In March 2022, following a sudden spike in violence, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared open war on the country’s criminal gangs. Bukele and his allies quickly established a state of exception, allowing law enforcement agencies and courts to bypass due process guarantees and other constitutional protections. The legislature—where Bukele controls a supermajority—instituted harsh new sentencing guidelines for gang-related crimes, lowered the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 12, and introduced a gag rule banning journalists from spreading “gang messages.”
Over the past year, the government has conducted almost 70,000 arrests (about one for every 100 Salvadorans), built a new megaprison to house the country’s burgeoning inmate population, and renewed the month-long state of emergency 12 times. Bukele’s state of exception amounts to one of the most intensive crackdowns against criminal organizations ever recorded in Latin America, a region where tough-on-crime policies are so common that they are known simply as mano dura (“hard hand”).
The region’s history teaches us that such crackdowns are likely to fail. Almost every experiment with tough-on-crime policies in Latin America has been ineffective—and many of them have backfired. No case is more emblematic than Mexico, where criminal violence reached unprecedented levels soon after President Felipe Calderón declared war against drug cartels in 2006. In El Salvador, gangs were a disorganized constellation of small cliques until the mid-2000s, when harsh crackdowns gave them the impetus—and the opportunity—to transform into strong national organizations. Around the same time, zero-tolerance policies in Guatemala and Honduras unleashed high levels of violence. As these cases suggest, the modern history of Latin America is splattered with hard-on-crime policies gone awry.
Yet, remarkably, Bukele’s crackdown appears to have worked—at least for now. Ten months after the state of exception began, reporters from the investigative news outlet El Faro visited 14 communities across El Salvador that had spent years under the thumb of criminal groups. The reporters found the gangs had all but vanished. And these 14 communities appeared to mirror trends in the country as a whole: In a December 2022 poll, 88.2 percent of Salvadorans said they felt “safe” or “very safe,” up from 61.5 percent a year earlier. Of those who said the country had become safer, almost 95 percent credited some aspect of Bukele’s hardline policies. “Yes,” a veteran gang leader told El Faro, “[Bukele’s government] has thwarted the gangs as you know them.”
Why has Bukele’s crackdown succeeded in “thwarting” these criminal groups when so many others have failed? Are these gains sustainable, or is El Salvador experiencing only a momentary period of relative peace? And how will the Bukele model impact the rest of the region?
Why Crackdowns (Almost Always) Fail—and Why Bukele’s Hasn’t
To understand what sets Bukele’s crackdown apart, it is helpful to first understand why most crackdowns fail. The short answer is that crackdowns create powerful incentives for criminal groups to fight fire with fire. Criminal groups fight back not only to protect their territory, their resources, and their members from the state but also to put pressure on the state to scale back repression. To fight the state more effectively, crackdowns often lead criminal groups to strengthen their internal organization, recruit more members, diversify and increase their sources of revenue, and form alliances with other groups. Crackdowns therefore tend to be doubly counterproductive: They result in higher levels of criminal violence and in stronger, more resilient criminal groups. This is why most crackdowns fail.
How has Bukele been able to escape this pattern? The key is not the crackdown itself, but what came before it: a covert pact. In 2019, Bukele began negotiating an agreement between his government and the leaders of the country’s three main criminal organizations: Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, and Barrio 18 Sureños. The gang leaders vowed to keep violence in check and, in exchange, asked Bukele to improve prison conditions and resist extradition requests, among other concessions. There is evidence that at least one gang leader was freed during this period without completing his sentence. (Salvadoran gang leaders have long operated from behind bars.)
This pact had two crucial consequences for how the gangs responded once Bukele declared war on them.
First, the pact misled gang members into thinking that any form of government repression would be temporary. In April 2020, and then again in November 2021, gang members went on sudden killing sprees, blatantly violating the terms of the pact. On both occasions, Bukele responded by vowing to defeat the gangs, ordering the military to use lethal force, and publishing viral pictures of incarcerated gang members. But, on both occasions, the crackdowns were as brief as the massacres that had triggered them. The gangs did not fight back, and, within days, the government returned to the negotiating table. The pact thus established a clear pattern: The government would crack down only if the gangs used violence first, and these crackdowns would be brief as long as the gangs did not retaliate.
In March 2022, when gang members went on a third killing spree, they had little reason to believe things would be any different. In response to this latest round of killings, Bukele ordered the army onto the streets, conducted mass arrests, and declared war on the gangs as he had done at least twice before. As on those occasions, the gangs expected the crackdown to subside if they did not retaliate. So, the gangs did not fight fire with fire. This miscalculation gave the government a critical window of opportunity to cripple the criminal groups. By the time it became clear that Bukele did not intend to return to the negotiating table, the gangs were severely weakened and in disarray. Bukele’s pact had taught the gangs not to fight back. Now, they were left with no choice but to hide.
