A Bargain Worth Making? Bukele and the Gangs of El Salvador
Not long before the pandemic touched down in El Salvador, which over the years has been the Central American country hardest hit by gang violence, the nation was inching toward a precarious peace. In downtown San Salvador, the capital, tags daubed by gangs on roadside walls had been painted over with graffiti. When we visited the nearby neighborhood of Iberia, a traditional gang fiefdom, their presence was also less apparent, though certain rules still had to be obeyed. We lowered our car windows as we entered, a practice MS-13 imposes to spot outsiders. Minutes later, a young man approached us, selling packets of potato chips and asking a few pointed questions. “It must be the muchachos wanting to know who you are,” observed a local police officer.
Deciphering what is going on in El Salvador’s underworld, what drives the ebb and flow of killings, is far from simple. Widely seen as one of the more stable democracies in Central America, in 2009 it experienced an impeccably peaceful handover of power from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a party representing the counter-insurgent side in the 1980s civil war, to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a party formed by its retired guerrillas. Six years later, however, El Salvador gained notoriety as the world’s murder capital, with a rate of 103 homicides per 100,000 people spearheaded by irrepressibly brutal gangs (pandillas) rooted in the country’s poor urban communities — most notoriously, MS-13 and the two factions of the 18th Street Gang, the Southerners and the Revolutionaries.
This status quo, combining level-headed politics with blood-stained society, seems now to be undergoing a strange inversion since the millennial Nayib Bukele took office as president in June 2019. His election has brought the curtains down on the post-civil war bipartisan system of governance, which opinion polls indicated had lost much of its appeal to Salvadorans. Only 6 percent of Salvadorans trusted political parties in 2018, according to a Latinobarómetro poll. Yet his anti-system zeal, hostility to criticism, and Twitter-happy public relations strategy appear to be eroding some of the country’s democratic norms. Earlier this year he grabbed international headlines when he dispatched soldiers to the chamber of the opposition-controlled Legislative Assembly and defied Supreme Court rulings to get his way. What Bukele’s critics reproach as the traits of a populist dangerman his supporters revere as the acts of a leader set on solving problems rather than debating them. Whether his guile extends to releasing El Salvador from its cycles of violence, or just keeps them spinning along, represents the supreme test of his government as well as its greatest enigma.
In fact, Bukele’s presidency so far seems to be effective in the area that matters most to the public: Daily homicides have halved, disappearances have dipped by 40 percent, and most other violence indicators have declined. If current trends are maintained, El Salvador will end this year with a murder rate five times lower than that of 2015, an unprecedented drop for any Latin American country in recent history. For the first time since modern records began, its murder rate is now lower than Mexico’s.
All of this raises needling questions. Is the gang threat, brandished by U.S. President Donald Trump and others to demonize El Salvador and neighboring nations, actually receding thanks to beefed-up police and military patrols? Or have the gangs and the government lit upon a new form of transactional peace, as the barrios of San Salvador suggest, with gangs able to operate in exchange for keeping murders down? Could it even be that the government is combining tough policing with secretive dialogue, not unlike the violent prelude to formal peace talks between the FARC guerrillas and Colombian state in 2012? If so, is Bukele willing to turn a hypothetical understanding with gangs into a concrete deal by engaging in formal talks? Or will the first sign of adversity, such as a fall in his popularity, tempt him to return to the familiar tactic of brutally cracking down?
Hard and Soft Approaches
Locals offer two very different reasons for the extraordinary security achievements of Bukele’s government. The president and his cabinet claim that full credit belongs to their “Territorial Control Plan,” the government’s as yet unpublished and largely secretive stick-and-carrot strategy, combining “iron fist” law enforcement measures with incentives for youngsters in low-income communities to stay away from gangs. As in many other Latin American countries, mano dura (iron fist) is enduringly popular, offering voters the assurance of unsparing punishment and mass incarceration for criminals even though it repeatedly fails to curb violence over the long run.
Under the plan, the government uses its control of El Salvador’s jails, among the most overcrowded in the world, to pressure gang members who remain free. The authorities threaten that if gang members still on the streets don’t curb their use of violence, the government will step up punishments and harsh confinement of those inside prisons, appealing to gangs’ camaraderie and to the deadly perils that gang members could face if they don’t defend the interests of their jailed leaders. The government delivers this point in simple, direct statements, and has used pictures of stripped and jailed gang members to drive home the message. “Stop killing immediately or those who will pay the consequences will be you and your homeboys,” read one tweet from Bukele in April.
