Before the administration of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, no government had succeeded in breaking up the country’s vaunted and dangerous street gangs.
Dating back to the early 2000s, security forces arrested their members in droves. Politicians sent waves of police officers and soldiers to the streets to dislodge the gangs from poor urban communities where the government had lost control. They coined the heavy-handed policies mano dura, or iron fist.
*This article is part of a six-part investigation, “El Salvador’s (Perpetual) State of Emergency: How Bukele’s Government Overpowered Gangs.” InSight Crime spent nine months analyzing how a ruthless state crackdown has debilitated the country’s notorious street gangs, the MS13 and two factions of Barrio 18. Download the full report or read the other chapters in the investigation here.
But little lasting progress was made. The gangs — the bulk of whom were part of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) or one of two factions of the Barrio 18 — always found a way to regroup, retaliate, or reorganize their structures to operate under increased pressure. That has changed.
In March 2022, the Bukele administration launched a historic crackdown, implementing a state of emergency (régimen de excepción) that has, for the past 20 months, given his government almost free rein in its war against the gangs.
The crackdown has succeeded in arresting a sizable chunk of the gangs’ street-level membership and collaborators. It has cut off their communications. It has impeded their ability to manage extortion or drug peddling businesses, their main sources of revenue.
It has disabled their command structure and upended their hierarchies. It has temporarily inhibited their ability to mount a collective, organized response. It has, in other words, left them reeling.
Its efficiency has left many analysts pondering why mano dura security policies have suddenly worked after years of failure. Below, InSight Crime looks at how Bukele’s hard-line crackdown managed to overpower El Salvador gangs and the impact his government’s campaign has had on gang structures that once dominated the country’s criminal landscape. Violence was always part of Salvadoran culture.
Extreme Legal Measures and Political Power
The key to Bukele’s relative success in debilitating gang structures rests on three fundamental pillars: the use of extreme legal measures; a looser interpretation of gang affiliation; and the concentration of political power around the Bukele administration.
The crackdown began with the enactment of a state of emergency, a legal measure designed for temporary use in response to catastrophic events, such as earthquakes and pandemics. No Salvadoran government had ever taken this route to deal with the gangs.
But following a series of brutal gang massacres in late March 2022 that left 87 people dead, legislators aligned with Bukele approved the president’s request to enact a one-month state of emergency.
As of November 2023, the measures had been extended for 20 consecutive months. They are expected to be renewed in December.
The emergency laws deprive Salvadorans of basic constitutional rights, including the right to legal defense and the freedom of movement, while loosening rules on making arrests and allowing the state to intercept civilian communications.
These emergency powers have permitted security forces to execute a blitzkrieg on the gangs, rounding up gang members and suspected collaborators without a warrant or based on anonymous tips and, by extension, at a much faster rate and with far less discretion when compared with previous crackdowns.
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In all, security forces arrested over 33,000 people in the first two months of the state of emergency, according to police intelligence data accessed by InSight Crime.
“There were too many soldiers everywhere all at once,” one active gang member told InSight Crime.
The state of emergency has also suspended constitutional rights to defense, meaning detainees can be held indefinitely on vague charges, without the need for an arrest warrant or evidence to back up criminal allegations.
Under the emergency laws, detainees also lose the right to a court hearing within 72 hours of arrest, and lawyers and civil society organizations have said they cannot speak to those detained. Uncorroborated raw intelligence, rumors, and information sourced from social media profiles have formed the basis of arrests.
This is paradoxically the most troubling and the most effective aspect of this crackdown.
The Bukele administration has also implemented new laws designed to keep gang members behind bars. In March 2022, the legislative assembly passed legal reforms increasing jail sentences for gang membership and eliminating the possibility of house arrest for detainees belonging to “terrorist groups.” Gangs are considered terrorist organizations under Salvadoran law. The reforms also lowered the age to 12 for which people can be tried for gang-related crimes.
At the same time, the administration has reformed existing anti-gang laws so they can apply them to a broader range of targets. Most notably, on March 30, 2022, the legislative assembly modified the law regarding agrupaciones ilícitas (unlawful association), expanding its purview to include anyone who “promotes, helps, facilitates or favors” the activities of a criminal organization.
In effect, the law, which was already broad in scope, now gives authorities the power to arrest not just suspected members, or homeboys, but also aspiring members (chequeos) and suspected “collaborators.”
The government provides no clear definition of any of these positions nor the methodology about how it arrives at these conclusions regarding who is a member, who is an aspiring member, and who is a collaborator.
Nonetheless, it is a major pretext for arrests in the current state of emergency. In January 2023, for example, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal, citing a leaked government database, said that 39,000 of the then-61,000 people who had been incarcerated under the state of emergency had been arrested for unlawful association.
Previous attempts to employ this law ran into legal snags in the courts, and police were worried they might be prosecuted if they arbitrarily arrested suspects en masse.
