It is straight to business for El Salvador’s president-elect Nayib Bukele as he faces unparalleled expectations when it comes to tackling the country’s security policy.
Some sources close to the president are giving the impression that Salvadorans will see daring, new proposals, but others fear Bukele will fall back on tried and not so true policies that have promised much but delivered little.
InSight Crime delves into three of the major issues affecting El Salvador’s public security and anti-crime efforts, which the new president will have to deal with upon taking a seat in his office at the presidential palace.
1. Gang Activity
Within the plan presented during his campaign, Bukele published a National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) document that was supposed to be restricted from public view. It was a map showing the Salvadoran territory under control of the two dominant gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. A PNC official told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity that the Bukele team received the information from someone within the PNC. An investigation has been opened to discover who was responsible for the leak, according to Diario El Mundo.
Bukele’s plan describes the criminal landscape in El Salvador in crystal clear terms that have been obvious to Salvadorans for over a decade and a half: the gangs have been expanding their control through extortion and the indiscriminate use of violence in large swaths of the country for years.
“The expansion of these criminal groups is undeniable, as is the impact on the lives of ordinary citizens,” the plan states.
The two administrations prior to Bukele's belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). Both of them opted for widespread “mano dura” (“iron fist”) policies that included instituting so-called extraordinary measures in the prisons and giving the police free rein when pursuing gang members in the streets. From the latter sprung a new version of the death squads that had plagued the country in its more turbulent years -- this time embedded in the police force.
However, the maps published by the Bukele team showed that the mano dura policies changed little; the territorial control of the gangs remains intact today.
One figure that has improved is the homicide rate, which dropped by 15 percent in 2018. The start of the year saw a spike in killings that included several murders of police officers, but official reports show that by the end of January daily homicides had decreased to nine, then to seven so far this month.
Though authorities blame most of El Salvador’s murders on the gangs, Bukele has shown a willingness to find ways to manage them.
When he was mayor of San Salvador, Bukele and his advisors held talks with gangs in order to ensure government presence in some of the capital’s hardest hit neighborhoods, according to a June 2018 report published by El Faro.
2. Police Reform
Since 2015, the Salvadoran justice system has prosecuted half a dozen cases in which high-ranking members of the police force, soldiers and other officials have been accused of homicide, attempted homicide, intimidation, torture and other crimes.
President-elect Bukele’s security plan, however, continues to emphasize the repressive component of the PNC and maintains the military’s active role in criminal intelligence work and public security.
Still largely unknown is what action the new government will take to effectively purge both armed institutions of the actors corrupting them, especially the PNC.
What will soon be known, though, is the names of the police officials who will be appointed to head the PNC and if any of them carry past accusations against them.
Another sign of what can be expected from the Bukele administration is what happens to Defense Minister David Munguía Payés. The intelligence apparatuses that General Payés currently runs have been linked to extrajudicial executions and other crimes. Many will be watching closely to see how much power he wields under the new president.
During the campaign, Bukele’s team focused heavily on how it will address corruption. Starting in October 2018, allusions were made to the creation of an international anti-graft commission akin to Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG).
But Bukele made clear his intention to tackle corruption with a similar entity in the speech he gave the night of February 3, the day he officially won the presidential election with close to 54 percent of the vote. He and his advisors now have a more concrete proposal for what they are calling the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en El Salvador – CICIES).
However, there may also be cause for concern. Accusations of corruption and regulatory violations weigh on Bukele himself, and El Salvador's politicians and business elites are bound to resist any anti-graft body.
Local politicians have already expressed reluctance to create such a commission, including Bukele’s fellow members of the political party he ran under, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA). Some of them have been investigated for alleged illicit enrichment.
What's more, El Salvador’s main business association made a statement insisting that a CICIES is unnecessary. The business class was perhaps worried after witnessing the CICIG investigations unfold in Guatemala against some of that country's elites.
In response, Bukele’s colleagues were quick to downplay his affiliation with GANA -- which has already been known for past corruption -- saying it was simply a vehicle to the presidency. They added that the president-elect will have plenty of space to sidestep any obstacles intended to impede projects like the CICIES.
With the elections over and Bukele’s presidency set to begin, it is now time to keep tabs on his first steps, not only in establishing his proposed anti-graft commission, but also in how he decides to combat El Salvador’s insecurity, crime and violence.