El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele has lashed out after several days of bloodshed amid a coronavirus lockdown, blaming the spike in killings on the country's gangs. But in doing so, he has undone the government's narrative of having secured the country.
From April 24 to 29, El Salvador tallied a surprising 76 killings, or 19 murders per day, according to El Diario de Hoy. This number far exceeds the prior daily average for 2020 which had remained in the single digits. Should this violence continue, it threatens to reverse a regular lowering of the country's homicide rate since 2015.
The wave of killings, which have occurred amid a massive deployment of police and soldiers to enforce the quarantine, prompted President Bukele to crack down on the gangs. He authorized security forces to use "lethal force" against gang members, whom he says have taken advantage of security forces being tied up in the virus response.
"The police and armed forces must prioritize safeguarding their lives, the lives of their coworkers and of honorable citizens," he wrote on Twitter. "The use of lethal force is authorized for self-defense or for the defense of the lives of Salvadorans."
Osiris Luna Meza, Deputy Justice Minister and Director of Prisons, also ramped up hardline measures against imprisoned gang members, who were ordered into total isolation. Luna Meza published images of them pressed together and sitting en masse, heads bowed over and half-naked. Members of the rival Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs were also mixed into common cells at the behest of Bukele, despite usually being kept apart.
Since Bukele put in place a national quarantine on March 21, authorities have detained more than 2,000 people who allegedly violated isolation orders. He has come under criticism by Human Rights Watch, which said that he was promoting abuses by law enforcement. Other human rights groups and civil society organizations expressed their concern about Bukele's latest actions in an open letter to the president published April 30 on the website for the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington, DC.
InSight Crime Analysis
El Salvador's spike in homicides makes clear that its gangs maintain the ability to ratchet up killings for strategic purposes, and that Bukele's claims to security gains depend partly on their will.
A National Police official who was privy to discussions about emergency measures told InSight Crime that killings came at the order of incarcerated gang leaders. This calls into question the government's claims that it exercises total control within its prisons, and puts in doubt whether Bukele has completed one of his major security goals: cutting off communication between imprisoned gang leaders and outside members.
The mixing of various factions of the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs into common cells also has the potential to incite violence within prisons and on the streets. A masked Barrio 18 Sureños member warned in a statement that "with these actions, they're going to plunge the country into chaos," the AP reported.
Though a limited number of rival gang leaders were returned to maximum-security prisons in 2015 to show that a truce negotiated between the government and the gangs was no longer in effect, authorities have largely avoided having them in common cells. According to El Faro, the gangs have been separated since 2004 to stop deadly riots.
The pandemic has also undercut Bukele's claims that his boosting of military and police presence in the streets has wrested areas from gang control and led to the plunge in homicides. The MS13, in fact, has been the one enforcing quarantine in certain sectors, according to InSight Crime interviews and news reports. The Attorney General even opened an investigation into videos that circulated on social media showing gang members beating people who had supposedly violated quarantine rules.
Missing in this puzzle is the reason the gangs unleashed the street killings. One possible explanation is to sow fear to make residents cough up extortion payments. A police investigator who spoke with El Faro said that gang members are becoming increasingly desperate as the coronavirus pandemic has robbed them of much of their income. The string of murders, he said, was a "wake up call to say that they are still there, with the same power and areas of control."
Jose Miguel Cruz, a professor at Florida International University who studies gang violence in El Salvador, previously told InSight Crime that crime groups are likely to take advantage of signs that the government is unable to respond to the pandemic. He also warned that crime groups that depend largely on extortion, like the gangs, would ratchet up violence to assure payments.
The recent tranquility that El Salvador had enjoyed and that Bukele touted -- with homicides reaching a low of 2.5 per day -- has clearly been shattered. The government and the gangs have returned to a war footing.