Tidal wave of murders leads to suspension of constitutional rights

Saturday, March 26, was one of the bloodiest days in recent memory in El Salvador.   62 homicides were reported just that day, a total never before seen for a single day in this violent country of 6.3 million people.  This came on top of 14 murders the day before.  There were murders committed in 12 of El Salvador's 14 departments.  In contrast, during the entire month of February, there were only 79 murders.  Since 2020, El Salvador had been averaging fewer than 4 homicides per day.

There was one message from the weekend's violence:  El Salvador's street gangs maintain the capacity and the numbers to wreak havoc across the country when it suits them.  The relative calm of the past few years meant that the gangs had decided that homicides were not in their interest, whether that decision was the result of negotiating with the government or otherwise, and the relative calm was not the result of Nayib Bukele's militarized "Territorial Control Plan."

In response to the tidal wave of murders, president Nayib Bukele made a call for the Legislative Assembly to pass a "state of exception" to suspend certain constitutional guarantees as the security forces combat the violence.  States of exception are authorized in article 29 of El Salvador's Constitution which provides that guarantees can be suspended for a period of up to 30 days by decree of the Legislative Assembly in case of "war, invasion of territory, rebellion, sedition, catastrophe, epidemic, or other general disaster, or serious disturbances of the public order."

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Legislative Assembly passed the "state of exception" decree with 67 votes in favor out of the 84 member body.  (There were no votes against, only some who were absent and a few abstentions).  The decree suspends for 30 days constitutional rights of freedom of association, the right to a legal defense, the right to see a judge in 72 hours after arrest, and freedom from interception of mail and communications.  The measure was signed by Bukele and published and went into effect Sunday morning.    

Human rights defenders, however, questioned whether a one day surge in homicides justified taking away constitutional rights, suggesting that the government had ample authority under existing laws and protections to pursue and prosecute the gangs.  A senior investigator of Human Rights Watch found the creation of a state of exception in El Salvador "worrying, especially in a country where there are no independent democratic institutions left."  

Long time Salvadoran human rights advocate Celia Medrano told me:
One cannot but express deep sorrow for the murdered people and the mourning of their families, but this situation, which efficient authorities in public security could have controlled by acting within their powers and the existing legal framework, would hardly justify an exceptional measure. And it is also unlikely to prevent other families from being filled with mourning soon in a new episode of violence like the one suffered this weekend.
El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) issued only a statement which did not criticize the State of Exception but urged the government to take steps to make sure that security forces respected human rights. The PDDH has in recent months been decidedly cautious in taking steps which might be seen as critical of the Bukele government. 

Bukele signaled a "no holds barred" approach to the gangs:

The @PNCSV and the @FUERZARMADASV must let
the agents and soldiers do their job and must defend them
 from the accusations of those who protect gang members.
The @FGR_SV must be effective with cases.
And we will be aware of the judges who favor criminals.

Carolina Jimenez Sandoval, president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), wrote in a tweet:
Increased violence cannot be an excuse to violate human rights or to implement authoritarian practices. All citizens deserve security and protection, but never at the cost of violating their rights. International community is paying attention.
As the government began operations under the regime of exception, communities with a strong gang presence - Distrito Italia in Tonacatepeque and San Jose El Pino in Santa Tecla and several others --  were cordoned off by the military with persons not being allowed to leave.   By Sunday evening, the Bukele said security forces had detained more than 600 gang members.

The social media accounts of the police, the military, and the Ministry of Justice and Security were immediately filled with photos and video of crime-control operations and images of young males being arrested and guarded by face-masked officers carrying automatic weapons.

Bukele also gave orders that gang members within the country's prisons suffer the consequences of the murders across the country, ordering a nationwide prison lockdown:

Director [of Prisons} Osiris Luna Meza, decree once again a maximum
emergency in all the security and maximum security prisons, all cells
closed 24/7, no one goes out, not to the yard.

Message for the gangs: for your actions, now your "homeboys" will not be able to
see a ray of sunlight.

The reasons for this sudden surge of violence remain unclear, but experts surmised that the murders were intended to send a clear message to the government.   In other words, how many people get killed each day is a bargaining chip.