His threat followed a sudden spike in homicides, which rose from two per day to 85 in a five-day span. The government’s response to the killing spree was so harsh that it gained international attention. “No light beams will enter,” warned Osiris Luna, head of the national penitentiary system, as he laid out the new prison rules. Members of rival gangs would share the same cells for the first time since 2004 (when they were separated by affiliation to avoid bloodshed). Cell doors and windows would be sealed, in compliance with presidential orders, so inmates could neither see the sky nor talk with inmates elsewhere.
Yet the unflinchingly hard stance assumed by Bukele and his team is only part of the picture. Even as they cram gang members into dark cells, they also support to the hilt a newly created government department, the Unit for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric. With a young and dedicated staff, the Unit is leading efforts to remove the stigma that years of rampant crime have inflicted on low-income communities and provide opportunities to young people who might otherwise be lured by the gangs. Their signature creations are known locally as the Cubes: modern, glass-windowed leisure and educational centers that look like unidentified objects fallen from the skies when compared with the weather-beaten dwellings of the communities surrounding them. Over time the Social Fabric unit aims to change the conditions on the ground that have made it too easy for gangs to appeal to successive generations of new recruits.
Gangs also appear to like Bukele’s style. Since he was mayor of San Salvador between 2015 and 2018, Bukele has surrounded himself with a circle of officials with backgrounds close to those of the street gangs. The Social Fabric unit’s boss, Carlos Marroquín, was previously known as the rapper “Slipt” and led the hardcore fans of a local football team, making him “a respected figure both in the formal world and the underworld,” according to one security expert. Pragmatism and even empathy seem to be key to Bukele’s approach. Early on in his presidency, he called on gangs to break up in a way any listener could understand: “What is the life expectancy of a gang member, 25 years? Go home, leave it now.” He also doesn’t seem to be above cutting deals. When, still as mayor of San Salvador, he relocated hundreds of street vendors to stalls in the new, indoor Cuscatlán market, he reportedly allowed gangs to have prime locations for their relatives and partners to sell their wares, in exchange for them agreeing to allow the move to occur peacefully. “I see where he’s coming from, and I believe that he wants things to change, and he wants to help young people,” one retired 18th Street gang member told us.
But there seems to be yet more to Bukele’s approach than a mix of tough enforcement, community development, and personal chemistry. In September, reports of secretive visits by government representatives to high-security jails, and unexplained movements of jailed gang members were confirmed in a bombshell story from the online news outlet El Faro, which cited concrete evidence of ongoing conversations between Bukele’s government officials and jailed MS-13 leaders. El Faro’s report added names and dates to the International Crisis Group’s findings published in a July report that questioned the government’s explanation of its security achievements — namely, that these were due to the Territorial Control Plan — and argued that a gang decision to scale back the use of violence was possibly part of an informal understanding negotiated with authorities.
But despite mounting evidence that the gangs and the government have been talking, there is much less reporting about “whom they’re talking to and what they’re talking about,” in the words of another former 18th Street gang member. The supposed process is shrouded in secrecy by both the gangs and the government, though some details have seeped out. El Faro’s report suggested that, as part of negotiations, the government had pledged to reverse the decision to mix members of different gangs in shared cells alongside other concessions. These included allowing fast-food deliveries to jails, transferring aggressive guards, and reportedly reforming gang-related legislation, should Bukele’s party win next year’s elections. The government dismissed these claims (Bukele’s relations with the media, and El Faro in particular, are relentlessly hostile), and responded to the El Faro report by staging a “tour” with national and foreign reporters to various high-security jails. During the visits — which excluded the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison where most gangs’ top leaders are held — gang members said they were unaware of any deal.
The existence of a deal would nevertheless help to explain why relations between gangs and security forces have taken a marked turn for the better. Violent clashes — often involving excessive use of force by police officers — have plummeted in number. A high-ranking police officer told us that the police are trying to “avoid carrying out night raids due to the abuses that they involve,” and the gangs have reciprocated. As a gang member put it to us, “if the system does not attack, the street does not attack back.”
COVID-19 has also shown that gangs are not indifferent to public and community well-being, even if part of their motives may be to score points in a competition with the state. When the administration failed to enforce strict quarantine measures in late March, gangs broke the silence they had maintained since Bukele had taken office to announce they would restrict mobility, enforce curfews, and pardon some extortion payments. Shortly after, the 18th Street gang’s “Southerners” faction released videos showing them handing out food bags to impoverished communities under their sway. This “assistance” was not for free, as they reportedly tried to include relatives of gang members among the beneficiaries of a government handout program.
Talking with Gangs
Talks between government and gangs have been taboo in the country since the 2012 government-sponsored “gang truce” collapsed two years later amid spiraling violence. Even so, these alleged jail encounters or other opaque understandings have not dented Bukele’s sky-high popularity. His Nuevas Ideas party, which is energetically campaigning for February’s legislative and municipal elections under the hashtag #Operacion2021, seems poised to make substantial gains.
