Understanding Bukele’s Gang Crack Down in El Salvador
by Jonathan D. Rosen
published 11/1 by Small Wars Journal
El Salvador is home to some of the most powerful gangs in the Western Hemisphere: Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, the 18th Street Southerners, and the 18th Street Revolutionaries. There are 70,000 gangs operating in the country as well as nearly 500,000 people who have gang connections. Gangs compete for control of territory and are present in more than 90 percent of the municipalities in El Salvador. They are involved in a variety of illicit activities from extortion to serving as hired assassins.
President Nayib Bukele, who assumed office in June 2019, has declared that his administration is taking special measures to combat gangs and homicides. He has also vowed to improve safety and bring more jobs to El Salvador. This article will examine the trends in the recent crackdowns and the consequences of such policies.
This is not the first time the Salvadoran government has implemented mano dura policies. Francisco Flores (1999–2004) launched iron fist strategies, which appealed to the public’s demand for the need to combat gangs, crime, and violence. President Tony Saca (2004–2009) learned from the lessons of his predecessors and doubled down on tough on crime strategies. Other administrations like Mauricio Funes (2009–[2014) from the left wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) party negotiated a truce between the gangs and the government between 2012 and 2014. The government wanted to decrease the number of homicides, while the gang leaders wanted to be transferred to lower security prisons and have better conditions behind bars. The government did not publicly acknowledge the truce and later arrested truce negotiators after the breakdown of the agreement. While homicides dropped because of the truce, El Salvador became the most violent country in the world in 2015 with a homicide rate of more than 100 per 100,000 inhabitants.
In 2015, the Salvadoran Supreme court labeled gangs as “terrorists.” This enabled the Salvador Sánchez Cerén administration (2014–2019) to justify the crack downs against gangs and the deployment of the military. It also signaled to the public that the government treated gangs as a top security threat.
Bukele, Negotiations, and Crackdowns
In June 2019, the Bukele administration launched a territorial control plan, which increased the number of military and police forces in zones known for a large gang presence. Yet the Bukele administration has cracked down on gangs, while at the same time negotiating with MS-13 in a secret truce. Journalists at El Faroproduced a report in September 2020 revealing that President Bukele had been negotiating with MS-13 for a year.
Consequently, the Bukele administration attacked journalists from El Faro, even using military grade technology to spy on them. Journalists play an important role in combating corruption and increasing transparency. Working in El Salvador as a journalist today has become a dangerous task, as some of the leading figures have been targeted by the president and faced arrest by Salvadoran authorities.
In March 2022, the Bukele government declared a state of emergency following a spike in homicides. In May 2022, gang members killed more than 60 people in a day. The gangs were sending a direct message to President Bukele and voicing their dissatisfaction with the secret agreement. José Miguel Cruz, a gang expert, contended: “It shows the weaknesses of the supposed pact between the government and gangs.” Cruz also cautioned that this kind of violence could happen again. He argued, “Whatever arrangement that the government has had with the gangs, or any other criminal group, leaves the population totally unprotected.”
The Consequences of Mano Dura Policies
Some scholars have referred to Bukele’s gang policies as Punitive Darwinism, as there is a race to the bottom among politicians of who is tougher on crime. In other words, discussing prevention, rehabilitation, and reinsertion often is not popular among the Salvadoran public. Quantitative research has demonstrated that ideology is not a driving factor influencing support for tough on crime strategies. Instead, people support mano dura strategies from all-sides of the political spectrum. Politicians like Bukele tap into fear and desperation and implement iron fist strategies to appeal to the population.
