A recent study indicates that one of every one hundred Salvadorans is part of some mara, a scourge that for years has made the country one of the most violent in the world. To put an end to this situation, Congress declared a state of emergency at the beginning of the year; Since then, violence has been eradicated, but in exchange for overcrowding prisons with tens of thousands of citizens, many of them innocent. The measure, as expected, continues to fuel the debate: is it worth it?
1% of the Salvadoran population belongs to the gangs that lead the violence in the country. Some 70,000 members of the MS13 and the Barrio 18 Sureños and Revolucionarios factions, present in 90% of the towns in the country that had the highest murder rate in the world in 2015.
After the murder of 62 people on March 26, the most violent day since the end of the civil war in 1992, President Nayib Bukele launched the state of emergency to toughen police, judicial and prison measures against these groups.
Salvadoran authorities reported on September 20 that they had imprisoned more than 53,000 gang members and collaborators. That policy, which has extended the period of detention without charge or reduced the age of indictment to twelve years, has had popular support. However, it is also “creating a humanitarian crisis in prisons […]while fueling dynamics that can result in returning ex-gang members to their former groups.”
This is how the new picks it up report ‘A remedy for prison fever in El Salvador’, of the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization present on five continents that seeks to “prevent and solve serious conflicts”. The organization presented the document this week, in a virtual panel with Tiziano Breda, analyst for Central America, consultant Susan Cruz and journalist Roberto Valencia, moderated by Renata Segura, deputy director of the group for Latin America and the Caribbean.
The tradition of the “heavy hand”
The war against gangs in El Salvador has not been exclusive to Bukele. In 2003, President Francisco Flores, of the right-wing ARENA party, implemented the first “iron fist” public policy. “The gangs became a political actor” since then, he pointed out. Valencia. Then came the “super hard hand” of Antonio Saca, also from ARENA.
With the FMLN, a party that emerged from the former guerrilla, El Salvador went from the truce between 2012 and 2014 with Mauricio Funes, which included negotiations between the gangs and between them and the Government, to the extraordinary measures of Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Suspicions of extrajudicial executions in confrontations between the police and gangs weigh on these.
“With all the shadows”, in the words of Valencia, Bukele’s solution has been “by far” in the period with the fewest homicides in El Salvador since the end of the civil war. More than 200 days without murders, a fact that, however, excludes gang deaths at the hands of state agents.
However, the reporter is not optimistic in the short term: “The gangs have already been able to adapt and respond to all the heavy-handed policies that were presented as the final solution,” and “now they have decided to wait for the waters to calm down.” , assured.
The gangs have already known how to adapt and respond to all the heavy-handed policies”
The most direct problem that the Crisis Group report points out about the state of emergency is the overcrowding. For Susan Cruz it is simple math: with some 80,000 prisoners, El Salvador now leads the global rate of incarceration per capita, being a country where those under 30 years of age prevail in the population pyramid and in gangs. “Even with a new prison for 40,000 people, many are going to return to the streets to do what?” Cruz focused on the “boomerang effect” that the report points out: “Relative calm is only the calm before the storm,” she pointed out to ensure that violence can return to the streets.
He also argued that Bukele’s security policy has collateral effects, from the deportation of Salvadorans from the United States due to the perception that the situation in the country has improved, to the implications for society. “The war against gangs is not just the war against gangs, but against communities,” he noted.
Reintegration and justice
Although the perception of security has improved, as the report highlights, for Tiziano Breda the long-term solution involves reintegration (group or individual) and how communities can welcome or reject this type of path. He proposes a “conditional leniency” for those with no serious crimes or those who have completed their sentences. The “slaves of the past”, as he took up from the testimonies included in the report.
The document, based on “more than 70 interviews […] with experts, religious leaders, former gang members, staff from various NGOs, former government advisers, community leaders, local residents, humanitarian workers, diplomats and academics”, points out that the solution to gang violence can begin in the prisons themselves. There have already been cases of religious conversion, for example, but not a state policy towards gang members.
In fact, as Breda pointed out, the Bukele government had introduced the Pioneer Project to promote rehabilitation and reintegration measures, but the state of emergency reversed those efforts. The Crisis Group advocates a transparent, peer-to-peer dialogue leading to the surrender of gangs, and a focus on restorative justice for victims. And beyond the gangs, Breda pointed to the increase in violent deaths perpetrated by state agents and the social roots of the violence itself in El Salvador.
International support will be key
The security policy promoted by Bukele is one more among those that have given him international prominence, such as bitcoin adoption or his way of governing via Twitter.
Although approving the state of emergency meant concentrating power replacing the judges of the Constitutional Court and winning the vast majority in the Legislative Assembly, Western democracies and multilateral organizations have been cautious when expressing themselves for or against what is happening, in Breda’s opinion.
Bukele, in turn, has established a discourse of being in favor of the state of exception or gang members, backed by the popularity of the measures among the population and the alignment of institutions whose information ends up in international organizations.
Breda, therefore, maintains that the president “would be happy to resume ties with the United States and Europe” to obtain resources, even more so given the financing problems faced by a country that has been isolated in the region. Although it is “a remote possibility”, as the report assures, “a turn of the rudder is possible”, pointed out Roberto Valencia. “Bukele has already done it and the solid foundations are already in place.”
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