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El Salvador’s Mass Imprisonment: Do the ends justify the means? A look at the Country’s Human Rights Abuses, Safety, and Future of Democracy
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By Bella Sigler

El Salvador is a country that has been inflicted with severe violence for decades, plaguing its citizens and not allowing for growth. This violence was committed by rival gangs that led to over 70,000 displaced citizens within the country in 2021, and over 153,000 asylum seekers to other countries in the same year(Human Rights, 2023). The two main gangs that controlled the country were MS13 and 18th Street, both originating in the US, but finding a home back in El Salvador after major spikes in US deportation and an unstable post-civil war El Salvador(Roy, 2022). The country has been known for its high murder rates and gang activities, even being called, “the murder capital of the world”(Nawaz, 2024). While there have been different approaches to attack the gang issues, including the “mano dura”, or “ hard fist” approach, these tactics have fallen apart and lead to increased gang activity(Roy, 2022).

From March 25th through the 27th there was a massive murder spree of over 87 people committed by the two rival gangs, with 60 people killed on the 26th, which was the deadliest day on record since the civil war; most victims had no connection to the gangs(Roy, 2022). While these numbers may seem relatively small, El Salvador is a tiny country, which makes this death toll incredibly high. This event caused the President, Nayib Bukele, to declare a state of emergency and suspend some basic human rights for thirty days, which had since been extended nine times(Roy, 2022). Legislators also expanded the use of pre-trial detention which allowed officers to arrest and detain people as young as twelve years old(Roy, 2022). Over the next couple of months, over 60,000 people were detained, with most arrests being based on appearance(tattoos, clothing, etc.)(Roy, 2022; Feierstein, 2024). Cristosal and Human Rights Watch have reported that unwarranted arrests, torture, ill-treatment, violations of due process, and more have been committed(Roy, 2022). Cristosal has reported over 2,900 human rights violations, with many more possible(Roy, 2022).

Reports have shown that many families argue their loved ones were arrested without cause, and are innocent. So far, the government has released over 7,000 people, but many say that there are thousands more who deserve release but are not being given a trial or communication with their families(Nawaz, 2024). There have also been reports by police officers that during the state of emergency, they were given arrest quotas and knowingly arrested innocent people(Nawaz, 2024).

Not only this, but Nayib Bukele has posted videos on his TikTok account showing the conditions of the prisons in the country. He boasts that detainees eat the same meal every day, don’t have mattresses to sleep on, cannot see family, and have even more restrictions.

While his tactics are controversial at best, he is extremely popular within his own country. Citizens praise his crackdown on crime and their new ability to live their lives safely, in fact, after he took office in 2019, the murder rate dropped by half within a year(Nawaz, 2024). While some argue the exact statistics being published on crime rates, citizen reports corroborate a safer El Salvador(Human Rights, 2023). In March of this year, Bukele won 83% of the votes which is directly tied to his crackdown on crime(El Salvador, 2024). Within a few years, El Salvador has become one of the safest Latin American countries, and the citizens of El Salvador have seemed pleased with Bukele’s measures.

The issue being presented to the international community presently regards the ethicality of the President’s actions, and if he will move towards a democratic or authoritarian model of government. Human rights abuses are not the only questionable things that have been done since he took office. For one, El Salvador’s constitution has stated that a president can only serve for one term, and can only re-run after ten years out of office. However, through a Supreme Court constitutional change in 2023, Bukele was able to run for immediate re-election this year(Human Rights, 2023). He has since won re-election in early 2024. Earlier, in 2021, other major changes have been made that have been thought to be influenced by the President. For example, Bukele’s majority in the Assembly replaced the entire Supreme Court Constitutional Chamber(Human Rights, 2023). In addition, his Assembly has added ten out of fifteen Supreme Court Judges, which is illegal as each new legislature can only appoint five max(Human Rights, 2023).

Bukele’s actions have led to intense discussion as to whether they are a sign of a future authoritarian model of government for El Salvador, or if they were the drastic measures needed to secure the country. One can argue, and understand, that mass detention of suspected gang members was the swiftest, quickest, and most efficient way of ridding the country of gangs. However, one cannot ignore the downfalls, and human rights abuses, that the method has brought about. His actions, no matter how controversial, have not only brought about a powerful solution to El Salvador’s long-term violence but have shown favorability with the public. This intense public support, however, can create the perfect conditions for Bukele to create an authoritarian role. This is because, in solving the greatest problem facing El Salvador, the public not only began to idolize him for his efforts, but they began to allow changes to be made to their government structure as a result of their trust in him. For example, no citizens of any country would have supported a candidate after months of a state of emergency, major constitutional changes to allow re-election, human rights abuses, and major legislative discrepancies. However, when citizens see their greatest problem disappear, they allow more un-democratic actions to take place.

While Bukele, and the public, may justify what has been done for the sake of safety, this next presidential term will truly illustrate if Bukele will move to a model of preserving the country’s newfound safety for future leaders, thus instilling democracy, or if he will use his power to entrench himself into an authoritarian regime. It is imperative that the international community, and the citizens of El Salvador, keep a watch on his actions and display a deep desire for democracy within the country. The greatest fear is that public support and admiration blind the public to red flags of authoritarianism out of fear of the other option being a return to violence.

Bella Sigler is a current rising senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics with a concentration in Comparative Politics.

Works Cited:

Human Rights Watch. “El Salvador: Events of 2022.” Human Rights Watch, 12 Jan. 2023, www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/el-salvador.

“El Salvador’s President Bukele Wins Re-Election by Huge Margin.” BBC, 5 Feb. 2024, www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-68196826.

Feierstein, Mark. “El Salvador’s Bukele: From “World’s Coolest Dictator” to “Philosopher King.”” United States Institute of Peace, 8 Feb. 2024, www.usip.org/publications/2024/02/el-salvadors-bukele-worlds-coolest-dictator-philosopher-king.

Roy, Diana. “Why Has Gang Violence Spiked in El Salvador?” Council on Foreign Relations, 4 May 2022, www.cfr.org/in-brief/why-has-gang-violence-spiked-el-salvador-bukele.

Nawaz, Amna, et al. “Thousands of Innocent People Jailed in El Salvador’s Gang Crackdown.” PBS NewsHour, 13 Feb. 2024, www.pbs.org/newshour/show/thousands-of-innocent-people-jailed-in-el-salvadors-gang-crackdown.



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