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The human and humanitarian fallout of El Salvador’s gang crackdown

‘The country is heading towards desperation in terms of hunger and access to basic services.’

Women take part in a protest behind a poster that reads: “They were taken alive, we want them alive” at the ombudsman's office to demand help for the release of relatives detained during the government's state of emergency to curb gang violence, in San Salvador, El Salvador November 9, 2023. Jose Cabezas/Reuters
Relatives of those detained during the government's crackdown on gangs protest at the ombudsman's office in San Salvador behind a poster that reads: “They were taken alive. We want them back alive”, on 9 November 2023.

Since El Salvador was placed under a state of emergency to fight gang violence almost 20 months ago, its homicide rate has dropped dramatically and the popularity of its president, Nayib Bukele, has soared to 90% – more than any other leader in Latin America.

But even as Bukele is praised for restoring security while other leaders seem helpless to contain runaway gang crime and control violence-wracked communities, his hardline or “mano dura” policies have come under fire for trampling over constitutional and human rights. 

“The message of this government has been that in this war against gangs, as [the government] has called it, anything goes,” Óscar Martínez, editor-in-chief of leading Latin American investigative news outlet El Faro, told The New Humanitarian in a wide-ranging interview.

“To end the gangs, Bukele also ended democracy,” added Martínez, a Salvadoran who has reported extensively on migration, organised crime, violence, and the drug trade in Central America.

Bukele’s crackdown was launched hours after the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) – one of Central America's most ruthless gangs – killed 87 people in just one weekend. This massacre resulted from the breakdown of a secret deal Bukele had struck to secure earlier reductions in violence in return for alleged monetary and fringe benefits for imprisoned gang leaders.

On 27 March 2022, Bukele declared a state of emergency, adopting hardline security policies that have led to the arrest of more than 72,000 alleged gang members (2% of the population), and the construction of the region's largest prison. Military sieges of entire areas have seen the deployment of thousands of troops to prevent gang members from escaping and to cut their supply chains. Today, El Salvador has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Considered “the most violent country in the western hemisphere” in 2015, with a homicide rate of 106 per 100,000 people, in July the government claimed the 2023 rate was on track to be only 2.2.

For decades, many Salvadorans had struggled to run their businesses due to massive extortion rackets. Families feared being attacked if they didn’t pay up. Children couldn't play in certain neighbourhoods due to the constant turf wars.

Salvadorans now work and move around freely in many public spaces they had long abandoned. El Salvador has become a model for countries such as Guatemala or Honduras, where President Xiomara Castro has started a crackdown some have compared to Bukele’s.

But all of this has come at a tremendous price for many Salvadorans.

The state of emergency has been condemned by the UN for crushing civil liberties, eliminating the right to due process and fair trial, and leading to arbitrary arrests, mostly in poor neighbourhoods. Constitutional rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly have also been suspended, and there are reports of forced disappearances.

From inside prisons, reports of torture, deaths, overcrowding, lack of access to food and healthcare have also drawn strong criticism from human rights organisations.

In El Salvador, more than a quarter of the population of 6.3 million now lives in multidimensional poverty, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). This means they face several colliding problems such as poor health, malnutrition, or little schooling.

An April report by the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI) showed the country's economy has been slowing in 2023 while food insecurity has been rising, even as public spending in areas such as education, health, environment, and public works has been cut. Research also suggests the state of emergency has increased the vulnerability of women and children in El Salvador, despite the overall drop in violence.

In conversation with The New Humanitarian, Martínez explains how Bukele’s security policies represent a dilemma for those who want to see an end to the violence but worry about growing repression and needs. He also shares his deeper concern for his country’s political future.

This interview, conducted in Spanish, was edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: In your view, what have been the humanitarian consequences of the crackdown on gangs?

Óscar Martínez: Many minors are left as orphans, and El Salvador is a sexist (“machista”) country where men are usually the providers. Most of the people arrested are men, so, many families have told us they had to cut down on meals, because if you live in the countryside no one will hire a woman, or they will pay her less. We published in El Faro a special report called “Hungry El Salvador”, with several stories that show what it means to live in a country where food inflation has been at 10%, and where, since Bukele took office, there are 264,000 more families in poverty; almost a million Salvadorans are on the verge of famine. The state of emergency has made things worse, not only because those providing for the family have been locked up, but also because families are using the money they receive as remittances to pay for “jail packages”. What the state gives inmates are concentration camp meals: one tortilla and one egg [a day]. So, to allow their incarcerated relatives to eat, for them to have some money, to receive a powder food supplement, or to have uniforms and basic hygiene supplies, families must buy those monthly packages. The price, depending on what it includes, ranges from $17 to $120. The minimum wage in El Salvador is $365.

Another consequence has been that many police officers and soldiers are using the state of emergency to turn into a criminal group, and the government is losing control over this. Recently, a policeman was arrested because he threatened a family and raped a 13-year-old girl, taking advantage of the state of emergency. A few weeks ago, a group of police officers were found extorting “campesinos” (farmers) not for money, but to grab their land.

The New Humanitarian: There are reports that the state of emergency has been a driver of migration. Authorities say it is mostly gang members fleeing, but it seems that migrants also include random citizens afraid to be arbitrarily detained. Is it something you can confirm?

