More than 27,000 people have been arrested in El Salvador since the government of Nayib Bukele decreed a state of emergency at the end of March, amid a wave of gang-related killings.
“We closed Tuesday, May 10, with 27,831 terrorists captured in just 46 days,” President Bukele said via Twitter.
March 26 was the bloodiest day recorded in the country since the civil war 30 years ago, with at least 62 homicides in just 24 hours, according to The New York Times. The National Civil Police reported at least 172 people killed between March 1-31; 51 percent of these nationwide crimes occurring in just three days, March 25-27, reported digital media El Mundo.
Authorities in the Central American country pointed to the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18 gangs, which have a major presence in the territory, as the main perpetrators of this massacre in which gang members fired indiscriminately in the streets. The state of emergency, decreed on March 27 for 30 days, was extended for another month. States use this measure during situations of serious social upheaval that threaten national security. The state of emergency allows authorities to act immediately to control threats.
“We have 16 000 ‘homeboys’ in our possession, apart from the 1,000 arrested these days. We confiscated everything from them, even their sleeping mats, we rationed their food and now they will no longer see the sun. Stop killing now […],” President Bukele said via Twitter on March 28, referring to the measures taken by authorities, as well as publicly warning gangs to cease their acts of violence or face the consequences.
The Territorial Control Plan
Upon assuming power in June 2019, Bukele launched his Territorial Control Plan to tackle criminal groups and guarantee the security of the population. The plan focuses on three areas: controlling prisons, interrupting organized crime financing, and strengthening security forces. One line of action has to do with eliminating communication from penitentiaries, as intelligence reports indicate that 80 percent of homicide and extortion orders come from prisons, Forbes reported.
“The Territorial Control Plan is a comprehensive strategy that includes the recovery of spaces that have historically been dominated by gangs, the strengthening of security institutions, and the creation of development opportunities for the population, especially young people,” the Salvadoran Ministry of Justice and Public Security said in a statement.
Since the launch of the plan, El Salvador’s homicide rate dropped by 36 per 100 000 inhabitants in 2019, fell to 20 in 2020, and then to 17 in 2021 — in 2015 El Salvador had the highest murder rate worldwide at 103 per 100 000 inhabitants. The “iron fist” policy of President Bukele against gangs, however, has not been without controversy within the country and abroad. According to the results of a survey conducted by CID Gallup in April 2022, 91 percent of the population not only supports the measures taken against gangs, but also their severity.
In an April 10 statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken offered the U.S. continued support to El Salvador in its efforts to curb illegal gang activity.
“Since 2008, we have invested $411 million to improve citizen security and help the Salvadoran government combat gang violence. Examples include the construction of a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory in Nuevo Cuscatlán, and assistance to reclaim and renovate public spaces such as Parque Cuscatlán,” Blinken said. “Gangs pose a threat to the national security of El Salvador and the United States. We urge El Salvador to address this threat while also protecting vital civil liberties, including freedom of the press, due process, and freedom of expression.”
In early April, the Salvadoran Congress approved a package of reforms that modify norms in the Penal Code, the Juvenile Penal Law, and the Anti-Terrorism Law. One of the amendments to the Penal Code establishes sentences of 40 to 45 years in prison for gang leaders, up from nine years in the past. According to Minister of Justice and Security Gustavo Villatoro, “these reforms are intended to impose harsh penalties on these terrorists who believe they are above the authority and play with the lives of Salvadorans,” France 24 reported.