The pact also shaped the gangs’ response to Bukele’s crackdown by driving a wedge between gang leaders and their rank-and-file members. Gang leaders almost always reaped the lion’s share of the pact’s benefits: better prison conditions, protection from extradition, and in some cases even the promise of early release from prison. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file members had to shoulder the bulk of the pact’s costs: They were prevented from using violence to do business or settle scores, and they faced repression from the government whenever violence did break out. The result was a growing divide between leaders and foot soldiers: “Supposedly, the ranflas [national leaders] looked after the wellbeing of their soldiers,” a gang member told El Faro. “Not anymore. … These crazy guys negotiated after their own interests.”
This presented gang leaders with a challenge: How could they enforce a pact that alienated many among the rank-and-file members—and from behind bars, no less? Their answer: Concentrate power and squash new leaders. “They refused to appoint substitutes,” the gang member told El Faro. Much like a corporation with no middle management, El Salvador’s gangs became increasingly dependent on a handful of leaders at the very top.
This tactic had crucial consequences once Bukele’s crackdown began. Many of the strategies that criminal groups use to adapt in the face of repression—expanding, diversifying, forming alliances—require leadership and coordination. Even the simple act of fighting back may require top-down leadership, especially when the rank-and-file has internalized norms of discipline and obedience. Concentrating power under a small group of national leaders therefore might have increased the gangs’ ability to respond to the crackdown—if these leaders had not been behind bars. Instead, once the crackdown began, the government was able to cut off the gangs’ chain of command by simply isolating key leaders from the rank-and-file. And, because the pact had dissuaded these top commanders from appointing surrogates or local leaders to prominent positions, no one was able to easily step into the vacuum they left behind. Once Bukele’s war broke out, then, the gangs found themselves hamstrung, leaderless, and in disarray. The pact decimated the gangs’ ability to fight back in the absence of their key leaders, giving the state a decisive upper hand.
In short, Bukele’s pact set the stage for the success of his eventual crackdown. It taught the gangs to turn the other cheek in the face of repression. And it made them vulnerable by concentrating power under a small group of incarcerated leaders. When the crackdown came, the state took advantage of these conditions to deliver what appears to have been a swift knockout blow.
El Salvador’s Gangs Are Down—But Are They Out?
El Faro’s incisive and persistent reporting has landed the publication near the top of Bukele’s list of sworn enemies. This is one reason why, on Feb. 3, the paper caused shockwaves with an unexpected headline: “Bukele Government Dismantled Gang Presence in El Salvador.” Bukele, like many of his supporters, reacted gleefully: “This has a name,” the president tweeted, “CAPITULATION!” The “Salvadoran opposition,” said Bukele, had finally accepted the “total success” of his war on gangs.
But not everyone was as quick to declare victory. In particular, journalists (including many at El Faro), international organizations, and academics have expressed concerns about whether El Salvador’s security gains are sustainable.
One concern is that the gangs are not truly dismantled and are simply biding their time as they reorganize and perhaps even maneuver for a new deal. This scenario is not completely out of the question, especially if the Salvadoran defense minister’s estimate that 30,000 gang members are still in the streets is accurate. But a year is a long time for a large and complex criminal organization to hide not only from the state but also from journalists, international observers, and the thousands of Salvadorans who have answered interviews and public opinion surveys in the past 12 months.
A second concern is that the gangs have left behind a vacuum that can be filled by other criminal groups. The region’s major drug cartels, for example, have, for the most part, been conspicuously absent from El Salvador, even as they have extended their reach into neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. One possible explanation is that major cartels viewed El Salvador’s gangs as unreliable business partners: Faced with a choice between allying with these gangs or conquering them, cartels preferred to set up shop elsewhere. But, if Bukele has indeed managed to wipe the gangs off the map, cartels may now see an opportunity to establish a stronghold in El Salvador.
A third concern is that El Salvador has not permanently solved its organized crime problem because the conditions that allowed organized crime to thrive in the first place—including poverty and inequality—have not been addressed. El Salvador’s gangs ballooned, in part, because they were able to recruit tens of thousands of young Salvadorans, many of whom saw the promise of opportunity, status, and belonging in these groups. Until conditions improve and all Salvadorans can find those things elsewhere, a gang resurgence will remain a concern.
It is impossible to definitively rule out any of these scenarios. Whether they come to pass could depend on what Bukele does moving forward. Continuing to extend the state of exception and maintaining a strong military presence in the streets could keep resurgent gangs, as well as new criminal groups, at bay. But doing so indefinitely could be costly. Especially as Salvadorans become accustomed to relative safety, they may begin to chafe at the crackdown. They may, in time, begin to see the state less as a savior and more as an intruder. Over a long enough period, the crackdown could become unsustainable. For now, however, Bukele seems likely to stay the course until at least February 2024, when he is up for reelection.
