The new administration of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has already shown that it will adopt hardline measures to combat the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs — measures that have largely failed past governments.
In April, then president-elect Bukele promised that on his first day in office his government would present an integrated plan to combat delinquency. Bukele, however, ultimately outlined a series of broad security policies during a short press conference on June 18.
One priority was to send police and army into the streets to regain control of territories dominated by the MS13 and Barrio 18. Three days later, Bukele did exactly that, deploying 2,500 officers and 3,000 soldiers to the capital San Salvador and other city centers, as part of an effort to recover territory in the 12 municipalities most affected by gangs.
This type of show of force has been tried by previous administrations, such as that of former President Antonio Saca, who was president from 2004 to 2009. Under Saca, the mass deployment of security forces provided modest results but never managed to oust the gangs.
Other security priorities under the Bukele administration included investigating gang financiers, the mass detention of gang members, and the empowerment of police officials to use excessive force against them.
Another focus was prisons, often used as a gang headquarters. Prison officials plan on cutting off communication between imprisoned gang leaders and free members, purging corrupt prison guards, and shutting down prison cash flows.
During the first 15 days of Bukele’s nascent presidency that began on June 1, El Salvador tallied an average of eight killings per day, similar to the nine homicides seen per day in 2018. The previous administration attributed the majority of these killings to gang-related criminal activity and the state’s response to combat it.
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To understand Bukele’s security strategy, it is useful to consider his appointments to his security cabinet and the statements he has made on his megaphone of choice — his Twitter account.
On June 16, Bukele announced in a tweet that police had arrested 1,487 individuals within the first 15 days of his administration. If this is true, about 100 people were detained each day.
Four other administrations have used the number of arrests as indicators of their success in combating the gangs, beginning with the government of former President Francisco Flores, who first established “Mano Dura,” or iron fist security policies in 2000. The problem with such mass arrests is the majority never make it to court, and jailed gang members are able to coordinate and establish more sophisticated structures.
Bukele’s appointments to top security positions also reveal his security strategy. Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, the new director of the National Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), is a hardliner who helped create the force in 1993.
Since then, Arriaza has been the subject of investigations by the Attorney General’s Office and within the police force for alleged procedural fraud and human rights abuses. During the previous administration, Arriaza oversaw special police units, within which gang extermination units were set up.
Meanwhile, Osiris Luna, first named prison director and then vice minister of security, is a right-wing legislator who helped carry Bukele to the presidency. As a legislator, he openly supported the death penalty and the “elimination” of gang members.
As a candidate for the presidency, Bukele’s security platform was a combination of police prevention efforts, technological improvements for security forces, and gang repression. But his political appointments and first public statements on security make clear a return to the “mano dura” approach to combating gang violence — an approach that has long been adopted by the governments of the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras
Bukele has also publicly ruled out the possibility of negotiations with the MS13 and Barrio 18.
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“I have not received any communication from the Mara Salvatrucha seeking negotiations and we are not open to negotiating with criminal groups,” the president said in a news conference. In an interview with Revista Factum, a spokesperson for the MS13 had expressed a willingness on the part of the criminal group to sit down and negotiate with the new government.
At least for now, Bukele has dismissed the possibility of the government entering a truce with gangs, like the one seen in 2012, which reduced homicides by half but also formalized political negotiations with the gangs. The truce’s dismantling ultimately led to a spike in homicides, with the country once again hitting highs in 2015 and 2016.
The most probable scenario is that the Bukele administration follows the same public security policy script established almost two decades ago, despite few successes with such iron fist policies.
These policies have contributed to gangs becoming stronger in the prisons and, more recently, to the formation of extermination groups within the security forces. And El Salvador’s homicide rate remains among one of the worst in the hemisphere, with 50 killings per 100,000 people recorded last year.
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