“It’s not perfect, but it’s good. We’ve done something really good here,” said El Salvador’s vice-president, Felix Ulloa, defending the government’s no-quarter war against the street gangs that have dominated the Central American republic for decades. President Nayib Bukele agrees, calling himself “the instrument of God.”
Don’t get Bukele wrong, though. He was speaking ironically, mocking the kind of label that foreign media stick on him. However, he is certainly an instrument of public opinion: a January poll by CID Gallup found 92% support by Salvadoreans for the ruthless tactics he has used against the gangs.
They back him because five years ago El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate, mostly committed by the rival gangs that controlled most urban neighbourhoods and many rural areas. A murder rate of more than fifty people per 100,000 meant that practically everybody knew at least one of the fresh murder victims every year.
Bukele took that problem on, and he has succeeded. El Salvador’s murder rate is down by more than four-fifths to only 7.8 killed annually per 100,000, exactly the same number as the United States – but at the cost of imprisoning one in a hundred of its population (twice as high as the long-term record holder, the United States).
This has made him a populist icon throughout Latin America, where some governments are already copying Bukele’s methods – President Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador, President Xiomara Castro of Honduras – and presidential candidates or opposition leaders are mimicking him in several more.
In neighbouring Guatemala, for example, the front-runner in this month’s presidential election, Sandra Torres, promises to implement Bukele’s strategies to the letter because “they are working.” That presumably means that she will declare a ‘state of exception’ and arrest tens of thousands of people, most but not all of whom are gang members.
Mistakes get made. Gang members tend to be heavily tattooed, which helps to sort them out. Nevertheless, when you are arresting 70,000 people (about 1% of El Salvador’s population) in just a couple of months, a good many other people get caught in the net during the police sweeps through gang-infested areas.
This would be regrettable but acceptable if the courts immediately examined those arrests and freed the innocent, but the Salvadorean courts clearly lack the ability to process so many people quickly. Indeed, under the ‘state of exception’ the charge is merely a suspicion of ‘gang association’, with the details to be sorted out later.
There have been long delays in bringing cases to court or dismissing the charges without trial. The big wave of arrests was in March of last year, but only 6,000 people have been released so far. Is that because all the rest really were gang members? Most probably were, but there may be several thousand innocent people still held in harsh conditions.
Prompt individual trials would sort that out, but Justice Minister Gustavo Villatoro is now saying that up to 900 defendants from the same group could be prosecuted at one time. That would guarantee that many of the innocent would in practice not be able to make their case for release – and if you are found guilty you face a life sentence.
So there are major problems with Bukele’s solution to the high level of violent crime in El Salvador, and since almost nobody else pays any attention to Latin America most of the criticism has come from the United States. But Bukele is clearly winging it, and much of the criticism is clearly unfair.
US critics and some Latin American leftists accuse him of being a budding dictator because he used his huge parliamentary majority to change the constitution and allow a president to run for a second term in office, but that’s perfectly normal in most democratic countries.
Bukele needs to sort out the civil rights issues in his strategy, but it is brazen impudence for the American media to condemn him. 38% of the American prison population is Black; only 13% of US citizens are. Do you think there might be a few injustices in how all those Americans ended up in prison too?
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.