One police official in San Miguel, for instance, said he and his colleagues spoke to two judges to check whether they could face future legal backlash for signing arrest warrants based on vague charges that may violate human rights. After receiving assurances from the judges, this official said their unit proceeded to arrest hundreds of suspects.
Central to the administration’s efforts is the near total control of various parts of the government. Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), used its supermajority in the legislative assembly to enact the state of emergency and has continued to prolong it. Legislators loyal to Bukele passed the legal reforms related to the crackdown.
The legislative assembly also purged the judiciary in late 2021, firing dozens of judges and appointing over 150 replacements, many with links to the Bukele administration, according to an investigation by the Salvadoran media outlet Revista Factum.
The courts have stood silent amid widespread allegations of state abuses, especially as it relates to due process. The Attorney General’s Office, which is also heavily aligned with the Bukele administration, has worked in tandem with the security forces to facilitate mass arrests based on flimsy, little, or no evidence.
How Has the State of Emergency Outdone Previous Mano Dura Crackdowns?
|Emergency legal measures enacted by the state of emergency (suspension of constitutional rights):
– Permits arrests with no warrant
– Increases time detainees can be held without appearing before a judge
– Removes guarantee of defense lawyer or being informed of reason for detention
– Allows government to intercept civilian communications
– Authorizes security forces to set up roadblocks and checkpoints to restrict freedom of movementRelated legal reforms:
– Legal reforms increase prison sentences for gang membership and eliminate pre-trial detention for gang-related crimes
– New laws allow minors as young as 12 to be tried on gang-related charges
|– Authorities can make arrests faster than previous crackdowns
– Gang members and collaborators remain in jail for longer, as emergency measures allow for them to be held without formal charges or a trial
– Ordinary Salvadorans lose legal rights guaranteed by the Constitution
– Criminalization of population increases pool of potential detainees
|Looser interpretation of the mano dura laws:
– Authorities leverage existing gang legislation to arrest people with tenuous gang connections
– Designation of aspiring gang members and ambiguously defined collaborators as gang members in police arrest figures
|– Authorities can deplete extended gang networks of aspiring and semi-retired members, plus collaborators
– Inflates arrest figures for people categorized as gang members
|Concentration of political power:
– Alignment between executive, legislature, and judiciary leaves minimal room for opposition to arbitrary arrests and human rights abuses
– Supermajority in legislative assembly allows the Bukele government to prolong state of emergency indefinitely
– Supermajority in legislative assembly allows the Bukele government to pass legal reforms to increase sentences for jailed gang members and hold mass trials
– The Bukele administration purged the judiciary in 2021 and appointed a new crop of judges believed to be aligned with the government
|– Gang crackdown can be sustained indefinitely without political opposition or appeals
– Gang members face longer periods in jail. Mass trials expedite sentencing for gang members. Both reduce chances of gang members returning to the streets
– Judicial system can be weaponized to ensure gang members and collaborators remain in jail without evidence
But while the crackdown’s impact has been transformative, the gangs are not finished in El Salvador. In fact, the government’s own data contradicts the Bukele administration’s narrative that the gangs have been completely defeated.
The government claims to have arrested 52,541 members of the MS13, 13,682 members of the Barrio 18 Sureños, and 10,741 members of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, according to a police intelligence report dated October 1 obtained by InSight Crime. These figures refer to homeboys, chequeos, and collaborators. Among those arrested were 1,232 gang leaders, including 945 from the MS13.
The report also says the number of “armed groups of gangs” (grupos armados de pandillas) is 53, down from 97 in 2022, and 107 in 2020. Of these cells, 43 correspond to the MS13 (80%), while six belong to the Barrio 18 Sureños (11%), and four to the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios (9%).
But the same police intelligence reports say that 36% of gang members and collaborators — over 42,000 — remained at large as of the end of September 2023.
The data also reveals that more than half of reported state of emergency detainees are not fully-fledged gang members. Homeboys accounted for 32,331 arrests (42%) as of September 30, 2023, compared to 41,733 for suspected collaborators (54%) and 3,435 for chequeos (4%).
The clearest indicator of decreased gang presence in El Salvador is the absence of the MS13 and Barrio 18 in neighborhoods once dominated by the gangs. For decades prior to the state of emergency, the gangs exerted significant territorial control in urban hubs throughout El Salvador.
In many areas, they relied on an extensive network of low-level members and collaborators, including lookouts and informants, to prevent unwanted intrusions and to establish rules for those living in communities under their control. The rules ranged from placing restrictions on movement to prohibiting common delinquency and forbidding grave crimes, such as rape.
The gangs dished out hard punishments to rule-breakers, despite often breaking their own rules. Gang members also settled disputes between residents in lieu of the police or other government authorities. Residents could face reprisals for interacting with authorities. In extreme cases, the police did not enter territory where the MS13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 had significant influence.
The situation has changed radically following the enactment of the state of emergency. InSight Crime visited 15 former gang strongholds in the municipalities of San Salvador, Apopa, Soyapango, Ilopango, Mejicanos, Ciudad Delgado, San Julián, Tonacatepeque, and San Miguel, where gang structures have ceased to operate almost entirely.
