While the scope of the recent mass arrests in El Salvador is shocking, it is not the first time that the country has used emergency measures to crack down on street gangs.
Since El Salvador legislators granted President Nayib Bukele emergency powers in late March, authorities have arrested more than 40,000 people, or about one percent of the population between the ages of 15 to 64, according to World Bank figures. The sweeping arrests, which began after a three-day killing spree that left 87 people dead, are unprecedented in their speed and breadth. Human rights groups and family members allege a growing number of arbitrary detentions.
El Salvador governments have long used mano dura (iron fist) policies to crack down on the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs. The first mano dura campaign in the early 2000s resulted in some 23,000 arrests. An unintended – and costly – consequence was the recruitment of a new generation of gang members in the overcrowded prisons.
InSight Crime spoke to security analyst Douglas Farah, who recently produced an in-depth report that examined the MS13, about how the sweeping arrests are likely to affect the gangs. The conversation also touched upon recent evidence that Bukele officials negotiated with imprisoned gang leaders to keep homicide figures low, and aided in the release of several who are wanted on US terrorism charges.
InSight Crime (IC): What effect do you see the mass arrests having on gang dynamics in prisons and on the street?
Douglas Farah (DF): That is the million-dollar question. I think this is the first time we're seeing a serious internal split inside the MS13. It’s not clear cut to me yet what we're looking at. But I think the potential for divisions is strong.
It is clear that there are significant elements of the gangs that are with Bukele and either renegotiated a pact with him, or never really broke the pact. And that's the group of the extraditable leaders.
The big spike in homicides was [by] a faction of the gang. And that faction is deeply disturbed by some of the things that the ranfla historíca [the historic leadership] is doing from prison and how they're being protected.
IC: Do you think some of that division is coming from a sense that the MS13 on the street wasn't part of this negotiation and wasn't benefiting from it?
DF: When you have a small group of people negotiating a specific benefit, if that doesn't spread down the food chain, then it's likely you're going to have trouble. I think this goes a little deeper. This goes to the extradition of the leaders, the empowerment that the government has given them in terms of having access to a lot of social benefits in the communities they operate in. That created a whole new dynamic for the MS13. I'm sure not everyone is thrilled with the distribution of wealth coming out of that.
IC: It has been shown that the gangs consolidated their power during previous mano dura periods. Is it possible that this crackdown could have the same effect?
DF: They're clearly in overcrowded prisons, and now they're going to be even more overcrowded and less comfortable. It's clear that many of those arrested now are not MS13, and that's creating a whole new recruitment pool, which is what we've seen before. Once you get in prison, you either have to join or you die. You really don't have much choice if you're a 16-year-old kid. We've seen this historically, and it could repeat itself.
IC: Could the mass arrests provide new criminal income streams, such as extortion?
DF: What you see is the family members at the prison gates are desperately trying to find out where their family members are. I think that is going to offer this whole new revenue stream to protect your kids in prison. You can extort to keep them alive, to get them food. I think it creates a whole chain of corruption in the prison system because people are going to pay to get their kids fed, and they're going to pay to keep their kids safe. People are going to pay for anything.
IC: How do you think the two months of mass arrests have altered the relationship between the gangs and the Bukele administration, which clearly had backchannel deals with them?
DF: I think there is a pact in place again. Otherwise, I think with the MS13, you would have seen an ongoing escalation. You can't have 86 homicides in two days and then drop to zero just by chance or good police work. I think that's the clearest evidence there was a renegotiation – a rapid, very dynamic renegotiation.
IC: Do you think the mass jailings could lead to a reorganization of the gangs in some way?
DF: It may in the short term make things a little less comfortable in how they operate. But in the long term they're going to come out stronger. What that does is give the gangs absolute control over what happens inside the prisons. They're the ones who decide who sleeps where. They're the ones who decide who gets beat up. They're the ones who decide who can be killed or disappeared internally. All of that will significantly empower the gangs.
These guys now understand what power is, they understand what money is, they understand what access is. And you don't just take that away from them overnight.