Since the rise of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang in the 1980s, El Salvador’s history is one fraught with violence, crime, and instability. To many, El Salvador and MS-13 are nearly synonymous with one another; and despite attempts by the Salvadoran government to quell the rise in gang-related violence, many families have fled the country to escape the dire situation. With the election of President Nayib Bukele in 2019, however, El Salvador’s fate has been challenged. President Bukele made tackling gang violence a priority for his administration. In March of 2022, President Bukele authorized a slew of emergency measures to combat the rise in gang violence, including the construction of the Center of the Confinement of Terrorism to house gang members. The new mega-prison boasts of being one of Latin America’s largest prisons, but from the time of the prison’s establishment, it has faced significant backlash from human rights organizations. El Salvador’s aggressive response to gang violence emphasizes the need to analyze the balance between human rights and addressing crime in modern society.
The History of El Salvador’s Grapple with Gangs
El Salvador’s complex history of gang violence extends several decades back into the 1980s, a time when many Salvadoran refugees fled to Los Angeles to escape the country’s ongoing civil war. Within the Salvadoran community of Los Angeles, two rival crime organizations were born: MS-13 and Barrio 18. These crime organizations found their way back to El Salvador when United States President Bill Clinton signed several laws to expand the scope of deportable offenses, which impacted thousands of Salvadorans, both gang members and non-gang members. In the postwar chaos, gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 thrived in El Salvador.
The crackdown on gangs within El Salvador began in the early 2000s, as the Salvadoran government introduced the “mano dura” approach. Otherwise known as the “iron fist” approach, the Salvadoran government instituted an increased police presence, tougher sentencings, and mass incarceration. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, however, there are several downsides to this approach. Overcrowded prisons quickly became recruiting and training sites for gangs, and homicides more than doubled between 1999 and 2009.
With the election of President Mauricio Funes in 2009, the Salvadoran government re-evaluated its approach. In 2012, President Funes struck a controversial truce with the gangs, which led to a temporary decrease in violence. In 2014, however, the truce dissolved as turf wars between gangs escalated. By 2015, El Salvador was the deadliest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 105 homicides per 100,000 people, compared to only 29.07 homicides per 100,000 people in Mexico.
When President Bukele took office, the murder rate had reached its lowest level in two decades, with only 36 homicides per 100,000 people. However, the peace was brief, as a wave of violence swept through El Salvador in March of 2022, which left at least eighty-seven bystanders dead. In response to the new onslaught of violence plaguing the country, President Bukele declared a “war on gangs.” Part of the president’s declaration of war included the construction of the Center of the Confinement of Terrorism, the largest mega-prison in El Salvador and one of the largest in Latin America.
The Mega Prison and Its Controversy
The Center of the Confinement of Terrorism lives up to its designation as a ‘mega-prison’. The jail is located in a remote, forested corner of El Salvador, 46 miles southeast of the capital, San Salvador. The mega-prison contains 37 guard towers and eight cell blocks, with each cell block containing 32 cells of about 1,075 square feet to hold “more than 100” prisoners. Furthermore, each cell contains only two sinks and two toilets, and the inmates are given the option to sleep on the floor or on metal beds, which lack mattresses. The cells also lack windows or lighting, leaving the spaces cramped and dark. While there are exercise rooms, dining halls, and table tennis tables, these accommodations are reserved for the guards. Within the mega-prison, the inmates face strict regulations and disciplinary measures. For example, prisoners’ food rations were slashed, with President Bukele vowing, “I swear to God they will not get a grain of rice.” These measures serve as a deterrent against gang recruitment and training, given that the prison will hold more than 40,000 inmates. President Bukele boasts that the mega-prison is the largest jail in the Americas.
The mega-prison is specifically designed to house suspected gang members in response to the significant uptick in crime since March 2022. Last month, on February 25th, President Bukele tweeted that the mega-prison “will be their new house, where they will live for decades, all mixed, unable to do any further harm to the population.” Hours before the president published the tweet, the first 2,000 inmates arrived at the prison, all convicted of gang-related crimes ranging from drug trafficking to homicide. Shortly after their arrival, photos and videos surfaced online of the prisoners being led into the facility in shackles, stripped down to white shorts and heads shaven, before being forced to run through the new prison into their cells. The Salvadoran government hopes that this crackdown will lead to the eradication of gangs in the near future.
