Controversial Salvadoran Solution to Gang Violence


Latin America is a region filled with lively colors, culture, and people. Gorgeous scenery, breathtaking biosphere, delicious gastronomy, and endless customs to fall in love with. Nevertheless, this region has been burdened with immense violence and insecurity. As of 2016, a third of worldwide murders occurred in Latin America. An area with 8% of the world’s population but 400 homicides every day and approximately 146,000 per year. To make things worse, as of April 2018, the region’s murder rate has climbed 3.7% yearly over the previous ten years, three times the 1.1% regional annual population growth rate. 

While these statistics are heavily concerning, there is not an even distribution of crime in Latin America. Unfortunately, some countries have found themselves plagued with violence. One of these ill-fated nations is El Salvador. The Central American nation is ranked as the most dangerous country in the world in 2022. El Salvador has the highest worldwide murder rate of 52.02 per 100,000 inhabitants, 8.17 points higher than second place Jamaica. Moreover, it is also the country with the highest incarceration rate of 605 prisoners per 100,000 people, meaning that around 2% of all Salvadoran adults are in prison.

This bloodshed has led the current President of the nation, Nayib Bukele, to implement unprecedented policies, including declaring a state of emergency where some constitutional rights can be surpassed. President Bukele has quickly dismantled democratic institutions since taking office in 2019, leaving almost no independent government bodies that can check the executive branch or secure compensation for abuse victims.

Most notably, he announced with shocking imagery last week that the nation has created the prison that will hold the most inmates in the world. The prison is designed to incarcerate 40,000 people, almost double the 22,000+ inmates of the previous leader Silivri Penitentiaries Campus in Turkey. However, this prison is designed to be overcrowded. According to estimates by the Financial Times, each prisoner will only receive 0.6 square meters in shared cells if the facility achieves its maximum capacity. This is extraordinarily smaller than the Council of Europe’s recommended 4 square meters per prisoner. Consider that the minimum size requirements by EU regulations to move mid-sized cattle by road is more than double what these inmates will undergo. 

Last year, President Bukele expressed his plans, saying that those imprisoned would have “no mattress, sleeping on the floor. In overcrowded cells with two meals a day.” “We took everything away from them. We took away connectivity, internet, illicit objects, we took away their visits”. Bukele later states that he reduced the number of meals per day to 1, and it was followed by outrage from “shameless” NGOs.

The government’s heavy crackdown on gangs has met with widespread national support. It is very understandable that the Salvadoran people are desperate for change and the end of the abhorrent violence. Nevertheless, the policies and actions carried out during the state of emergency have been riddled with systemic legal and human rights violations. Human Rights Watch and Cristosal have released a report that finds grave jail overpopulation, numerous abuses of due process, detainee deaths or torture while in custody, and refusal to provide situational and locational information to the detainees’ family members.

The years of gang abuse on the population have led to these policies with a massive margin of error. The communities that have been most affected by gang violence have experienced indiscriminate arrests and raids, many to people who were innocent and had no connection with gangs at all. Amnesty International reports that there have been cases of families receiving the justification that their family members “looked like criminals” and have not been allowed any contact with them; policemen “arrest who they want.”

The government has also targeted journalists covering the issue. Recurrent baseless accusations and threats to researchers and journalists from state media and public officials have occurred. The threat of criminal investigations with a possible 15-year sentence has been waved in front of them, leading many journalists to move or flee the country.

The violence that the Salvadoran people have had to suffer is a tragedy. No one deserves to live in a constant state of fear and have their lives paralyzed by insecurity. While something must be done to secure the quality of life of this nation, the new prison and the policies carried out during the state of emergency are not the answer. President Bukele has set a horrible precedent for the nation’s future that could lead to a continuous downward spiral that leaves Salvadorans between indiscriminate violence from the hands of the state or the gangs.

The people that have been affected the most by decades of violence are those that have suffered the most by the state of emergency. It is evident that the strides taken by Bukele are political moves to gain public approval. The self-proclaimed “coolest dictator in the whole world” intentionally exposed images of hundreds of shaved head tattooed men when announcing the new prison. All the prisoners in the photos are intended to resemble what people associate with criminals. His crackdown’s framing and word choice are textbook populist propaganda that has a more significant benefit for himself than the issue at hand.

Furthermore, I pose the question: how are indiscriminate arrests and systemic human rights violations fixing the issue? The vengeful policies have led to further violence and a new source of torment for Salvadorans. I am a firm defender of inalienable human rights, regardless of who you are. Those responsible for such violence deserve to receive consequences for their actions. However, how are we any better if we become just as brutal as those who we claim to be villains? Two wrongs don’t make a right, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. While these are cliches, their sentiment reigns true. 

Besides the evident ethical concerns, no empirical evidence or example shows that the transition toward autocracy and punishment-centered incarceration is a reliable solution. We can see that countries with systems that focus on punishment have higher reincarceration rates and further perpetuate the context and cycle that leads to gang affiliation in the first place. As UNSW Law Emeritus Professor David Brown explains, [they] “just assumed that there is deterrence … but what the research shows is that the system has little to no deterrent effect.”. “The severity of punishment, known as marginal deterrence, has no real deterrent effect, or the effect of reducing recidivism.”. Thus, we fix nothing while losing our humanity in the process. 

Evidently, something must be done to stop the endless rotation of brutality. Gang violence needs to be addressed and the livelihood of the country must be ensured. Nevertheless, these barbaric policies are not the answer. The populist measures are only inhumane and vengeful. They bring further desperation to the most affected while corrupting the institutions that are supposed to symbolize justice and good. The end does not justify the means, and the evidence shows that the desired ends are not accomplished. We cannot leave our humanity behind to pursue the greater good, setting a paradigm of further violence and only catalyzing the roaring fire.

Featured image: Gang members wait to be taken to their cells at the “mega-prison” in Tecoluca, El Salvador.Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Reuters

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