by Paul Flores
In 2018, El Salvador was named the most violent country in the world, with approximately 52 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2020, the country’s homicide rate fell to a historic level after President Nayib Bukele came to power. Security has always been one of the main concerns of Salvadorans. It is the key to understanding the popularity of the current president, who provoked a wide range of controversial opinions on his strategy. But how did he manage to reduce the homicide rate to this level? Why does it cause division despite its positive implications?
First of all, to understand the president’s strategy, it is important to know that the country is mainly dominated by criminal groups. These criminal gangs – called Maras – engage in illicit and delinquent activities and rely on young recruits. The three main Maras in El Salvador are: Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS13), Barrio 18 (18th Street) Revolucionarios y Barrio 18 Sureños. To fight against violence, President Bukele created a Territorial Control Plan composed of 7 phases. For example, he stated that the first phase is meant “to break down communication from the penitentiaries. Currently, intelligence reports tell us that 80% of the homicide and extortion orders come from the prisons.” The main objectives of the plan include the modernization of police, the social reconstruction of communities, and the introduction of police and army personnel into gang-controlled areas.
But not all that glitters is gold. President Bukele’s plan is highly controversial, especially due to one element: the negotiation and agreements with the Maras.
According to the evidence presented by the Salvadorian newspaper, el Faro, the Maras received favourable treatment by the President in exchange for the reduction of violence. The main concessions include an improvement of the living conditions in jails and benefits for its members at liberty. There could have been other additional “non-official” concessions. Thanks to the prosecution’s investigation on the links between government officials and Maras, a list of 20 requests from the Maras has been discovered. The list included the end of a massive army and police operations against Maras, financing for microenterprises, and a review of their maximum-security status in prison. Moreover, homicides are only one of the ways that Maras use to establish control over communities. They also exert sexual violence, threats, and extorsion – which are not included in the homicide rates but are also severe criminal activities. Furthermore, the pandemic also had a big impact on lowering the homicide rate given that people stayed at home, lowering the risk of homicide. We will have to wait a few more years to see if, without the pandemic, the homicide rate is maintained at this level.