Jailing 2% of your adult citizens turns out to be a surprisingly popular move, both at home and abroad. In El Salvador, the president, Nayib Bukele, has sent almost 70,000 people to prison in an “iron fist” crackdown on gangs, under a “state of exception” he imposed last March and has yet to lift.
Despite the suspension of basic liberties, due process and other human rights infringements, it is fast becoming a model for other nearby countries in the region. Honduras has launched a similar crackdown, after the gang-related massacre of 46 female prisoners. Other governments are considering it. In Guatemala, people have held pro-Bukele marches. “Copy it, as simple as that,” a mayor in Ecuador remarked of El Salvador’s tactics after a bomb attack in her city.
No wonder politicians want to emulate it: Mr Bukele and his crackdown have approval ratings of about 80% to 90%. Not everyone trusts those figures, given his tight grip on the country, but no one disputes the widespread support for his policy. The homicide rate, which spiked to a staggering 107 per 100,000 people in 2015, making El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries on earth, has fallen to just 7.8 per 100,000. Even long-term critics acknowledge that extortion appears to have fallen sharply and that many in communities which lived in terror are enjoying the freedom to live their lives unmenaced. Yet others, many of them innocent of any crime, have paid a high price for a campaign that has trampled over basic rights: at least 153 people have died.
Some may consider that a price worth paying. But even focusing purely on results, the story is more complicated than it appears. Critics point out that the homicide rate had fallen steadily since 2015 – with most of the decline coming long before Mr Bukele rose to power in 2019. They say that the president held behind-the-scenes negotiations with two key criminal organisations, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gang, and believe that the spike in violence in early 2022 which prompted the state of exception came because the gangs felt that the government had reneged on agreements.
They also say the fall in crime is unsustainable – with good reason. Previous hardline drives in the region have ended badly, followed by surges in offending. They do nothing to tackle underlying causes such as poverty and discrimination. They breed resentment and enable the recruitment and hardening of those not entrenched in gangs. Many of the criminal organisations that now terrorise parts of Latin America were born in prisons.
As one critic observes, the real success story is not of the defeat of gangs, but the perpetuation of Mr Bukele’s power. This is a man who dubbed himself “the coolest dictator in the world” in response to criticism. In February 2020, he marched soldiers into parliament to demand security funding. After he gained a supermajority in parliament the following year, it fired the attorney general and five members of the supreme court’s constitutional chamber.
It is assumed that the popularity of his crackdown will sweep him back into power next year, even though multiple experts say that would violate the country’s constitution. What worries opponents, scholars, lawyers and civil society most is what he may do after that, with renewed authority. “Bukelismo” should not be admired, or emulated.