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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jarrod Sadulski

El Salvador Has Dramatically Reduced Its Internal Violence

El Salvador has a long history of violence. During its 1980-1992 civil war, over 75,000 civilians were killed in El Salvador, according to The Center for Justice & Accountability.

 The deaths occurred when five large leftist revolutionary organizations merged to form a guerilla army that opposed the government. Since then, powerful gangs have controlled communities throughout El Salvador. These gangs include MS-13 and MS-18, which are known globally for their use of extreme violence.

How Gangs Influenced Life in El Salvador

El Salvador’s gangs were known for extortion. According to El Salvador’s central bank, gangs extorted $756 million from citizens. They used tactics such as fear and intimidation to compel victims to pay extortion fees, so that their victims could operate businesses and live in communities where law enforcement had no control.

In addition to extortion, El Salvador gangs thrived because they were an essential part of the pipeline of cocaine going from South America to the United States. Due to their power and coercion, gangs have been able to conduct their operations without any impact from law enforcement agencies or the government.

How Did the Gang Crackdown Occur in El Salvador?

However, the situation has now changed in El Salvador. President Nayib Bukele was first elected in El Salvador in 2019 and promised to take the country back from the gangs.

In 2022, President Bukele created policies that fundamentally changed gang activity in El Salvador. According to InSight Crime, the steps that Bukele took include:

  • Declaring a state of emergency

  • Disabling the command structure and hierarchy of gangs

  • Upending the ability for gangs to provide a response

  • Developing a loose definition of gang affiliation

  • Using mass incarceration to confine people believed to be gang members with a suspension of their constitutional rights to mount a defense

  • Modifying laws to create unlawful associations that target anyone who promotes or supports activities of a criminal organization

The military in El Salvador has joined forces with the police to combat gangs, and their operations have resulted in the incarceration of over 75,000 people according to PBS.

However, these strategies have come with controversy and allegations of abuse. According to Insight Crime, there is no clear definition of methodologies for determining who is a gang member and arrests are being made without evidence.

Salvadorans Feel Safer in the Country

Reuters notes that El Salvador has had a 70% drop in murders, and Bukele’s initiatives against gangs has been widely popular among El Salvador’s citizens. To a country who has been besieged by violent gangs for decades, people feel safe now.

I recently spoke with someone from El Salvador, and he explained that public activities that would have been too dangerous before the Bukele administration now occur on a daily basis. He explained that children can play on the street without the fear of getting kidnapped and business owners are operating their companies without extortion by gang members.

Bukele was reelected by a landslide in 2024. But for incarcerated gang members and people suspected to be affiliated with gang members, it is important that their human rights are not violated. To ensure this protection of human rights, the prisons housing large numbers of inmates should have ombudsman personnel who have unrestricted access to the prison.

Employment and Tourism Will Help the Future of El Salvador

Like all other impoverished countries, access to employment is the key for people to take a different path from crime. The government has temporarily stopped rampant criminal activity and murder, but investment in El Salvador is necessary for this to be sustainable.

El Salvador is one of the most scenic countries in Central America. While it is still in its infancy in terms of tourism, it has become one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations in Central America for a good reason. Tourism in El Salvador in a time that has historically low crime rates can help El Salvadorans thrive.

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