While the Bukele administration has extended the state of emergency and arrested more than 50,000 gang members, history reveals that tough on crime strategies have unintended consequences. First, scholars note that the Salvadoran government has arrested, re-arrested, and released suspected gang members before. The arrest rates can help signal to the public that the government is “winning” the war against gangs, but the underlying issues contributing to gang membership, crime, and violence are not being solved. Second, the crack downs have led to a proliferation in the prison population. In 2000, El Salvador had a prison population of 7,754. By 2010, the prison population spiked to 24,662 inmates. In 2020, El Salvador had a prison population of 37,190—a rate of 572 per 100,000 inhabitants. Today, El Salvador has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Salvadoran prisons function as schools of crime, and they have enabled gangs to better organize. Many of the leaders of MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs are behind bars, and it is expected that gang members will serve time in prison. Research has revealed that gangs have a Ranflero, the highest gang position, both inside and outside the prison system. Thus, simply locking up gang members does not solve the gang problem, given that the prison system is the epicenter of gang life.
Playing with Data and Democracy
The arrests of gang members and the decreasing homicide rate have enabled the Bukele administration to tout the victories and signal to its political base. It, however, is important to recognize that the decreasing homicide rate per 100,000 does not take into consideration forced disappearances. The homicide statistics would change significantly if this was considered.
The overall homicide rate also ignores violence against certain communities, particularly women. Women have been subjected to high levels of violence. Gangs have contributed to the high femicide rates. Gangs often view women as property, as reflected in the notion of “girlfriends of the gangs.”
Furthermore, the Bukele administration has been criticized by scholars and the international community for human rights violations and anti-democratic practices. Bukele, who has announced that he plans to run again for office despite this being a violation of the constitution, is signaling to his base that El Salvador requires a strong leader who is serious about combating gangs, crime, and violence.
The Bukele administration has arrested thousands of gang members through gang crack downs. Yet tough on crime policies lead to overcrowding in the prison system and often fail to reduce violence and gang-related activity. This has been a well-researched phenomenon and evidence-based practices could help guide the public policy of the Salvadoran government.
The underlying reasons why youth join gangs will not be solved without addressing the root causes. The Salvadoran government has systematic issues with state fragility, corruption, and poverty, which help foster the power of street gangs and their ability to recruit youth. Unless corruption and the underlying structural challenges are solved, gangs, crime, and violence will continue to flourish.
Reducing the number of youths in gangs and combating corruption require a whole-of-government approach and strengthening, not weakening, democratic institutions. Bukele’s discourse, and more importantly, his actions have undermined the integrity of Salvadoran institutions.
 For more, see: José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen, “Leaving the Pervasive Barrio: Gang Disengagement under Criminal Governance.” Social Problems. 2022: pp. 1–17, https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spac001
 International Crisis Group, “A Remedy for El Salvador’s Prison Fever,” Brussels: International Crisis Group. 5 October 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/central-america/el-salvador/96-remedy-el-salvadors-prison-fever
 International Crisis Group, “Life Under Gang Rule in El Salvador,” Brussels: International Crisis Group. 26 November 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/central-america/el-salvador/life-under-gang-rule-el-salvador; José Miguel Cruz, “Central American maras: from youth street gangs to transnational protection rackets.” Global Crime. Vol. 11, no. 4, 2010: pp. 379–398, https://doi.org/10.1080/17440572.2010.519518
 Tamara Taraciuk Broner, “Living Without Rights Feels Normal in El Salvador. It Shouldn’t Be.” Human Rights Watch. 13 September 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/09/13/living-without-rights-feels-normal-el-salvador-it-shouldnt-be
