Government crackdown in El Salvador

In late March, a huge increase in the number of gang-related killings in El Salvador led President Nayib Bukele’s government to suspend articles of the constitution and drastically curtail basic civil liberties. This analysis is edited from the blogs of Tim Muth, who lives in the country.

A tidal wave of murders

Saturday, March 26th, was one of the bloodiest days in recent memory in El Salvador.  62 homicides were reported just that day, a total never before seen for a single day in this violent country of 6.3 million people.  This came on top of 14 murders the day before.  There were murders committed in 12 of El Salvador’s 14 departments. 

There was one message from the weekend’s violence:  El Salvador’s street gangs maintain the capacity and the numbers to wreak havoc across the country when it suits them.  The relative calm of the past few years meant that the gangs had decided that homicides were not in their interest, whether that decision was the result of negotiating with the government or otherwise, and the relative calm was not the result of Nayib Bukele’s militarized “Territorial Control Plan.”

In response to the tidal wave of murders, President Nayib Bukele made a call for the Legislative Assembly to pass a “state of exception” to suspend certain constitutional guarantees as the security forces combat the violence. 

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Legislative Assembly passed the “state of exception” decree with 67 votes in favour out of the 84 member body.  The decree suspends for 30 days constitutional rights of freedom of association, the right to a legal defence, the right to see a judge in 72 hours after arrest, and freedom from interception of mail and communications.  The measure was signed by Bukele and published and went into effect Sunday morning.   

Human rights defenders, however, questioned whether a one day surge in homicides justified taking away constitutional rights, suggesting that the government had ample authority under existing laws and protections to pursue and prosecute the gangs.  A senior investigator of Human Rights Watch found the creation of a state of exception in El Salvador “worrying, especially in a country where there are no independent democratic institutions left.” 

As the government began operations under the regime of exception, communities with a strong gang presence were cordoned off by the military with persons not being allowed to leave.   By Sunday evening, the Bukele said security forces had detained more than 600 gang members.

The reasons for this sudden surge of violence remain unclear, but experts surmised that the murders were intended to send a clear message to the government.   In other words, how many people get killed each day is a bargaining chip.

An example was one murder victim being deposited on the “Camino a Surf City” highway, Nayib Bukele’s signature tourism project.  Some also speculated that the timing may have been intended to coincide with a week when billionaire Bitcoiners had been visiting the country.

Bukele and his supporters were quick to blame the political opposition for the security crisis and to assert that any criticism from the human rights community of the state of exception was siding with the gang killers against innocent Salvadoran families. Bukele retweeted several supporters who linked human rights defenders and the opposition to the gangs.

One response came from the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) which issued a statement demanding that public officials cease attacking journalists for reporting on the wave of violence in the country.

The last time there was a surge in the murder rate was November 2021.  There were 30 murders in a 2 day period followed by a large show of force (at least on social media) by the Salvadoran police and army and blaming the political opposition.   Just as suddenly as the murders started, they stopped.

These patterns where the gangs turn the homicide rate on and off are consistent with the reports that the government has been negotiating with the gangs during Bukele’s entire time in office. 

A week later

On Saturday, April 2nd, President Nayib Bukele tweeted that, since last weekend, security forces had captured more than 5,000 persons alleged to be gang members. Local Salvadoran media also shared numerous stories of family members seeking any information about where those arrested had been conveyed and what their status was.  Similarly there were stories of families claiming that there son or daughter who was arrested had never been involved with the gangs but had simply been on the street and suddenly detained.

The national crisis proclaimed by Bukele also provided justification for a hardening of laws regarding gang membership in the country. Bukele asked the Legislative Assembly to come into session to pass laws enhancing the criminal penalties faced by anyone who was a gang member.  The Assembly, controlled by Bukele’s political party, came into session a few hours later and immediately passed the measures sought by Bukele.

The measures adopted included:

  • Enhancing the penalty for simple membership in a gang to 20-30 years in prison
  • Increasing the penalty for being in gang leadership to 40-45 years
  • Making pacts with gangs or offering them prison benefits can lead to 20-25 years in prison.
  • Treating children as young as 12 as adults who could receive sentences of up to 10 years.
  • Increasing maximum penalties to 20 years for youth ages 16 to 18.

