Over the past year, El Salvador has drastically altered its strategy for combating the gang violence that is a commonplace in almost every Salvadoran community (Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr).
The 2022–2023 Salvadoran gang crackdown, also known as “the Régimen de Excepción” or the “Guerra Contra las Pandillas” (Spanish for “War Against the Gangs”), started in March 2022 in reaction to a sharp increase in violence. The Salvadoran government attributed the spike in murders to the country’s criminal gangs, which led the legislature to approve a state of emergency, which extended the length of time spent in detention without trial and suspended the rights to association and legal representation. Official statistics show that the operation has already resulted in 65,795 arrests and the seizure of 2,513 guns.
Why This Occurred
El Salvador, dubbed the “murder capital” of the world, has been grappling with gang violence for many years. In the years following a 12-year civil war that claimed more than 75,000 lives, El Salvador had been recovering economically and politically when it was hit by another wave of terror in March 2022, in which roughly 87 people were murdered by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs, the two most notorious gangs in the country.
These gangs are a product of the country’s civil war, which pitted the government against leftist guerrillas trying to spread communism to the country. Refugees who fled to the United States during the conflict between 1979 and 1992 began developing gang networks. However, when the Clinton administration enacted legislation for their deportation, the gangs moved to El Salvador where they flourished in the post-war chaos, participating in drug trafficking, extortion, and organized murder, among other things.
What is the Government is Doing Now?
The Salvadoran government has undertaken a significant crackdown on these gangs in response to the rising concern about gang violence. Every month since last March, El Salvador’s congress has passed legislation to extended the aforementioned state of emergency. Increased police presence in gang-dominated regions, tighter legislation against gang activity, and military deployment in select places are just a few of the tactics that make up the crackdown. Its primary goal is to find and detain anyone thought to have gang affiliations.
The government’s initiatives appear to be having an impact as there has been a notable drop in gang-related violence in recent months. In fact, El Salvador has gone 215 days without a murder reported.
Controversies Surrounding the Crackdown
The crackdown has not been without controversy; the government has been under fire from human rights organizations for abusing the rights of alleged gang members and deploying excessive force.
In the first 11 months of the state of emergency, more than 3,000 complaints of human rights violations were reported, according to the local humanitarian organization Cristosal. Most involved arbitrary arrests; according to families, young men are collected up simply because of their appearance or because they reside in less affluent areas.
Also, there have been complaints regarding the poor quality of prison medical care. However, the extreme prison overcrowding brought on by the increase in detentions has been the most significant issue to emerge.
The El Salvador gang crackdown is a significant step towards combating gang violence in the country. While there are concerns about human rights violations, gang-related violence has declined due to the government initiatives. Nevertheless, it is important that the government continues to balance its efforts to combat crime with respect for human rights. Regardless of what lies ahead, everyday Salvadorans are savoring the rare taste of independence from gang tyranny.
Sources & Further Reading