CIVICUS speaks about the one-year state of emergency in El Salvador with César Artiga, founder and coordinator of the National Promoting Team of the Escazú Agreement and of the National Promoting Group for Resolution 2250 on the Youth, Peace and Security Agenda.
These citizen groups have supported processes of social awareness-raising, legal empowerment and political advocacy since 2017. They promote and defend human rights, peace building, justice and sustainability by working with groups and communities living in conditions of exclusion and vulnerability, particularly in relation to their environmental rights.
How much reality and how much propaganda is there in claims about President Nayib Bukele’s success in tackling gang violence?
Both national and international media have successfully presented El Salvador as paradise. The cover of Colombia’s Semana magazine recently carried the headline ‘The Bukele miracle’. A narrative has been imposed that the president has solved insecurity, one of the country’s biggest problems. This was the problem blamed for everything: lack of opportunities, lack of economic growth, even lack of jobs. Everything was blamed on the insecurity caused by gangs controlling the country.
It is undeniable that the government has dealt a heavy blow to the gangs. Many gang members have had to flee to other countries, and many have been arrested. Levels of violence perpetrated by these groups have dropped dramatically, to an all-time low.
But to understand what has happened, we must differentiate between two moments. At first, there was a pact between the government and the gangs. This has been widely documented both nationally and internationally, with investigations conducted including by the US State Department. Various officials, heads of ministries and other government agencies were involved in dialogue with gangs to reduce the number of homicides in exchange for benefits. This was nothing new: previous governments, including that of Mauricio Funes, who preceded Bukele, were accused of negotiating homicide reductions in exchange for creating favourable conditions for the gangs.
It is unclear what exactly the Bukele government agreed with the gangs, but according to investigations that have been made public, their pact included benefits for gang leaders, who received preferential treatment in prisons and were guaranteed they would not be extradited to the USA.
While this continued, there was a dramatic reduction in homicides, from more than 10 per day to almost zero. But at some point this pact was broken, and a wave of violence over a single weekend resulted in more than 80 murders, something unprecedented in El Salvador since the signing of peace accords. This is what triggered the ongoing ‘war on gangs’. On 27 March 2022, exactly one year ago, the government declared a state of emergency, which it then extended again and again. The argument was that it was necessary to limit rights, and particularly the freedom of movement in some territories, and eventually throughout the country, in order to combat the gangs. And indeed, the programme of massive and indiscriminate arrests has again resulted in the homicide rate dropping to historic lows, but at the cost of massive rights violations.
What types of human rights violations have been documented in the context of the ‘war on gangs’?
The president has acknowledged that there is a ‘margin of error’, which the government sets at about one per cent, of people who are innocent and have been detained on charges of gang membership. But such arbitrary and unjustified detentions are not a mistake: they are part of government policy.
If you visit the communities involved, you will realise all the structural conditions that led to the formation of the gangs persist. Gangs controlled the territory because they were able to reach where the state could not, and they gave a space in their structures to young people who had no other form of social integration.
Instead of doing anything to improve the situation in these communities, the government is criminalising impoverished populations that have historically been besieged by gangs. ‘Dangerous’ areas are now surrounded by the military. The army or the police can detain anyone they consider suspicious because of how they dress, where they live or because they do not have a steady job, without any respect for the constitutional guarantees of presumption of innocence and due process. You can be detained because the government has turned police and military officers into ‘street judges’: they have decision-making power and there’s nowhere you can go to demand respect for your rights.
There have been more than 3,000 complaints about this type of detention, and one can imagine that, out of the more than 70,000 people detained, there is an under-reporting of arbitrary detentions. We have documented cases of people who have been arbitrarily detained on their way to work, or even taken away from work, because anonymous reporting has become widespread: anyone can report you for suspicion of collaboration with gangs by means of an anonymous phone call.
This has resulted in the criminalisation of people who live in these areas. This is not new; it did not start with this government, but it has intensified because it is very present in the discourse of a president who is very popular, and many people accept it as true. It has also spread territorially: in the past, focus was on urban areas historically controlled by gangs, but now it has spread to rural communities as well.
Those detained are subjected to judicial proceedings in which the prosecutor’s office demands custodial measures on the grounds that these are people without roots, as they have no property in their name and no formal employment. From this they deduce not only that they are a high flight risk, but also that they earn their income by collaborating with gangs.
Basically, the justice system is enshrining the idea that poverty is a crime in El Salvador, which is unacceptable if we consider that it is part of the same system that reproduces the patterns of poverty and inequality in which people live.
In this context, human rights defenders who come from or work with these excluded communities are specifically targeted. In other words, the emergency regime is being used to persecute activists working on environmental rights and the rights to food, land and water.
A high-profile case is that of Levi César Morales Ramírez, a 21-year-old Indigenous man, the son of a social leader of a Nahuat Pipil community in western El Salvador. Levi César was captured in November 2022 along with two of his uncles as they were on their way to do agricultural work. In February 2023 they had a hearing to review the measures, requested by his family and by the civil society organisation (CSO) that provides them legal support, the Foundation of Studies for the Application of Law. Under pressure from the government, the judge rejected the adoption of alternative measures to detention, arguing that the young man’s roots could not be accredited as he has no assets in his name and no formal employment.
El Salvador currently lacks a robust public policy framework for the prevention, participation, protection and reintegration of young people. The state apparatus only offers repression as an option. This punitive approach is inseparable from its negligence and inability to guarantee human rights, particularly economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, throughout people’s life cycle.