Democratic Backsliding by Example: Why Bukele’s Strategy Would Be a Dangerous Export
Despite their warnings, the Salvadoran president’s skeptics are very much in the minority: The crackdown has earned Bukele admirers across the region. Costa Rica’s defense minister, for example, recently said that “an approach like President Bukele’s would be brilliant to bring homicides down.” Zury Ríos, Guatemala’s presidential frontrunner, also called Bukele a role model. And in Honduras, President Xiomara Castro has already launched a state of emergency similar to Bukele’s. The Salvadoran government has even said that it would open an office in Haiti to help its government fight the country’s gangs.
This growing admiration presents a serious danger to democracy across Latin America because a Bukele-style crackdown is incompatible with a fundamental pillar of democracy: the principle of checks and balances.
Long before he declared the state of exception, Bukele systematically eliminated, captured, or co-opted every major institution that could hold the executive accountable. Nuevas Ideas, the party Bukele founded and controls, won a supermajority in the legislature in February 2021. By September, Bukele and his allies had packed the Constitutional Court, forced a third of all judges into retirement, fired the independent attorney general, and scrapped plans for an international anti-corruption mission. During his tenure, Bukele has also attacked the free press, weakened the power of local governments, and appointed loyalists to head up the human rights commissioner’s office, the public information institute, and other nominally independent oversight agencies.
Bukele’s crackdown would not have been possible without this dramatic—and undemocratic—concentration of power. Consider the many challenges Bukele would have faced in the presence of minimally robust checks and balances. In such a universe, Bukele would have had to negotiate the state of exception—and its 11 back-to-back extensions—with an autonomous legislature. An independent supreme court would almost certainly have declared many features of his crackdown unconstitutional. The attorney general, the human rights commissioner, and international observers would have investigated, reported, and punished serial human rights violations. Lower courts would have dismissed thousands of arrests out of hand. In this world of checks and balances, Bukele’s would be a much more limited crackdown.
This would be a dangerous lesson for the region’s leaders to act on. Bukele’s model could persuade his neighbors that democratic institutions simply get in the way of getting things done—and provide them with a road map for how to subvert those institutions in the name of public security. At a time when democratic institutions are already wobbling across much of Latin America, Bukele could give leaders the inspiration—and the opportunity—to follow his example and push their institutions over the edge, triggering a process of democratic backsliding.
One immediate consequence of subverting democratic institutions to crack down on crime would be the widespread violation of basic human rights. In September 2022, near the height of the state of exception, more than three in 10 Salvadorans said they knew of someone who had been unfairly arrested in the previous three months. Even if one takes the Salvadoran government at its word, wrongful arrests do appear to be widespread: In April 2022, Bukele announced that there were 70,000 gang members in El Salvador (excluding those who were already in prison). But 64,000 arrests later, in February 2023, Bukele’s defense minister claimed that there were 30,000 gang members left to capture. These numbers would suggest that 24,000—almost 40 percent—of those arrested during the state of exception did not belong to gangs. Indeed, international organizations have warned of these and other far-reaching human rights abuses since the crackdown began.
But massive human rights violations would be only the beginning. Throwing democratic institutions away in an emergency is easy; recovering them once the crisis has passed can be much harder. On this front, Peru provides a striking cautionary tale. In the early 1990s, the government of President Alberto Fujimori—an anti-establishment populist like Bukele—faced a growing guerrilla insurgency. Much like Bukele, Fujimori responded to this security threat by subverting democratic institutions and concentrating power under the executive: On April 5, 1992, Fujimori staged an auto-golpe (or “self-coup”), closing the Congress, shutting down the judicial system, and sending the military onto the streets. As in El Salvador, most Peruvians, in part eager to see decisive action in the face of rising insecurity, applauded these anti-democratic measures. And many Peruvians continued to support Fujimori even as evidence of the state’s widespread human rights violations mounted.
But this blank check didn’t just help Fujimori fight the insurgency: It enabled him to establish a corrupt autocratic regime that outlived the guerrillas. Over the next decade, Fujimori abused state institutions to intimidate, bribe, and co-opt all those who could oppose him. He used this increasingly autocratic grip on the state to secure reelection in 1995 and then again in 2000. And he embezzled millions from the government’s coffers throughout. By the time he was forced to resign, Fujimori had secured his place on Forbes’s list of the 10 most corrupt leaders of all time—alongside the likes of Ferdinand Marcos, Slobodan Milosevic, and Mohamed Suharto.
The Peruvian case offers a bleak preview of what could lie ahead for El Salvador—and a clear warning for those who hope to emulate Bukele’s example. To follow in the Salvadoran president’s footsteps is to descend down an authoritarian path from which there may be no easy escape.