When the State of Exception was announced, Nayib Bukele tweeted that he would be paying attention to which judges were too lenient with gang members.  In the last few days, it became clear what that meant.  Judge Godofredo Salazar had overseen a trial of 42 members of the Barrio 18 gang, and at the end of the trial dismissed the charges.   He ruled that the government’s case was based on the testimony of a single cooperating gang witness who had testified inconsistently and lacked credibility.   Bukele tweeted that the Supreme Judicial Court should investigate Salazar for links with gangs.  A few hours later the Court transferred the judge, who had long overseen complicated gang trials in San Salvador, to a rural outpost in the country.     

Investigative reporting by the website InsightCrime and La Prensa Grafica revealed documents this week showing that at least 4 of the top MS-13 leaders which the US seeks to extradite for prosecution in federal court have been outside prison walls.   The investigation revealed internal prison documents showing dates on which those members of MS-13’s top leadership were listed as at liberty.  An eyewitness also reported seeing one of these top leaders free on the streets of El Salvador.  The Salvadoran government has refused to tell the investigative reporters whether those gang leaders had ever been returned to prison.

So far the Salvadoran government has not been willing to extradite the gang leaders despite the fact that they could face long prison terms in the US, away from the gangs they control back in El Salvador.  The failure to honour extradition requests and the possible release of top MS-13 leaders stand in contradiction to all the other rhetoric of the Bukele administration regarding its #WarAgainstGangs.

The State of Exception with its suspension of constitutional protections, its roundups of thousands of persons from marginalized communities, and the inhumane treatment of incarcerated persons has prompted warnings from international human rights organizations. 

In El Salvador: Broad ‘State of Emergency’ Risks Abuse:  Basic Rights Suspended after Spike in Homicides, Human Rights Watch wrote:

“Punishing detainees for the actions of people outside prison is a form of collective punishment that violates multiple human rights, and the harsh treatment of detainees described by Bukele may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Human Rights Watch said. Depriving detainees of adequate clothing, light, bedding, access to the outdoors, food, and water is also inconsistent with international standards on the treatment of detainees.”

Bukele has responded to the international criticism with a daily series of tweets accusing human rights groups of being on the side of the gangs against the suffering of ordinary Salvadorans.

Chilling effects

One central feature of the presidency of Nayib Bukele is an attempt to set and control the narrative regarding the performance of his government.

The most recent example is a newly passed law which threatens prison sentences of up to 15 years for persons disseminating messages emanating from the gangs. In essence, the law threatens criminal penalties for any reporting which uses as a source someone connected with a gang, even if that reporting is completely truthful and exposes wrongdoing by the government.

The move, heavily criticized by journalists, human rights organizations, and US officials, effectively outlaws the type of reporting that has exposed an alleged pact between the Bukele administration and the country’s main gangs, with the latter purportedly reducing homicides in exchange for prison benefits for jailed leaders. Bukele has repeatedly denied the existence of such a pact, instead touting his government’s hardline security policies for a steep reduction in homicides during his time in office.

Another example of chilling effects on the exercise of the free press was the recent report that Pegasus spy software had been found on the phones of more than 20 journalists at El Faro, as well as phones belonging to individuals at five other periodicals and three civil society groups.  The Israeli defence company which created the software asserts Pegasus is only sold to government entities.  The “chilling effect” here is obvious.   Sources of information about government corruption and misdeeds are much less likely to talk to journalists if they know that same government has the ability and practice of infecting journalist phones to spy on their communications.

There is a further chilling effect when government leaders signal to their followers on social media that journalists should be the subject of online attacks and abuse.  During the State of Exception, politicians from Nuevas Ideas and their allies have been implying that journalists are in league with the gangs if they report any criticisms from a human rights perspective.

Measures will not address underlying causes

Previous iron fist campaigns suggest the repressive security measures will do little to address the underlying causes of gang violence in El Salvador, rooted in poverty and social insecurity. The March killing spree was a sign the gangs can still wreak havoc with murders on demand, and there is little evidence to suggest hardline policies have succeeded in dislodging gangs from areas where their territorial control is so comprehensive that it allows them to usurp functions of the state.

Likewise, efforts to jail gang members en masse have previously backfired, with the gangs historically using prisons as centres for recruitment and headquarters coordinating illicit activities like extortion. Adding thousands of new inmates to the country’s already overcrowded jails is unlikely to improve the situation.

Tim Muth is a US-trained lawyer who works on matters involving civil liberties and human rights. He blogs at El Salvador Perspectives, and you can follow him on Twitter as @TimMuth.

Image: Pixabay:

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