The measures taken by the Salvadoran government under President Bukele have received praise from citizens. Some polls show that more than 90 percent of Salvadoran citizens approve of the crackdown, citing their sense of safety within their neighborhoods. Several San Salvador residents interviewed by Reuters claim they can finally go outside at night, spend time at sports events, order food deliveries, and receive visitors from other parts of the country. In Santa Tecla, a city on the outskirts of San Salvador, 45-year-old mechanic Manuel had been subject to extortion for 12 years prior to the crackdown. He gave money to hitmen of MS-13 biweekly to protect his wife and four children, who were threatened to be killed if he did not provide the money to the gang. Manuel was also forced to service the gang’s cars for free. Since the crackdown, however, Manuel states that, “I go out to walk every night with my young children. Before, I didn’t even take them out.” Despite the praise from the citizens of El Salvador, many countries and human rights organizations have expressed a growing concern surrounding the treatment of gang members in the mega-prison.
Given the militaristic nature of the mega-prison, it should come as no surprise that it has received international attention from human rights organizations. In a statement from Human Rights Watch, the organization cites mass arbitrary detention, torture, deaths in custody, and other forms of ill-treatment against detainees as serious human rights violations. Minors, some as young as 12, were reported among the several thousand already held at the prison, facing the same conditions as their adult counterparts. Other human rights organizations have also argued that innocent people have been wrongly accused and incarcerated at the mega-prison. The definition of “unlawful association” in El Salvador is broad, extending to those who may indirectly benefit from gangs or have relations “of any nature” to a gang. Therefore, this broad definition has led to reports of Salvadoran authorities imprisoning innocents. Furthermore, reports claim that some innocent people have been subject to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” As the Salvadoran government denies such claims, there have been reports of Bukele’s administration suppressing critics and journalists in order to control the spread of controversial information regarding the prison.
Learning From El Salvador’s Past and Present
On February 28th, 2023, President Bukele stood before the men and women who will aid in securing El Salvador’s future, one without gangs plaguing the country. Dedicated to the opening of the new mega-prison, President Bukele spoke of the ongoing war against gangs, highlighting the country’s historical successes in clearing the streets of gangs. However, during the speech, the president refused to elaborate on a particular remark aimed at some members of the international community. As President Bukele spoke of the fundamental human values that “were probably not strong” in El Salvador’s past, he shifted his attention beyond El Salvador’s borders, stating that the lands that had once honored those human values “are losing those values now.” Given that murder—the most serious form of violent crime—has recently increased in the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting a 30% increase between 2019 to 2020, it is possible that President Bukele directed the remark specifically at El Salvador’s distant neighbor. While many may disapprove of President Bukele’s methods, it is without a doubt that President Bukele’s rigorous approach is working. In 2022, murders dropped in El Salvador by 56.8%.
El Salvador is not alone in reaping successful results from a stringent approach to tackling crime. Thus, for countries that may be losing fundamental values due to increased crime, an approach akin to President Bukele’s may be a drastic yet necessary approach to reclaim those values.
Similar to El Salvador, the Singaporean government has been a proponent of strict law enforcement for criminals. In the 1960s, specifically in 1969, Singapore was hit with a wave of mob-related crime. Following the rise of violent mobs, for nearly 20 consecutive years since the 1990s, Singapore has faced a sustained decrease in crime, giving the country the title of one of the safest countries in the world. Singapore’s history of low crime rates is a result of the country having one of the most stringent penal codes in the world, with caning and imprisonment mandated for offenses such as theft or robbery. According to the penal code, an individual can face up to 3 or more years in prison for possessing illegal drugs. The punishment for participating in gang activity is especially harsh, with an individual facing anywhere from a minimum of five years in prison to execution. Given this information, it should be expected that Singapore’s homicide rate has remained below 1 homicide per 100,000 people for over twenty years. Therefore, if countries such as the United States want to see a swift reduction in crime, they could look to El Salvador or Singapore for a similar solution.
