El Salvador: Bukele’s Crackdown On Gangs

El Salvador: Bukele’s crackdown on gangs, international criticism for harshness, and domestic praise for ending gang violence.

La Mara Salvatrucha” or “MS-13” is the international criminal gang notoriously known for its illegal activity and violence. Although MS-13 is mainly associated with El Salvador, the gang or “mara” actually originated in Los Angeles, California, United States. Barrio 18 gangs have also contributed to gang violence in El Salvador.

El Salvador is known for its dangerous gangs and being the “murder capital” of the world. Since President Nayib Bukele’s landslide election in 2019, homicides have gone significantly down. Additionally, El Salvador has become the first country to make Bitcoin legal tender. This new and drastically different perception of El Salvador, among his other actions as president, has gained him an 85% approval rate according to this March 9, 2022, survey.

Despite his popularity within El Salvador and approval with Salvadorians living abroad, the international community’s most recent outcry is a reaction to Bukele’s recent crackdown on gang activity. Bukele has proudly announced and maintained low homicide rates, so when this rate spiked up at the end of March, he was quick to denounce gang violence and respond with consequences for gang members already in jail too. In the last week of March, there were over 80 homicides in three days. This marks the most violent day in El Salvador since its Civil War.

Bukele has declared a state of emergency and Bukele’s military and police forces have detained 14,000 people as of April 22, 2022. 

Quick facts about Bukele’s state of emergency:

  • Bukele has threatened gang members in jail with isolation cells and reduced the number of daily meals from three to two. Gang members already in jail often communicate with those outside to plot violence and killings. 
  • Bukele has announced that any tattooed person and anyone who is suspected to be affiliated with gang activity will be arrested.
  • The military and police have arrested youth as young as 12 years old. 
  • Bukele has banned graffiti, as this is a form through which gangs mark territory.
  • Journalists and TV stations that transmit messages from gangs will also be arrested. Bukele has justified this by claiming that gang-related journalism will create fear and panic within communities.
  • Bukele’s mass detention of individuals has caused many accidental and “arbitrary” arrests.

El Salvador has the second-highest incarceration rate per capita in the world, after the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Prior to Bukele, previous presidents have also attempted to implement these “mano dura” or “hard hand” policies.El Salvador's president Nayib Bukele said Monday more than 6,000 gang members were detained during nine days of a state of emergency rule, imposed in late March


International organizations such as the United Nations, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Watch, and the Biden-Harris administration urge Bukele to roll back his harsh policies.

President Bukele’s actions are largely seen as an attempt to retain his reputation and consolidate power. Although his policies have reduced homicide rates and provided a sense of safety to rural communities, Bukele does not address nor enact policies on the root of gang violence in El Salvador. Until these core issues are addressed and improved long term, Latin American countries like El Salvador should not expect the end of gang violence in their communities.