Is the government abusing its state of emergency powers to pursue other ends?
Indeed, cases like Levi Cesar’s do not fit within what the government considers an acceptable ‘margin of error’ in its ‘war on gangs’. The state of emergency is serving the president’s purpose of accumulating power unchecked. For example, under the state of emergency all information has been declared classified. All procurement and adjudication processes have been set aside and direct purchases of services and goods are being made with total discretion with the excuse that the state needs to keep information confidential because there is an ongoing war against gangs. This has given free rein to corruption within the state apparatus.
The war against gangs is an excuse for many other things. Rather than a real security policy, what the government has is an electoral strategy. Security was never the focus of Bukele’s programme: his government plan, Plan Cuscatlán, contained only very general statements on the issue of security, which also focused on the need to guarantee legal security for businesses. Instead, its programme centred on a series of flagship mega-projects including so-called ‘Bitcoin City’, a sort of tax haven for cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, which would have its own airport and rail line, and a tourism project called Surf City, a circuit of beaches along the country’s coastline. His stated goal was to turn El Salvador into a global tourism and business hub, the ‘Singapore of the Americas’.
Bukele’s term ends in 2024 and none of his flagship projects has materialised. Now he needs to show successes in security policy, however ephemeral, in order to stay in power even against the constitution, which prohibits immediate re-election. So all his propaganda is about telling people that if they want the ‘climate of peace and tranquillity’ to continue, and for all the criminals he locked up not to return to the streets, they should vote for him again, as he is the only one who can bring them security.
Likewise, he continues to use the pandemic as an excuse for the fact that his flagship projects have not progressed, which is why he is calling for a new period in which they will be able to be implemented. In reality, the pandemic was a perfect fit for him, because the declaration of the health emergency gave him an enormous margin of discretion in managing resources, allowing him to invest in his political strategies. This was reflected in the 2021 legislative elections, in which he won 56 of 84 congressional seats. This means he now has an absolute majority to pass any law – at the cost that there are no constitutional or institutional guarantees for anything or anyone anymore.
Do you think Bukele will get re-elected?
The way is paved for him to do so. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, which he appointed after the Legislative Assembly he dominates dismissed five of its judges, interpreted El Salvador’s Constitution, which expressly prohibits consecutive re-election, as allowing it.
Being eligible to run, he will surely win. In a country with such a weak civic and democratic culture, you find many people who admit that injustices and rights violations are being committed but consider it an acceptable price to pay for the elimination of the gangs. You even find people with family members or people very close to them who have been detained and they still accept the government’s discourse that these are mistakes and think what the government is doing is fine – at most, they say that it could have done it more carefully, making better use of available state intelligence so as not to capture innocent people.
Generally speaking, there is widespread acceptance that this how things are. And fear prevails among those who do not accept the government’s explanations. The government has accumulated a lot of power and if you express a dissenting opinion you can be considered an enemy of the country, a foreign agent, and you can be arrested and imprisoned, especially if you identify yourself as a human rights defender.
If the presidential elections were held today, Bukele would win by a landslide. But I think he would do so with a declining turnout. We do a lot of work at the grassroots level, we know hundreds of communities that voted for him because they were disenchanted with traditional parties, and many people have told us that they are not going to vote because they don’t agree with what he is doing, but there are no other options. In other words, abstention will benefit Bukele: many of the people who vote will vote for him, and most of the people who don’t want to vote for him won’t vote.
What can civil society do to resist authoritarian regression?
The history of authoritarianism tells us that this will pass. Bukele is not going to be eternal: at some point he will be gone, and that is why we need to monitor and document everything. We need to build the historical memory of what is happening, document all the human rights violations and give them international visibility, because at the end of the day this government is trying to create an international image for itself as the architect of an economic miracle, and we cannot let that be the image that prevails.
Civil society must defend democracy from the arbitrariness of a government that claims to be democratic just because the decisions it makes have majority support. It is able to make whatever decisions it wants because it has an overwhelming legislative majority and a great popularity that would be reflected in the results if the presidential elections were held today. This is a very harmful narrative because many people are beginning to question whether this is what democracy is all about: whether in a democracy the government can violate your rights.
CSOs will remain in communities, educating citizens, preparing people for civic and democratic participation, insisting on the importance of institutional checks and balances, showing that concentrating power in a single person is not the way to solve our problems. To paraphrase Monsignor Romero, we will continue to walk with the people, because the abandonment of communities has cost us dearly.
However, we know that we will face increasing difficulties in our work, because the government has long been telling people that CSOs are the enemy of the government, and since the government represents the interests of the people, CSOs are the enemy of the people.
Before things get better, they are still going to get worse. I think when he starts his second term we are going to see a much scarier side of Bukele. He is going to take unpopular measures, including quite regressive fiscal adjustments, because his room for manoeuvre with public finances is shrinking. And he will do so in a context in which there is practically no social safety net. He will try to push forward his infrastructure and tourism megaprojects, with very strong impacts at the local level, including forced displacement of communities and severe environmental damage. Repression of civil society will increase.
But we know that we cannot force Bukele out by any means. I am hopeful, but with a long-term kind of optimism. We have to focus on promoting democratic participation. Bukele is not the worst thing that could happen to us: if we don’t deepen democratic participation, something worse could happen. We must remain alert and work hard with communities because in politics, there is no such thing as an empty space. If we abandon communities, sooner or later an opportunist will come to take advantage of it.
Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.