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El Salvador: A Harsh Solution to a Harsh Problem

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

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By Manuel Fernandez Prieto

Despite the critics, Nayib Bukele, the current president of El Salvador, engaged in a series of policies to end gangs in the country. The solution? Discipline and punishment to those who belong to these groups. Many object that the security of Salvadorians is worth the abolition of basic rights for criminals but what do Salvadorians think?

© CrisisGroup

The Problem

In Latin America, gangs represent one of the biggest threats to the population. Such gangs, locally known as maras, act violently to dominate certain areas, targeting government officials, police forces, and the local population.

In El Salvador, it got to the point where a record of 62 people were killed in a single day. To clarify, 0.001 per cent of the population was massacred during the span of just twenty-four hours.

These gangs also engage in illegal activities such as drug, arms, or human trafficking. This situation not only sets a threat to the population’s lives but also to their economic activities, which sets barriers to El Salvador’s social and economic development.

The Approach

As one of his strategies, the new president in El Salvador is conducting an intense hunt for gang members to stop their activities. As part of this plan, new prisons were built, and police forces were reamed to ensure their victory in this ‘war’.

Furthermore, laws were amended, allowing the government to condemn people based on whether they belong or not to a gang, avoiding legal processes such as a trial, and allowing for rapid and efficient mass detentions to end with the structure of the gangs. These laws also allowed the government to regain power in those prisons where it was lost in favour of the gangs.

In some of these centres, extreme measures were taken, such as rationing food to one meal daily to show the gang members what life awaited them.

The Outcome

The application of these policies resulted in a fast decrease in violence in the country. In the last 300 days, there have been no homicides. This makes the country one of the safest in Latin America at the moment.

Therefore, in this respect, the strategy has been successful. Moreover, this has positively impacted the GDP of the country, increasing tourism and exports. This shows how the strategy had a much more successful outcome than other security policies like “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) adopted in Mexico by Amlo, the current president, which was admired by the international community.

Deflecting Opinions

Despite this success, many object that it is a non-democratic solution and that the violation of human rights is not worth the violence reduction. Among these criticisms, some argue that the numbers provided by the government might be altered for the president to remain in power.

These opinions are constructed from developed ‘peaceful’ countries from the European Union and the US, resulting in uniformed and alien judgements.

What is important to understand here is if Bukele is acting authoritarian and is violating human rights according to multiple international organisations, why do the people from El Salvador support him so much?

The BBC indicated that people from El Salvador are willing to give up certain aspects for a peaceful country allowing Bukele to perform in this way. The fulfilment of the people’s desires showcases the true meaning of democracy and not the following of an international agenda.

Some government officials argue that no human rights are violated in the context of the country. This applies to, for example, the rationing of food in a country where 26 per cent of all families live in poverty and do not have enough to eat. In the meantime, criminals deserve three complete meals a day in prison.

This would, of course, be an unacceptable reality in Western countries, but, in El Salvador, the context is more nuanced.

What is often feared is how much love and support Bukele can gain, allowing him to rule the country in a non-democratic way. This could lead to the disappearance of the opposition and eventually turning the country into a dictatorship following the footsteps of Cuba and Venezuela.

Countries that, despite not being democratic and respecting human rights, appear not to be criticised by these organizations. For the moment, for El Salvador, this does not seem to be a feasible scenario as opposition and political representation remain in the country.


The firm enforcement of the law together with the modifications of it was Bekele’s recipe to end the gangs. Despite the criticism, the results cannot be discussed, and the Salvadorian people seem to advocate for such measures.

This is the true meaning of democracy fulfilling voters' desires besides a global agenda, justifying measures in a special context that some are not open-minded enough to understand.

Sources: BBC, Bloomberg, CrisisGroup, DW, El Economista

Written By Manuel Fernandez Prieto

May 2023

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of MJPE or its Board. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the MJPE concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.

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