The escalation of El Salvador's gang crackdown in the central city of Soyapango has raised severe questions as to whether gang members are really still being rooted out and what President Nayib Bukele's true endgame might be.
Beginning on December 3, around 10,000 police and military personnel entered Soyapango, a city of around 250,000 people to the east of the capital, San Salvador. Allegedly seeking gang members, security force personnel blocked roads, checked the identities of passers-by and drivers, particularly young men, and temporarily put a halt to almost any means of entering or leaving the city.
Within two days, over 140 gang members had allegedly been arrested, according to Bukele on Twitter. This tally also coincided with zero homicides being recorded nationwide in the first five days of December, the president also claimed.
Soyapango is the second city to suffer this level of attention. In October, 2,000 troops were deployed in the city of Comasagua, with around 150 people being arrested. Again, Bukele pronounced this crackdown a great success, supported by the people.
SEE ALSO: Mano Dura Redux: The Price of Mass Gang Arrests in El Salvador
And indeed, in terms of crime statistics, the strategy is working. With close to 60,000 people jailed since March, homicides have continued to drop. Neighborhoods once haunted by the likes of the MS13 and Barrio 18 have seen improved commerce and security. Extortion, the lifeblood of gangs in El Salvador, which consistently drained public transport operators and shopkeepers, has been dramatically reduced.
Two businessmen who run bus routes in the country told El País that extortion of public transport is down by 70%. They continue to pay money to the MS13, albeit much less than before, they said.
But, since the early days of the crackdown, concerns that the arrests are not targeting just gang members but anyone in any way associated with them have continued to grow.
One of those same businessmen reported that a fellow bus route operator had been arrested for allegedly being a frontman for Barrio 18 when all he did was pay them extortion money. "The police took it to mean that he was funding them. In other words, being a victim of extortion is a crime now," he told El País.
InSight Crime Analysis
Criminal economies abhor a vacuum. The power and governance accumulated by the MS13 and Barrio 18 would be difficult to remove altogether, with nothing taking their place.
In El Salvador, the very security forces which have jailed tens of thousands may be the ones replacing the gangs. According to a new investigation by El País, local residents praise some of the consequences of the mano dura (iron fist) crackdown but worry about what may come next.
Where residents feared the gangs, they now fear security forces. While the police and armed forces are not extorting shopkeepers, the crackdown gives them the power to arrest anyone they want, according to interviews with locals.
SEE ALSO: Will Soaring Arrests in El Salvador Overwhelm its Prisons?
The government decree against the gangs has lifted basic rights, such as a person's right to be informed why they are arrested or the right to a lawyer. People can be held without charge for up to 15 days, up from three days previously. Human rights activists have reported that any young man or any person with family affiliations to a known gang member can be targeted, often to meet arrest quotas.
With the crackdown worsening in cities like Soyapango, the situation is unlikely to improve soon.
And in neighboring Honduras, a state of exception decreed by the government in dangerous areas has increased fears that others could soon follow El Salvador's lead.