Activists warn of 'massive human rights violations' as El Salvador battles its gang crisis

Activists warn of 'massive human rights violations' as El Salvador battles its gang crisis

Since being sworn in as El Salvador’s president in 2019, Nayib Bukele has aggressively confronted the country’s gang crisis. And it has worked: Gang violence is way down in the Central American country, and El Salvador’s murder rate has plummeted.

But journalists Jaime Quintanilla and Tom Phillips, in an article published by The Guardian on February 20, emphasize that some activists fear Bukele’s anti-gang crackdown has come at the expense of human rights.

The same point has also been made by Amnesty International and the Salvadoran publication El Faro (whose name means "The Lighthouse" in Spanish). In an editorial published by El Faro on February 3, the publication’s editorial board wrote, "The visible absence of gang structures in many Salvadoran communities is big news for every Salvadoran, particularly those who have lived under siege by these criminal groups for decades. The dismantling of gangs has enormous life-changing potential for the country…. But in order for that to happen, we’ve had to give up our imperfect democracy, built after 100,000 deaths and thousands of disappearances during the armed conflict."

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El Salvador has been the home of the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, a notorious gang with a long history of violence, and the rival gang Barrio 18. MS-13 has also been active in at least three other countries: the U.S., Mexico and Guatemala.

Quintanilla and Phillips, in The Guardian, report that MS-13’s activity in El Salvador has significantly decreased under Bukele’s presidency.

"In recent days, the Guardian visited eight communities in and around El Salvador’s capital to explore the unexpected pacification," the reporters explain. "Until recently, five had been the dominion of the Mara Salvatrucha, two the Barrio 18-Sureños, and one the Barrio 18-Revolucionarios group. In none was there any sign of gang members, who before, would loiter on street corners, drinking, smoking marijuana and constantly observing locals and outsiders."

According to Quintanilla and Phillips, The Guardian interviewed "more than 20 sources, including shopkeepers, police officers, community leaders, residents and taxi and bus drivers." And all of them "agreed that the criminal groups were a shadow of their former selves."

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But José Miguel Cruz of Florida International University believes that Bukele has been given too much power, undermining the system of checks and balances in El Salvador.

Cruz told The Guardian, "The success story is not the (defeat of the) gangs. It’s his perpetuation in power.… I’m very pessimistic. I think many people will realize their mistake in the next two or three years, but it will be too late. (Bukele) already controls everything. He has absolute loyalty from the security forces."

In an op-ed published on August 31, 2022, Amnesty International's Duncan Tucker stressed that Salvadorans should not have to give up their civil liberties in order to be liberated from extreme gang violence.

Duncan wrote, "El Salvador's gangs have inflicted nothing but misery on the population. For 30 years, people have lived in fear of being extorted, kidnapped, raped, or murdered by members of MS-13 or Barrio 18 — rival groups that were founded in Los Angeles and later exported to El Salvador through mass deportations. It is no surprise then that President Nayib Bukele’s 'war on gangs' has proven so popular…. But public security should not come at the expense of massive human rights violations."

Duncan added, "As Amnesty International has documented, the authorities have dismantled judicial independence and committed torture and thousands of arbitrary detentions and violations of due process. Meanwhile, at least 73 detainees have died in state custody. With over 1 percent of its population behind bars — some just for looking 'suspicious' or 'nervous' — El Salvador has surpassed the United States to claim the world’s highest incarceration rate."

READ MORE: Deported to death: US sent 138 Salvadorans home to be killed

Read The Guardian’s full report at this link.

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