El Salvador made a choice: remain the country with the highest crime rate or the country with the highest rate of incarcerated criminals.
"Thank God! - said 41-year-old El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele. - March 2023 was the safest month in our history."
Indeed, for the first time in 202 years of independence, this smallest Central American country was able to breathe freely, people began to leave their homes and walk the streets of cities without fear, spend their evenings in bars or dance floors.
The symbol of security and the horror of the criminal underworld was a giant prison built in six months in a rural valley on the outskirts of the town of Tecoluca, about 74 kilometers southeast of San Salvador. The government bought 166 hectares of land to build the prison, on 23 of which there are eight pavilions surrounded by a concrete wall 11 meters high and 2.1 kilometers long, fenced with electrified barbed wire and equipped with high-tech surveillance equipment. The largest mega-prison in America, the Terrorist Detention Center (Centro de Confinamiento del Terrorismo, CECOT), with a capacity of 40,000 detainees, was opened in early February of this year by President Bukele.
"At dawn today, in one operation, we transferred the first 2,000 bandits to the Terrorist Detention Center, - the president said on his Twitter account. - This will be their new home, where they will live for decades without causing any more harm to the population."
The video, which the president shared on social media, showed shaved, tattooed criminals with bare torsos in white shorts, barefoot, lined up in a large prison yard, under armed police guards. Then, handcuffed behind their backs, they are loaded onto a bus and transferred to CECOT under heavy guard by hundreds of police officers, Prison Department security agents and soldiers, and escorted by military helicopters. A second group of 2,000 gang members were "relocated" to CECOT on February 24, 2023. In total, about 67,000 people were arrested during a year of implementation of the government's "Territorial Control Plan."
"There are only two choices for a gang member: prison or death, there is no other choice," President Bukele said back in April 2022, when he first asked lawmakers to declare a national emergency.
Since the 1980s, thousands of people from Central America, plagued by civil and rebel wars, fled to the United States and eventually settled in California, where, under the influence of thriving criminality, they began to band together into "maras" (mara/marabunta is a type of gang that originated in the United States, from which it spread to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala). The end of the Salvadoran civil war in 1992, which killed more than 75,000 people, and stricter U.S. immigration policies forced thousands of mara members to return home.
Thus Mara Barrio 18 (M-18) and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) appeared in El Salvador and became powerful criminal organizations. They quickly absorbed the rest of the local gangs, as well as former members of the death squads and guerrillas, who had become skilled in fighting civilians during the civil war, rather than fighting each other. The "Mara" were notable for their inhuman cruelty and extreme violence, each "warrior" was "branded" with special tattoos.
These gangs "grew and strengthened" for decades on the blood of compatriots, becoming the main problem of successive Salvadoran governments.
The maras seemed already to be an endemic group in El Salvador, and their "street economy," thanks to the jump from a banal California gang to a serious mafia that created a more sophisticated enterprise at the expense of government officials, judges, money laundering, and mostly permanent violence, was unstoppable in the country.
Like his predecessors, Nayib Bukele, who became president of El Salvador in 2019, according to journalists but not confirmed by the president himself, tried to negotiate with the bandits. To no avail. In 2021, according to official figures, 1,147 people died at the hands of criminals, and in two days, from March 25 to 27, 2022, bandits killed about 90 Salvadorans.
This overwhelmed Bukele's patience and he fired the attorney general and appointed his own man to the position, and placed his men in the Ministry of the Interior, the army and the special services. The President asked the Legislative Assembly to declare a state of emergency, which had already been extended 11 times to date, and declared war on Mara Salvatrucha and Mara Barrio 18.
The decree suspended certain constitutional rights, such as the right to associate, the right to be informed of the reason for arrest, and access to a lawyer, and gave the police greater powers to detain suspects, wiretap phone calls, and search for suspicious correspondence. The period of detention without charge was increased from three to 15 days. This provoked a storm of indignation among opposition, local, and international human rights activists.
On March 27, 2022, combat operations under the state of emergency began. The war against the gangs was successful. To date, about 67,000 gangsters have been behind bars, including 900 ringleaders, and 2,066 firearms, 2,607 cars, 14,557 cell phones, $266 million worth of drugs and $1.5 million in cash have been seized. In addition, authorities seized real estate and liquidated businesses that the gangs used as fronts.
Terrorists were caught in rivers and garbage pits, taken from tree crowns, pulled from caves, abandoned houses, and even from secret camps in the forested wilds of the country. One ringleader, accused of numerous brutal murders, was found in a coffin that had been transported on the roof of a car.
"We have hit the terrorist structures and their leaders hard, their finances, their weapons. We will not rest until we see that they have been convicted of all the crimes they have committed over the last two decades. The number of murders has dropped significantly... No doubt we are on the right way," said Minister of Security and Justice Gustavo Villatoro.
As a result, this March El Salvador had the lowest murder rate in Central America, 7.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants (compared to 105 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015). Today, the popularity of President Nayib Bukele has reached 91%, according to the latest survey of the social research department published by La Prensa Gráfica newspaper.
And at this very time of fantastic support for the ruling president, Amnesty International and other pro-American "human rights activists" condemned the Salvadoran authorities for "massive human rights violations, including thousands of arbitrary detentions and violations of due process, as well as torture and ill-treatment that resulted in at least 18 deaths by state culpability."
The dog barks and the wind carries. Although the opposition and its national and international sponsors continue to question violent public security measures, El Salvador's success in eliminating banditry is undeniable.
Yes, it goes hand in hand with the almost absolute centralization of power in the hands of President Bukele and the suppression of the rule of law. But the vast majority of Salvadorans perceive these measures positively and support their president, which has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the region's leaders, who are experiencing the tragedy of rising organized crime. The El Salvadoran president's anti-gang strategy is also supported by other leaders in the region, notably the head of Honduras, Xiomara Castro.
On February 4, 2024, Salvadorans will elect a president, a vice president and 84 members of the Legislative Assembly. Nayib Bukele has announced his participation in the election of the head of state. For this he will need already now to make the appropriate changes to the country's constitution, which prohibits re-election to the highest post of the state. In Latin America, the ruling party almost always plays to its advantage. The main thing is to have the support of the majority of lawmakers. And Bukele has it.