Some countries, however, have shown that approaches like El Salvador’s are not always necessary for reducing crime. Denmark is consistently ranked in the top ten safest countries in the world, but its approach to crime is vastly different than Singapore or El Salvador. The core philosophy of the Danish prison system, similar to other Scandinavian countries, is rehabilitation. Rather than punishing the prisoner, the Danish prison system works to reintegrate the individual back into society. According to Georgetown University, most Danish prisoners face a sentence of fewer than five years in prison, with the average sentence length being six months. These prisons resemble the outside world, which lacks the walls and security features seen in most prisons. Prisoners can also attend classes, shop for themselves, and cook. This method has proven successful in Denmark, with a homicide rate of only 1.01 per 100,000 people.
While Denmark’s approach appears to be a viable option for the United States from a human rights perspective, it is worth noting Denmark’s unique situation. Unlike the United States, Denmark directly shares only one border with another country, which is Germany. The United States shares a border with two countries, Canada and Mexico, and the shared border with Mexico creates the stark difference between the United States and Denmark. In 2022, the White House named Mexico, along with over five other Latin American countries, as a major drug transit or illicit drug-producing country. Germany did not, nor did any of Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbors, make the list. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice states that most of these drugs are supplied by gangs, while the drugs in Denmark are often sold by individuals or small groups. Given the presence of such illicit drugs within the United States, a survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 46% of the population had tried an illegal substance at least once in their lifetime, the most prevalent being cocaine and marijuana. In contrast, only about 22% of the population in Denmark reported trying an illegal substance at least once, 63% of those illicit substances being marijuana. With the addition of the recent fentanyl crisis in the United States, it is clear that the illegal drug situation in the United States cannot be compared to Denmark. In order to reduce the prevalence of drugs and gangs, the United States must consider a different approach than Denmark.
While the United States has yet to reach a gang crisis to the extent of El Salvador’s, few signs suggest either facing a decrease in the near future. President Bukele sent a stark message with the construction and operation of the Center of the Confinement of Terrorism, perhaps one of his most compelling displays of intolerance towards gangs. The United States must follow in President Bukele's footsteps and send this same message to gangs, beginning with a crackdown on gangs and potentially the construction of a similar prison specifically for incarcerated gang members in the future. At the same time, we must acknowledge the claims of the human rights violations taking place within the mega-prison, which the United States could avoid by providing an equal number of facilities to prisoners. These facilities would include, but are not limited to, an equal number of beds, toilets, and sinks. Furthermore, the United States could take a softer approach to minor crimes, such as petty theft or public intoxication, while cracking down on violent or drug-related crimes. The degree of civility granted to the prisoners would be determined by the severity of the crime committed. Nevertheless, El Salvador’s past has indicated that negotiations and spoken threats fail to deter gangs, and that past is beginning to reflect in the United States’ present and future. Without immediate and swift intervention mirroring President Bukele’s strategy, there is a possibility that the United States will face an increase in violent crime and drug overdose deaths.
Despite the controversy over the mega-prison, President Bukele has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to upholding and protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens through his crackdown on gangs. As testified by Salvadoran citizens, the gangs took away their sense of freedom within their own communities. Therefore, the issue surrounding gang-related crime in El Salvador raises the awareness of a much broader controversy: choosing between the rights of law-abiding citizens and criminals when addressing an increase in crime. For those living in Western countries, it may seem easy to criticize another country for choosing between the rights of its citizens and criminals, as many Western countries lack the degree of crime that El Salvador faces. El Salvador made several attempts to contain the increase in gang-related crime prior to the crackdown, yet these attempts failed repeatedly. Given the lack of a resolution from such attempts, President Bukele was unmistakably placed in a position where he had to choose between the rights of law-abiding citizens and the rights of callous gang members. Thus, El Salvador serves as an example of the fragile balance between human rights and security and how sometimes sacrifices are necessary to achieve the latter in the modern world.