 Sonja Wolf, “Mara Salvatrucha: The Most Dangerous Street Gang in the Americas?” Latin American Politics and Society. Vol. 54, no. 1, 2012: pp. 65–99, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-2456.2012.00143.x
 For more, see: Christine Wade, “El Salvador’s ‘Iron Fist’: Inside Its Unending War on Gangs,” World Politics Review. 6 June 2016, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/el-salvador-s-iron-fist-inside-its-unending-war-on-gangs
 Mo Hume, “Mano Dura: El Salvador responds to gangs,” Development in Practice. Vol. 17, no. 6. 2007: pp. 739–751, https://doi.org/10.1080/09614520701628121; Sonja Wolf, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017; Alisha C. Holland, “Right on crime? conservative party politics and ‘mano dura’ policies in El Salvador.” Latin American Research Review. 2013: pp. 44-67, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41811587; Chris Van der Borgh, and Wim Savenije, “De-securitising and re-securitising gang policies: The Funes government and gangs in El Salvador.” Journal of Latin American Studies. Vol. 47, no. 1. 2015: pp. 149–176, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X14000741
 Nina Lakhani, “Violent deaths in El Salvador spiked 70% in 2015, figures reveal.” The Guardian. 4 January 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/04/el-salvador-violence-deaths-murder-2015
 Arron Daugherty, “El Salvador Supreme Court Labels Street Gangs as Terrorist Groups,” InSight Crime, 26 August 2015, https://insightcrime.org/news/brief/el-salvador-supreme-court-labels-street-gangs-as-terrorist-groups/
 Paola Nagovitch, “Explainer: Nayib Bukele's Territorial Control Plan.” AS/COA (Americas Society/Council of the Americas). 13 February 2020, https://www.as-coa.org/articles/explainer-nayib-bukeles-territorial-control-plan
 Carlos Martínez, Óscar Martínez, Sergio Arauz y Efren Lemus, “Gobierno de Bukele lleva un año negociando con la MS-13 reducción de homicidios y apoyo electoral.” El Faro. 3 September 2020, https://elfaro.net/es/202009/el_salvador/24781/Gobierno-de-Bukele-lleva-un-año-negociando-con-la-MS-13-reducción-de-homicidios-y-apoyo-electoral.htm; for more on previous negotiations, see: José Miguel Cruz, “The Politics of Negotiating with Gangs. The Case of El Salvador,” Bulletin of Latin American Research. Vol. 38, no. 5. 2019: pp. 547-562, https://doi.org/10.1111/blar.12847
 “Journalists probing Salvadoran government were spied on using military-grade tech.” National Public Radio (NPR). 13 January 2022, https://www.kpcc.org/2022-01-13/journalists-probing-salvadoran-government-were-spied-on-using-military-grade-tech
 For more, see: Maria Abi-Habib and Bryan Avelar, “El Salvador’s New Law on Gangs Raises Censorship Fears.” New York Times. 6 April 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/06/world/americas/el-salvador-media-gangs.html
 Maria Abi-Habib and Bryan Avelar, “Explosion of Gang Violence Grips El Salvador, Setting Record.” New York Times. 27 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/27/world/americas/el-salvador-gang-violence.html
 Quoted in Anna-Cat Brigida, “Surge in gang killings spurs fear, uncertainty in El Salvador.” Al Jazeera, 27 March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/28/surge-in-gang-killings-spurs-fear-uncertainty-in-el-salvador
 Jonathan D. Rosen, Sebastián Cutrona, and Katy Lindquist, “Gangs, violence, and fear: punitive Darwinism in El Salvador.” Crime, Law and Social Change. 2022: pp. 1-20, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-022-10040-3
 Op. cit., International Crisis Group, “A Remedy for El Salvador’s Prison Fever” at Note 2; “Gobierno salvadoreño reporta más de 50.270 capturados en estado de excepción,” EFE. 19 August 2022, https://efs.efeservicios.com/en/texto/gobierno-salvadoreno-reporta-mas-50270-capturados-estado-excepcion/18010809306
 Op. cit., Cruz, “Central American maras” at Note 3
 “El Salvador,” World Prison Brief (WPB). No Date; accessed 1 November 2022),, https://www.prisonstudies.org/country/el-salvador
 Op. cit., International Crisis Group, “A Remedy for El Salvador’s Prison Fever” at Note 2; Tom Phillips, “El Salvador accused of ‘massive’ human rights violations with 2% of adults in prison,” The Guardian. 2 June 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/02/el-salvador-human-rights-violations-bukele-amnesty
 Op. cit., Cruz, “Central American maras” at Note 3; Benjamin Lessing, “Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations.” Brookings. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. September 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/research/inside-out-the-challenge-of-prison-based-criminal-organizations/
