In March 2022, the government of El Salvador launched one of the most relentless security crackdowns in its history in its latest attempt to debilitate the country’s three main gangs — the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios (18R), and the Barrio Sureños (18S).
Past crackdowns spanning multiple decades had failed to quell the gangs, which had long terrorized communities throughout the country and beyond. This one, however, has greatly debilitated them.
President Nayib Bukele, who took office in 2019, is the architect of this effort. Following a sudden spike in gang violence in March 2022, the legislative assembly, at Bukele’s request, declared a month-long régimen de excepción (state of emergency), suspending constitutional rights and loosening rules on making arrests. In a merciless campaign, security forces have since arrested over 77,000 people, over 1% of the country’s population of 6.3 million.
The state of emergency has been extended for 20 consecutive months, despite widespread reports by human rights groups and the media of arbitrary arrests based on little or no evidence of wrongdoing and a lack of due process that includes no access to legal counsel. There are also reports of torture, as well as mass graves that include the over 150 people who have died in the penitentiary system since the state of emergency began.
Notwithstanding these abuses, the controversial crackdown appears to have at least temporarily crippled the gangs. It has also helped drive violence to historic lows and given breathing space to communities previously overrun by the gangs, something no past crackdown has achieved.
For his part, Bukele, whose policies enjoy broad approval among Salvadorans, has declared victory over the gangs. But both critics and supporters of the state of emergency question the long-term sustainability of such aggressive security policies. There are also concerns surrounding severe prison overcrowding and, crucially, the possibility that one day the gangs, or some facsimile of them, could return.
With these questions in mind, InSight Crime embarked on an investigation aimed at assessing how Bukele’s crackdown has impacted the gangs. Over the last nine months, we investigated the gangs’ response to the state of emergency and analyzed what may happen next.
We conducted over 100 interviews with sources in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Honduras, including active and semi-retired gang members; security and prison officials; politicians; independent lawyers; and people detained during the state of emergency.
We also spoke to residents in 15 former gang strongholds in El Salvador to see how life has changed in communities once overrun by the gangs. In most cases, sources requested anonymity to speak more freely.
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The team also accessed confidential intelligence reports compiled by El Salvador’s national police that allowed us to provide more precise estimates on the number of gang members arrested during the state of emergency. The files also helped us assess other criminal activities, such as extortion, while shining light on possible strategies implemented by gang leaders following the onset of the state of emergency.
Below is a summary of the investigation’s key findings:
The gangs have been neutralized, for now.
The speed and scale of arrests made during the state of emergency have decimated gang ranks and sent scores of members fleeing abroad or into hiding in El Salvador. The gangs no longer possess a street-level structure capable of holding territory. By extension, they can no longer extort locals or sell drugs on a mass scale.
The gangs did not mount a coordinated response to Bukele’s crackdown, armed or otherwise.
Unlike in previous crackdowns, the gangs have not taken up arms in response to the state of emergency. It is not clear whether the lack of a coordinated response was a deliberate tactic, or if the gangs were simply overwhelmed by the ferocity and speed of the crackdown. The latter seems more likely, given reports of ruptures in gang communication and hierarchy before and after the state of emergency began.
Gang members are lying low.
The imminent threat of arrest in El Salvador means few gang members dare leave their hideouts. Those seeking refuge in nearby countries — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and the United States — are mostly abstaining from crime in the hope of avoiding deportation. In fact, gang members in exile have yet to regroup MS13 or Barrio 18 cells abroad.
Imprisoned gang members are in survival mode
Reports from inside El Salvador’s prisons suggest government forces exercise near total control behind bars. Prison officials have reportedly subjected detainees to physical and psychological abuse. Gangs have almost no contact with the outside world and struggle to communicate between cells. The extreme subjugation has so far prevented the gangs from capitalizing on severe overcrowding to consolidate and recruit new members behind bars or reorganize their structures and modus operandi, as they have done in the past.
Extreme legal tools, broad interpretation of existing legislation, and the centralization of political power proved decisive in overpowering the gangs.
The suspension of basic rights has allowed the government to arrest more people at a faster rate compared to previous crackdowns, and emergency legal measures also permit lengthy detentions without the need to present evidence or formal charges.
The broad interpretation of existing laws, combined with the use of uncorroborated raw intelligence as grounds for arrest, also assist in this strategy of mass incarceration. The system relies on the alignment of the main branches of government around Bukele’s presidency, which systematically ignores widespread violations of due process.
The executive, legislature, and judiciary work in tandem to perpetuate these extreme legal measures and devise new legal tools aimed at keeping gang members behind bars at any cost.
The gangs have been weakened, but they are not defeated.
At least a third of gang membership remains at large, and some 53 gang cells are still active in El Salvador, according to the latest police estimates we obtained. This suggests MS13 and Barrio 18 structures, though dormant, still exist in some form. Remnants of the gangs may also still be engaging in extortion or drug peddling in some areas, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The gangs, as they existed before the state of emergency, may never return.
The chance of a swift comeback seems remote, given the legal tools at the government’s disposal for arresting gang members and keeping them behind bars. But social and economic hardship, which fueled the gang’s rise and persists in neighborhoods once overrun by the MS13 and Barrio 18, could drive remnants of these groups back into criminal activity or spawn new criminal groups. The government does not seem to have any plan to address the root causes of gang violence.