The fact is that talks between gangs and public officials, though viewed contemptuously by the public, are neither rare nor new in El Salvador. In some ways, they are unavoidable. The country has seen gangs that originated in California among migrant communities, above all the MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, spread at breakneck speed as a result of mass deportations from the United States beginning in the 1990s. Three decades on, gangs are present in around 90 percent of Salvadoran municipalities and their social support base, composed of family members and collaborators, is estimated at half a million people in a population of little more than 6.5 million.
As a result, communities and individuals often have no choice other than engage with gangs. Local interaction happens on a daily basis, often through community organizations or churches. Public service providers have to work with gangs to enter a neighborhood controlled by them to deal with water, internet cable, or electricity issues; for a politician to campaign there; or for a provincial planning official to carry out their assessments in a given street. Not only is dialogue with gangs essential for communities to receive everyday services and political attention, it has also proved to be an effective means to reduce violence in the country. When the gang truce took shape in 2012, daily homicides plunged from 15 to five, and remained at relatively low levels for well over a year — before spiking back upward as the truce unraveled.
That said, this dialogue can also be a double-edged sword. Gangs have come to recognize their negotiating power, and have used local and national talks to boost their interests. At the national level, they reportedly used the 2012 truce to consolidate extortion schemes and boost recruitment. At the local level, they have co-opted local mayors into hiring members as employees, and demanded that their relatives have the best spots in local markets. All too aware of this history of backroom deals and the violence meted out by gangs, the public shows few signs of being fully ready to embrace formal talks with the groups — a resistance to talking with criminals that is shared in nearby countries, including Mexico. Politicians who have recognized the gangs’ bedrock powers, and sought to interact with them — either for the cause of peace or for their own personal advantage — have found themselves increasingly called to account, with the notable exception of Bukele. Several mayors have been accused of collaborating with gangs, while high-level politicians from both the two traditionally dominant parties (ARENA and FMLN) are being investigated for having offered money to gangs in exchange for votes in the 2014 presidential polls. The mastermind of the gang truce, former security minister Gen. David Munguía Payés, as well as the lead mediator and ex-guerrilla fighter, Raúl Mijango, are under arrest for their alleged wrongdoings in that process.
There are legal issues as well. A landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling determined that gang members belong to terrorist organizations, and that any negotiations with them over reduced sentences are strictly illegal. In fact, soon after El Faro published its report about possible talks between the Bukele administration and the gangs, the Attorney General’s office opened an investigation and raided the headquarters of the national prison system and some high security jails to search for evidence.
Is There a Future for Negotiations?
Negotiating with criminal groups is far from simple. When there is really no political substance to the groups in question — just the search for material benefit and the laundering of ill-gotten assets — and governments engage in these talks seeking short-term security improvements to bolster electoral support, talks can potentially arrive at a bargain. But it may well be a short-sighted, unsavory, and brittle one. The fate of the Colombian paramilitaries, many of whose members simply continued their criminal careers in a different guise after demobilization from 2003 to 2006, is illustrative. If these groups do espouse genuine political or social causes, and nothing ensures that the gangs do, the terms of a peace accord might be more dignified, but a lasting bargain may be even harder to strike if state and elite interests resist it or are simply unable to deliver. To an extent, this is exactly what has happened again in Colombia, which has struggled to implement its 2016 peace deal in the face of resistance among some political elites.
The first essential step toward smoother negotiation should be a legal one. So long as both sides and mediators in El Salvador wish to avoid jail, there needs to be a legal framework that allows for negotiations to proceed lawfully, notwithstanding the Supreme Court ruling deeming gangs to be “terrorists.” Legal experts in El Salvador indicate this will not be easy: It would require either the government to find a vehicle for petitioning the court to repeal its original ruling, or parliament to amend the law on terrorist organizations, assuming the court upholds it.
Setting the stage for a transparent and lawful process could not only make it possible for gangs to sit at the negotiating table, but motivate them to take further steps. Certain MS-13 leaders expressly stated in an 2016 interview with El Faro that they would consider demobilizing if it was on the agenda of a formal negotiation. Before talks begin in earnest, however, it is highly likely that gangs would insist the government pass a long-awaited rehabilitation law for jailed gang members, paving the way for their reintegration in civilian life. “Without [the rehabilitation law], you cannot discuss any point two [in the agenda],” argued a former gang member in a conversation with us. Other issues that gangs often raise as critical are security reforms aimed at halting police abuses, job-creation programs, and improvements to basic services in poor communities. In return, the government would most likely expect to disarm and demobilize the gangs, as well as dismantle their extortion rackets.