Martínez: There are some indications of that. Some organisations, such as Alianza America [a network of migrant-led organisations] in the United States, have registered the arrival of migrants due to the state of emergency, because the problem in El Salvador today is that it doesn't matter if you haven't committed a crime. If you are unlucky enough to be a gang member’s sister, you will be arrested; if you are a gang member’s mother, who was simply a low-income woman whose son joined a gang, you will go to jail. There are no criteria – it's up to the police. There are no official statistics, but some people are migrating [to avoid detention]. There may be more information in shelters for migrants in Mexico in states such as Oaxaca or Chiapas.

The New Humanitarian: You mentioned that El Salvador is sexist (“machista”). What is the situation of women in this new context?

Martínez: In our special project, “Hungry El Salvador”, all stories are about women who have been left as head of household and are facing economic violence. What you see in the interior of the country is that people are skipping meals, they don't eat vegetables anymore, only leaves. In addition to that, there are cases in which the state of emergency is used to commit sexual abuses. And then there is the situation of women in jails. They live in overcrowded spaces – some of them are still nursing and have been imprisoned with their children. We published the story of a child who had human scabies when he was released. But there is no way to assess if there has been an increase of gender-based violence, because gangs exerted terrible violence on women's bodies too.

The New Humanitarian: Salvadoran newspapers have reported that social programmes the president promised to develop haven't been fully implemented. Is that an effect of higher investment in security?

Martínez: It is a fact that funding for health and education shrank in the national budget, while it increased for security, defence, and the police. This is a state that imposes secrecy on all areas of public spending, so the only official information you can have comes from public workers' accounts on Twitter [the social media platform now called X]. There are no reports; there is no access to public information. The government can say, for instance, that 8,000 new schools have been built, but if one asks the Education Ministry for information, they won't release it. The only thing I can say is what independent media have reported from documents such as the Guacamaya Leaks, or what inside sources in the government have leaked. [Some media], including El Faro, have found that what has been publicly announced in terms of social benefits is a lie, in all sectors. When the government said they had allocated money to build new bridges and other public works, we found out it wasn't true. When, during the pandemic, they said they had openly called for bids to buy [medical] supplies, we discovered they had not, and that tenders had [irregularly] been granted to relatives or even members of the government.

The New Humanitarian: Does that mean that the humanitarian situation has worsened for Salvadorans?

Martínez: It's a difficult question to answer, because if I were someone who lived in a community controlled by gangs, I would probably be applauding Bukele. But I can say two things: first, that the end of gangs in this country has led to the absolute destruction of the foundations of democracy. And then that because of the investment in security and of failed initiatives such as [the introduction of the] bitcoin [as a legal currency], the figures show that the country has fallen into enormous inflation and an enormous impoverishment of a large part of the population. There are more poor families in El Salvador today, and the price of the basic food basket increased. It costs $220 and is insufficient [to feed a family]; the country is heading towards desperation in terms of hunger and access to basic services for part of the population.

The New Humanitarian: Despite these effects and reports of human rights violations in prisons, a large part of the population is satisfied with Bukele’s hardline security policies. What are your views on this?

Martínez: It's complicated. This country loves Bukele, and I think it's due to different reasons. People were tired of seeing politicians stealing from them. Bukele was enthroned when the post-war cycle ended [El Salvador went through a civil war between 1979 and 1992]; we had been governed by the right-wing since the peace agreement of 1992 and then, in 2009, the left came to power; for two terms, they stole all they could. People were fed up, and Bukele presented himself as an outsider… One may ask: How can it be that people still love him even though his government has arrested so many innocent people, and if there is so much suffering in jails? It is because people didn’t live in a democracy, they never have; they lived in a criminal regime where gangs raped their children. So, now, the state of emergency is the lesser evil. There are people who will accept having their son arrested if it means gangs won’t be in their neighbourhood. For our reporting, we visited 14 gang-controlled neighbourhoods, and every person we talked to said they knew someone who had been unfairly detained. They could show us where this kid who wasn't a gang member used to live. But when we asked if they cared that he was unrightfully arrested, they said, “no”.

The New Humanitarian: You have been reporting on the way neighbourhoods are rearticulating without the gangs. What are your findings?

Martínez: We have seen a new economy, a microeconomy, flourish in the neighbourhoods. Many people are starting small businesses selling things in the street, which they couldn't do before because the gangs forbid it. We have seen some punctual efforts from communities to reunify areas that were separated by invisible walls – criminal walls that kept a young person from one side to enter the other side. And we have noticed that the population is much more inclined to report [others] now that they know something might happen if they do. We also realised that a deep divide is emerging within our society. Any person who has a relative that was captured under the state of emergency is considered a gang member and is socially condemned... There are about 40,000 to 50,000 people who are innocent and have been imprisoned, and their social circles live in absolute loneliness and tremendous stigmatisation, facing dramatic poverty, marginalisation, and state violence.

The New Humanitarian: How do you see the situation unfolding in the long-term?

Martínez: I think this country will turn into a dictatorship. Sooner or later, more people will start feeling unhappy about the acts of repression and the lack of judicial control; and as it happens when you concede exclusive and absolute power to one man, when Bukele stops hearing praises, we will start hearing military boots. When have things gone well in Latin America when all power is granted to one man alone? 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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