Towards a post gang El Salvador

The current State of Exception in El Salvador with its war on the country's maras has resulted in the arrests of some 63,000 persons since March 27, 2022.  That wholesale imprisonment of anyone suspected of a connection with a gang, which has also swept up thousands of innocent persons according to rights groups, may now have broken the chokehold which gangs have long had on El Salvador.    

For months statistics have shown a sustained and significant drop in the homicide rate in El Salvador.  As journalist Roberto Valencia enumerates, the average daily homicide rate has dropped below 1.  In January 2023 there were 13 homicides in the country, compared to 750 in January 2016.

Various journalists who are independent of the Bukele government have now gone into formerly gang-controlled areas across the country, have spoken with sources formerly connected with the gangs, and are writing that homicides are down not because gangs are simply not killing, but are down because the gangs have been dismantled in El Salvador.

El Faro has long been a leading source of journalism regarding the structure and workings of the gangs operating in El Salvador.  On Friday, their reporters published an article titled Bukele Government Dismantled Gang Presence in El Salvador.  Everyone should read this article which reveals that Bukele's war on gangs under the State of Exception has largely succeeded in freeing neighborhoods across the country from gang control. The cost is significant in terms of the evisceration of due process, violations of basic human rights, and arbitrary arrests, but benefits are also undeniable. From their reporting:  

The Mara Salvatrucha-13, the Revolucionarios or Sureños factions of 18th Street and other smaller gangs like the Mao-Mao, La Mirada Locos, and CODEMAR no longer operate in the streets of El Salvador — or at least not as they had before. After ten months in a state of exception that has curbed basic constitutional rights, the administration of President Nayib Bukele has managed to undermine the gangs’ territorial presence and control, their main source of financing —extortion— and their internal structure…. The conclusion is that the gangs do not exist in this moment as El Salvador knew them for decades....

In the last several weeks, El Faro verified the absence of gang members in communities where their power was strongest. Residents, teachers, and communal leaders told El Faro that the gangs had largely disappeared and that their power had dissipated since the start of the state of exception in March 2022. They pointed to palpable signs like the suspension of extortion and other "taxes" on parking, real estate rentals, or cable TV contracts. Some marveled that restaurants, taxies, and ride hailing apps like Uber now offer services in their communities.

Other journalists and researchers have published similar findings, including VOA which described La Campanera, an infamous neighborhood controlled by the Barrio 18 gang which has now been liberated from the presence of pandilleros and now is filled with patrols of security forces.  La Prensa Grafica also reported on the atmosphere in La Campanera where gang members no longer freely walk the streets in this colonia, where feelings of security are gradually returning.   

A report from investigative journalist Bryan Avelar in El Pais states that extortion payments by the country's network of bus systems have fallen by as much as 70% and by informal market vendors in the capital by as much as 80%. According to Avelar, "Everything suggests that MS-13 is on its last legs."

Prominent sociologist and crime researcher Juan Martinez D’Aubisson wrote an opinion piece in the Spanish version of the Washington Post stating, "the gangs have been displaced from El Salvador. That creature is extinct."

El Salvador thus appears to be moving to a new phase, a phase where Mara Salvatrucha and the two factions of Barrio 18 no longer control large zones where millions of Salvadorans live, and where the State of Exception appears to be the new normal.  What are the benefits being realized, the costs being suffered, and what questions are yet to be answered?

The Benefits Flowing From Gangs' Loss of Control

Before now, El Salvador's economy and its inhabitants have been paying what was essentially a gang violence tax.  That tax had both a component of blood and tears for the thousands of families suffering murders by gangs each year, and a very real economic component arising from the gangs' reliance on extortion, enforced by deadly violence, as their principal source of income.  
In 2016, the New York Times and El Faro estimated MS-13's annual direct revenue in El Salvador at $31 million, primarily from extortion. Private bus companies by themselves estimated they were paying $26 million that year in extortion to the country's main gangs.  

The economic costs, however, are much more than just the money extorted by the gangs. Businesses, apartment buildings, neighborhood groups, and others pay millions for private security guards, gates and razor wire.  Economically active adults flee the country to avoid violence.  Would-be entrepreneurs don't start little businesses in their neighborhoods.           

A 2016 study by El Salvador's Central Reserve Bank estimated the annual cost the gangs were inflicting on the country to be $4 billion.   Another study that year tallied the direct and indirect costs of gang violence as being as much as one sixth of El Salvador’s gross domestic product. 

The current dismantling of gang control is erasing the invisible borderlines that controlled the lives of people, especially the young, living in working class and marginalized communities all over the country.  Frontiers, which made it impossible for countless young people to go from one community to another, for jobs or education or sports or friends, can now be crossed.

Small businesses can start up without the worry of paying "la renta" to the gangs.  Uber drivers will now enter certain neighborhoods where they never would before. Pizza Hut will deliver to those neighborhoods.  Members of a church, who could not attend Sunday services because doing so would involve crossing gang frontiers, find they can do so once again.

Health outcomes may improve as certain stressors are removed from people's lives.

The Costs of the Bukele Security State

Those tangible benefits from the breakup of gangs during the State of Exception must be evaluated in the context of its costs in the form of ongoing violations of human rights norms, the destruction of democratic institutions and judicial control, and the cost of running a country as a prison state.

In an update to the Salvadoran public, a group of seven human rights organizations on Wednesday provided statistics on the complaints they have received for human rights violations by state actors during the State of Exception.  Among those seven groups, they have received 4564 denunciations of human rights violations by members of the Salvadoran public during the ten months of the State of Exception.

An extensive series of reports by the human rights organization Cristosal details the human rights concerns here.