Before the state of emergency, gang permission was frequently required when transiting through disputed territories, whether for routine commutes or medical emergencies. In many areas, the gangs also had a grip on the local economy, dictating who could sell what and where.
Now, residents say they no longer face near-constant surveillance from gangs or strict rules on moving between different communities. They have reclaimed recreational and community spaces previously used by the gangs and have initiated new community projects with no gang resistance for the first time in years.
The revival of inter-community soccer tournaments in San Miguel and San Salvador, previously hamstrung by territorial boundaries set by rival gangs, is just one example of how gang restrictions on civilian movement have evaporated since the state of emergency began.
Few residents reported seeing remnants of the gangs in their neighborhoods. Some mentioned the return of active gang members who were released from jail, but they said these actors held far less power than before the state of emergency.
Those who reported gang members to the police during the state of emergency said they fear possible retribution from gang members released from prison, though there have been no reports of revenge attacks against civilians.
A police officer stationed in San Salvador’s Historic Center, where expansive informal markets were once a hive of gang activity, said gang members disappeared just two weeks into the state of emergency.
Another security official told InSight Crime that schools are now housing minors linked to the gangs and may provide the only public space where remnants of these groups can still operate. Mario Vega, a prominent evangelical pastor who has spent decades working in gang communities, also flagged the possible presence of gang structures in schools. But residents interviewed by InSight Crime in Apopa and San Miguel did not consider this a pressing issue.
The situation may be different in rural areas that initially provided refuge for gang members after security forces began raiding gang-controlled neighborhoods in major cities. Sporadic reports of continuing extortion in rural zones point to some prevailing gang structures, albeit in a reduced form.
Extortion Grinds to a Halt
With the extensive loss of manpower and territory, it is clear that the gangs can no longer operate the criminal economies that have long kept them afloat.
Extortion previously represented the main source of income for many gang cells in El Salvador. Extortion rackets targeting informal markets in major urban hubs such as San Salvador’s Historic Center once provided the gangs with tens of thousands of dollars of daily revenue.
A study conducted by InSight Crime in 2021 in San Miguel’s municipal markets — housing over 5,000 vending spots — concluded that the MS13 was generating monthly extortion revenues of $100,000 or more.
Operating these rackets relied on an extensive network of gang members and collaborators to patrol gang territories and collect payments. Previous crackdowns focused on gang members, but Bukele’s has focused on the gangs’ broader networks, according to police data.
This means the gangs can no longer rely on proxies to continue operating criminal economies while weathering state crackdowns.
Prior to the state of emergency, the gangs primarily extorted people working for small- and medium-sized businesses, including street vendors, shop owners, bus operators, and taxi drivers, in communities under their control.
The gangs based their extortion fees on perceived wealth, ranging from a few dollars per day for street vendors to weekly or monthly payments reaching into the thousands of dollars for larger businesses. And in past years, the gangs have brutally killed civilians for failing to pay up.
However, residents of the same former gang strongholds visited by InSight Crime said they no longer received extortion threats from the gangs. And some residents said they had not witnessed any gang retaliation for not paying extortion fees during the state of emergency.
Extortion in the transport sector also appears to have come to a standstill. Bus company representatives working in San Salvador told InSight Crime the gangs had quickly stopped charging extortion in the days and weeks following the onset of the state of emergency.
One bus company owner who previously paid around $6,000 in monthly extortion fees to the three main gang factions said he stopped paying rent to the MS13 immediately after the crackdown began. His payments to the Barrio 18 fizzled out in the following days and weeks.
The inability to maintain extortion rackets, which primarily targeted the informal economy, represents a seismic financial blow to the gangs.
El Salvador police reported a 54% reduction in extortion complaints between the start of the year and September 11, compared to the same period in 2022. As of September 11, the police had processed 572 reports of extortion; in 299 of those cases, the plaintiff identified the perpetrators as members of the MS13 and Barrio 18.
The widely reported decrease in gang extortion appears to have come as a direct result of the state of emergency, which has so depleted street-level gang membership that they cannot muster the physical presence needed to demand and collect extortion payments. The gangs often relied on collaborators or relatives for this task, but these allies have also been arrested in droves or are lying low to avoid arrest.
Still, multiple sources — including police officials, politicians, and gang members — told InSight Crime that extortion persists in some areas, albeit on a smaller scale.
Police and municipal employees in San Miguel, for example, told InSight Crime that some individuals are still extorting vendors in the city’s main markets, despite a near-complete disappearance of gang presence in these establishments. They said these people may belong to remnants of the gangs or may be individuals acting on their own.
The city’s longtime mayor, Will Salgaldo, told InSight Crime extortion has not been eradicated entirely, and that some gang members are now asking for “collaboration” from households as an alternative, small-scale revenue stream.
El Salvador security forces have also arrested alleged extortionists with no apparent links to the gangs during the state of emergency.