El Salvador’s Security Smoke Screens

NACLA and Taylor & Francis Online, November 2020. With Pamela Ruiz. This is an excerpt; complete copies are available at either publisher. My reporting for this piece was thanks to a grant from The Fund for Constitutional Government.

In April 2020, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele reacted to a wave of murders by ordering prison officials to mix rival gang members in the same cells with metal soldered over the bars, making what happened inside the cells invisible from the outside. He then tweeted a command to the national police to use lethal force as necessary to “defend the lives of Salvadorans.” Five months later, the Salvadoran outlet El Faro revealed his administration has been secretly trading favors with the MS-13 gang—negotiations that Bukele denied, brandishing photos of his prison crackdown as proof. While purporting to be tough on gangs, Bukele is merely grabbing an old lever of power called mano dura (iron fist), which, rather than making El Salvador safe, has always been a tool for political gain.

Bukele appears desperate to stop the hemorrhage of legitimacy from his administration and to find allies after a series of authoritarian moves that trampled the rule of law and sent his international reputation into a nosedive. Mano dura is a punitive criminal justice approach modeled after U.S. “tough-on-crime” philosophies. As in the United States, the approach has been popular, formed the bedrock of entire political careers, and engendered police brutality and other illegal state behavior. In El Salvador, it has made gang violence much worse. It was unsurprising that in his moment of need, Bukele reached for mano dura. But the president is likely trading momentary popularity for more entrenched criminal organizations, more human rights abuses, and less rule of law. His move amounts to yet another missed opportunity to build a country of justice and safety.

Bukele’s assault on democracy ramped up on February 9, when he roused the military to invade Congress in an attempt to force a vote on a loan from an international bank. Surrounded by soldiers, Bukele sat in the speaker of the house’s chair and appeared to pray before declaring that he was exercising restraint because God told him to. Two months later, his administration repeatedly defied rulings from the Supreme Court in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, provoking constitutional crises. Then, a civil society oversight board the government had assembled to oversee the pandemic budget unanimously resigned, saying the administration had blocked access to the information necessary to certify the process was corruption-free. Salvadoran media outlets have since published numerous revelations of financial and logistical mismanagement of emergency resources. Bukele and his administration have responded by disparaging the country’s storied human rights institutions and conducting a “systematic attack on independent journalism,” according to El Faro.

Bukele ordered the prison lockdown when a spate of murders punctured his claims to have a grip on violent crime. El Salvador’s daily number of murders has been in decline since 2015, when the country recorded the highest homicide rate in the world. Bukele claims the continuing downward trend is thanks to his Territorial Control Plan, a security policy that appears to replicate mano dura. For months, experts and research instead suggested a secret pact—and indeed, El Faro’s revelations showed Bukele’s administration offered favors to MS-13 in exchange for reduced homicides and votes in the 2021 midterm elections.

What first upset the president’s narrative about the efficacy of his security policies was a homicidal wave: 74 killings during four days in April, which the administration immediately blamed on gangs without a conclusive investigation. As prison authorities carried out Bukele’s orders, government accounts unabashedly tweeted disturbing images of thousands of inmate bodies pressed together in the middle of a pandemic. This embodied the classic Mano Dura playbook.

Mano Dura, From Campaign Tactic to Police Killings

In 2003, the northern countries of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—implemented mano dura policies. While these responses to gangs bore similar features, El Salvador’s political manipulation of such policies stands out. Mano dura began in El Salvador in July 2003 with two memos. First, a note circulated inside the right-wing ARENA party, identifying it as a campaign tactic. Then President Francisco Flores, of ARENA, issued a second memo instructing the police to work with the judiciary to arrest and process as many young people as possible. They complied, detaining 30,934 young people for alleged gang membership by July 2005, though 84 percent of them were later released due to lack of evidence, according to political scientist José Miguel Cruz. The country’s main newspapers covered the raids, publishing photographs that juxtaposed uniformed officers with scrawny, kneeling alleged gang members.

Academics like Sonja Wolf have established that mano dura is not a policy, which would be a coordinated interagency plan with measurable success metrics. Instead, mano dura is scattershot mass incarceration and police abuse in poor neighborhoods, replete with macho aggression. This approach places an overwhelming burden on under-resourced court and prison systems, without shoring up those systems, incentivizing quality investigation, or engaging in long-term planning. That is, mano dura wins elections and saves politicians from doing the real work of solving problems. It also unleashes police brutality.

