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  • Gabriela Castro-Rueda

El Salvador’s President Escalates War on Illegal Gangs

On November 2, 2022, police and prisoners destroyed the graves of 80 known gang members in Santa Tecla, a suburb lying just outside of the crime-ridden capital of San Salvador. This occurred on the same day that Salvadorians celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a holiday dedicated to honoring deceased loved ones. “Terrorists will no longer be able to ‘glorify’ the memory of dead criminals” stated Osiris Luna Meza, the el Salvadorian Deputy Minister of Justice and General Director of the prison system, and further implored the public to report any other graves with gang-related imagery so that they can also be destroyed.

This serves as the latest action taken by President Nayib Bukele’s government in their efforts to eradicate gang violence in El Salvador. Called the “War Against Gangs”, Bukele has recently adopted a strict zero-tolerance policy in regards to gang activity. He initially enacted his policy in response to the murders of eighty-eight individuals between March 25 and 27, 2022, which the government accused the gang Mara Salvatrucha– also known as MS-13– of being responsible for. The country’s deadliest day since the end of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992 has now been recorded as March 27. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly swiftly responded by declaring a national state of emergency and approving a ‘regime of exception’ for thirty days at the request of President Bukele.

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele. Source: The Washington Post

The constitution of El Salvador allows for a regime of exception to be declared under extreme circumstances, including ‘serious disturbances of public order’. A regime of exception authorizes the suspension of certain constitutional rights and civil liberties to lessen the necessary conditions for arrest and government interception of communication between citizens.The current suspended constitutional guarantees in El Salvador include freedom of assembly; maximum duration of detention; the right to be informed of reasons for arrest; the right to refuse to testify in court; the right to a defense attorney; and the inviolability of correspondence.

As of November 2022, at least 55,000 individuals have been arrested and the regime of exception has been extended for the seventh time. Many international organizations have decried these actions for facilitating various human rights violations, such as the detainment of journalists and indefinite detention of minors. However, President Bukele’s measures to reduce gang violence have been largely popular among the citizens of El Salvador. A nationwide poll conducted in October indicated that 75.9% of citizens were in favor of the regime of exception as a whole, though they were overwhelmingly opposed to the suspension of civil liberties. Additionally, 30% stated that they knew of someone who had been subjected to unjust detention.

Despite numerous controversies, Bukele’s presidency has been one of the most popular in El Salvador’s, with his conservative party Nuevas Ideas (“New Ideas”) boasting a national approval rate of 71%. In 2020, his party was subject to widespread international criticism when Bukele ordered 40 soldiers to enter the Legislative Assembly in an effort to intimidate politicians into approving a loan request from the United States to fund his anti-gang task force. He had invoked Article 167 of the Salvadoran constitution that allows for an emergency legislative session to convene in the case of a national emergency. Bukele further called on his supporters to march on the capitol in his support, citing their constitutional right to overthrow an unjust government if necessary. From the balcony of the Legislative Assembly, Bukele directly addressed a crowd of thousands, leading them in prayer and asking for their patience. The incident has been labeled by lawmakers and opposition members as a coup attempt, but the president's actions were met with widespread public support for his tough stance on crime. When Nuevas Ideas won the majority of legislative seats in 2021, they swiftly moved to impeach the country’s Attorney General and five Supreme Court judges, who had been vocal opponents of the president, and replaced them with political allies. Bukele has since fervently refuted accusations that this was an attempt for his party to retain power: “If I were a dictator, I would have taken control of the government last night.”

The president’s immense popularity can be attributed to the substantial reduction in the El Salvador’s murder rate since his inauguration in 2019. The country had faced an epidemic of violence at the hands of MS-13 for years—with the exception of a minor fluctuation in 2012 when former center-left president Mauricio Funes formed a truce with gang leaders in exchange for financial compensation. The nation collectively reached a breaking point in 2015 when El Salvador was ranked as the single most dangerous country in the world that was not currently at war. The Supreme Court of El Salvador declared all individuals associated with gang activity as terrorists and made any further negotiation between the presidency and gangs illegal. These new policies led to the authorization of the nation’s armed forces in maintaining public security. The murder rate gradually declined after these measures were taken, reaching unprecedented lows during Bukele’s first full year in office. In 2021, El Salvador saw its lowest homicide rate.

The successful decline of crime rates, however, did not relieve Bukele of criticisms. Claims that the president formed a secret truce with MS-13 have surfaced after a series of indictments by the United States Department of Justice. Deputy Minister of Justice Luna and another government official have allegedly granted MS-13 members money and improved prison conditions, both in exchange for political support and reduction of violence. Independent news agency El Faro (“The Lighthouse”) published a comprehensive report with evidence of this collusion. Notwithstanding, public opinion polls still show an overwhelming amount of support and disbelief over the allegations.

Although Bukele’s five-year presidential term will come to an end in 2024, he announced in September that he would be seeking reelection. The Supreme Court ruled that presidential reelection was permitted despite a constitutional ban last year. Many Salvadorans are willing to overlook Bukele’s controversies in favor of the massive reduction of gang violence throughout his presidency. The population’s willingness to accept a regime that has been labeled authoritarian by political scientists is a testament to their desperation for the scourge of brutality that the nation has faced for decades to finally come to an end.


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