El Salvador’s Drastic Crime Rate Reduction: At What Cost?

Although El Salvador’s new president aims to crack down on gang violence, it is important to consider the costs of mass incarceration.

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In recent years, crime in El Salvador has plummeted due to President Nayib Bukele’s focus on destroying gang activity. El Salvador has gone from one of the most dangerous countries to having a crime rate of only 2.4 out of 100,000 people. In March 2022, the El Salvadoran government declared the need to suspend constitutional rights in order to arrest masses of criminals. By suspending the need to go through due process to arrest gang-members, the government incarcerated many innocent people. Even worse, these crime crackdowns do not target the real cause of gang corruption. Locking away notorious criminals may superficially help, but the history behind El Salvador’s gang violence proves that the issue must be addressed on a larger scale. Though Bukele’s approach to decreasing crime in El Salvador has borne results, it is still imperative to realize the cost at which this occurs. 

El Salvador’s 1980 Civil War is notorious for its brutality and bloodiness. 50,000 El Salvadorans were killed in the war, causing many to flee to neighboring countries including the U.S. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, enacted in an effort to push out undocumented individuals, deported many El Salvadorans living in the U.S. back to El Salvador. Their return to El Salvador caused a spike in the country’s crime rates since more of the youth began participating in gang violence. Gangs such as the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 are known for their widespread murders across the U.S. and El Salvador. Rates of open homicide, femicide, infanticide, and brutal machete usage increased as gangs dominated the streets of El Salvador. Drug rings controlled 80% of the country and homicides increased to 108 people per 100,000 in 2015, causing communities in El Salvador to be in turmoil. Gang dominance seemed to close off any chance for the country’s rehabilitation. 

The election of young President Nayib Bukele sparked hope in El Salvador. His plan to eliminate gang activity in three to four years sparked change in a problem that seemed impossible to solve. Thus ensued El Salvador’s “crime crackdown,” which allowed for thousands upon thousands of gang arrests. In one account, 6,000 gang arrests were made in just 10 days. However, these major arrests and reforms came with a price. In March 2022, Bukele asked Congress to suspend certain constitutional rights, halting basic processes such as preliminary investigations. As a result, many innocent people were convicted of gang violence and faced undeserved consequences. Manuel Torres was one of these people. Falsely accused by an anonymous tip, Torres, his brother, and brother-in-law were all arrested by El Salvador police and subjected to harsh conditions in prison. Torres’s wife states that all men were left deeply traumatized after these events. Though they were eventually freed because of proof of innocence from their employers, there are many people who have not been so lucky. In fact, the tens of thousands of people who lack legal ability to fight against wrongful imprisonment are still living in fear. 

Mass incarceration in such a large population may display beneficial effects initially, but it may not reap the same benefits in the long run. Even during these mass-scale arrests, the El Salvador government fails to address the root of gang corruption in the country. Though there are prevention programs for teens, El Salvador is not making efforts to rehabilitate people already involved in organized crime. In the midst of this groundbreaking change, there is currently no law that intends to provide support or reparations to victims of gang violence, which results in victims not reporting these crimes. By attempting to jail away gang influence in El Salvador, the government is only temporarily touching base on a conflict that needs much more work. The president’s judicial control endangers the fairness of the judiciary system, which will negatively impact the country in the long run. Bukele’s method takes away the checks-and-balances system that the citizens deserve to fight against arbitrary convictions. This jeopardizes the nation’s democracy and the trust the people have in the government. The people’s distrust in the government will continue to foster new conflicts. Mass incarceration may help now, but jeopardizing the country’s legal system will only risk the safety of the citizens more. The suspension of a person’s constitutional right will be unhelpful, especially if the crackdown results in even more wrongfully accused people being jailed because of a lack of investigations. 

It is therefore imperative to consider the long-term consequences of large operations such as mass incarceration. Though it may have proven to be of aid in El Salvador’s conflict with gang violence, such measures cannot place the future of the country in danger. When these operations interfere with the public’s constitutional rights and the strength of the justice system, one must consider whether or not the steps taken are truly addressing the issue at heart.