jobs should be created for marginalized groups. Devoting public resources to address the socioeconomic challenges linked to gang formation and criminal conduct is necessary for preventative and rehabilitation initiatives. To further encourage trust in the legal system rather than fear of it, the government should train police and prosecutors to abide by the law strictly while eliminating police corruption and halting the overuse of force.

Moreover, the government should ensure thorough investigations, due process, and fair trials. Authorities should also work to improve El Salvador’s democratic institutions, especially by fostering judicial independence. Independent courts and prosecutors are required to provide justice for gang violence victims and to take effective action to demolish the gangs. Nevertheless, the current leader has undermined democratic institutions to the extent that there are now hardly any independent organizations left to serve as a check on the executive branch. According to his government, security is a fair bargain for respect for human rights and the rule of law. Bukele is incorrect, as evidenced by El Salvador’s record of gang violence.


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