With the deployment of thousands of soldiers to rural El Salvador and new legislation permitting the trial of hundreds of people at a time, President Nayib Bukele has unveiled the latest chapter in his campaign against the country's street gangs.
The Salvadoran military and police deployed 7,000 soldiers and 1,000 police officers to Cabañas, a rural, sparsely populated department along the country’s northern border with Honduras.
The goal of the mobilization, Bukele announced in an August 1 tweet, is to track down members of the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs thought to be taking refuge in the department. On July 30, gang members allegedly ambushed policemen in the town of Ilobasco, injuring two. In the following days, security forces surrounded Cabañas, preventing alleged gang members from fleeing.
“No gang member will be able to leave, while our extraction teams are in charge of removing them from their hiding places,” Bukele tweeted.
The deployment of troops to Cabañas follows legislation passed by the National Assembly on July 26. The new law allows mass trials of alleged gang members in groups of up to 900 and raises the maximum prison sentence for gang leaders from 45 to 60 years.
These are the latest anti-gang measures amid an unprecedented mano dura, or iron fist, security crackdown. For over a year, the Salvadoran government has used a state of exception to justify an all-out war on gangs. Emergency measures have suspended some constitutional rights, like the right to legal counsel and a fair trial, and have resulted in the imprisonment of nearly 72,000 people -- or 2% of the country’s adult population.
The measures have reduced homicide rates and dismantled gangs, pushing Bukele's approval rating to 90%. The president claimed on August 1 that the country is on pace for a homicide rate of just 2.2 per 100,000 in 2023, down from a staggering 103 per 100,000 in 2015.
“El Salvador is a place where gangs no longer govern nor have a presence,” Salvadoran journalist and InSight Crime contributor Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson said.
Despite the popularity of the anti-gang measures among Salvadorans, human rights organizations have criticized the state of exception, denouncing human rights violations such as mass arbitrary arrests and unfair judicial procedures.
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Although homicide rates have fallen and gang presence in the country has diminished, Bukele is showing no signs of slowing his crackdown. Instead, he is doubling down by targeting new areas and further eroding legal protections.
The mobilization in Cabañas is a continuation of previous heavy-handed but seemingly successful tactics. In May, Bukele sent 5,000 troops to the municipality of Nueva Concepción in the Chalatenango department in response to the murder of a policeman by suspected gang members. Troops surrounded the town, then searched and detained those within its boundaries, yielding at least 50 arrests.
Now, security forces are using the same strategy on the entire department of Cabañas, where the number of detainees will likely eclipse Nueva Concepción.
With the start of the state of exception in March 2022, authorities were given free rein to arrest people indiscriminately. The government suspended the requirements that police inform detainees of the reason for their arrest and that all detainees must be taken before a judge within 72 hours. This has facilitated the imprisonment of thousands of gang members and non-gang members alike.
“The police and military have become judges,” Martínez told InSight Crime. “And once [suspected gang members] are captured in these raids, their chances of getting out in a short period of time are very complicated.”
With mass trials and extended prison sentences, the government has enacted the legal tools necessary to not only carry out mass arrests but also keep detainees in prison once arrested.
Legalizing mass trials validates an already existing -- though technically illegal -- practice, which will be used to sentence detainees to prison quickly and with little evidence.
Raising the maximum sentence for gang leaders follows other increases in sentencing for those accused of gang-related crimes. At the start of the state of exception, the government announced it was raising the maximum penalty for gang leaders from nine years to 45 years in prison before the latest rise to 60 years.
Together with the creation of a mega-prison, these measures bring authorities closer to their goal of keeping detainees in prison indefinitely.
“They are never going to return to the communities, the neighborhoods, the barrios, and the cities of our country,” Gustavo Villatoro, El Salvador’s minister for justice and public security, said in March.