For the second time in three years, El Salvador is back under martial law. The state of exception was approved so swiftly that lawmakers failed to remove references to public health and economic reopening in the text, clearly copied and pasted from the decrees that governed the country’s notoriously militarized 2020 pandemic lockdown. This latest suspension of constitutional guarantees, however, was enacted as part of right-wing populist president Nayib Bukele’s newly declared “war on gangs.” Still reeling from the pandemic, working-class Salvadorans now find themselves caught between predatory street gangs and an unaccountable authoritarian state.
In a single weekend, El Salvador experienced its highest homicide toll since its twelve-year US-backed civil war: seventy-four dead in forty-eight hours, with sixty-two murders on Saturday, March 26 alone. The act of mass terror appears to have been ordered by the leadership of the nation’s most powerful criminal gang, MS-13. Victims were largely chosen at random. Delivery workers, commuters, street vendors, and shop patrons were gunned down in broad daylight, their bodies displayed in public view across twelve of the country’s fourteen departments.
Bukele responded in kind. Security forces laid siege to working-class neighborhoods, conducting indiscriminate arrests that saw over six thousand people disappeared into the country’s miserably overcrowded jails in less than a week. The president has inundated social media with images of police brutality and collective punishment, even branding the campaign with the hashtag #GuerraContraPandillas (“war against gangs”). The crackdown, however, is no innovation. Instead, it is a return to the same US-backed security strategies that spawned the current crisis.
The Art of the Deal
President Bukele made much of a drop in murders since his 2019 election, attributing the reduction to the success of an ill-defined “territorial control plan.” March’s horrific spectacle, however, demonstrated that organized crime remains more powerful than ever. The carnage confirmed what the government continues to deny: the administration had brokered a secret agreement with the gangs to suppress the homicide rate.
Government negotiations with gangs in El Salvador is nothing new. From the municipal to the national level, governance without compromises with these powerful illicit actors is all but impossible. In 2012, the leftist FMLN government began clandestine talks with the imprisoned gang leadership, using religious mediators and international observers to broker a truce between the two rivals in exchange for alleviating prison conditions.
When media broke the story, however, the public reaction was polarized. The Obama administration’s classification of MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization struck a further blow against open dialogue. As the deal entered a second, more public phase in 2013, incorporating municipal authorities to provide prevention and rehabilitation programs, El Salvador’s right-wing Supreme Court forced the ouster of the FMLN defense minister who had been a key broker of the truce.
The deal began to unravel, and murders resumed their upward course. In 2015, the high court designated both MS and the 18th street gang terrorist organizations, specifically outlawing any “agreements” or “negotiations.” With homicides at all-time highs, the FMLN reverted to the repressive security methods of the past.
Bukele, whose political career began in the FMLN, directed his government to prosecute former FMLN president Mauricio Funes and Defense Minister David Munguía Payés for their role in the truce. But the sharp reduction in homicides under his administration, coupled with a sinister surge in forced disappearances, prompted suspicions of a secret pact. These were corroborated by local reporting.
El Salvador’s refusal of US extradition requests for fourteen indicted MS-13 members in June 2021, four of whom were since released from their maximum security prisons, raised further questions. Whatever the terms of the arrangement, the recent killings, together with Bukele’s venomous reaction, suggest that the deal has fractured.
Made in the USA
The birth of MS-13 and the 18th street gang in the streets and prisons of Los Angeles is only one aspect of the US origins of El Salvador’s gang crisis. Key to the current situation are the zero-tolerance policing strategies that, along with the refugees deported for alleged gang ties, were exported to El Salvador by the US government.
“For decades, the US has poured tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars into punitive and militarized methods of combatting violence and insecurity in El Salvador,” explains Yesenia Portillo, program director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).
For ruling elites, after the civil war’s negotiated end in 1992, policing became key to containing the social fallout of neoliberal restructuring and the unfulfilled promises of peace. Researchers like Elana Zilberg have documented how the draconian anti-gang policing strategies pioneered in Los Angeles in the 1990s were zealously imposed on postwar El Salvador. The far-right administrations that governed between 1989 and 2009 eagerly implemented these zero-tolerance policies, which were translated in El Salvador as “mano dura” or “iron fist.” These campaigns of mass arrests and punitive reforms effectively criminalized poor young men across the country.
