Kejal Vyas and Santiago Pérez, Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2023
El Salvador, long whipsawed by gang violence that made it one of the world’s most dangerous countries, turned things around by jailing huge swaths of its population. The country once known for having the world’s highest murder rate now has the world’s highest incarceration rate—about double that of the U.S.
Since March 2022, President Nayib Bukele’s government has implemented a campaign to arrest en masse suspected members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs that have long terrorized the impoverished Central American nation, blocking economic growth and stoking U.S.-bound migration.
The strategy has helped lower homicides by 92% compared with 2015, giving Bukele the support of nine of every 10 Salvadorans, polls show. The number of Salvadorans illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped by 44%.
It also has put some 68,000 people in this Massachusetts-size country of 6.3 million behind bars. That’s more than 1% of the population, according to World Prison Brief, an online database on correctional systems. Rights groups said the campaign has swept up innocent people, especially among the country’s poor and indigenous communities, who are held for long periods in harsh conditions without trial.
Responding to allegations of prisoner mistreatment, Bukele during a cabinet meeting in October said, “Yes, they’ll have human rights. But the human rights of honest people are more important.”
‘Just copy him’
The U.S. has been scrambling to manage a flood of migrants driven northward by endemic violence and poverty.
Detentions of Salvadorans, once one of the largest groups trying to cross the southwestern border, illegally crossing have dropped to about 36,500 in the eight months through May of this fiscal year from more than 65,000 in the same period a year earlier, just before the campaign began.
Other countries are watching El Salvador’s policies as they grapple with their own high murder rates.
Ecuadoreans, one of the largest nationalities heading to the U.S., have seen the homicide rate in their country quadruple from 2019 through 2022. Some politicians, such as Cynthia Viteria, who until May served as mayor of the violent Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil, encouraged Ecuador’s government to mimic the Salvadoran leader’s policies to bring down crime and stop the killing of police officers.
“It’s simple, just copy him. Do what Bukele’s doing,” she said in September. “The solutions are out there, for those who have the guts to implement them.”
The anti-gang campaign is widely popular in El Salvador, whether in hardscrabble neighborhoods, wealthy enclaves or rural regions.
“I would vote for Bukele 10 more times,” said Edwin Ávalos, who recently opened a Mexican restaurant near a notorious San Salvador slum. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have opened a business here. This was a red zone,” said Ávalos, recounting how he used to fork over $6,000 a year in extortion payments in a failed effort to keep open clothing and restaurant businesses that he owned.
In the slums that surround the country’s capital, parents now say their children can play outside without asking permission from once-omnipresent street gangs. Middle-class teens gather at the coffee shops of central San Salvador, and restaurants are filled with families having dinner.
The extortion that shop owners had paid to crime syndicates has fallen sharply, according to a survey by the country’s largest business group.
The gangs are steeped in drug trafficking and extortion, with territorial control so strict that many people were killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, where Bukele’s ruling party has a majority, in March 2022 approved emergency powers that suspended constitutional guarantees and loosened arrest rules for 30 days. The order has been renewed each month since then, most recently in mid-June.
Salvadoran police said that in total they are hunting more than 80,000 suspected gangsters, from mid-ranking hit men to the teenagers who patrol the streets for them, who are set to be tried in court as adults.
There are 1,086 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador, double the U.S.’s incarceration rate of 531 per 100,000, according to the World Prison Brief.
To accommodate the rising inmate population, Bukele earlier this year opened a new mega-prison with space to hold 40,000 people, the world’s largest correctional facility. Construction of the sprawling complex, officially named the Confinement Center for Terrorism, was completed in seven months, after lawmakers permitted the government to bypass normal public tender processes to fast-track prison contracts. Salvadoran officials commonly refer to criminal gangs as terrorists.
El Salvador’s homicide rate fell from a peak of 106 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 to 7.8 in 2022, among the lowest in Latin America.
That’s well below the murder rates in some major U.S. cities, which Bukele points out on social media in his pitches to attract foreign investors and tech entrepreneurs, a focus after his administration adopted bitcoin as legal tender in 2021.
“Now we have the levels of security that countries in Latin America dream of,” Bukele said in a speech to lawmakers last month. He declared a war against corruption, promising to build a special jail for white-collar criminals.
Business owners said sales and employment have been boosted. Property sales in communities previously riddled by violence are showing signs of life for the first time in decades, partly fueled by investments and funds sent back by the country’s large immigrant community in the U.S. Commuters are able to use public transport without risk of being mugged or killed by gang enforcers.
The president, who on Twitter once dubbed himself “the coolest dictator in the worldly world” as a cheeky rejoinder to his critics, has said his strategy is designed to help millions of law-abiding people who had been living in terror.
Former central bank governor Carlos Acevedo said that gangs raked in an estimated $500 million a year from extortion paid by businesses and residents. Multilateral organizations estimated that crime cost El Salvador 15% of its $29 billion economy.
Those losses are now being reversed, business groups said. In a survey earlier this year by the National Association of Private Enterprise, the country’s largest business group, members reported drops of 40% to 70% in extortion since mid-2022.
Rights groups said the government should boost spending on social programs for young people and on gangster rehabilitation, instead of focusing on punitive measures and mass incarceration.
But more than 60% of Salvadorans said they didn’t care if their government was democratic as long as it solved their day-to-day problems, according to a survey by Chile-based regional pollster Latinobarometro in 2021.
Among those most loudly applauding the government’s security policy is the transportation sector, which had been a prime gang target.
Public-bus operators were robbed of at least $20 million a year through extortion, according to Genaro Ramírez, president of El Salvador’s public transport bus association. Extortion had become so institutionalized that Ramirez said a bank asked him for detailed information on payments to gangs when he once applied for a business loan. Gangs also boarded buses to rob passengers.
Some 3,000 public transport workers and bus owners were killed in gang crossfire and attacks over the past two decades, Ramírez said. In 2010, after a bus owner refused to pay extortion, at least 17 people were killed when gangsters doused a bus full of passengers with gasoline and set it ablaze, then fired bullets at anyone who tried to run out. The incident transfixed Salvadorans.
Over the past year, extortion has fallen to “negligible sums,” Ramírez said. He credited the anti-gang campaign, calling it harsh but necessary.