5 Keys to Understanding the Salvadoran Government’s Unprecedented Offensive Against the Maras

The fragile gang truce in El Salvador is over.

After months of relative calm and with reduced levels of violence in the streets, murders once again reached levels not seen in almost 30 years in the Central American country.

As a result, the Legislative Assembly -with an official majority- approved on Wednesday a new request from the Executive to combat the so-called maras, aimed at reforming the criminal code to toughen sentences against gang members.

The move comes after the government of Nayib Bukele asked the Assembly on Sunday to declare a state of emergency in the country, after more than 80 murders were reported over the weekend.

The regulations, which will be implemented in principle for a month -although it can be extended-, include the suspension of freedom of association, the right to defense and the inviolability of correspondence.

Now, with the reform approved on Wednesday, the members of the maras or gangs may be sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison, while the leaders of these groups may receive between 40 and 45 years in prison.

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In one of its most controversial paragraphs, the penal code reform also includes consider as adults -and judge them as such- to gang members over 12 years of age.

It is the first time that the government proposes a specific penalty for those it considers to be gang members.

Previously, in El Salvador, members of criminal gangs were considered “terrorists” and were prosecuted under that figure, although according to the local press, it was difficult to verify their participation in these groups and sentences varied between six and nine years in prison.

The surge in gang violence in El Salvador comes after murders on the streets of the Central American country fell to historic levels for much of 2020.

Various media, such as the digital newspaper The lighthouseThey attributed this reduction to a truce between the Bukele government and the gangs, something that the authorities denied.

However, the US sanctioned two members of the Salvadoran Executive at the end of last year for “secretly negotiating” with organized crime.

At BBC Mundo we explain the situation in El Salvador in five keys.

1. What happened now?

Last weekend, El Salvador experienced some of its most violent days since the end of the civil war 30 years ago.

On Friday, at least 14 homicides were reported and on Saturday, another 62 were added in what was the day with the most murders so far this century.

In all, 87 people died over the weekend, according to police reports.


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Authorities attributed the killings to criminal gangs and launched a large-scale operation to arrest suspected gang members.

The closest figure to the 62 murders on Saturday was 51 homicides in a single day recorded in August 2015, when the country experienced its deadliest year since the end of the civil war (1980-1992).

In 2021, the number of murders stood at 1,140, ​​less than that registered the previous year (1,341), and the lowest since the end of the armed conflict.

2. How did the government react to the rise in murders?

Bukele came to power in 2019 promising to fight organized crime and reduce the murder rate.

After the weekend record of murders, the government reinforced security on the streets and asked Congress to approve the state of emergency.

Article 29 of the country’s Constitution establishes that said state of emergency can be declared in “cases of war, invasion of territory, rebellion, sedition, catastrophe, epidemic and other general calamities, or serious disturbances of public order.”


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The measure, approved by the official majority of the Legislature, limits freedom of association, suspends the right to be informed of the reasons for arrest, extends the period of administrative detention from 72 hours to 15 days, and allows the authorities to seize the cell phones of who they consider suspicious.

Images broadcast by local television stations show security forces carrying out patrols and special operations in populous communities in the country.

According to reports, soldiers with M-16 rifles have set up barricades with spikes on some streets and control the entrances and exits of people, who are subjected to a thorough search.

Several photographs of children and women being searched by the police have gone viral on social networks in El Salvador.

3. How has the situation evolved?

As President Bukele published on Twitter, until Wednesday the authorities had captured more than 3,000 suspected gang members.

“In just five days and with less than 96 hours of exception regime. None will go free. We continue,” Bukele wrote.

The president also announced that he had ordered that detained gang members eat and go out to the patio and that their sleeping mats had been removed.

“Since Sunday, food is rationed and the 16,000 imprisoned gang members have not left their cells nor have they seen the sun,” the president wrote.


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El Salvador has one of the most overcrowded penal systems in Latin America and several humanitarian organizations have denounced the terrible conditions in the prisons.

However, according to numerous investigations, imprisoned criminal gang members enjoy numerous privileges, including cell phones and special meals.

“The gang members (in jail) are going to suffer from the pain that their gangs cause outside. homeboys“, affirmed on Twitter the deputy minister of Justice, osiris moon.

It is not the first time that Bukele has taken measures in prisons against gang members after spikes in violence in the country, but it is the first time that the emergency has come out of the prisons onto the streets.

Previously, in April 2020, Bukele imposed a state of emergency in prisons and mixed prisoners from different gangs in the same cells after an increase in homicides in the country.

In a move similar to what has happened now, the government published numerous images and videos of imprisoned gang members in their underwear being made to sit against each other in prison corridors.

4. What have been the reactions?

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, expressed his concern about the situation in the country and assured that he hoped that “the measures adopted in response are in line with international human rights laws and standards.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), for its part, expressed concern about the treatment of prisoners and called on the Salvadoran government to “urgently reverse all measures that put the life and integrity of people in custody at risk.” .


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Human Rights Watch (HRW) and International Amnesty They also considered that the “broad” declaration of the state of emergency opens the door to potential abuses by the government.

“The government should address gang violence in El Salvador, but it should do so with respect for rights. And instead of protecting people through the state of emergency, which is extremely broad, it is only putting their rights at risk and we see the consequences with these raids,” HRW said.

Several activists also condemned the fact that many minors and women are being violently searched by the police.

“It cannot be assumed that all children living in places of extreme poverty or besieged by structures are gang collaborators,” lawyer and activist Zaira Navas told a news conference.

Bukele, for his part, questioned the IACHR’s statement and attributed him to being on the side of the gang members.

“When the gang members murdered dozens of innocent people, the IACHR did not say A SINGLE WORD. But it didn’t take them a day to condemn that we got tougher with them in prisons, ”she stated.

5. Why is there an uptick in violence now?

The Salvadoran government had attributed the reduction in violence to the so-called Territorial Control Plan, a program created by Bukele to reduce murders and other gang crimes.

However, the plan, which strengthened the presence of the Army and police with thousands of troops in areas controlled by gangs, was also questioned for not being very different from others used by previous governments.



In fact, various analysts and local media linked the decrease in violence to factors unrelated to government policy.

Some attributed it to a possible change in strategy by the gangs in order to avoid confrontations with the security forces, which would allow them to maintain their control of territories and continue engaging in extortion.

However, an investigation by the newspaper The lighthouse suggested that the decrease in violence was due to an alleged pact between the government and the gangs, something that the authorities denied.

However, last December, a US Treasury Department report alleged that the Salvadoran government secretly negotiated a truce with gang leaders and bought the support of these criminal groups with financial benefits and privileges for their jailed leaders. , including prostitutes and cell phones.

Bukele vehemently denied these accusations and relations between the two countries have notably distanced themselves.

In an editorial published on Monday, the newspaper The lighthouse again attributed the weekend deaths to an alleged failure in alleged negotiations between the government and the gangs.

“The drop in the number of homicides was focused on the power of the gangs to open and close the valve of homicides at will and that has been their currency in the negotiation under the table with Bukele. Everything seems to indicate that the horror of the weekend is the failure of these negotiations. Seventy-four deaths in 48 hours. End of the deception of the Territorial Control Plan”, indicated the newspaper, very critical of Bukele.

“Because of the unprecedented number of homicides in a single day, the bloody performance of leaving a body on the highway to Surf City and the territorial extension where the bodies were left, the message from the gangs is clear: they demand something that they have not been given” added

Approximately 70,000 gang members operate in El Salvador and fight for control of extortion and drug operations throughout the Central American country, according to various estimates.

Among the groups with the greatest weight in the country is the Mara Salvatruchawhich originated in US prisons.

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