El Salvador’s President Addresses His Country’s Gang Problem

Foreign Policy Brief #129 | By: Abigail Hunt| March 25, 2024
Featured Photo: www.vox.com


Two years ago, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele requested a month-long anti-gang emergency decree from the nation’s lawmakers. Gang violence plagued the country. Each month since its initial passage, lawmakers have voted to extend the decree. The most recent vote marked the 24th extension of the anti-gang effort, and it appears to have made a difference. The original decree was passed March 27th, 2022, after 62 people were murdered in a single day. In 2023, there averaged a murder every other day. As of March 9th, 2024, the AP reports, there have been just 18 murders this year, a significant improvement.

El Salvador is the heart of Central America. With an approximate 6.6 million people (in 2023 per CIA.gov), the population has grown at a steady pace in recent years. At 8,124 square miles, it is the smallest country in continental America, and the only country in Central America that has no Caribbean coastline. The history of El Salvador is ancient, and the descendants of those ancient ancestors live in the nation today. The modern-day indigenous are mostly Nahua-Pipil, and they comprise 10 percent of the population, according to a Minority Rights Group profile.  Ten percent equates to about 600,000 people, per data from the National Council for Art and Culture at the Ministry of Education (CONCULTURA) and the National Salvadoran Indigenous Coordination Council (CCNIS).

Of the indigenous population, only five percent own their own land. By contrast, a whopping 95 percent of non-indigenous citizens own their own property. Indigenous families have more than twice the average number of children compared to their non-indigenous counterparts, and those children are almost twice as likely to be illiterate. The average indigenous home is a weak, shanty-like structure on communal or rented land. They have no voice in the government, and no political candidate bothers to consider them when shaping policy.

Sometime between 1700-2000 B.C.E., the earliest of the Olmecs settled in El Salvador. They were followed by the Toltecs, Pipil, Nahua, Lenca, and other tribes, weaving a deep and ancient history which continues to this day. In the 16th century C.E., more than three thousand years after tribes first settled the area, Spanish conquerors arrived to seize power. The power was not easily won but won nonetheless. By the mid-1500s, the area was under Spanish control. The conquerors stole the land and exploited the people, who were forced to labor long hours on plantations to build wealth for the Spanish overlords. The people have attempted uprisings, which have been quashed. In 1932, in response to armed rebellion which killed 32, the government slaughtered between 35,000 and 50,000 people in what is known as La Matanza. They targeted indigenous people.

During the country’s civil war in the 1980s, citizens from El Salvador fled to L.A., where the now-infamous MS-13 gang was founded. That gang and others spread among El Salvador migrants and other migrant groups, then returned to their home countries with them when many of those migrants were deported in the 1990s. Those gangs have continued to spread their reach and dig in their heels ever since.

In present-day El Salvador, President Bukele employs restrictive and racist policy which justifies force, targeting people based on appearance. Under the national emergency decree, still in effect, police arrested more than 78,000 suspected gang members, about 7,000 of whom have been released due to lack of evidence. Innocent indigenous people who live in the same rural areas the gangs set up camp are assumed guilty due to geographic proximity. This author found no readily available research on the racial and ethnic demographic makeup of the gangs themselves.

Recently, Bukele won re-election, a first in the history of the nation (aided by a government stacked in his favor). He is in his early 40s and was re-elected with 80 percent of the vote. A popular figure due in part to his success in quelling gang violence, he is riding a high wave after reelection. Bukele recently posted on social media about Haiti with the caption, “We can fix it.” Other Latin American leaders have enacted similar measures to Bukele’s in their countries, with debatable success rates.

El Salvador’s emergency gang order suspended fundamental civil rights such as a person’s right to know the reason why they are being arrested and their right to a lawyer. Bukele wrongfully imprisoned one percent of the national population and is widely criticized as enforcing a police state. It seems Bukele believes he deserves to be handed control of another nation, a devastated and fractured country with a much larger population than El Salvador and a completely different culture, with a long history of fighting back against oppressive occupying forces. The 18th c. philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” It is unlikely Haiti’s fate would be placed in Bukele’s eager grip. The solution to the issues in Haiti today are not solved by the implementation of a police state; a society’s infrastructure cannot be rebuilt with arrest records.

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