Almost four months into a nationwide crackdown, El Salvador's government has failed to disarm its notorious street gangs.
It started at the end of March, when President Nayib Bukele revealed the government’s official hashtag: #GuerraContraPandillas, or the ‘war against the gangs.’ The government boasts it has already arrested more than 45,000 so-called "terrorists," claiming these are almost all suspected members of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang, or from both factions of rivals Barrio 18 – the Revolucionarios and the Sureños.
But despite the mass arrests, the number of rifles seized by authorities barely exceeds 100.
InSight Crime gained exclusive access to an internal police report with a detailed record of assault rifles seized from the gangs. The national police (National Civil Police - PNC) claims to have confiscated 39 rifles in April, 24 in May, and 34 in June.
These 97 rifles, plus the 37 seized by police in the first quarter of the year, bring the mid-year total to 134. That is slightly higher than the 117 rifles the police seized in the first half of 2021, when there was no war on gangs.
The 134 rifles seized in the first six months of 2022 pale in comparison with previous years: the PNC seized 321 rifles from criminal groups in 2020, 508 in 2019, and 540 in 2018.
And seizures of all types of firearms have been trending downwards. From June 2021 to May 2022, a period covering the first three months of the crackdown, authorities seized 2,965 firearms, according to figures from the Ministry of Security. This compares to 3,683 firearms seized in all of 2018, and 3,413 in 2019, and shows a slight rise from the 2,682 weapons found in 2020, according to data from El Salvador's national police.
“The gangs are still there, with the strength to attack,” President Bukele admitted during an impromptu press conference on the night of June 28, hours after a faction of the Barrio 18-Sureños gunned down three police officers – two men and one woman – in western El Salvador. The gang members used assault rifles in the attack, according to preliminary inquiries.
But what is an assault rifle? It is an automatic long-range weapon that fires incessantly when the trigger is pulled. Common rifles include the M-16, AR-15, AK-47, the Galil, the G3, and the ARAD.
Salvadoran legislators consider these assault rifles to be “weapons of war” that should not end up in the hands of civilians. Yet that has not stopped these firearms from becoming a staple weapon in gang arsenals for over a decade.
The police reports accessed by InSight Crime reveal the scant success of the Salvadoran state in locating gang arsenals. The reports also put Bukele's triumphalism into perspective.
On June 1, the three-year anniversary of his presidency, Bukele stood before El Salvador's Legislative Assembly and said: “We are at the point of winning the war against the gangs.”
The War On Gangs
As of March 27, El Salvador has been under a state of exception that suspends some constitutional rights and empowers the police and military to detain people for up to 15 days without a hearing. It was Bukele himself who requested the initial 30-day state of exception, which has now been extended three times by the Legislative Assembly, where the president's party enjoys a supermajority.
The state of exception and the war on gangs came as the Bukele government's response to a brutal gang killing spree in late March, when 87 Salvadorans were killed in three days. An investigation by Salvadoran news outlet El Faro later concluded the massacre was committed by the MS13; the gang was reportedly trying to send a message to Bukele administration after several of its leaders were arrested amid covert negotiations between the government and the country's three main gangs aimed at lowering homicide rates. The negotiations began at the end of 2019, according to multiple media reports. The government denies the allegations.
Now, almost four months into the state of exception, the Bukele government has gloated about arresting "45,376 terrorists," far more than the approximately 2,000 alleged gang members arrested between the start of the year and March 27 – when the gang crackdown began.
Despite the disparity in the arrest numbers, seizures of assault rifles are similar to the previous year, suggesting the gangs have managed to hide most of their M-16s, AR-15s, and AK-47s, to name a few.
In an interview with the BBC at the end of April, one month into the state of exception, members of the Barrio 18-Sureños said the gang would not respond to the government's crackdown with firepower. Rather, it would attempt to hide their rifles and other weapons.
"The Barrio 18-Sureños plan is to keep our [guns] in the shadows," the gang members said.
The police reports of modest rifle seizures support the hypothesis that the three gangs have chosen, at least for now, not to take on the state.
