Today, it can already be said that the “success” of the Government of El Salvador in dismantling the gangs is undeniable. In the same way, there has been a strong almost absolute centralisation of power in the hands of President Nayib Bukele but to the detriment of the rule of law.
The majority of Salvadorans accept this pact and support their president, something that has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the region’s leaders facing their own crises over organised crime. However, some voices have already been raised to prevent various leaders from being tempted to seek the same solution to their problems.
But the truth is that this has already begun to happen. As reported by several media such as Nuso, Hispanidad, El Confidencial or Washingtonpost, the president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, also decreed the state of emergency last December to facilitate the fight against the gangs. Ecuador declared four regimes of exception during 2022, militarising prisons and areas with high homicide rates, and Jamaica did the same with the aim of combating an upturn in violence at the hands of various criminal organisations.
A few days ago, El Salvador offered help to Haiti, the poorest country in Latin America and devastated by gangs, to implement its regional control plan. In a region that has struggled for decades to establish an adequate response to organised crime, Bukele’s policies are increasingly attractive. Especially when these security policies have international financing such as that of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), an entity based in Honduras and of which Spain is a member.
For some scholars studying the issue, the end of the gangs in El Salvador could mark the beginning of the era of militarisation and mega-prisons in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the case of El Salvador, the campaign of mass arrests has meant putting 60,000 people behind bars, 1% of the Salvadoran population. Thus, the country has the highest incarceration rate in the world (1,536 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants), while drastically reducing the murder rate. In 2022, the rate stood at 8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, up from 105 in 2015.
Currently, gang members who have not been arrested are in disarray, unable to receive orders from headless criminal structures and have a smaller or even non-existent presence in neighbourhoods that were previously under the absolute control of these gangs.
Meanwhile, those who are incarcerated must receive financial support from their families, as they must buy food parcels and basic goods worth $170 a month. The system is simple: relatives cannot bring them anything from outside prison, so they have no choice but to buy these packages.
Beyond the injustices, many warn that the immediate results of the emergency regime hide the tide of problems that may be triggered by this unprecedented wave of arrests and repression. And some experts stress that El Salvador’s history shows that these heavy-handed policies sometimes pay off in the short term but in reality are creating a breeding ground for criminal groups to recycle, recruit more people, and eventually become even stronger.