El Salvador crackdown could prompt gangs to ‘adapt and reshuffle’

The government’s eight-month state of exception has seen civil liberties suspended and tens of thousands imprisoned.

Soldiers stand in an alley
Troops stand in an alley in the suburb of Soyapango, San Salvador, in December 2022, part of a nationwide campaign to crack down on gang warfare [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

San Salvador, El Salvador – Residents of Soyapango, a densely populated municipality on the outskirts of San Salvador, woke up on December 3 surrounded by 10,000 police and military forces.

The spectacle, staged by the Salvadoran government in an attempt to smoke out gang members in the city’s low-income neighbourhoods, came amid a countrywide state of exception that has been in place for more than eight months. As much as the security campaign has been fought in the streets, it has also been a battle for public perception.

“When you have a state of exception that has become normalised, you have to come up with something that will shock the waves again,” Jose Miguel Cruz, an expert on Salvadoran gangs at Florida International University, told Al Jazeera.

Soyapango was likely chosen because of its notoriety for being a gang hotbed and a historically rebellious community that past governments have struggled to control, he said.

El Salvador’s state of exception, in place since March, has suspended key civil liberties and led to the mass incarceration of nearly 60,000 Salvadorans. It is part of President Nayib Bukele’s push to rid the country of warring gangs, which have led to soaring murder rates. The measure came days after the country’s bloodiest weekend in more than two decades, reportedly triggered by the collapse of a truce between the government and the MS-13 gang.

Eight months later, Bukele and his allies say the state of exception has drastically improved security, and the apparent peace in the streets is the proof. But experts cite a lack of credible statistics, limited access to prisons where gangs operate, and an absence of measures to tackle gang structures or to provide preventative or rehabilitative programmes. Rather, the state’s large-scale violence against the population could eventually exacerbate El Salvador’s security problems, they say.

According to a new report from Human Rights Watch and the Salvadoran NGO Cristosal – based on more than 1,100 interviews, case files and medical records – widespread abuses have taken place since March, including arbitrary arrests, due process violations, enforced disappearances, torture and deaths in state custody.

Violating human rights

Of the nearly 60,000 people arrested, most have been accused of “unlawful association” or being part of a “terrorist group”, charges used to criminalise gang members. More than 51,000 were sent by Salvadoran courts to pretrial detention, violating international human rights standards.

The chaos and lack of information around these court cases, and the inability of relatives to contact their loved ones, have been a source of angst and stress for affected families. In some instances, defendants have faced mass virtual trials with up to 500 cases grouped together, making it “difficult or nearly impossible” for judges, prosecutors and lawyers to fairly assess individual arguments, according to Human Rights Watch.

At least 90 people have died in state custody since March, according to government statistics, and Human Rights Watch says authorities have failed to meaningfully investigate these cases. Several of those who have been released from prison reported degrading and inhumane conditions, along with beatings and waterboarding.

Bukele has brushed off such criticisms, tweeting on Thursday of the NGOs documenting such abuses: “Their fear is that we are successful, and that other governments will want to imitate us.”

Many Salvadorans say they have seen benefits from the state of exception, with 75 percent backing the measure, according to a recent survey by the University Institute of Public Opinion at San Salvador’s Central American University.

Luis, a resident of Nahuizalco who declined to provide his last name for fear of retribution, cited an apparent decrease in homicides, extortion cases and disappearances in his neighbourhood.

“We can go out with more safety,” he told Al Jazeera. “If you see a young man standing there, you don’t have to worry that he’s going to rob everything that you have.”

His comments reflect the government’s assertion that extortion has dropped by 80 percent since the state of exception was imposed, while Bukele often touts days with zero homicides. But these statistics are no longer reliable, according to Ricardo Valencia, an assistant professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton.

“They are systematically and clearly manipulating data in all aspects,” Valencia told Al Jazeera, citing various examples, such as the discovery of a mass grave that coincided with a “zero-homicide” day, suggesting that the government has narrowed the definition in order to lower the homicide rate.

Social factors

According to Marvin Reyes, a representative of the Salvadoran police union, the low number of confiscated firearms indicates shortcomings in the drive to disarm and dismantle gangs. Despite nearly 60,000 arrests during the state of exception, police have confiscated fewer than 2,000 firearms. “This doesn’t really add up,” Reyes told Al Jazeera. “This means that the gangs still have many weapons hidden.”

Cruz also questioned the state of exception’s efficacy in tackling gang structures, particularly through the exclusive use of force without measures to address the social factors that fuel gangs.

“It’s very hard to argue that the state is going to control the territory when the only thing you have to offer is basically armed men; when you don’t offer other things, like education and quality services, to the population,” he said.

Cruz acknowledged that many Salvadorans might be experiencing changes in their communities that have bolstered their sense of safety. But he cautioned against equating changes in day-to-day criminality with dismantling complex gang structures.

“If gangs and criminal groups are faced with these external shocks from policies from the government, they will adapt and they will reshuffle,” Cruz said. “They will mutate to an organisation and a structure that allows them to survive in a different way.”

Prisons have historically been a breeding ground for recruitment and adaptation of gang structures, and that’s where many Salvadoran youth are now, he added.

Some Salvadorans share his scepticism. About half of respondents to the University Institute of Public Opinion survey said they didn’t think gangs would disappear for good because of the state of exception. The survey also showed that Salvadorans overwhelmingly support the right to due process, such as releasing people when there is no proof of a crime and ensuring the right to attorneys.

Luis, the Nahuizalco resident, said he knows of many people who were unjustly arrested, and he believes the state of exception should only continue if police focus on known gang members.

The Human Rights Watch/Cristosal report recommended that the Salvadoran government end the state of exception. Bukele responded on Twitter on Wednesday, the same day the report was issued, with a single word: “No.”

Source: Al Jazeera