It was one of the star promises of Nayib Bukele in the electoral campaign: to reduce the violence of organized crime and gangs in the most violent country in the world without a declared war. And he did it. Since Bukele assumed the presidency of El Salvador In June 2019, the murder figures plummeted to 20 per 100,000 inhabitants, when this country of just six million inhabitants had been registering twice as much. But everything fell apart the last weekend of March. In just 48 hours, 80 people were killed.
Despite the fact that Bukele attributed the drop in murders to the effectiveness of his government plan for Territorial Control, a journalistic investigation of the Salvadoran outlet El Faro revealed some time ago that the current Executive had negotiated with the main gangs in the country, Mara Salvatrucha-13, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and Barrio 18 Sureños, in exchange for keeping homicide rates low.RELATED
That is to say, the Bukele government would have used the same formula as previous Executives: make clandestine agreements with these criminal structures, as the leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMNL) party did, for example, in 2012. And it is not only an affirmation of this renowned digital newspaper: the United States Department of the Treasury confirmed that the Bukele government had a secret truce with the gangs, and even sanctioned two Salvadoran officials for organizing those meetings with high-ranking gang members. .
On Saturday, March 26, 62 murders were recorded and, so far, it has become the deadliest day of the entire 21st century in El Salvador. This time they were not crimes between gang members, but murders of citizens that had nothing to do with the maras.
“We got a police report that only 13 victims had gang ties. We were able to verify that among those killed there was a well-known surfer and a well-liked municipal employee who were not related to those groups. There is evidence that on this occasion the gangs, especially La Mara Salvatrucha, did not kill rivals or commit an internal purge, but rather killed citizens with no ties to those criminal organizations,” Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez told elDiario.es.
The editor-in-chief of El Faro assures that his team has shown “with documents from penal centers of this same Administration and with intelligence information” that the negotiations between the current Government and the gangs began practically since Bukele came to power almost three years.
Like other Salvadoran politicians, they have used the gangs as an electoral weapon and a political weapon, promising a strong hand in elections, says the journalist. Bukele has also taken the opportunity now to show that “the gangs are a very efficient enemy to place in the population a logic of necessary protection, of the redeemer of this society that is tired of suffering from these criminal groups.”
Although it is still early to know what exactly happened that last and deadly weekend in March, the gangs have already acted in a similar way in other clandestine negotiations. “When they believe that something has gotten stuck in these negotiations, they use what they understand to be their greatest political asset: corpses, that is, they kill more so that more attention is paid to them,” recalls Martínez, who has been a journalist for more than a decade covering information about these criminal structures.
Given the failure of all these negotiations, Martínez believes that an important step could be taken in the fight against the gangs if the governments changed their strategy and informed the population of these dialogues. “If Salvadoran politicians, including this president and his government, have believed, at least in the last decade, that in order to solve the gang problem it is necessary to establish a dialogue, let them do it in front of the people, damn it, let them stop to do it in a cowardly way and assume the political consequences, that they structure it well and call international organizations to supervise it, that they explain to the population why they believe it is necessary to talk to the gangs to solve the problem”, he says with a firm voice .
However, what has changed now compared to previous occasions is the government’s reaction to the gangs. Following the wave of violence, on March 27 Bukele imposed a state of emergency in El Salvador, restricting civil liberties and expanding the powers of the security forces for a month. Under this measure, the police have detained in recent days about 7,000 gang membersaccording to government data, and the president has even threatened not to feed imprisoned gang members if the violence continues in the country.
The excessive use of force by the Salvadoran authorities has caused the UN and international human rights organizations to express their concern.
It is a new scenario, says Martínez, in which “there is an autocrat in power who does not depend on anyone else to make decisions, who can order the Legislative Assembly in minutes to change the Penal Code or remove a judge because he did not like the sentence he handed down”, as happened with magistrate Godofredo Salazar, who was transferred to another court after acquitting 42 alleged gang members due to the lack of evidence by the Public Ministry to prove the crimes. “Bukele controls the three powers of the State. He has no counterweight of any kind and we had never experienced that”.
The reform to the Penal Code to which Martínez refers is the one that the Salvadoran Congress approved on April 5 at the request of the president and that punishes the dissemination of gang messages in the media with up to 15 years in prison. This is a measure that restricts the right to freedom of the press and leaves El Faro in a particularly difficult position, since it is the media outlet that has delved deeper into the phenomenon of violence and gangs over the last few years. two decades in the country. However, giving up is not part of his plans.
“This leaves us in a very difficult position. We can go to jail between 10 and 15 years if we publish any information, video or photos related to gangs. It is a gag law so that a different narrative from Bukele’s is not told. We will have to invest more time in lawyers, and change protocols, but we are not going to stop doing journalism,” says Martínez. In addition, he clarifies, they have tried to attack El Faro for years, “even with accusations of money laundering without presenting evidence,” and they have not stopped reporting for that reason.
To these latest measures taken by the Salvadoran government are added others that also generated criticism both outside and inside the Central American country. In May 2021, the Assembly controlled by Bukele’s party – Nuevas Ideas – dismissed several judges of the Supreme Court of Justice and the attorney general Raúl Melara. In September of last year, that same instance of justice approved the presidential re-election, despite the fact that the country’s Constitution prohibited it until then, leaving the door open for the president to seek a second consecutive term in government.
For all these reasons, Martínez considers that El Salvador is moving towards a dictatorship: “I am not speaking to you from a democracy, but from a country with a hybrid regime with a democratic make-up and many elements of authoritarianism.” “Bukele has shown that the most essential features of democracy such as the division of powers, freedom of the press or political dissent hinder him, he considers them an obstacle to his political plan, which is to have absolute power,” the journalist concludes.