The United States plays a leading role in this story. Through financial assistance and training, Washington has been the strongest external influence on the Salvadoran police force since its creation in 1993 on the heels of the Peace Accords ending 12 years of U.S.-backed civil war. In both countries, police kill civilians within a larger context of tough-on-crime vision of security, and there is a miserable dearth of investment in alternative approaches to community safety. Likewise, attempts at police reform in both countries have not solved the problem, and the U.S. federal government continues to mold foreign police forces like El Salvador’s following the same disastrous blueprint.

In El Salvador, the internal police culture that grew from mano dura led to, among other things, an extermination campaign that became particularly marked starting in 2015. Police gunned down young men in poor communities—suspected gang members—in situations the police called “crossfire” or enfrentamientos. In 2015, 406 young people were murdered this way, and the number shot to 591 the following year. In 2016 and 2017, deaths exceeded the number of confrontations—an indicator that something was awry with the police’s version of the story. Real crossfire tends to leave more injured than dead, and when there are casualties, they tend toward parity on both sides. But suspected gang members consistently made up the vast majority of confrontation deaths: 92 percent in 2014, 88 percent in 2015, 96 percent in 2016, 93.5 percent in 2017, and 81.3 percent in 2018. These numbers reflect a civilian toll approximately 10 times deadlier than normal for such police activity.  

An investigation by the Salvadoran Ombudsman for Human Rights found that, in fact, many of the instances police called “crossfire” were execution-style killings that sometimes involved prior torture or in which officers planted weapons on the scene after killing unarmed civilians. Human rights institutions denounced the pattern before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 2017. The Commission’s Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Executions, Agnes Callamard, concluded in 2018 that, indeed, Salvadoran state security forces employed excessive use of force, including systematic killings.

A 2020 follow-up report by Salvadoran human rights organizations found that the government had only implemented 4 percent of the Special Rapporteur’s 51 recommendations and left 49 percent completely unaddressed. The government also made policy decisions that contradicted 15.7 percent of the recommendations, the report found.

Before the onslaught of extrajudicial executions, the police director had made a public announcement in 2015 telling officers not to fear using lethal force. Against that precedent, Bukele’s April tweet encouraging officers to kill as necessary generated alarm. Additionally, the police force remains in the hands of much of the same leadership that oversaw that extermination campaign. “There has been no purge, no process to strengthen internal and external oversight,” said Verónica Reyna, the director of a human rights monitor at a San Salvador-based nonprofit called SSPAS. “It is incredibly dangerous to give them this green light.”

A Justice System Overrun, and Gangs Gaining Strength

Mano dura’s reliance on mass arrests and police abuse has left the justice system overwhelmed by bodies—those of both victims and offenders. Thousands of alleged perpetrators languish behind bars while awaiting trial, sometimes for years.

In the absence of time or capacity to adequately investigate crimes, testimonies from plea-bargain witnesses form the basis of many cases, with little additional evidence. Prosecutions can be conducted on the testimonies of gang members who have their own axes to grind. In a particularly egregious case of misuse of such testimony, a 30-year-old man was arrested in April 2020 after an imprisoned gang member claimed the man had participated in killing a soldier. Four days later, the man’s body was returned to his family in a closed coffin, according to his relatives, who said they were told they should not open the casket because he died of Covid-19. The family defied the order and found him still handcuffed, his body bearing torture marks.

Meanwhile, a paradox reigns in the country’s prisons: While they are infamous as lawless places where crimes are ordered freely, human rights violations by prison authorities are also rampant. Lock-up in El Salvador is simultaneously out of control and extremely abusive.

The crisis in Salvadoran prisons began before Bukele. Mass incarceration, following the United States’ example, has filled some Salvadoran prisons 300 percent over capacity. In fact, the two countries in the world with the largest incarcerated population per capita are the United States and El Salvador, according to the World Prison Brief. The administration of previous president Salvador Sánchez Cerén implemented a policy, called Extraordinary Measures, that suspended phone calls and family visits and barred inmates from attending court hearings in person. Then, one of Bukele’s first acts as president was to declare a penal state of emergency. The move forbade family members—already barred from visiting prisoners—from delivering once-monthly packages of toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, and other basic necessities.

Defense attorneys are among the few people who have maintained physical access to prisoners—although since March 2020, they say they are also denied entry. Two such attorneys we spoke to expressed consternation about the latest lockdown and asked for anonymity, citing fears of retaliation. One lawyer told us that the temperature inside prisons was often so high, the still air so thick, that he found it difficult to breathe. In September 2019, he said, he found one client with an advanced, untreated staph infection and immediately solicited a judicial order for a hospital visit.

