Amid a wide-reaching government crackdown on organized criminal groups in the country, almost 2 percent of El Salvador’s adult population has been detained and at least 18 people have died in police custody, according to a new report from the human rights group Amnesty International.
The crackdown was initiated by President Nayib Bukele in March. It is aimed at suspected street members of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, and Barrio 18, both of which are gangs that emerged in El Salvador following waves of mass deportations of Salvadoran immigrants from the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.
In addition to reports of arbitrary detentions, torture, and inhumane conditions in now-overcrowded prisons, the government has also reportedly targeted, local and even judicial officials, amounting to what Amnesty International is describing as “massive human rights violations.” According to Amnesty International’s report, El Salvador’s government has made arrests without “administrative or judicial arrest warrant.”[s]” and without catching the defendant in the act of committing a crime; rather, arrests are based on a defendant’s prior criminal record or because they live in a community with a large gang population. Many arrestees have been denied access to legal and are held for weeks before seeing a judge.
The US government, which has long played a role in El Salvador’s organized crime problem, has remained relatively silent. Barring one statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 10, and one answer by Blinken to a question at a press conference in Panama City on April 20, US institutions have largely responded with silence toward these reports. In neither statement did Blinken acknowledge how these gangs came to hold such sway in El Salvador, instead of restating previous US support of the Salvadoran government. “We continue to support El Salvador in its efforts to reduce the proliferation of gangs. Since 2008, we have invested $411 million to improve citizen security and help the Salvadoran government combat gang violence,” Blinken said in his April 10 statement.
“It’s ironic, because you could argue that 20 to 30 years later, the US is now reaping the results of very mistaken policy from the 1980s,” says Harry Vanden, professor emeritus of political science and international studies at the University of South Florida and a leading expert on Central American gang violence. In Vanden’s view, a combination of heavy-handed US interventions in support of El Salvador’s right-wing military junta during the 1980s and US deportations of Salvadorans to an economically impoverished country just out of the throes of civil war set the stage for street gangs to explode in power, reach and influence. “[The street gangs] incorporated the violence and they have continued to build on it.”
In addition to waging paramilitary violence, gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 became a refuge for many deported Salvadorans, especially those who returned to the country after living for years in the United States. A 2017 World Bank study Noted that 81 percent of deportees were men, and that many Salvadorans repatriated from the United States “return home the poorer and with fewer resources to start over,” having drained their resources and social networks in order to make the initial journey north. They also face new stigmas associated with their deportations. Gangs provide support and act as substitute families. For these reasons, “solutions to this problem need to address social exclusion and lack of opportunity as much or more as they do the law enforcement challenges posed by the gang,” reads a report commissioned by the Department of Justice under former President Donald Trump.
El Salvador remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries, and taking on the gangs has remained a priority for Salvadoran governments since the end of the civil war. Previous governments have balanced mano dura, or heavy policing, with secret negotiations with gang leaders, at times reportedly bribing gangs in exchange for reduced homicides. As Salvadoran news outlet El Faro has reported, Bukele’s government was acting no differently before March 2022, trying to negotiate a similar truce to the one El Salvador’s government reached with the gangs in the early 2010s. However, negotiations broke down after the government arrested a group of MS-13 members who had been granted safe passage while they rode in a government-provided vehicle driven by a government-contracted driver. This perceived betrayal prompted an explosion in homicides in which 87 people were killed by gang members in three days. Hence, the latest crackdown.
Some believe that the US should use its soft power to hold the Salvadoran government accountable. “Rhetoric from the US government that seeks to uphold the importance of Salvadoran civil society and independent media should be accompanied by clear action that supports these groups,” Ana María Méndez Dardón, a human rights lawyer and the Central America director at the Washington Office for Latin America, wrote in a recent analysis. However, others are skeptical that the US can intervene effectively from a diplomatic or political perspective. “The idea that the US can go in and remedy these problems is a false assumption that is a great deal of the problem,” Vanden says, pointing to negative perceptions of the US in the region following decades of military interventions.
Foreign aid to El Salvador has also been fraught. A recent report by the Wilson Center sharply criticized US assistance programs in the Northern Triangle region, which includes Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, noting a lack of coordination between aid providers and discrepancies between the design of aid programs and the on-the-ground realities. Throwing more money at the gang violence crisis in El Salvador will likely yield even dividends.
However, immigration reform provides a clear pathway for indirect intervention. Experts believe that the US should negotiate bilateral labor agreements with El Salvador, similar to the ones Canada has with other Northern Triangle countries, as a long-term way to harness the benefits of migrants and create mutually-shared benefits for both countries. In the short term, they see improving access to H-2 visa programs as a key first step, to ensure that workers and employers alike can take advantage of the system and ultimately illegal migration can be reduced.
“For a migrant deciding between the two, greater accessibility to H-2 visa programs would appear competitive compared to an illegal pathway,” argued the Center for Global Development in a 2020 policy brief. That change in incentives would not only stymie the growth of gang cells in the United States, but would also improve the economic well-being of both the US and El Salvador.