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The Drop in Crime in El Salvador Is Stunning, but It Has a Dark Side – Will Freeman and Lucas Perelló/NYTimes

Bienvenido Velasco/EPA, via Shutterstock
Bienvenido Velasco/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Will Freeman and Lucas Perelló

Voters in El Salvador this week gave their tough-on-crime president a sweeping mandate: Keep going.

While votes are still being counted, President Nayib Bukele claims he won re-election by a landslide, with more than 85 percent of the vote. If those results hold when the official count is announced, not even Latin America’s best-known populist presidents, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, will have come close to winning election by such margins.

Mr. Bukele’s unparalleled rise comes down to a single factor: El Salvador’s stunning crime drop. Since he took office in 2019, intentional homicide rates have decreased from 38 per 100,000 in that year to 7.8 in 2022, well below the Latin American average of 16.4 for the same year.

The crackdown Mr. Bukele has led on organized crime has all but dismantled the infamous street gangs that terrorized the population for decades. It also exacted a tremendous price on Salvadorans’ human rights, civil liberties and democracy. Since March 2022, when Mr. Bukele declared a state of emergency that suspended basic civil liberties, security forces have locked up roughly 75,000 people. A staggering one in 45 adults is now in prison.

Other leaders in the neighborhood are taking notice, and have debated adopting many of the same drastic measures to fight their own criminal violence. But even if they wanted to make the trade-off that Mr. Bukele’s government has — making streets safer through methods that are blatantly at odds with democracy — they aren’t likely to succeed. The conditions that enabled Mr. Bukele’s success and political stardom are unique to El Salvador, and can’t be exported.

Walking the streets of the capital, San Salvador, in the days before the election, we saw firsthand how families with children have returned to parks. People can now cross formerly impassable gang-controlled borders between neighborhoods. The city center, which for years was largely empty by sunset, is now lively late into the night.

But El Salvador, which transitioned to democracy in the 1990s, has veered off that path. Mr. Bukele now controls all government branches. The nation of 6.4 million is run as a police state: Soldiers and police officers routinely whisk citizens off the streets and into prison indefinitely without providing a reason or allowing them access to a lawyer. There are credible reports that inmates have been tortured. Government critics told us they have been threatened with prosecution, and journalists have been spied on. Even last Sunday’s vote is under a microscope after the transmission system for the results of the preliminary vote count collapsed in a highly unusual manner.

As political scientists who study Latin American politics, we have been tracking Mr. Bukele’s growing fan club in the region. In neighboring Honduras, the left-wing president, Xiomara Castro, declared a “war against extortion” targeting gangs in late 2022. As in El Salvador, Ms. Castro decreed a state of emergency, but although the homicide rate has decreased, gangs remain powerful.

Farther south, Ecuador is reeling from its own explosion of gang violence. When one of us visited last year, several people interviewed said that they longed for “someone like Bukele” to come and set things right. Even in Chile — historically both a stronger democracy and safer country than El Salvador, but where crime is now rising — Mr. Bukele boasts a 78 percent approval rating.

It’s not a mystery why Mr. Bukele’s tough-on-crime model has such appeal in Latin America. In 2021, according to a Mexican think tank, the region was home to 38 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world. In a typical year, the region, which now accounts for just 8 percent of the world’s population, suffers roughly a third of all murders.

But Bukele copycats and those who believe his model can be replicated far and wide overlook a key point: The conditions that allowed him to wipe out El Salvador’s gangs are unlikely to jointly appear elsewhere in Latin America.

El Salvador’s gangs were unique, and far from the most formidable criminal organizations in the entire region. For decades, a handful of gangs fought one another for control of territory and became socially and politically powerful. But, unlike cartels in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, El Salvador’s gangs weren’t big players in the global drug trade and focused more on extortion. Compared to these other groups, they were poorly financed and not as heavily armed.

Mr. Bukele started to deactivate the gangs by negotiating with their leaders, according to Salvadoran investigative journalists and a criminal investigation led by a former attorney general. (The government denies this.) When Mr. Bukele then arrested their foot soldiers in large sweeps that landed many innocent people in prison, the gangs collapsed.

It would not be such a simple story elsewhere in Latin America, where criminal organizations are wealthier, more internationally connected and much better armed than El Salvador’s gangs once were. When other governments in the region have tried to take down gang and cartel leaders, these groups haven’t simply crumbled. They have fought back, or new criminal groups have quickly filled the void, drawn by the drug trade’s huge profits. Pablo Escobar’s war on the state in 1980s-90s Colombia, the backlash by cartels to Mexican law enforcement activity since the mid-2000s, and the violent response to Ecuador’s government’s recent moves against gangs are just a few examples.

El Salvador also had more formidable and professional security forces, committed to crushing the gangs when Mr. Bukele called on them, than some of its neighbors. Take Honduras, where gang-sponsored corruption among security forces apparently runs deep. That helped doom Ms. Castro’s attempts to emulate Mr. Bukele from the start. In other countries, like Mexico, criminal groups have also reportedly managed to co-opt high-ranking members of the military and police. In Venezuela, it has been reported that military officials have run their own drug trafficking operation. Even if presidents send soldiers and police to do Bukele-style mass roundups, security forces may not be prepared, or may have incentives to undermine the task at hand.

Finally, Mr. Bukele faces very little political opposition, with the country’s two traditional parties significantly weakened since 2019 and unable to constrain the new president as he established control over state institutions. In many other Latin American countries, there are more robust political parties or opposition forces in place that would help keep an overreaching executive in check.

If other Bukeles in waiting try to copy what he has done, they are more likely to replicate only the dark side of El Salvador’s model, and not its achievements. Governments could find themselves subsumed in chaos as criminal groups multiply in numbers or fight back with ample firepower. And in the process they could potentially shrink the space for civil society and the press, reduce government transparency, pile detainees into already overcrowded prisons, and weaken the courts. Historically, presidents in Latin America who have been less than fully committed to democracy have been eager to take some or all of these steps for political gain anyway. Crime-fighting makes for the perfect excuse.

For all of its success in lowering crime, the Bukele model comes at a stark cost. Copycats beware: Not only will following the El Salvador playbook not work, attempts to do it may very well do lasting damage to democracy along the way.


Will Freeman is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who researches organized crime and democracy. Lucas Perelló is an assistant professor of political science at Marist College. EnergiesNet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by TheNew York Times, on JFebruary 8, 2024. All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld.

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EnergiesNet.com 02 11 2024

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