The President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has imposed a state of emergency for a month as the central American country grapples with a steep rise in gang wars. On Saturday, March 26th, 62 people were murdered. It is said to be the country’s most violent day in 20 years. The killings have been attributed to the MS-13 gang.
Violent History of El Salvador: Root Causes and Consequences
El Salvador has struggled with extreme inequality between the ruling classes and ordinary working citizens. Coffee was a significant cash crop for El Salvador in the late 1800s. Two significant families controlled all the wealth acquired through coffee and used it to gain political power. This class conflict went on throughout the 1900s.
It led to the rise of the Central American Socialist Party, which rebelled against the government. In 1932, peasants organised a widespread insurrection demanding better living and working conditions. In one week, the government responded by massacring an estimated 30,000 people, or 4% of the country’s population. This event became known as “La Matanza”, or “The Massacre.”
Rising economic instability caused communism to become more popular. The Salvadoran Civil War lasted from 1979 to 1992. It killed approximately 80,000 soldiers and civilians. During this time, the US was worried about losing Central America to communism. President Jimmy Carter fully supported Salvador’s dictatorial government. Later, Ronald Reagan aided the Salvadoran government with over a billion dollars.
The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front became the primary resistance against the government in the following years. In 1992 both sides achieved a peace deal after having ruined the lives of millions.
The Origin of Gangs in El Salvador
Many refugees who had relocated to Los Angeles during the war became involved in gang violence. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 deported thousands of Salvadorans to El Salvador. Gangs that had originated in Los Angeles spread throughout El-Salvador.
Since at least the 1990s, MS-13 and Barrio 18 – gangs initially bred on the streets of Los Angeles – have operated in El Salvador, eventually making the country the most murderous in the world in 2015. Homicides have been decreasing in El Salvador. Since then, more than 6,600 murders have taken place in the country of about 6.5 million people.
Role of a Corrupt Government
There are an estimated 70,000 gang members in El Salvador. In September 2020, investigative media outlets revealed that President Nayib Bukele’s government had negotiated with MS-13. Under secret negotiations, the government promised to provide financial incentives to the gangs and preferential treatment for gang leaders in prisons. The gangs had to cut down on gang violence and murders in exchange.
This deal has received criticism because the El Salvadoran government has forfeited the country’s sovereignty to these gangs. Security and political analysts have inferred that the rise in gang violence right now could be a pressure tactic to renegotiate their terms with Mr Bukele’s government.
As Jose Miguel Cruz, director of research at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center and an expert on El Salvador’s gangs has pointed out:
“It shows the weaknesses of the supposed pact between the government and gangs.”
Probably to cover up his fishy dealings, Bukele has tried to sell the image of a modernised El-Salvador. Its Bitcoin Law, which made the cryptocurrency tender legal, has drawn Bitcoin investors to El-Salvador. While common people struggle to fulfil basic needs, Bukele’s government is acting on things that will help no one but those already rich and satisfied.
Emergency Declaration Amidst Recent Gang Wars
In the early hours of the morning of March 27th, El Salvador’s Parliament approved the emergency rule for 30 days. It has suspended some civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution. These include loosening the conditions for arrest and prohibiting free assembly rights. The government can now block the communications of citizens.
The suspension of civil liberties does not align with the international human rights conventions and is not helpful to the current security situation. The government is not even attempting to understand the underlying roots of gang violence in El Salvador, let alone taking helpful steps.
The Pathetic Prisons of El Salvador
In a recent Twitter post, President Bukele shows the harsh conditions in Salvadoran prisons. We see inmates sleeping on the floor in crowded cells, complaining about food rationing and little to no sanitary measures.
This takes us back to late April 2020, when President Bukele ordered a lockdown in prisons containing gang members. Prisoners were locked in crowded cells for 23 hours a day, with minimum ventilation and no mobile or wifi signals. Human Rights Watch criticised this act as humiliating, degrading, and dangerous, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
The message is clear: the government wants parents in El Salvador to know that this is what happens to those who break the law. The only thing destined for gang members is “prison or death.” While the intent is to reduce violence, threatening little kids might not be the best way to secure stability.
Teens and young adults join gangs for multiple reasons. It could be a choice. Nonetheless, it is usually due to neglect and abandonment from the family and unemployment and scarcity of favourable opportunities.
Youth gangs and the loss of civilian lives are a major source of concern. By simply perpetuating the cycle of violence, the Salvadoran government is only making matters worse.
The authorities have normalised violence in countries such as El-Salvador for over several decades. In a different turn of events, thousands of people have been demonstrating in Haiti against the lack of action taken by Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government towards gang violence.
President Nayib Bukele and the state of El Salvador must listen to the concerns of civil society. The state should ensure that the public security policies, meant to benefit the people, should respect fundamental human rights.
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About the Author
Vaishnavi Singh is a lover of poetry and literature. She is currently pursuing a major in English and a minor in sociology. Vaishnavi has always been passionate about improving the world around her, one step at a time, and she hopes her time with The International Prism will contribute to that goal.