This is more disturbing given the Covid-19 pandemic, which has prompted calls for decarceration around the world. Susan Cruz, a Salvadoran-American civil rights activist and therapist specialized in public health, confirmed the defense lawyers’ observations. Salvadoran prison officials are notoriously irresponsible with disease outbreaks, she claimed. They “know who is sick” but “do not separate infected individuals from healthy ones,” she said. Local media has found that an average of 45 prisoners in El Salvador die each year of tuberculosis.

Jeanne Rikkers, a human rights researcher at the nonprofit organization Cristosal in San Salvador, pointed to an absence of due process in Bukele’s mass lockdown. “There’s no way that 15,000 people are all themselves equally responsible before the law for the murder wave,” Rikkers said. “It seems that the executive branch has decided to punish in any way they see fit, even if it’s outside the law.”

Although the administration went to great lengths to orchestrate its prison crackdown before press cameras and Bukele crowed on Twitter the order to mix incarcerated rivals, it appears to have been mostly a ruse. The administration quietly reversed the order shortly after making it, as a concession to MS-13, according to the El Faro investigation. Nevertheless, having shoved together hundreds of nearly naked prisoners in the middle of a pandemic was dangerous and disturbing.

However, some security analysts say mixing gangs in prisons isn’t necessarily a bad idea—if part of policy, not a spontaneous political punch. In a May 2020 security roundtable hosted by Salvadoran outlet Revista Factum, three speakers—human rights expert Verónica Reyna, analyst Luis Enrique Amaya, and former police chief and right-wing congressman Rodrigo Ávila—agreed it could make more sense to group inmates according to the severity of the crime for which they were serving time, among other possible categorizations that have nothing to do with gang affiliation. Guatemala’s experience suggests such a step should be taken with caution; there, authorities mixed rivals until August 2005, and doing so enabled the groups to learn each other’s modus operandi. Because the groups no longer had signature criminal activity, deciphering which was responsible for subsequent crimes became more challenging for investigators.

But Bukele’s action was not attached to any policy or long-term vision of a safer El Salvador. It appeared to be simple vengeance, meant to display his power. It also violated international human rights law. And it appears that his quick decision to reverse the mandate was, yet again, only in service of his own power.

If what he wanted was popularity, Bukele chose well. Tough-on-crime retains widespread appeal. According to a 2017 survey, 40 percent of Salvadorans approve the use of torture against members of organized criminal groups, 34.6 percent approve extrajudicial executions, and 17.2 percent would consent to social cleansing. And the president has not lost public support from U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Ronald Johnson, a former CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer who frequently tweets positively about Bukele and downplayed the significance of El Faro‘s revelations. Not long before El Faro’s report was published, Johnson gave a strange press conference alongside a smirking Bukele in which the ambassador decried, among other things, “fake news.”The Embassy is sometimes present when the administration makes decisions, Salvadoran media have reported. U.S. congressional representatives, on the other hand, wrote to Bukele in an April 29 letter led by Eliot Engel and Albio Sires of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: “We are concerned by several recent actions that you have taken which jeopardize the human rights of the Salvadoran people and your country’s democracy. We respectfully ask that you reconsider these actions and not use COVID-19 as a pretext to undermine the Salvadoran constitution and international norms.”

The revelation of this latest pact between MS-13 and yet another Salvadoran administration does showcase an important point: homicides can be reduced through negotiations with gangs. In fact, while mano dura has never measurably improved security in El Salvador, the only times that homicides have dropped in a sustained way have been after negotiations. As a tactic, dialogue avoids facilitating police brutality. Peace talks like those employed worldwide to resolve armed conflicts hold the potential to preserve the rule of law, offer justice to victims, and prevent political manipulation of security policies. But not all dialogue is created equal; talks designed to provide long-term solutions are radically different than negotiations for cynical political gain.

From its origins, mano dura has never decreased gangs’ power or increased Salvadorans’ access to justice. Young people still join gangs for the same reasons they did 30 years ago: mostly because they have few alternatives for a dignified life, multiple studies have found. Meanwhile, one study by scholars José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen found that leaving a gang is practically impossible in Salvadoran prisons, where inmates are surrounded exclusively by other gang members and provided with few or no resources for rehabilitation. The study pinpointed factors that do facilitate serious attempts to leave gangs, like affiliation with an Evangelical church, learning that another gang member successfully left the gang, or being a member of a small clique.

Bukele’s embrace of mano dura sets the country on course to continue to defy its constitution, which stipulates that prisons must equip inmates to rejoin society upon completing their sentences. “We know that rehabilitation is possible. We have seen evidence of that, of the changes that inmates [make] with proper rehabilitation programs,” said Rosa Anaya, the director of one of few such programs, run by Catholic Relief Services. “But that does not happen in extreme confinement in a dark cell.”

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