 José Miguel Cruz, Jonathan D. Rosen, Luis Enrique Amaya, and Yulia Vorobyeva, “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador.” Miami: Florida International University. 2017, https://lacc.fiu.edu/research/the-new-faces-of-street-gangs-in-central-america/the-new-face-of-street-gangs-the-gang-phenomenon-in-el-salvador-eng.pdf
 For more, see: “El Salvador: Events of 2021.” Human Rights Watch (HRW). 2022, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/el-salvador
 Kristina Zanzinger, SJ Fernandez, and Yanxi Liu, “Underreported and Unpunished, Femicides in El Salvador Continue.” NACLA. 5 March 2021, https://nacla.org/news/2021/03/04/femicides-el-salvador-pandemic
 For more, see: Thomas Boerman and Adam Golob, “Gangs and modern-day slavery in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala: A non-traditional model of human trafficking.” Journal of Human Trafficking. Vol. 7, no. 3. 2021: pp. 241–257, https://doi.org/10.1080/23322705.2020.1719343; Carlos Garcia, “How MS13 Gang Members in El Salvador Control Their Partners from Prisons.” InSight Crime. 28 April 2022, https://insightcrime.org/news/how-ms13-gang-members-el-salvador-control-partners-prisons/
 For more, see: Op. cit.,Tom Phillips, “El Salvador accused of ‘massive’ human rights violations” at Note 22; Michał Stelmach, “Política de seguridad pública en El Salvador durante la presidencia de Nayib Bukele (2019–2021).” Anuario Latinoamericano–Ciencias Políticas y Relaciones Internacionales . Vol. 12, no. 1. 2022: pp. 65–85, https://journals.umcs.pl/al/article/view/13332; Martin Nilsson, “Nayib Bukele: populism and autocratization, or a very popular democratically elected president?” Journal of Geography, Politics and Society. Vol. 12, no. 2. 2022: pp. 16–26, http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-116277
 “Despite prohibition, El Salvador President Bukele says he will seek re-election.” Reuters. 16 September 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/despite-prohibition-el-salvador-president-bukele-says-he-will-seek-re-election-2022-09-16/
 Jonathan D. Rosen, and José Miguel Cruz., “Rethinking the mechanisms of gang desistance in a developing country.” Deviant Behavior. Vol. 40, no. 12. 2019: pp. 1493–1507, https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2018.1519130; Orlando J. Pérez, “Gang violence and insecurity in contemporary Central America.” Bulletin of Latin American Research. Vol. 32, no. s1 (2013): pp. 217–234; Sonja Wolf, “El Salvador's pandilleros calmados: The challenges of contesting mano dura through peer rehabilitation and empowerment.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 31, no. 2. 2012: pp. 190–205, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1470-9856.2011.00609.x; Robert Brenneman, Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012
 For more, see: Charles T. Call, “Democratisation, war and state-building: Constructing the rule of law in El Salvador.” Journal of Latin American Studies. Vol. 35, no. 4. 2003: pp. 827–862, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3875834; Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, “Latin America Erupts: Millennial Authoritarianism in El Salvador.” Journal of Democracy. Vol. 32, no. 3. 2021: pp. 19–32, https://journalofdemocracy.org/articles/latin-america-erupts-millennial-authoritarianism-in-el-salvador/; J. Mark. Ruhl, “Political corruption in Central America: Assessment and explanation.” Latin American Politics and Society. Vol. 53, no. 1. 2011: pp. 33–58, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41342299
Dr. Jonathan D. Rosen is Assistant Professor in the Professional Security Studies Department at New Jersey City University. Dr. Rosen earned his Master’s in political science from Columbia University and received his PhD in international studies from the University of Miami in 2012. Dr. Rosen’s research focuses on drug trafficking, organized crime, and security. He has published 20 books with Routledge, Lexington Books, Palgrave Macmillan, the University of Florida, and the State University Press of New York. He has published journal articles in Trends in Organized Crime, the Journal of Criminal Justice, Deviant Behavior, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, and Contexto Internacional, among other journals. He has participated in grant-funded research studies in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Mexico. In 2017, for example, Jonathan and his colleagues at Florida International University interviewed and surveyed nearly 1,200 active and former gang members in El Salvador.