By: Vianny Nunez and Ashlyn Bi July 27, 2023
El Salvador, previously one of the most dangerous countries in the world, now, is one of the safest countries in Latin America. But at what cost? El Salvador, a country plagued by gang violence, has been the primary home for the notorious MS-13 gang: Mara Salvatrucha. President Nayib Bukele has taken bold measures to combat MS-13, implementing an aggressive strategy to incarcerate its members. However, is the violation of human rights a necessary evil to gain the safety and control of a country?
To understand the origin of MS-13, we must go back to La Guerra Civil de El Salvador. Many Salvadoreño immigrants fled to the United States hoping for asylum and a better future for their children and families, moving into mainly low-income communities. It was tough for Salvadoreño immigrants to get accustomed to a brand new country with different customs, values, and languages to learn. Eventually, MS-13 formed within Los Angeles in the late 1980s as a means of protection and community for their people. Of course, this ultimately transformed into illegal acts. As a result of the escalating violence and criminal activities MS-13 caused in the Americas, mass deportations occurred. This led to El Salvador becoming the host country for one of the most dangerous and renowned gangs. According to a report by InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to the study of organized crime in Latino America, MS-13 has played a significant role in El Salvador’s rate of violence. In 2015, InSight reported that the homicide rate in El Salvador reached 103 per 100,000 inhabitants which is one of the highest in the world. But, El Salvador went from having the most homicides per population, to one of the safest countries in Latino America.
A new wave of hope flooded El Salvador when Nayib Bukele was elected president in June 2019. Over the past few years, Bukele’s leadership has encouraged intensified law enforcement operations targeting MS-13. The government has invested in specialized police units, increased personnel, and enhanced training to combat the dangerous pandilla. It has even formed a “War on Gangs” task force to combat the effects of MS-13 within the country. Joint task forces comprising various security agencies have begun to coordinate efforts and share intelligence, enabling a more collective approach to dismantling the MS-13 criminal infrastructure, which is as complex as it is understood. These operations involve targeted raids, arrests, and prosecutions, focusing on disrupting the operations of MS-13, seizing illicit assets, and gathering evidence for successful convictions. This robust law enforcement approach aims to restore law and order.
Although the quick change of the atmosphere in El Salvador is recognized and rewarded, a deeper understanding of the complexity and weight of this situation offers a different truth.
Some human rights organizations have raised concerns about potential human rights abuses during law enforcement operations. Allegations of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and excessive use of force highlight the importance of upholding due process, respecting human rights, and ensuring transparency and accountability within the justice system. Between 2014 and 2018, the police committed 116 extrajudicial killings. Research finds that citizens with gang-related tattoos have been rounded up and sent straight to prison with little to no due process. Additionally, they are crowded within mega-prisons, with 65,000 individuals currently imprisoned. Furthermore, communication is strictly forbidden for the incarcerated, causing the outside to be unaware of what is going on inside and vice versa.
“No vamos a poner jamás los derechos humanos de los delincuentes de los derechos humanos de la gente honrada.” Which roughly translates to, “ We will never put the human rights of criminals above the human rights of honest people.” - Nayib Bukele.