From a report in LPG

The specialist in Public Security issues, Jannette Aguilar, also reinforced this position and maintained that "unlike the usual practice of hiding the dead in clandestine graves, in this case, the abandonment of the corpses in the streets has the intention (of the gangs) to remind us of their ability.
An example which may support Aguilar's thesis was one murder victim being deposited on the "Camino a Surf City" highway, Nayib Bukele's signature tourism project.  Some also speculated that the timing may have been intended to coincide with a week when billionaire Bitcoiners had been visiting the country.

Sociologist and Salvadoran gang researcher Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson wrote in a pair of tweets today:
The government and the gangs communicate through the dead. About 40 murders in 48 hours in different places in the country, including the brand new and hyper publicized bridge to "Surf City".  
This is already a protocol. The gang-government diplomacy goes wrong, gangs increase murders, Bukele makes this threat and shows us videos with big police officers forcing skinny gang members to walk like chickens, diplomacy is restored, [there comes a] day with 0 murders. See you at the next massacre.

There is not a lot of information circulating about the 76 victims from Friday and Saturday.  The government usually states when it believes the deceased is a gang member, so it can blame the victim, but the absence of such statements makes it clear that this wave of murders is not indicative of warfare among El Salvador's major rival gangs.  According to a report in El Faro, most of the murders occurred in territories controlled by MS-13.  

Two victims were brothers and agricultural workers, another was a construction worker, and a third worked in a shoe shop.    A source told La Prensa Grafica:
A man who was digging holes at the edge of the street to plant poles was working and without saying a word they killed him. A fruit seller was killed, a baker was killed, a client of a workshop was also killed. It is a clear message to the Government; they (gangs) want something and the government, it seems, has not given it to them.
Bukele and his supporters were quick to blame the political opposition for the security crisis and to assert that any criticism from the human rights community of the state of exception was siding with the gang killers against innocent Salvadoran families.  Bukele retweeted several supporters who linked human rights defenders and the opposition to the gangs:


One response came from the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) which issued a statement demanding that public officials cease attacking journalists for reporting on the wave of violence in the country.

The current situation feels very similar to April 2020 in the early weeks of the pandemic when murders also surged over a weekend from a low level.    Then, as now, Bukele reacted with an order that the prisons be locked down and that no gang leaders should see the light of day.   

The last time there was a surge in the murder rate was November 2021.  There were 30 murders in a 2 day period followed by a large show of force (at least on social media) by the Salvadoran police and army and blaming the political opposition.   Just as suddenly as the murders started, they stopped.

These patterns where the gangs turn the homicide rate on and off are consistent with the reports that the the government has been negotiating with the gangs during Bukele's entire time in office.  

In an article in InsightCrime in September 2020, Steven Dudley wrote:
The threat of gang violence was also used to spark the 2012 truce, and other gang protests have included armed strikes to cut off public transportation, which moves 80 percent of the population.

It is this same threat that makes these negotiations – indeed any negotiations – with the gangs so tenuous and, in the long-term, dangerous. While the government has touted its Territorial Control Plan as the reason why homicides are down 60 percent since Bukele entered office, the gangs may be the ones holding the sword.
It appears the gangs have swung that sword again, and more than 70 people died this weekend.

As of the time this post was written, there had been at least six more homicides on Sunday.


Charly Boqueron said…
since the president of el salvador and his government are very corrupt and behave much like a mafia of their own, we most likely will never know for sure why the sudden spikes in homicide rates that bubble up every so often in an otherwise stable, low rate (for salvadoran standards). some commentators suspect the truce 2.0 between bukele's government and the gangs use the homicide rate as an escape valve whenever there are other issues pressing at the president's public image. for example, public opinion recently has been revolting around the governments illegal arrest of bus baron catalino mirando and the arbitrary expropriation of his bus units as a dangerous prelude for what to expect concerning public property. another issue is the blunder with the release of the so called "bitcoin volcano bonds" and the failure to secure the funds to honor the short term debt the country has at hand which leads to another suspicion which is the pension funds reform that may take away the limited savings of contributors and default on those obligations in the short term as well which would send the country into upheaval and put some major pressure on the president and the government to lie their way out of it through the customary publicity, propaganda, intimidation and brute militarized force. the high cost of living keeps adding steam to the pressure pot and well, like we mentioned above, giving the gangs a green light to kill is a means to release that steam and channel it in a different direction from which the president and his corrupt government can gain in public relations image and publicity stunts.