Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, has announced the implementation of specific strategies aimed at reducing violence in the country, which continues to have one of the highest recorded homicide rates in the world at 50.3 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018.
Although there has been criticism from within government of earlier ‘iron fist’ policies to deal with gangs, it was explained that the government is shifting to new models in the fight against crime, seeing it as a social problem resulting from lack of opportunity and poverty. Even so, there has so far been no mention of prevention or rehabilitation policies, rather the talk has been about attacking the gangs in two areas that the current government sees as key: prisons and the centres of big cities.
The first thing the government wants to do is attack gang finance. The government wants to cut off the gangs’ income so that they have no finance. It is thought that the gangs finance round 80% of their activity through extortion rackets. In parallel, the government wants to stop money laundering through the businesses that enable the gangs to operate.
A second front is to recover control of the centres of big cities, which are thought to be where the gangs run most of their extortion rackets. Government sources are of the view that previous policies focused on small rural communities were misconceived.
To take back those historic city centres, the government will deploy CCTV and put more police and soldiers on the streets. There will be an investment of $15 million in improving pay and conditions for the forces of law and order.
The third strand in the fight against the gangs is to cut communication with prisons, since some 80% of orders for killings and extortion are thought to be issued from prison. The plan is to cut off messages from prisons. Implementation requires new prison staff in order to circumvent bribery and extortion within prisons themselves.
The security plan being implemented by the Salvadorian government does not envisage any role for dialogue with the gangs. What’s more, it has been stressed that a government should not talk to “criminal groups”.
There are gang experts who believe that ‘iron fist’ policies cannot work on their own without a plan that addresses the socio-economic roots of violence in the country. There is no point in locking up thousands of gang members because they are part of the social fabric of El Salvador.
But politicians believe that the public are more concerned about crime and the government is trying to show that they are determined, which is what Salvadorians are thought to want. Nevertheless, there are political commentators who think there is room for a twin strategy: implement the existing strategy with a high-profile tougher approach to crime and when the gangs react put forward alternative proposals.