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The El Salvador Crime Crackdown: At What Cost?

In 2022, El Salvador declared a state of emergency due to extraordinary levels of organised crime. The smallest country in Central America, with the highest global homicide rates apart from active war zones, earning a reputation as the murder capital of the Western hemisphere. Over the past two years, the country has been almost unrecognisable, with plunging homicide rates, and declining gang-related extortion on businesses and residents. Gangs have been practically eradicated.

However, these changes come at a cost. Following the government's declaration of a state of emergency, the utilisation of military force to quell gang violence has led to the mass arrests of thousands of people, many of whom are likely to be innocent. Despite the relative safety that these efforts have won for many El Salvadorians, these crackdowns may symbolise a gradual shift in the central power of the state from organised crime groups to the government. However, this comes at the cost of civil liberties like freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to due process and fair trial are being eliminated, perpetuating a cycle of government dominance and aggression in the name of safety and freedom from the limitations of gang control. 

To most El Salvadorians, this is a sacrifice that, for the moment, they may be or seem to be more than willing to make. Current President Nayib Bukele has skyrocketing approval ratings and is very popular worldwide. In many neighbouring countries, such as Ecuador which suffer from similar issues of gang violence, citizens openly prefer President Bukele compared to their leaders. Despite the promise of safety within their communities, El Salvadorians may be sacrificing their civil liberties in the process, something that will likely increase over time and perhaps across the region if aggressive strategies to limit organised crime stay in place. 

Already according to AP News, over 72,000 people, some as young as 12 years old, have been arrested, doubling the total prison population and raising El Salvador’s incarceration rate to the highest in the world. This is contributed to by arbitrary arrests, often in poor neighbourhoods. Furthermore, despite President Bukele’s praise surrounding the elimination of organised crime, other failed strategies like an attempt to switch the national currency to Bitcoin have plunged the country into poverty leading a country towards a future that looks concerningly like a dictatorship.

In addition to these mass arrests, extreme overcrowding in prisons and reported torture by prison guards have led to an increase in human rights violations. Human Rights Watch alongside Cristobal, a Salvadoran organisation, released a report in December 2022 detailing alleged beatings, death, starvation, and torture such as waterboarding within these prisons. Prisons also serve as an avenue for gangs to communicate with each other, grow, and flourish and with so many potential gang members in these prisons it leads to a hierarchical and dangerous environment within prisons. 

In response to an interview question, reported on by the New York Times, about the alleged human rights violations occurring in their prisons, Vice President Felix Ulloa said that “there’s a margin of error…we’ve given people back their liberty.” For those not imprisoned this is may be true. Some of the formerly most notorious parts of the country are being renovated and inhabited by new tenants. Civilians in the once gang-controlled neighbourhood of Las Margaritas can park their cars without paying a $10 monthly fee to gangs, outdoor markets are flourishing, and children can play safely almost anywhere. These newfound freedoms are life-changing for El Salvadorians, but, with a tradeoff of an increasingly authoritarian government, it begs the question of whether or not this freedom from organised crime is and will continue to be worth it. 

Image Credit: UN Photos


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