It is also important that the government and mediators know who is sitting on the other side of the table, and who they represent. “We [in the gang] know who they [government officials] are talking to from the R [the Revolutionaries, one of the two factions of the 18th Street gang]. But he does not represent anybody, only himself,” a former gang member told us. In truth, no Revolutionaries leader is in the position to speak on behalf of the whole gang. Gangs are far from the monolithic, vertically integrated structures they were 10 or more years ago. Clear lines of command have frayed as lower-level members found out that their leaders purportedly sought personal enrichment from the 2012 truce, while the rank and file continued to live in poverty.
Power within gangs is now more complex and fragmented, with an increasingly autonomous leadership outside jails for certain clicas, or local gang chapters, while the historical gang bosses, the so-called ranfla, continue to bear the symbolic weight of leadership. Being too selective in picking gangs’ representatives would risk deepening internal frictions and rousing the wrath of spoilers. Being too inclusive in securing gang representation, on the other hand, would subject any negotiations to competing and possibly incompatible demands. A crucial part of the buildup to talks would involve reaching an agreement among all gang factions as to who best represents their interests, while ensuring the government respects the gangs’ choices.
Finally, such a process would need broad domestic and foreign support to succeed. Victims of armed violence have traditionally been widely ignored in the country, at least since the civil war that tore El Salvador apart between 1980 and 1992. (Neither ARENA nor the FMLN has yet drafted a reconciliation law distinct from the amnesty passed in 1993, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2016.) To overcome public opposition to talks, victims should have a prominent part in determining the agenda, and the government should work with churches and civil society organizations to shape a transitional justice mechanism for victims of gang-related violence. But even then, no dialogue with gangs is likely to be successful if it does not have at least a tacit blessing from Washington, bearing in mind that MS-13 is listed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control as a transnational criminal organization. The Trump administration’s Justice Department has even prosecuted one of its members on terrorism-related charges. The incoming Biden administration should refrain from taking further steps in that direction, but instead consider giving support to formal talks, should Bukele decide to lift them from the shadows. Potentially, Biden’s plan for Central America, with its stress on prevention and rehabilitation of criminal offenders, may pave the way for such a step.
Will Bukele Do It?
Given all the challenges, would Bukele really be willing to engage in a slippery, treacherous, and unpopular process like talking openly with gangs?
The potential rewards are undoubtedly great, and Bukele is uniquely positioned to carry out such a process, in part because of his communication skills and ability to mold public opinion. When earlier this year his government ordered military personnel into the Legislative Assembly’s chamber to strong-arm deputies into approving a loan for his security plan, his move sparked rebukes from foreign governments and civil society. Yet four out of five Salvadorans said it was the right thing to do. The likely victory of his Nuevas Ideas party in the 2021 elections will give him more legislative leeway, as they could fill public institutions with mostly faithful and loyal candidates. As jail intelligence documents mentioned in the El Faro report show, some of these candidates may have links to gangs. Whether this leads to greater sympathy with poor communities and support for negotiations or simply deepens criminal penetration of political life is hard to predict.
At the same time, the risks are huge. The odds of success in reaching a peace settlement are slender and, while the public may be more willing to give Bukele a chance than any other leader in recent memory, he will still invariably face a barrage of tough questions, should he seek to mount a process.
This, unfortunately, will not play to his strengths. Already, Bukele’s belligerent relationships with critics, political opponents, and other state institutions have raised alarms. The president routinely accuses his opponents of being in cahoots with drug traffickers or gangs when they criticize him or fail to approve resources for his plans. He blames opposition parties for having “negotiated with the people’s blood” during the 2012-14 truce. Relations between the executive and the rest of the Salvadoran government (the legislature and the judiciary) have been strained by the challenges of managing the COVID-19 pandemic and by Bukele’s limited respect for democratic checks and balances. This makes it hard to imagine the president seeking the sort of cooperation across institutions and branches of government that such a delicate negotiation would require. Impulsive and occasionally histrionic, Bukele seems averse to anything that could taint his popularity. If a new dialogue did just that, he could be tempted to derail the process rather than suffer popular backlash.
Bukele’s presidency simultaneously represents an unprecedented opportunity to pull the country out of its gang chokehold, and the risk of disintegration of a fragile democracy carved out at the end of a civil war. Preserving the first while preventing the second will at some stage require far more transparency from El Salvador’s government as to its dealings with gangs, as well as support from parliament and the courts, and far more sympathy and encouragement from foreign partners. Whether Bukele can bring these elements together is not at all clear, but given the stakes, he should certainly try.
Ivan Briscoe is the program director for Latin America and the Caribbean at International Crisis Group.
Tiziano Breda is the Central America analyst at International Crisis Group.