Opinion: El Salvador’s Gang Crackdown Is Working, but Criticism Over Human Rights Violations Continues

By Eddie Galdamez  | Updated on Jan 31st, 2024
Salvadoran Defense Minister Rene Merino MonroyDefense Minister Rene Merino Monroy on night patrol. Image by @merino_monroy

March 27, 2024, will be the second anniversary of the State of Exception, a security measure directed as a gang crackdown that has resulted in the arrest of over 75,000 alleged gang members and contributors.

The drastic security measure by the Bukele administration began in late March 2022 after a dramatic increase in homicides over three days that left 87 Salvadorans dead.

The gang crackdown measures taken by the president and his security cabinet have pleased most Salvadorans as the violence has decreased; however, many local and international organizations consider this security measure too extreme as it violates individuals’ human rights.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador State of Exception; a security measure implemented to fight gangs

El Salvador’s gang crackdown using the State of Exception continues in 2024, and some of the questions to analyze are as follows: Has the plan produced good results so far? Are individual human rights being violated? Can this approach produce positive long-term results?

Has the Gang Crackdown Produced Good Results So Far?

Yes, the gang crackdown has produced positive results! Since the state of exception began at the end of March, the country’s homicides have drastically decreased, and gang presence in the territory is not visible anymore.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Homicide Rate

Homicides in El Salvador

One of the most visible stats that show that the gang crackdown is working is the drop in homicides and the increase in days with zero homicides.

El Salvador ended 2023 with 154 homicides for a daily rate of 0.42 or 2.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The year 2023 stands out as El Salvador’s safest since 1992, when the civil war concluded.

El Salvador Homicide Rate per 100,000 Inhabitants
El Salvador Daily Homicide Rate
El Salvador Yearly Homicides

SEE ALSO: Days Without Homicides in El Salvador

Other stats that show that the gang crackdown is working is the increase of days with zero homicides, which, as of today, exceeds 495 under the Bukele administration.

The majority of the 495-plus days without any homicides, achieved under Bukele’s leadership, occurred following the initiation of the gang crackdown on March 27, 2022.

This accomplishment is remarkable, especially when considering that, in the 15 years preceding the Nayib Bukele Presidency, El Salvador had seen less than five days without homicides.

Gang Presence in the Territory Is Not Visible Anymore

Before the crackdown, the gang presence in the territory was a pervasive issue that communities had to deal with regularly.

These criminal groups had roots deeply embedded in the territory they controlled. They extorted local businesses, harassed the civilian population, and killed those they saw as threats.

These criminals left a profound impact on the daily lives of Salvadorans, especially those who lived in those communities. However, that has changed over the last two years.

Since the crackdown began, gang members have either been arrested or left the communities they previously controlled. They are now hiding within the Salvadoran territory or in another country.

The sense of security in these communities, previously controlled by these criminal groups, is now excellent. Even media outlets critics of the Bukele administration acknowledge that the gangs lost control of these communities.

The Mara Salvatrucha-13, the Revolucionarios or Sureños factions of 18th Street, and other smaller gangs like the Mao-Mao, La Mirada Locos, and CODEMAR no longer operate in the streets of El Salvador — or at least not as they had before. ElFaro.net

Furthermore, Modifications to the penal code by the Salvadoran legislature have created a more profound sense of security among Salvadorans as gang members will most likely not return to these communities; these changes have contributed to an improved perception of security in the country.

The changes 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.

Are Individual Human Rights Being Violated During the Gang Crackdown?

Since it began in 2022, local and international human rights organizations have regularly criticized the State of Exception; they argue that the security measure has and continues to violate individual human rights.

Have some individuals’ human rights been violated during the state of exception? The answer is a definite Yes! There is plenty of information available on cases that have already happened.

In El Salvador, the government of President Nayib Bukele’s iron-fist security measures and swift dismantling of democratic institutions have led to widespread human rights violations by security forces. Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch has released articles (May 2022, January 2023, and January 2024) claiming the vast evidence that Salvadoran authorities have committed grave human rights violations since adopting a state of emergency.

We have documented on the ground that some of the people detained have nothing to do with gangs, and are innocent Salvadorians, working people, and children who have been arrested and now face Kafkian legal proceedings.” Juan Pappier, Human Rights Watch.

Many local and international organizations have asked the Salvadoran government to end the State of Exception. However, the Bukele administration has made it clear that they will continue with the security measure until the last gang member is behind bars.

Even though the measures implemented by the Bukele administration during the gang crackdown have been heavily criticized, Salvadorans seem to approve of them and want them to continue.

Can This Approach Produce Positive Long-Term Results?

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

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

The Bukele administration’s policies will have a better result than the harsh approaches used during the ARENA administrations! This is why it will happen!

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 of going into prisons controlled by their gangs as was the standard before the Bukele administration. Gang members now will go into the CECOT Prison or other maximum security jails that don’t allow visitors, and inmates barely leave their cells.

Not having the option of bail or house arrest, facing long sentences, and being forced to be in cells with members of opposing gangs is why this harsh measure will have positive results in the long run.

My Point of View

I believe 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 the gang problem and move forward; time will tell if that is the case.