El Salvador’s gang attacks raise fears of growing authoritarianism

Juan, an evangelical pastor in San Salvador, was running an errand on a Saturday afternoon last month when he came across a familiar yellow police tape blocking the road not far from his church. A young man had been murdered.

“The concern that came to mind was: will I make it home today, will I see my daughter again?” Juan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said. “You could feel tension in the air, a fear that was drowning the city.”

On that day, 62 people were killed in the small country of 6.5 million people. The killings shattered homicide records and threatened to shatter President Nayib Bukele’s reputation for taming violence in one of the world’s deadliest nations.

Less than a week after the series of murders, Bukele declared a state of emergency and had his security forces rounded up more than 5,000 suspected gang members.

His crackdown on gangs has prompted a renewed confrontation with rights groups who say it opens the door to abuses by security agencies in a country with a history of right-wing death squads.

El Salvador has suffered from high levels of violence from criminal gangs for decades. Bukele made fixing the problem a top political priority after his 2019 election, claiming that his security policies were responsible for a drop in homicides. This decline began in 2016 but continued under his oversight.

However, the US government said his administration instead negotiated a secret truce with the gangs to reduce violence in exchange for financial incentives and jail perks. In December, the US Treasury imposed sanctions two officials from the Bukele administrationaccused her of leading the talks.

Men arrested for alleged gang connections are escorted by National Civil Police during the state of emergency declared by the government in San Salvador on March 31 © AFP via Getty Images

Bukele has denied negotiations with the gangs, describing the US claims as “lie“.

Security analysts said the spike in homicides over the weekend showed how fragile these agreements can be.

“The gangs still have enough power to destabilize the country and Salvadoran society, that’s obvious,” José Miguel Cruz, research director at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center.

Cruz believes the killings were news from gangs trying to extort better terms from the government as part of their deal.

For the past week, security forces have set up checkpoints and searched homes in neighborhoods known to have a gang presence, local media and witnesses said. Those incarcerated were incarcerated and given reduced food rations of only beans and tortillas. family members lined up outside of prisons trying to get information about loved ones.

“MESSAGE TO THE GANGS: We have 16,000 homeboys[gang members]. . . We took everything from them, even their mattresses to sleep on, we rationed their food and now they won’t see the sun anymore,” Bukele tweeted.

The government has introduced draconian measures to crack down on the gangs, making it easier for authorities to tap phones, introducing 10-year jail sentences for anyone as young as 12 simply for being gang members, and 15 days of imprisonment without a trial .

The rise in crime has contributed to growing political troubles for Bukele, an authoritarian populist who has burned bridges with Washington after trampling on constitutional rights and alarmed the IMF by making bitcoin legal tender.

Cryptocurrency adoption has emerged as an obstacle to a deal with the IMF for a $1.3 billion loan to help fund El Salvador’s budget and reduce debt costs.

Nayib Bukele has tried to change El Salvador’s reputation from one of the most dangerous countries to a forward-thinking crypto-based economy © AFP via Getty Images

The president last month delayed a much-hyped bitcoin bond issue that some hoped could help plug the control hole partly caused by the lack of an IMF deal and the high premiums charged by the bond markets for lending. It remains unclear whether investors are willing to fund the bitcoin-backed issuance. El Salvador’s government bonds are in junk territory and investors are worried about the country’s ability to pay.

Bukele has also alienated the US, a former ally, by firing five Supreme Court justices whose replacements opened the door for his re-election, which was forbidden under the Constitution.

Before the recent wave of violence, Bukele had the highest approval rating among 11 Latin American leaders according to CID Gallup poll. This has been partially attributed to his perceived success in calming the bloodshed since taking office in 2019.

Supporters saw him as the leader trying to transform the small Central American nation’s image from one of the most dangerous countries in the world to a forward-thinking frontier for cryptocurrencies.

In 2015, El Salvador’s homicide rate reached more than 100 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world. Since then, homicides have plummeted. Security analysts say arrangements with the gangs were likely a reason for the decline.

But in 2021, the homicide rate was still just under 18 per 100,000, almost 18 times the rate in England and Wales 2020/21.

In some communities, “everyone is locked in their homes in great fear,” said Rina Monti, director of human rights research at the Salvadoran non-profit organization Cristosal. “There’s always been complicity between the police and the gangs, so at some point you can’t be sure if actions . . . are really police orders.”

Monti said her organization has so far received 13 complaints related to the police raids, including a taxi driver who went missing by authorities after being arrested and a construction worker who was beaten by security forces.

“It’s pretty scary,” said a 27-year-old man who lives in a gang-controlled neighborhood in east San Salvador, on condition of anonymity. “Because you live in a bad, dangerous neighborhood, you’re considered a suspect.”

The state of emergency may only last 30 days and homicides have already fallen back to lower levels before the surge, but analysts fear the crackdown could fuel gang recruitment in the long term.

“You just delve into it. . . this perception that the state is an abuser,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst at the International Crisis Group. “They continue to fuel a stigma and hatred that in many cases pushes people to join gangs.” El Salvador’s gang attacks raise fears of growing authoritarianism

Adam Bradshaw

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