By Hilary Goodfriend
Nayib Bukele has overseen multiple violent crackdowns on basic civil liberties across El Salvador during his time as president. With his recent declaration of martial law against gangs, it’s only getting worse.
For the second time in three years, El Salvador is back under martial law. The state of exception was approved so swiftly that lawmakers failed to remove references to public health and economic reopening in the text, clearly copied and pasted from the decrees that governed the country’s notoriously militarized 2020 pandemic lockdown. This latest suspension of constitutional guarantees, however, was enacted as part of right-wing populist president Nayib Bukele’s newly declared “war on gangs.” Still reeling from the pandemic, working-class Salvadorans now find themselves caught between predatory street gangs and an unaccountable authoritarian state.
In a single weekend, El Salvador experienced its highest homicide toll since its twelve-year US-backed civil war: seventy-four dead in forty-eight hours, with sixty-two murders on Saturday, March 26 alone. The act of mass terror appears to have been ordered by the leadership of the nation’s most powerful criminal gang, MS-13. Victims were largely chosen at random. Delivery workers, commuters, street vendors, and shop patrons were gunned down in broad daylight, their bodies displayed in public view across twelve of the country’s fourteen departments.
Bukele responded in kind. Security forces laid siege to working-class neighborhoods, conducting indiscriminate arrests that saw over six thousand people disappeared into the country’s miserably overcrowded jails in less than a week. The president has inundated social media with images of police brutality and collective punishment, even branding the campaign with the hashtag #GuerraContraPandillas (“war against gangs”). The crackdown, however, is no innovation. Instead, it is a return to the same US-backed security strategies that spawned the current crisis.
The Art of the Deal
President Bukele made much of a drop in murders since his 2019 election, attributing the reduction to the success of an ill-defined “territorial control plan.” March’s horrific spectacle, however, demonstrated that organized crime remains more powerful than ever. The carnage confirmed what the government continues to deny: the administration had brokered a secret agreement with the gangs to suppress the homicide rate.
Government negotiations with gangs in El Salvador is nothing new. From the municipal to the national level, governance without compromises with these powerful illicit actors is all but impossible. In 2012, the leftist FMLN government began clandestine talks with the imprisoned gang leadership, using religious mediators and international observers to broker a truce between the two rivals in exchange for alleviating prison conditions.
When media broke the story, however, the public reaction was polarized. The Obama administration’s classification of MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization struck a further blow against open dialogue. As the deal entered a second, more public phase in 2013, incorporating municipal authorities to provide prevention and rehabilitation programs, El Salvador’s right-wing Supreme Court forced the ouster of the FMLN defense minister who had been a key broker of the truce.
The deal began to unravel, and murders resumed their upward course. In 2015, the high court designated both MS and the 18th street gang terrorist organizations, specifically outlawing any “agreements” or “negotiations.” With homicides at all-time highs, the FMLN reverted to the repressive security methods of the past.
Bukele, whose political career began in the FMLN, directed his government to prosecute former FMLN president Mauricio Funes and Defense Minister David Munguía Payés for their role in the truce. But the sharp reduction in homicides under his administration, coupled with a sinister surge in forced disappearances, prompted suspicions of a secret pact. These were corroborated by local reporting.
El Salvador’s refusal of US extradition requests for fourteen indicted MS-13 members in June 2021, four of whom were since released from their maximum security prisons, raised further questions. Whatever the terms of the arrangement, the recent killings, together with Bukele’s venomous reaction, suggest that the deal has fractured.
Made in the USA
The birth of MS-13 and the 18th street gang in the streets and prisons of Los Angeles is only one aspect of the US origins of El Salvador’s gang crisis. Key to the current situation are the zero-tolerance policing strategies that, along with the refugees deported for alleged gang ties, were exported to El Salvador by the US government.
“For decades, the US has poured tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars into punitive and militarized methods of combatting violence and insecurity in El Salvador,” explains Yesenia Portillo, program director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).
For ruling elites, after the civil war’s negotiated end in 1992, policing became key to containing the social fallout of neoliberal restructuring and the unfulfilled promises of peace. Researchers like Elana Zilberg have documented how the draconian anti-gang policing strategies pioneered in Los Angeles in the 1990s were zealously imposed on postwar El Salvador. The far-right administrations that governed between 1989 and 2009 eagerly implemented these zero-tolerance policies, which were translated in El Salvador as “mano dura” or “iron fist.” These campaigns of mass arrests and punitive reforms effectively criminalized poor young men across the country.