Opinion: El Salvador’s gang crackdown is working, but worries over human rights violations are increasing

By Eddie Vasquez  | Update on:  May 31st, 2022
Salvadoran Army
Photo by @SecPrensaSV

After a dramatic increase in homicides over three days in late March 2022 that left 87 dead, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his security cabinet took swift action to stop the violence.

Immediately, President Bukele asked congress to declare an emergency “state of exception” to deal with the increased violence and gang activity. When enacted, the state of exception stops some constitutional guarantees to its citizens.

For example, it restricts the freedom of association; also, security forces can monitor phone conversations without a warrant and arrest individuals suspected of being gang members. Furthermore, it increases administrative detention from 72 hours to 15 days.

As expected, the Salvadoran legislature approved Bukele’s request right away. Bukele’s political party New Ideas, and its allies have a supermajority at the Legislative Assembly.

On May 24th, the Salvadoran legislative branch extended the state of exception for a second time for another 30 days. The anti-gang emergency law will end at the end of June, if not prolonged again.

The president also requested changes to the penal code that increases jail times for crimes committed by gang members, either adults or minors.

One of the main changes is the penalty for being a member of a gang or for crimes committed by gang members.

For example, being a member of a gang (MS13 or Barrio18) carries a penalty of 20 to 30 years; gang leaders or financiers can receive sentences of 40 to 45 years.

The jail sentence for minors ages 12 to 16 got increased to 10 years; juveniles over 16 can receive a sentence of 20 to 30 years.

Furthermore, the new changes took away the option of bail or house arrest for gang members. From now on, they will remain in jail during the investigative process and subsequent trial.

The measures taken by the president have pleased many Salvadorans as the violence has decreased; however, many local and international organizations believe that the actions are too extreme and violate individuals’ human rights.

Has the plan produced good results so far?

Yes, it has produced positive results! Since the state of exception began at the end of March, the country has had over thirteen days with zero homicides and days with less than 2 homicides.

The results continue to be irrefutable in this war against gangs; led by President Nayib Bukele. With the massive captures, we have managed to end April as the safest month in the country’s history.” Mauricio Arriaza Chicas.

Also, May 2022 ended as one of the safest months in the last 30 years. The National Police reported 17 homicides during May for a 0.55 daily average.

According to the government, and as of May 31st, the gang crackdown has taken over 36,000 presumed gang members off the streets, which is helping reduce crime.

With the new changes to the penal code, these alleged gang members will have to wait up to 15 days to see a judge and could spend over a year in jail before facing trial.

The changes to the penal code do not allow gang members the option of bail or house arrest. Also, if convicted, they will be sentenced under the new guidelines, which have longer jail sentences.

Although these results are in a short period, Salvadorans hope they can be maintained or improved even more.

Are individual’s human rights being violated?

The state of exception enacted by the Bukele administrations has been criticized by local and international organizations; their argument is that it violates individual human rights.

Sweeping legal amendments passed by El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in response to gang violence violate basic due process guarantees and children’s rights.” Tamara Taraciuk. Human Rights Watch.

Will some individuals’ human rights be violated during the state of exception? The answer is a definite Yes. It has already happened.

Blogger Tim Muth lists some of the most notable cases of innocent people detained by Salvadoran security forces in his article “13,500 and counting. How many innocent?

President Nayib Bukele Tweeted regarding innocent people arrested by mistake; “There will always be a 1% error that a fair system must correct.”

Pastor Edgar Lopez Beltran, popularly known as Pastor Toby Jr, said that in his personal opinion, “the collateral damage can amount to 10 percent.”

On May 2nd, Human Rights Watch and CRISTOSAL released an article asserting that “There is mounting evidence that El Salvadoran authorities have been committing serious human rights violations since adopting a state of emergency on March 27th, 2022.”

There is mounting evidence that El Salvadoran authorities have been committing serious human rights violations. We have received allegations of dozens of arbitrary arrests. Some could amount to enforced disappearances.” Juan Pappier, Human Rights Watch.

Even though the measures implemented by the Bukele administration have been heavily criticized, Salvadorans seem to approve of the security measure.

CID Gallup, 91% approval; IDUCA survey, 7.99 score out of 10; and La Prensa Grafica, 74% support.

Can this approach produce positive long-term results?

Yes, it can; however, in my opinion, the Bukele administration needs to implement a plan to help kids in impoverished communities. These kids need options that can keep them away from gangs.

Many people believe that this gang crackdown is a bigger version of past failed policies, such as the “Mano Dura” during the Paco Flores administration; and the “Super Mano Dura” of the Tony Saca administration. I disagree!

I believe the Bukele administration’s policies will have a better result than the harsh approaches used during the ARENA administrations. This is why!

First, during the Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura, most of the gang members arrested were released within weeks or months of their arrest, but that will most likely not occur this time. House arrest or bail is not available to gang members.

Second, convicted gang members will not have the luxury to go into jails controlled by their gangs as was the standard before the Bukele administration.

In theory, not having the option of bail, facing long sentences, and spending time in jails with members of opposite gangs could serve as a deterrent for anyone looking to join these gangs. Time will tell of its results.

My Point of View

I think that the actions taken by the Bukele administration were necessary and will produce positive results in the short and long term.

However, I am not naive to think individual rights will not be violated and that incarcerating these gang members will solve everything.

The hope is that this state of exception could serve as a stepping stone to help communities deal with this problem the right way; time will tell if that is the case.