Plan Mano Dura was implemented under President Francisco Flores in 2003 and included the first postwar deployment of the military in police patrols, a tragic reversal of the demilitarization gains of the 1992 Peace Accords. In 2004, President Antonio “Tony” Saca followed up with Plan Súper Mano Dura, further increasing sentences and straining the capacity of the national prison system. Saca also imposed an anti-terror law modeled on the Patriot Act that, in addition to prosecuting alleged gang members, was deployed against leftist protesters. Over thirty thousand accused gang members were arrested between 2003 and 2005.
These repressive strategies only radicalized the gangs, making their structures more complex and sophisticated. As Zilberg writes, “Limiting access to public space, mass incarceration, and increased deportation all induce closer ties by actively promoting association between gang members on local, regional, national, and transnational scales.” Today, El Salvador has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world. (You can guess who retains first place.)
In addition to helping model legislation and policy, the US government takes an active role in training El Salvador’s law enforcement. Dating back to a 1995 Clinton administration initiative, the International Law Enforcement Academy in San Salvador finally opened in 2005. Under the banner of combating transnational organized crime, US agencies from the IRS to the FBI and the DEA sponsor courses for officials from across Latin America, drawing comparisons from critics to the infamous School of the Americas.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) runs its own programs, like the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT), which certifies cops to preach against the twin evils of joining gangs or migrating to the US in Salvadoran elementary schools. The INL has also spent over $2 million since 2012 on a Police Athletics League in El Salvador.
Other initiatives focus specifically on incarceration. The US has trained dozens of Salvadoran maximum security prison officials on topics from inmate transport to “riot control and baton use.” US funding also supports the expansion and fortification of prison infrastructure, like thirty maximum security cells in the Zacatecoluca prison built in 2014.
The United States also directs local law enforcement operations. In 2007, the FBI created its first Transnational Anti-Gang Task Force (TAG) in El Salvador, comprised of agents from the FBI and State Department, together with Salvadoran police and prosecutors. These task forces now operate in Honduras and Guatemala as well. In 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) signed a memo of cooperation with the Salvadoran police to support the work of Transnational Criminal Investigative Units (TCIUs) that operate in El Salvador through ICE and the State Department.
Since 2012, the Justice Department’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT) operates three State Department–funded Resident Legal Advisors in El Salvador. In November 2020, the Department of Justice announced 572 arrests in El Salvador of alleged gang members as part of Operation Regional Shield. Through this program, Central American prosecutors trained by the FBI, HSI, and OPDAT work with local TAG and TCIUs to carry out investigations that brought charges against over eleven thousand alleged gang members between 2017–2020.
Then there’s the security aid. Between 2013 and 2018, El Salvador received $10.5 million in foreign assistance from the Department of Defense (DoD), allocated as foreign military financing and military education and training. From 2016 to 2020, the DoD provided $15 million in foreign military financing alone. Since 2008, millions more have been provided through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), modeled on the disastrous Merida Initiative with Mexico.
Even though Congress cut the $1.9 million El Salvador had been receiving in Foreign Military Financing to purchase US weapons and equipment in 2020, the country continues to benefit from CARSI and Pentagon spending. In August 2021, as the State Department decried the “decline of democratic governance” under Bukele, the US Embassy celebrated a donation of twelve MD 530F helicopters to the Salvadoran Air Force.
The thirty-day state of exception enacted on March 27 suspends freedom of association and the right to an attorney, extends the period of detention without cause from seventy-two hours to fifteen days and authorizes police intervention into personal communications. Punitive reforms approved on March 30 raise sentences for gang membership to up to thirty years for adults and ten years for children as young as twelve. Bukele’s lawmakers authorized judges to rule over proceedings anonymously. They also appropriated additional funding for Defense and Public Security, increasing a military budget that, even adjusted for inflation, was already well above its civil war peak.
