Is Nayib Bukele’s ‘Iron Fist’ in El Salvador Working?

By Steven Dudley  |  Feb 9th, 2023
This news article by Steven Dudley originally appeared on on February 9, 2023. It is republished by under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license.
Salvadoran Police
Police officers in El Salvador.

After the influential and well-sourced publication El Faro declared that El Salvador’s controversial President Nayib Bukele had “disarticulate(d)” the country’s gangs, is it time to revisit the question: Does mano dura work?

Before reaching its finding, El Faro said it had spent 10 months visiting 14 communities, most of which it called “impenetrable” prior to March 2022. That was when, at the behest of the president, El Salvador’s Congress declared a state of emergency following some 92 homicides in a three-day spate of gang-led violence.

The government decree suspended numerous constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly. They were followed by indiscriminate raids and the mass incarceration of some 65,000 people across this country the size of Massachusetts. While Bukele and his allies have not referred to it as such, this policy is often called mano dura (iron fist).

As has been the case in previous mano dura periods, this policy can lead to government overreach and widespread abuses. El Faro itself has chronicled how the evidence against many of these people is dubious at best. And, in a report, Human Rights Watch accused the government of “arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.”

Nonetheless, the decree appears to have, at least temporarily, achieved its stated goal, according to El Faro’s report, which says, “The gangs no longer exist in the way they once did in El Salvador.”

El Faro parsed just what that means in the next 7,000 words — interviewing gang leaders, police, and non-governmental organizations, and visiting these once gang-controlled spaces — but the gist is that the gangs no longer hold sway in large swaths of territory, extort cable-TV companies or Uber drivers, create “invisible boundaries” on random streets, or interrupt school or pick-up soccer games.

“Everything feels so calm,” a business owner on a beach told El Faro before expressing fear that, “if they let those people out,” then trouble will come rumbling back.

The story was a public relations victory for Bukele who has thumbed his nose at the international outcry over human rights abuses, the suspension of constitutional rights, and his persistent attacks on journalists. Since becoming president in 2019, Bukele has targeted El Faro and other media — forcing many journalists to leave the country for short and long periods — for what he has cited as unfair coverage of his administration.

He will almost certainly maintain such lines of attack ahead of the country’s general election in February 2024, during which Bukele will run for re-election. He currently holds a commanding polling lead over any potential rivals.

After the story appeared, Bukele declared El Faro would now “attack from other angles.”

“They couldn’t sustain the lie that El Salvador was a dangerous country nor continue denying total success of the emergency regime,” he crowed, referring to what has become a permanent state of emergency.

To be sure, in the report El Faro made numerous mentions of human rights abuses and the suspension of constitutional guarantees, pitting the loss of fundamental rights as the trade-off for security.

Still, even critics of Bukele have been shaken by this shift and what they have seen on the ground in El Salvador. To cite just one example, in a well-circulated tweet, Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson — an anthropologist and gang expert who writes frequently for InSight Crime and is critical of Bukele’s abuse of power — likened the current reversal of gang activity to the country’s 1992-peace accord that ended 12 years of civil war. (Bukele, who frequently attacks Martínez on Twitter, called his tweet “CAPITULATION!”)

In a conversation with InSight Crime, Martínez — whose brothers Carlos and Óscar shared a byline on the El Faro story — said many factors played in Bukele’s favor, including his near total control of Congress, the courts, and the police.

What’s more, the gangs were mutating — something Martínez wrote about for InSight Crime in a series on the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), El Salvador’s principal gang. Specifically, they were already moving towards structures that were “less visible,” he said, and more aligned with mafia-style activities that required a lower profile and less direct conflict with the State.

Still, he noted, the gangs were indeed wounded by Bukele’s and the previous administration’s harsh crackdowns, especially the relationships between leaders in the prisons and the members on the streets.

“The gangs are disarticulated,” he said, reiterating El Faro’s position. “The maras, as we knew them, have little chance of regrouping and reviving the structures we saw (before).”

In an editorial in the Washington Post, Martínez was even more definititive: “In 2022, the Salvadoran maras have met their end.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The gains under Bukele are laudable, but among other gang experts consulted by InSight Crime, there is a counter-consensus: They are impossible to sustain unless the underlying conditions that allow the gangs to emerge and flourish are addressed. What’s more, the experts said, the ultimate target may not be the gangs but democracy itself.

“If you really want to respond to gang violence, you need to look at the social dimension of the gangs,” said Sonja Wolf, a professor of political science at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico and the author of Mano DuraThe Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, a book which explores earlier mano dura politics in El Salvador.

“And that means you can’t just arrest gang members, but you also need to ensure that the conditions in the communities that give rise to gangs are also being addressed,” she explained. “So even if you think you can arrest your way out of the current gang problem, if you don’t address those social conditions, it’s likely that there will be gang structures again in the future because those community conditions have not been addressed.”

José Miguel Cruz, a professor at Florida International University who has spent the last 20 years analyzing gangs in El Salvador (and other places), concurred.

“Gang identity in [El Salvador] is strong, and I don’t have evidence that the gangs have abandoned that identity,” Cruz wrote in an email. “There is no guarantee that, if there is a drastic change in conditions (political position, natural disaster, inability to manage the prisons, etc.), that the gang structures won’t reappear, especially if the conditions that give rise to them continue to be present.”

Cruz added that it was impossible to tell how wounded the gangs were, without getting into the prisons. It was there, of course, where the gangs regrouped during El Salvador’s first mano dura experiment in the mid-2000s, a period that saw a similarly striking uptick in incarcerations, government abuses, and popularity of the governing administration. However, what emerged from that round of mass incarceration was a more formidable, durable gang, one with more discipline, more reliable communications systems, more revenue, and more political savvy.

Michael Paarlberg, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University who has also spent years studying the gangs in El Salvador, was also suspicious of premature declarations regarding the gangs’ demise.

“I’m deeply skeptical that this is a lasting solution or a permanent blow to the gangs,” he told InSight Crime in an email exchange. “Mano dura has always been popular in the moment because it demonstrates a government’s security commitment in dramatic fashion, through public displays of force. It’s also always a short-term solution that displaces organized crime but does not eliminate it, but rather relocates it to other communities — such as from cities to the countryside — or to the prison system…You can’t arrest your way out of these problems.”

There are other problems as well. Wolf noted that no part of Bukele’s policies addresses the issues in the justice and prisons systems, institutions that have fomented gangs in the past. And all three experts worry about how mano dura plays into Bukele’s ambitions to smother democracy.

“The gangs are props,” Cruz told InSight Crime in a telephone interview. “The goal is not security. The fundamental goal is to win and to maintain power.”

In this regard, Bukele seems well-positioned to capitalize.

“Bukele will be able to exploit the war on gangs very skillfully for the next presidential elections [in February 2024],” Wolf said. “Because people may not like what he has done in terms of repression, but we know that people in El Salvador have been desperate for a long time to see an end to gang violence and that people did not necessarily care about the means by which this would be achieved.”

For his part, Paarlberg wonders how it will end, if at all.

“Ultimately, a military occupation has to end sometime, and so does the temporary peace that comes with it,” he said. “Unless this state of exception becomes a permanent police state, which is what I fear.”

This news article by Steven Dudley originally appeared on on February 9, 2023. It is republished by under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license.