HomeNewsEl Salvador Shifts Mano Dura Security Policies into Overdrive

El Salvador Shifts Mano Dura Security Policies into Overdrive


With a near unprecedented wave of arrests, the El Salvador government is doubling down and expanding on heavy-handed security policies, known as mano dura, that have consistently failed to yield long-term results.

On April 12, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele claimed his government had arrested more than 10,000 gang members in 17 days as part of a nationwide crackdown on street gangs, following an unprecedented killing spree linked to the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs in late March.

The mass detentions come after the El Salvador legislative assembly enacted a month-long state of exception on March 27 in response to the killings, loosening rules on making arrests. Under the measures, the country's security forces have reportedly encircled neighborhoods, conducted house-by-house searches and mounted military roadblocks in an attempt to round up suspected gang members. Meanwhile, government social media accounts have posted videos of authorities roughhousing detainees, as well as clips of police appearing to torture gang members that were later taken down.

Bukele has shrugged off cries of human rights abuses and insisted his government has almost exclusively arrested gang members during the crackdown, despite media reports citing evidence that authorities have also detained ordinary citizens and the president admitting that one percent of those arrested may have been falsely detained.

SEE ALSO: Gang Murder Rampage Sends Shockwaves Through El Salvador Government

The El Salvador government has also sought new legal tools to quell the gangs. The country’s legislative assembly passed new legislation on March 30 increasing the maximum jail sentence for gang membership from nine to 45 years, while also allowing authorities to jail children as young as 12-years-old.

Legislators also recently passed a separate law, establishing sentences of up to 15 years in prison for media outlets disseminating gang-related messages or reporting on the gangs’ territorial control in El Salvador. The move, heavily criticized by journalists, human rights organizations, and US officials, effectively outlaws the type of reporting that has exposed an alleged pact between the Bukele administration and the country’s main gangs, with the latter purportedly reducing homicides in exchange for prison benefits for jailed leaders.

Bukele has repeatedly denied the existence of such a pact, instead touting his government’s hardline security policies for a steep reduction in homicides during his time in office – one of his administration’s most important accomplishments.

The decline in homicides has contributed to Bukele's widespread popularity in El Salvador, a country where repressive anti-gang measures typically receive broad support from a local population weary of gang violence and extortion.

InSight Crime Analysis

Though mano dura security policies have been a constant feature of El Salvador security policy since the early 2000s, the recent measures adopted by the Bukele administration have taken these tactics to another level.

The thousands of incarcerations reported by the government in just over two weeks have not only outpaced previous crackdowns, they have also required stricter legal measures that curtail constitutional rights for ordinary Salvadorans. The accompanying legislation – increasing jail time for gang members, limiting press freedoms and threatening children's rights – also marks a notable increase in the scope of iron fist measures.

Meanwhile, President Bukele has also stepped up anti-gang rhetoric, comparing gang symbols to Nazi imagery in an effort to justify the legislation prohibiting the publication of gang content. In a recent speech, the president also threatened to deprive imprisoned gang members of food.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Flirts with 'Mano Dura' Security Policies Again

Previous iron fist campaigns suggest the repressive security measures will do little to address the underlying causes of gang violence in El Salvador, rooted in poverty and social insecurity. The March killing spree was a sign the gangs can still wreak havoc with murders on demand, and there is little evidence to suggest hardline policies have succeeded in dislodging gangs from areas where their territorial control is so comprehensive that it allows them to usurp functions of the state.

Likewise, efforts to jail gang members en masse have previously backfired, with the gangs historically using prisons as centers for recruitment and headquaters coordinating illicit activities like extortion. Adding thousands of new inmates to the country’s already overcrowded jails is unlikely to improve the situation.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

COLOMBIA / 25 JUN 2020

While a guilty plea for money laundering by a decorated University of Miami professor continues to send shockwaves through the…


The recent arrests of MS13 gang members in El Salvador accused of committing brutal murders in US East Coast states…


A former El Salvador security minister told El Faro that he believed the truce between the country's two main street…

About InSight Crime


Venezuela Drug Trafficking Investigation and InDepth Gender Coverage

29 APR 2022

On May 4, InSight Crime will be publishing The Cocaine Revolution in Venezuela, a groundbreaking investigation into how the Venezuelan government regulates the cocaine trade in the country. An accompanying event,…


InDepth Coverage of Juan Orlando Hernández

22 APR 2022

Ever since Juan Orlando Hernández was elected president of Honduras in 2014, InSight Crime has provided coverage of every twist and turn during his rollercoaster time in office, amid growing…


Venezuela's Cocaine Revolution

15 APR 2022

On May 4th, InSight Crime will publish a groundbreaking investigation on drug trafficking in Venezuela. A product of three years of field research across the country, the study uncovers cocaine production in…


Widespread Coverage of InSight Crime MS13 Investigation

8 APR 2022

In a joint investigation with La Prensa Gráfica, InSight Crime recently revealed that four of the MS13’s foremost leaders had been quietly released from…


Informing US State Department and European Union

1 APR 2022

InSight Crime Co-director McDermott briefed the US State Department and other international players on the presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela and the implication this has for both nations.  McDermott…