"We stand in peace, leaving the option of gunfights [and] war as a last resort, as a last alternative, for survival,” said members of the so-called rueda – the ring of Barrio 18-Sureños leaders not in jail – in the BBC interview.
During the state of exception, El Salvador has posted exceptionally low homicides rates, even lower than those reported in the weeks and months leading up to the gang killing spree in March that unleashed the war on gangs.
Back in 2015, negotiations between the gangs and the then-incumbent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional — FMLN) broke down in spectacular fashion, leading to all-out war between the two sides. But in Bukele's case, the apparent collapse of the government's dialogue with the gangs has not sparked bellicose confrontations with the security forces. At least not for now.
The three police officers murdered in June by the 18-Sureños in western El Salvador appears to be an impulsive attack carried out by one of the hundreds of factions operating in El Salvador, rather than a decision by the gang to abandon its strategy of restraint.
In the two weeks following the triple homicide, there have been no similar attacks on the police or the military.
What Experts Are Saying
“Yes, I am surprised...it is very different from what we've seen before,” said Luis Enrique Amaya, a Salvadoran researcher and consultant specializing in public security, when asked why the gangs are yet to respond to the government's crackdown.
“The Bukele government has proved the best at negotiating with the gangs, and, at the same time, the one that has hit them the hardest,” Amaya told InSight Crime.
What Amaya describes as “the best negotiations and best strategy for combatting gangs” has two fundamental pillars. First, the concentration of power enjoyed by Bukele goes far beyond the executive branch and allows him to create or reform laws “overnight,” something that none of the six preceding governments has had. Second, Bukele maintains massive popular support in El Salvador.
“Bukele has fewer legal and human rights restrictions than other presidents, which has allowed him to better negotiate [with] and combat [gangs] than previous [presidents]," said Amaya. "Right now, there is no counteroffensive from the gangs, because this president is hitting them harder than previous ones."
InSight Crime also spoke to Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. Breda agrees that the current scenario is radically different from the breakdown of gang negotiations in 2015.
“The gangs paid a very high price between 2015 and 2016 [when they opted for open war against the police and the military]," Breda told InSight Crime. "That is why they are probably considering an open confrontation as the last and least desirable scenario, perhaps hoping that, as on past occasions, this show of muscle by the Bukele government will be temporary.”
“The second reason is that the deployment of state forces and the magnitude of the arrests have been surprising, forcing gangs to prioritize strategic withdrawals to avoid arrest," said Breda. "Despite the official rhetoric, the state's current offensive focuses more on arrests than annihilation,” as was the case in 2015, he added.
According to Breda, one of the reasons for the relatively low number of seized rifles reported by police is "that the gangs have managed to hide most of their weapons."
Both Amaya and Breda believe it's unlikely El Salvador will soon see a wave of murders like in 2015, when the homicide rate rocketed to the surreal figure of 106 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
By way of comparison, if current trends continue El Salvador could end the year with around 14 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, its lowest rate in the past century.
“This government has hit the gangs better than the previous ones, and it doesn't seem like they can respond in the short term. Rather, there could be an attempt to foster conditions for renewed dialogue and negotiations, especially before the 2024 [presidential] elections,” said Amaya.
“I think it's unlikely El Salvador will return to high rates of violence seen in 2015. But the risk of homicide rates going up again is very high, especially if the government is not open to resuming the [negotiation] process that ended in March or considering proposals for the demobilization of those wanting to leave gang life and rehabilite,” said Breda.
For now, the government rhetoric remains firmly centered on the war on gangs. “We want to tell the gangs that it is not going to stay like this. They are going to pay dearly for the murder of these three heroes,” Bukele said in a press conference after the three police officers were killed by members of the 18-Sureños.
The Bukele government has also started building a mega-prison to house some 20,000 gang members in Tecoluca, a rural area in the San Vicente department.
Bukele has repeatedly denied that his government is negotiating with the gangs, ridiculing those who have done so in the past while his officials engage in the same under-the-table discussions. One member of the Barrio 18-Sureños gang member privy to the negotiations confirmed this to the BBC.