San Salvador’s historic center teems with commerce: some 40,000 vendors not only fill the downtown area’s four official markets, but also spill into the surrounding streets, their tarpaulin-covered stalls packed with everything from clothing to electronics, packaged sweets to fresh produce. The national and city governments have embarked on an effort to transform the capital city’s downtown into a tourist attraction, restoring monuments and relocating ramshackle market stalls. A new national library — donated by China — is under construction on the capital city’s civic square, across from the metropolitan cathedral.

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A military checkpoint in San Salvador, El Salvador, April 14, 2022. President Nayib Bukele’s popularity has risen amid a crackdown on gang violence that has resulted in the suspension key civil liberties. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)
A military checkpoint in San Salvador, El Salvador, April 14, 2022. President Nayib Bukele’s popularity has risen amid a crackdown on gang violence that has resulted in the suspension key civil liberties. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)

Until recently the capital city was one of the deadliest municipalities in one of Latin America’s deadliest countries. San Salvador’s downtown markets were a fiercely contested “goldmine” for criminal groups, who fought to control protection rackets, retail drug sales and other illegal activities.

But the gangs that once dominated the city center seem to have largely disappeared. Both street vendors and shop owners say they no longer make regular extortion payments. Drivers and pedestrians no longer pay tolls to gang collaborators. Residents of city blocks dominated by one gang no longer fear violent reprisals if they cross into another gang’s territory a few streets away.

Eight years ago, El Salvador suffered more killings per capita than any country in the Western Hemisphere, with most of the violence linked to street gangs. Although homicide rates started declining after 2015, the country’s two largest criminal groups — Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 — still dominated impoverished neighborhoods, forcing informal and small businesses to pay “rent,” the Salvadoran euphemism for extortion.

Why did homicides decline while extortion and other rackets continued? U.S. officials say the Salvadoran government had negotiated with imprisoned gang leaders in secret, offering benefits and special treatment in return for reducing the bloodshed. This secret truce broke down in March 2022, when gangs went on a weekend killing spree in an apparent attempt to wring additional concessions from the government.

Uncertainty Amid a Crackdown

It was a fatal miscalculation. Instead, President Nayib Bukele launched a massive crackdown declaring a one-month “state of exception,” which has now been renewed 13 times.

Security forces say they have arrested more than 66,000 suspected gang members. And they have kept nearly all of them in overcrowded prisons, using emergency powers that suspend certain constitutional rights, such as the right to legal counsel. Most are charged with “agrupación ilícita” (belonging to an illicit group), which allows authorities to hold them incommunicado. When they will face trial remains unclear.

The crackdown has made the Salvadoran president wildly popular: his approval among Salvadorans exceeded 90 percent in a recent poll. And the Bukele effect extends beyond his own country’s borders. The Honduran government launched its own state of exception in November 2022, extending and expanding the emergency over the past five months. A Guatemalan presidential candidate praised El Salvador’s crackdown as a “model” to replicate. From Mexico to Ecuador to Argentina, public figures have praised Bukele’s mano dura (or iron fist) anti-crime policies, though none have implemented measures nearly as drastic.

Within El Salvador, however, relief is tempered by uncertainty. Government supporters and critics alike recognize that the president’s crackdown has severely weakened, if not broken, the gangs’ hold on the capital city. But Salvadorans are also starting to wonder, what’s next? 

The government has yet to explain how it plans to put the tens of thousands of suspects now in prison on trial, whether it will rehabilitate and reintegrate those who are eventually released; and, most importantly, what it will do to prevent a new generation of violent street gangs from emerging.

“The gangs exercised control because no one else would,” said Veronica Reyna, a researcher with Passionist Social Services in Mejicanos, an impoverished suburb of San Salvador. “If the state doesn’t fill this vacuum — not just with police but education and other services — other criminal groups will step in.”

An educator who works with at-risk and incarcerated youths echoed this fear. Gangs provided a purpose — however negative — in communities where young people did not see any future for themselves. “Many say they don’t expect to live beyond 18,” said the educator. “If no one else offers them opportunities and hope, criminal groups will fill that void.”

Doubly Victimized

Not far from San Salvador’s historic center, half a dozen women gathered recently in a trade union’s dilapidated offices. Most worked in the informal economy as street vendors, handing over a portion of their meager earnings to gangs as “rent.” Several said they had lost relatives to gang violence. They all said they had supported the president’s crackdown, which Salvadorans call the “regime.”