Along with Cristosal, Human Rights Watch received a leaked copy of a database of the arrests made during the first several months of the State of Exception.   According to HRW
“This leaked database points to serious human rights violations committed during the state of emergency,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “According to the data, Salvadoran authorities have inhumanely packed detainees, including hundreds of children, in crowded detention sites, while doing very little to ensure victims’ access to justice for gang violence.”
Putting a human face on these abuses, El Faro published this video of an interview with a man picked up during the State of Exception and imprisoned in Mariona prison for a period before being one of the few lucky enough to be released.   He describes beatings, deaths, overcrowding, disease, and a starvation diet:

FOCOS TV published this video interview with a Salvadoran man whose brother was a laborer, with no criminal record and no connections to the gangs. But he was also a diabetic, and would die in prison after being swept up during the State of Exception.

Juan Martinez D’Aubisson wrote:
The gangs in El Salvador found themselves surpassed by a criminal form that was much more efficient, more organized, and with superior war power: the state mafia under the command of the president.
The State of Exception has also been marked by the destruction of the rule of law and judicial safeguards designed to protect the innocent.  El Faro accompanied its article on the dismantling of the gang structure with an editorial titled No Gangs, but No More Democracy which stated:

We Salvadorans gave up the rights of presumed innocence, legal counsel, fair trial, and to institutions that punish government abuses. We gave up the rule of law that comes with abiding by laws and the Constitution. We gave up freedom of expression, freedom to dissent, separation of powers, transparency in public finances, and mechanisms to fight corruption. We gave up alternation of power. We’re back to corrupt chieftainship. 

The visible absence of gang structures, for the first time in a long while, is a fundamental change in the life of thousands of Salvadorans. But the price we’ve had to pay for it is sky-high. The cure could be as harmful as the disease.

There is another cost -- the cost of imprisoning tens of thousands of Salvadorans, a greater percentage of the population than any other country in the world, purportedly for decades.

On the night of January 31, El Salvador's president Nayib Bukele broadcast nationally his tour of the country's new mega-prison, designed to hold 40,000 prisoners the government says. The new prison was needed to hold a portion of the more than 63,000 persons arrested in the country since March 2022 under the State of Exception, accused of being gang members or collaborators. 

 The highly staged tour was heavy on security, armaments, and salutes to the commander in chief.


If you query Google about the largest prison in the world, you will get back links to a number of different web sites all listing different prisons as the largest, but none I could find were listed as holding more than 30,000 inmates.  It appears that this new prison will easily take its place as the world’s largest.   Yet even with this new human warehouse, El Salvador's prison system will be at least 30,000 inmates over design capacity.   (Previous capacity was approximately 30,000 but holding 36,000 prisoners -- with the new prison there will be design capacity for 70,000, but 100,000 or more incarcerated).

The Questions To Be Asked Now

Historians and criminologists will debate for years or decades whether a government which strictly followed rules of due process, respect for human rights and the presumption of innocence could have achieved the same result.    But there are also important questions regarding what happens next.   (Hint: the answer to these questions is "Don't count on it."   

Will the Bukele regime allow the State of Exception to lapse? For more than 10 months, the Legislative Assembly has been extending the State of Exception for additional 30 day periods, at the same time that Bukele is proclaiming on Twitter that El Salvador is the safest country in the Americas.  The Bukele regime has shown no intention of giving up the power to arrest people without judicial orders, to hold them for 15 days in prison without a hearing, or to intercept phone calls without court order. The State of Exception has become ongoing way of controlling the country.

Is the current improvement in citizen security sustainable?  Conditions which give rise to gangs in the first place, such as lack of opportunity, family disintegration, marginalization of poor communities, and a culture of violence continue to exist in the country.  The government invests in soldiers, police and their weapons, but much less in the social infrastructure needed to address these issues.   

Steven Dudley at InsightCrime summarized the views of a number of others who have researched the gangs in El Salvador: 
The gains under Bukele are laudable, but among other gang experts consulted by InSight Crime, there is a counter-consensus: They are impossible to sustain unless the underlying conditions that allow the gangs to emerge and flourish are addressed. What’s more, the experts said, the ultimate target may not be the gangs but democracy itself.
Will judicial process for those detained in the State of Exception be credible?   Almost all of the 63 thousand persons imprisoned during the State of Exception have not been convicted of a crime and are not yet serving court imposed sentences.   Under El Salvador's Constitution, they are supposed to be presumed innocent.  They have almost all been charged with being gang members or collaborators, but have only had minimal hearings where judges have declared they can be held in prison for six months or more while police investigate before their cases move to a trial phase.  Will future judicial proceedings actually permit the innocent to go free if the State cannot prove its case against them?

Will El Salvador's prisons even attempt to comply with the UN Nelson Mandela Rules for the Minimum Treatment of Prisoners? Officials in the Bukele government have said that no one who enters the prisons is ever going to leave. The Nelson Mandela Rules provide internationally recognized minimum standards for prison conditions.  There is no indication that the Salvadoran government feels itself obligated to comply.

Does El Salvador stop being a militarized prison state?  Nayib Bukele justified a dramatic increase in the size of the military and the police forces on the grounds they were necessary to fight his war on gangs. If he is now declaring victory, will there be a reduction in the militarization of the state?  Or does this president maintain a highly visible security apparatus and the corresponding level of spending as a manifestation of his control?

Will the State indemnify those persons arrested illegally? While such reparations could be required by the American Convention of Human Rights and El Salvador's Constitution, don't count on it.


This roundup was made easier by the habit of gang members getting gang tattoos, thus making their identification by the authorities rather easy. I wonder if that custom will cease as a result and gangs reestablish themselves?

I also wonder if despite the human rights violations, El Salvador will serve as a model for Honduras and Guatemala, and possibly even Mexico? This could be an economic game changer and lead to reverse immigration.