This year, the El Salvador government embarked on possibly the most ruthless gang crackdown ever seen in Central America, taking iron fist policies and mass incarceration to new heights. The campaign has helped drive murder rates to historic lows and has won overwhelming domestic support, despite widespread allegations of human rights abuses and unresolved questions about whether such aggressive policies can be sustained.
It began in late March when the country’s main street gangs – the MS13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 – massacred 87 people in the space of 72 hours. In response, the administration of President Nayib Bukele declared a month-long state of exception, suspending constitutional rights and loosening rules on making arrests. The measures have now been extended for nine consecutive months.
Salvadoran authorities have seized upon the emergency powers, rounding up thousands of suspected gang members and collaborators in the weeks and months following the killing spree. By mid-December, the government said it had captured more than 60,000 gang members during the state of exception – over 1% of the country’s adult population.
Almost all of those detained have been gang members, the government alleges, despite widespread reports that arbitrary arrests have swept up scores of ordinary Salvadorans.
The crackdown has garnered widespread support from a Salvadoran public with little sympathy for the gangs. But sustaining the government’s venture into a new, hyper-aggressive frontier for its security policies will bring about challenges yet to be fully understood, and the crackdown’s brutality could transform the country’s criminal underworld for years to come.
Pummeling the Gangs
The aim of El Salvador’s anti-gang offensive is simple: Pound the gangs into submission and, in doing so, maintain the low levels of violence that have been crucial to President Bukele’s popularity.
Here, the government has succeeded on multiple fronts. Murder rates have sunk to historic lows, while Bukele’s security policies are backed by 95% of Salvadorans, according to a CID Gallup poll from August. A subsequent poll from the same organization, published in October, put Bukele’s personal approval rating at 86%, the highest of any Latin American leader.
The mass arrests have also rocked the gangs, disrupting their operations in areas where the MS13 and Barrio 18 terrorize daily life.
“The strategy has removed a lot of gang members from the streets, reducing their operational capacities,” said Tiziano Breda, Central American Analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“At least for the rank and file — the collaborators and lower to medium-level gang members — the crackdown has dealt a huge blow.”
But the gains have come at a cost. Aside from the ballooning prison population, the government has largely disregarded human rights in its quest to lock up gang members. Salvadoran non-governmental organizations and the government’s human rights watchdog reported a combined total of over 7,400 cases of human rights abuses during the first seven months of the state of exception, according to EFE.
Reports of arbitrary arrests have come amid scenes of dismayed families flocking to prisons to check on their jailed relatives, often to no avail. At least 80 people detained under the emergency powers have died behind bars, according to NGOs in El Salvador cited by the Associated Press. New legal tools have also allowed Salvadoran authorities to lock up children as young as 12-years-old.
A buoyant Bukele has said his government is “at the point of winning war against the gangs.” It is a bold claim likely to soothe a population weary of gang violence and crime, but also a premature one that fails to capture the challenges that lie ahead.
The New Normal?
Bukele has so far shrugged off accusations of human rights abuses, and the immense popularity of his anti-gang campaign means he is unlikely to scale back any time soon. His government will instead have to navigate a series of hurdles, resulting from the escalation of iron fist policies, that few countries have had to deal with.
The mass arrests, for instance, have flooded El Salvador’s jails, which were already operating above capacity before the crackdown began. The country’s prison population has leapt from around 40,000 in mid-2021 to potentially over 95,000 nine months into the state of exception. The country’s prisons only have room for around 45,000 detainees, according to InSight Crime estimates based on government figures from 2021 and the opening of new jails.
The government is now building a new maximum-security prison capable of housing 20,000 prisoners, but even with the added capacity, the jails will still be overcrowded.
“Managing 60,000, 70,000, or 100,000 prisoners requires investing public funds – for food, surveillance, care, and maintenance – that I doubt an impoverished country can cope with in the medium- to long-term,” Roberto Valencia, a Salvadoran journalist and gang expert, told InSight Crime in May.
A key challenge in the short term is to “keep order in the jails and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe that is already looming now that the prison population has almost tripled,” said Breda.
Overwhelming the prisons could undermine efforts to upgrade prison infrastructure and tighten security in jails that have helped claw back control of previously lawless environments that once served as incubators for gang recruitment.
The mass incarceration campaign has particularly targeted El Salvador’s most marginalized communities, ironically funneling more potential recruits into the gang’s arms and undermining the initiative’s legitimacy. Teenagers on the fringes of gang life and former gang members – some having made painful efforts to leave the MS13 and Barrio 18 – have found themselves in jail, where they may need the gangs’ help to survive.
“Those who suffer the most from both predatory gangs and mano dura policing are marginalized communities,” said Michael Paarlberg, assistant political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The state of exception “will be harder to maintain as more citizens have their own friends and family members caught up in the sweeps and know them not to be criminals,” he told InSight Crime in an email.
The gangs’ reaction to the measures could change over time. Though rattled and seemingly on the back foot, both the MS13 and Barrio 18 have proved more than capable of adapting to previous battles with the government.
“Gangs have not been equally and evenly hurt by the crackdown,” said Breda. “They seem to be adapting to this new normal and are developing some strategies to avoid detention.”
“The leaders have been less affected,” he said. “The latent risk is that they are fleeing to rural areas or neighboring countries and waiting for the time to go back and rebuild the barrio.”
The gangs likely have sufficient firepower to launch a counterstrike, as the government crackdown has done little to disrupt their arsenals. Arms seizures are down on previous years, and authorities confiscated fewer than 100 rifles during the first four months of the state of exception, according to an InSight Crime investigation.
Signs are already emerging that the crackdown could spur gangs to fight back. Clashes between street gangs and security forces have doubled since the state of exception began, according to police data cited in an October report by the International Crisis Group.
“More raids result in more encounters with gangs, which raises the likelihood that the latter try to resist arrest by engaging in clashes,” said Breda.
Could the Mano Dura Fever Spread?
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, politicians looking for a quick fix to their own security challenges will have paid close attention to Bukele’s exploits in El Salvador.
“The strategy is appealing to a lot of policymakers throughout the region,” said Breda. “Not only because it seems to be effective in reducing criminal activity and murder rates, but also because it’s very successful as a political strategy for scoring electoral points.”
But Bukele’s turbocharged mano dura campaign may be tough to replicate elsewhere, Breda told InSight Crime. Few nations are confronted with such an overwhelming gang problem; the government estimates that there are over 76,000 gang members in El Salvador, and the gangs operate in all corners of the country. What’s more, few countries are small enough to make sustaining a nationwide clampdown feasible.
Bukele also finds himself in a unique situation in which he and his allies have a stranglehold on almost all key branches of the state, meaning his aggressive policies and controversial anti-gang laws are unlikely to face opposition from anyone within the government.
This has allowed the El Salvador president to set a new precedent for the region, despite the use of tough-on-crime policies having been a staple for policy-makers long before his arrival on the political scene.
Now, even if others draw inspiration from El Salvador’s crackdown, there is little to suggest any of the region’s incumbent leaders have free reign or enjoy the political capital needed to pull off such draconian measures while brushing aside accusations of human rights abuses and simultaneously consolidating their popularity.