Why Has Gang Violence Spiked in El Salvador?

In Brief

Why Has Gang Violence Spiked in El Salvador?

El Salvador’s homicide rate plummeted in recent years, but a spate of killings has drawn attention to President Nayib Bukele’s controversial approach to tackling gang violence.

Often referred to as the murder capital of the world, El Salvador has struggled with gang violence in the decades since its civil war, a major contributing factor in the region’s migration crisis. Though the homicide rate fell in recent years, the murder of dozens of people in late March has renewed concerns over President Nayib Bukele’s anti-gang strategy.

What happened in March?

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Between March 25 and 27, at least eighty-seven people were murdered in a wave of violence that Salvadoran authorities blamed on Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, two of the country’s most notorious criminal gangs. More than sixty people were killed on March 26 alone, marking the deadliest day on record since the civil war ended in 1992. The victims varied widely demographically and most of them had no known connection to any gangs, according to El Faro, an investigative news outlet based in the country.

How did the government respond?

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On March 27, Bukele declared a thirty-day state of emergency that curtailed several constitutional rights, including freedom of assembly and the right to legal counsel. He also authorized the national police to conduct warrantless raids and mass arrests; as of April 26, more than seventeen thousand suspected gang members had reportedly been arrested. On April 25, Congress extended the state of emergency for another thirty days.

Meanwhile, Bukele ordered a twenty-four-hour lockdown of prisons housing gang members that included food rationing and other punitive measures. And in the days following the killings, the Legislative Assembly passed a law substantially increasing prison sentences for gang members, of which there are currently more than sixteen thousand serving jail time.

Members of El Salvador’s security forces patrol the capital of San Salvador.
Members of El Salvador’s security forces patrol the capital of San Salvador. Jose Cabezas/Reuters

How did El Salvador get here?

MS-13 and its main rival Barrio 18 are transnational criminal organizations that originated in the United States. Both were founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadoran refugees who fled the country’s civil war. After U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a series of laws expanding the scope of deportable offenses, tens of thousands of Salvadorans were expelled, and their gang networks flourished back home in the postwar chaos.

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Throughout the 2000s, the Salvadoran government responded with what came to be known as a mano dura (iron fist) approach, which included repressive police tactics [PDF], tougher sentencing, and mass incarceration. However, many experts say there were major downsides, as packed prisons became hubs for gang recruitment and training. Homicides continued to increase, with the murder rate more than doubling between 1999 and 2009.

President Mauricio Funes took a different approach. In 2012, he brokered a controversial gang truce, which led to a drop in violence. But the truce fell apart in 2014 as turf wars escalated, and by 2015, El Salvador was the deadliest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 105 homicides per 100,000 people.

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Beginning in 2016, the murder rate began to plummet, reaching its lowest level in two decades by the time Bukele took office in 2019. According to El Faro, Bukele has followed Funes’s lead by seeking deals with gang leaders, allegedly offering them prison benefits in exchange for further scaling back violence and encouraging voter turnout for his party. Some experts say that the March killings likely reflect a breakdown of the most recent truce. “The terms of the previous pact with Bukele’s government may have been untenable and the gangs may be trying to change the terms of that pact,” CFR’s Paul J. Angelo told the New York Times.

Why does it matter?

International human rights groups, including the Organization of American States, worry that Bukele’s heavy-handed response, particularly the mass detentions without due process, infringes on citizens’ basic rights. Washington has voiced similar concerns, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressing the government to respect civil liberties.

Moreover, gang violence remains at the center of the region’s migration crisis, which has intensified since 2014. By 2019, Salvadorans made up 37 percent of all Central American migrants at the southern U.S. border, and renewed violence in the country could drive that number up. But migration is not the only issue straining U.S.-Salvadoran relations. Even before Bukele’s crackdown, the United States scaled back aid to El Salvador, sanctioned several government officials, and requested the extradition of senior MS-13 leaders on narcoterrorism charges, which Salvadoran courts have denied. Some rights groups also blame U.S. deportations of Salvadorans, which ramped up under the Donald Trump administration and sent asylum seekers back to highly violent situations, for driving gang recruitment.

Bukele’s aggressive security policies have also raised concerns about growing authoritarianism in the region, especially given his 2021 removal of a handful of political opponents from office, including several Supreme Court judges. Still, Bukele’s approval rating remains at about 85 percent, the highest of any Latin American leader, and recent polling [PDF] shows that the vast majority of Salvadorans approve of the government’s response to the March killings.

Will Merrow helped make the graphic for this In Brief.

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