Like the repressive campaigns of the past, these measures can easily be deployed against dissidents. Another law, hastily approved April 5, broadly criminalizes reporting on gang activities and is being denounced by the press as censorship.
The state of exception may have been copied and pasted from the pandemic lockdown, but it occurs in a markedly deteriorated democratic context. In 2020, Supreme Court resistance to rampant constitutional and human rights violations provoked a protracted constitutional crisis. But after the 2021 midterms, the president’s newly installed legislative majority illegally ousted all five magistrates and the attorney general, replaced them with loyalists, then proceeded with a sweeping purge of the lower judiciary. The administration has done away with all checks on executive power, clearing the way for total impunity.
In the meantime, the president is shoring up his base. For his domestic constituency, he assumes the role of a vengeful savior against the satanic forces of criminality, spewing bellicose macho bravado online. Bukele ridicules human rights and due process concerns, accusing advocates of siding with the gangs and conspiring with the opposition. He announced ration cuts for the incarcerated, threatening to starve inmates if murders spike again. For his foreign fans, however, he continues to portray El Salvador as a beacon of liberty, courting international investment from assorted crypto concerns.
The weekend that homicides surged, Bukele was busy entertaining a delegation of foreign bitcoin investors. Former Blockstream executive Samson Mow joined Mexican oligarch Ricardo Salinas Pliego and bitcoin evangelists Stacy Herbert and Max Keiser, touring the country in a private jet to hype the government’s proposed emission of bitcoin bonds and geothermal-powered bitcoin mining. As the country entered martial law, the crypto dignitaries partied in an exclusive beach hotel.
Bukele’s authoritarianism — the militarized repression, the state surveillance of journalists and dissidents, the political persecution — sits in apparent contradiction with his sales pitch for crypto-utopia. But this has been the libertarian fantasy all along: vast social inequality, sustained at gunpoint. Unrestricted capital accumulation has long required antidemocratic, even violent state intervention — Eduardo Galeano once observed that US-backed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet threw people in prison “so the prices could be free.”
“That’s what having balls looks like,” Salinas Pliego tweeted on March 27. “Finally, the authorities chose to screw the criminals and protect the citizens. Bravo @nayibbukele!”
The US-made gang crisis in El Salvador has devastated the lives and communities of working-class Salvadorans. The wholesale export of the US model of mass incarceration and militarized policing has only fomented the growth of criminal networks of extortion, drug trafficking, and murder in El Salvador.
“Once again, we see that those who pay the highest price for the violence of US-backed Drug War are working-class youth and families, the same people who have suffered the most under the accompanying pro-corporate economic ‘development’ model,” says Portillo.
Recent events confirm the perils of top-down, secret dealings that turn body counts into bargaining chips. Transparent, participatory engagement is the only possible offramp from an otherwise intractable social crisis that has already cost many lives. Tragically, decades of a US-driven zero-tolerance approach has all but foreclosed on the possibility of dialogue, demobilization, or rehabilitation.
There is no military solution to the crisis short of genocide. Bukele’s indiscriminate repression and gleeful dehumanization offer no reparations for victims nor prevention of future harm, only a promise of revenge. For many desperate Salvadorans, that promise appears to be enough.
On social media, Bukele has made himself a martyr, playing the victim of international abandonment if not outright conspiracy: “Do you know how many countries have decided to help us in the war against gangs? Exactly: NONE. Do not come later and try to tell us what we should have done or not do, when at the moment that we could have needed your help, you left us alone,” he tweeted on March 29.
Bukele’s laments are as disingenuous as the State Department’s disavowals. Whatever differences exist between San Salvador and Washington, the US continues to finance, arm, and train the forces unleashing the latest wave of repression. Bukele’s war on gangs is just mano dura, rebranded. The product of decades of disastrous US policy in the region, it can only expand the cycle of violence.
On the eve of the 2022 Bitcoin conference in Miami Beach that Bukele was scheduled to headline, the president sent his regrets. “I will have to be another flank in the battle for freedom,” he wrote. As the state of exception continues, the crypto-colonizers can rest easy behind the walls of their tropical tourist enclaves.