Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s president since 2014, left office last weekend with little to show for his tenure, in which slight improvements in the country’s prisons were more than offset by rising homicides and the reappearance of police death squads.
Some 23,000 Salvadorans were killed over the five years of Sánchez Cerén’s administration, or close to 13 killings a day on average.
In 2015, the first full year of his administration, homicides reached an average of 17 a day. This translated to 103 homicides per 100,000 people, a record since the civil war ended in 1992. The level dropped each year until 2018, but not by much.
Officials and crime analysts attributed most of this violence to clashes between El Salvador’s street gangs and authorities. The Sánchez Cerén administration opted for a policy of direct confrontation with the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs after a fleeting attempt at negotiation proved untenable.
Legal reforms tightened conditions on imprisoned gang leaders and reduced their ability to communicate with fellow members outside prison walls in an effort to disrupt the organization of extortion rings and other criminal networks.
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The police and army took on an all-assault posture against the gangs. But this stance led authorities to tolerate human rights abuses. A special police force allegedly committed several execution-style killings during raids, in addition to other crimes. The National Civil Police and the army also stood by as so-called extermination groups emerged, according to court documents, press reports and United Nations officials.
Despite the escalation of violence by authorities, the territorial control exercised by the gangs has remained almost intact. Homicide figures have not dropped significantly and extortion, the main source of income for gang members, has not declined either.
Both Barrio 18 and MS13 have maintained sufficient firepower to take their fight to government authorities. More than 30 police officers were killed in 2018 alone, and 45 members of state security forces were murdered the previous year. For its part, the National Civil Police killed 1,159 gang members in 719 clashes between 2016 and 2018, according to Revista Factum data.
Upon assuming the presidency, Sánchez Cerén created the National Council for Citizen Security and Coexistence. The joint body — made up of officials, business sectors and non-governmental organizations — was responsible for proposing citizen security and violence prevention policies. But its plans never came to much, other than the prison reforms.
InSight Crime Analysis
The high body count and continued gang control over large swaths of El Salvador show that Sánchez Cerén’s security policies, which prioritized repressive measures and tolerated illegal actions by his own security forces, have largely failed.
Upon his arrival to the presidency, Sánchez Cerén was handed a complicated security situation made by his predecessor, Mauricio Funes. Under Funes, a truce was brokered between the gangs in 2012. The truce cut killings by half, though only temporarily. It also increased the gangs’ political bargaining power and did nothing to prevent their continuing predations on citizens through extortion, violence and terror.
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After the truce, the gangs realized that they could negotiate with Salvadoran political parties on key issues and even earn benefits by guaranteeing the safe passage of election candidates. A quasi co-government was even formed in the city of Apopa, near San Salvador.
During the first weeks of his administration, Sánchez Cerén sought to negotiate in secret with the gangs but these negotiations soon foundered. The ending of the negotiation ultimately led to an escalation of violence and more attacks on the police and military in 2015.
New President Nayib Bukele’s top priority will undoubtedly be how to handle El Salvador’s intractable gang problem. As San Salvador’s mayor, Bukele proved to be quite practical, negotiating with gang members through local officials in order to gain security concessions, according to an El Faro investigation.
But just few hours after being sworn in as president, Bukele had already provided two signals that he would pursue a hard-line approach similar to that of Sánchez Cerén.
At his first cabinet meeting on June 2, Bukele said, without giving further details, that he would seek to break the gangs’ territorial control. He also appointed as national police director, Mauricio Arriaza Chicas. A hardline officer, Chicas led special police units that clashed hard with gangs, and were accused of extrajudicial killings as well.