And then the dragnet caught their own relatives.

“The regime is good,” said a woman whose family made and sold empiñadas, a colorful artisanal sweet found in Salvadoran markets. “We were glad to see them get rid of the gangs. But they should take away the guilty, not the innocent.”

The women were members of the Movement of Victims of the Regime or MOVIR. None had been able to contact their relatives, most of whom had been in prison for nearly a year, having been arrested during the early weeks of the emergency. Some had hired lawyers only to be told nothing could be done. All carried police documents, desperate to show that their spouses, sons, daughters, nephews, nieces or grandchildren had no arrest record.  

Loss of much needed income compounded their anguish. After the arrest of both her husband and her daughter, the empiñada maker was struggling to support the rest of her family with the help of her elderly mother-in-law. Families faced the additional burden of paying transport costs to visit prisons or justice officials and supplying food and toiletries for their jailed relatives. The so-called “paquete,” a package of goods approved by prison authorities, cost relatives between $70 and $150 a month.

The government says it has released some 4,000 suspects, though human rights groups say many are quickly detained again by police forces under pressure to fulfill arrest quotas. Through interviews with released prisoners, Cristosal, a rights group affiliated with the Episcopal Church, has documented beatings, abuse and neglect in overcrowded detention centers.

But the plight of relatives outside the prisons is also alarming. Women often shoulder the burden, struggling to keep their families together as they slip from poverty into extreme poverty. “They are trying to get justice, send supplies to their imprisoned relatives, and support their families,” said Zaira Navas, an attorney with Cristosal. “We’ve heard of grandmothers left to care for 10 grandchildren.”

Sustainable Solutions

Analysts believe the government will maintain the emergency at least through the March 2024 general election. Bukele and his Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party are expected to keep control of the presidency, the legislature and most municipal governments. 

Thus far, neither the president nor his cabinet have shown any inclination to soften hardline policies.   The government has completed construction of what may be the world’s largest prison, the Terrorism Confinement Center, which is supposed to hold up to 40,000 prisoners. After the government opened the new facility in February, the minister of security declared that gang members would “never return to their communities … not even in 45 years.”

But there is hope that after the election, the government will start proposing long-term solutions. “They know they can’t simply fill up the jails,” said an expert who has worked with Salvadoran security forces.  “After the elections they can start looking at rehabilitation and community engagement.”

The government has promised to address El Salvador’s underinvestment in education, which has long lagged behind other countries in the region. In September 2022, the Bukele administration vowed to pay off this “historic debt,” launching an educational program called “Mi Nueva Escuela” (My New School) that would include curriculum reform, teacher training and remodeling more than 5,000 schools over the next five years.

The consequences of El Salvador’s failure to provide educational opportunities are painfully obvious within the prison system. More than 90 percent of those incarcerated have never finished high school, according to Hector Carrillo with the Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law (FESPAD). And more than 97 percent have no post-secondary education. Nor is the situation much better for Salvadorans in general: the quality of education tends to be poor and access to post-secondary studies rare. “Only 11 percent of the population has more than 13 years of schooling,” he said.

Before the emergency, the Bukele government promised to invest in prisoner education through a program called “Segundas Oportunidides” (Second Chances). “Education is the most powerful tool to change our society,” director of prisons Osiris Luna said in July 2021 when the government announced the expansion of rehabilitation initiatives. (More recently the prison director has taken a harder line, declaring in October 2022, “these people will never leave jail.”)

Bukele’s signature violence prevention initiative are the CUBOs or “Urban Centers for Welfare and Opportunities.” The government has built 11 of these transparent, cube-shaped buildings in poor communities, offering young people academic support, athletic activities, and art or language classes. The idea is to provide impoverished youths with safe spaces, including access to computers, a library with cozy cushions for reading and adult supervision.

Activists applaud these initiatives but warn that most young people in marginalized areas still lack access to decent schools, much less after-school enrichment. And they worry that cuts in the subsidies to municipal governments are depriving local leaders of the ability to develop innovative solutions tailored to local needs.

Improvements in security should “open spaces for communities to express themselves,” said Carrillo of FESPAD. “We should ask them what they need. The communities know best what needs to be done to prevent violence.”

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