Between Security and Democracy: El Salvador’s Bold Anti-Crime Approach

cc Office of U.S. Commerce Secretary, modified,

In 2015, El Salvador held the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s deadliest non-war country, with a crime rate of 107 intentional homicides per 100,000 people, according to data from the World Bank. This was considerably higher than crime rates in other nations like Mexico (15) and Colombia (27), both known for their significant organized crime activity.

Nonetheless, the ascent of Nayib Bukele to the Salvadorian presidency in 2019 ushered in a policy shift, characterized by a tough stance against gang-related “maras” crime. Bukele’s “iron fist” approach was underscored in March 2022 when he declared a state of emergency in response to soaring crime levels. This action has suspended various constitutional rights and led to the arrest of over 66,000 individuals. In fact, El Salvador has become the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the World Prison Brief. The outcome has been a remarkable reduction in crime rates, with intentional homicides per 100,000 people dropping to a historic low of 7.8 in 2022.

The success of Nayib Bukele’s anti-crime strategy has tangibly improved the lives of Salvadorans, allowing them to reclaim their neighborhoods and lead more normal lives, a drastic change from the previous state of affairs. This is evident in Bukele’s remarkable approval ratings, which have surged to 90% in polls, according to Latinobarómetro, an opinion Barometer that monitors 18 Latin American countries since 1995

Curiously, also accordion to Latinobarómetro, Salvadorans’ satisfaction with democracy also stands at an impressive 64%, the highest in the region. However, this positive sentiment coincides with a simultaneous erosion of the rule of law and democratic principles within El Salvador. The imposition of the state of emergency has empowered the government to escalate its efforts to curb civic engagement, silence dissent, manipulate the judiciary, and even mismanage public funds and impede access to public information, as Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas denounces.

Numerous human rights organizations have decried the arbitrary nature of most arrests, the glaring violations of due process, the inhumane prison conditions, and instances of torture. In March, Amnesty International also drew attention to the mysterious deaths of 132 individuals in state custody.

While critics condemn El Salvador’s backslide in terms of human rights and constitutional protections, Bukele’s approach has resonated with leaders in similarly afflicted regions. Honduras’ Xiomara Castro has launched a comparable offensive against gangs, declaring a state of emergency in specific provinces. Ecuador followed suit after the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, citing rampant crime levels.

Interestingly, Ecuador faced a comparable issue with gang-related crime in the early 2000s, which the nation managed to significantly curtail through an entirely contrasting approach: by legalizing the gangs in 2007. However, gang-related crime has experienced a resurgence in the country, returning to nearly pre-legalization levels. Notably, the presidential candidate in Ecuador, Jan Topic, has expressed admiration for Bukele’s tough stance.

Meanwhile, polls indicate a desire for a Bukele-like president in Colombia and, more recently, the election of Javier Milei in Argentina as a presidential candidate has sparked concerns after one of his deputies, Nahuel Sotelo, journeyed to El Salvador and openly lauded Bukele’s stance on crime.

The future of El Salvador remains uncertain, but a central lesson has emerged: in many places, the value of democracy is measured by the tangible improvements citizens experience. When the threat of street crime confines individuals indoors, the significance of freedoms and rights becomes questionable. True democracy, for many, is not an end in itself but a means to enhance their lives. For this reason, Salvadorans’ latest assessment of their satisfaction with “democracy” is laden with complex considerations. This situation prompts numerous questions to surface.

Firstly, if violence potentially gets eradicated, even at such a substantial cost, will El Salvador be willing or capable of returning to a state of full democracy? The dilemma lies in reconciling the notion of democratic principles with the urgent need for security and stability. This prompts Salvadorans to ponder whether democracy, in its traditional form, can genuinely serve their interests in the face of persistent threats.

Furthermore, this scenario raises the profound question of whether this drastic approach could serve as a precedent for other Latin American countries, the majority of which are democracies that fail to fully consolidate precisely due to similar challenges relating to high levels of violence and corruption. The resurgence of organized crime in Ecuador, as a recent case in point, could be regarded in the region as yet another example of democracy’s failure to effectively combat long-term organized crime.

Might these nations view the temporary suspension of certain legal norms for the sake of achieving genuine peace and democracy as an unpalatable yet pragmatic solution?  This utilitarian perspective challenges established notions of democracy and the rule of law, pushing societies to confront the uneasy trade-off between immediate security and the preservation of long-standing democratic values.


What are the “Maras”?

In El Salvador, the emergence of “maras,” youth gangs with roots in the United States, can be traced back to the waves of migration to California during the civil wars in El Salvador (1980-1992) and Guatemala (1960-1996). In response to competition against well-established Mexican gangs, Salvadorians forged their own gangs, known as “maras,” which evolved into highly violent organized crime entities.

The cessation of the war in El Salvador and the US deportation policies of the 90s prompted many of these “mareros” to return to their home country. Upon their return, they replicated the violent gang structures they had established in the United States. However, their reintegration occurred in a nation scarred by 12 years of civil conflict, where civilian populations were armed, and the democratization process remained in its early stages. These conditions rendered it comparatively easier for them to establish dominion in impoverished and underserved areas where state authority was limited.

The Central American maras, in broad terms, are characterized by their illicit activities, encompassing involvement in drug trafficking. Their modus operandi includes extortion methods, whereby they coerce money from individuals in exchange for protection, often against rival maras.


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