El Salvador: ‘war on gangs’ accelerates slide into authoritarianism
On 27 March, following a spike in killings allegedly committed by gangs, the government of El Salvador declared a state of emergency, subsequently extended twice. With basic freedoms and due process guarantees suspended, the authorities are committing massive human rights violations. President Nayib Bukele is taking advantage of the broad support this policy enjoys among a public fed up with violence and government inaction to further concentrate power and intensify attacks on civil society and independent media. Salvadoran civil society faces the enormous challenge of thwarting the authoritarian plans of a would-be dictator who is currently popular.
Shortly before noon on a Saturday in March, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele ordered his party to attend Congress to declare a state of emergency. He gave the command in his usual way – through Twitter. Four minutes later, the growing Twitter thread included the obsequious response of one of his party’s legislators: ‘I am with you, Mr. President, ready to accompany any measure you deem appropriate’.
The measure the president deemed appropriate in response to gang violence was passed with 67 out of 84 congressional votes in an extraordinary session held the next day. It has so far cost up to 38,000 people their freedom. These tens of thousands have been rounded up and detained, held in harsh conditions, often on flimsy claims of association with gangs.
The ‘exception regime’ was declared on 27 March in an attempt to stop a ‘disproportionate increase’ in murders, which peaked at 62 on the day Bukele made his move. It was initially established for 30 days and subsequently extended twice, each time for an additional month. It remains in place.
The state of emergency entails the suspension of the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly and due process guarantees, including the right to defence. People can now be detained without charge for up to 15 days, compared to the previous maximum of three days. Surveillance can now be carried out without judicial authorisation.
Human rights groups have rejected the measure as ‘disproportionate’, pointing out that it violates international human rights standards and undermines the purpose of a state of exception, which should be to preserve rather than undermine constitutional order. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has called on El Salvador to reverse any measure that could jeopardise the life and integrity of those under custody. But President Bukele has not backed down – and an overwhelming majority of Salvadorans continue to support him.
Rule by tweet
When Bukele was elected in 2019 at the age of 37, he became one of the region’s youngest-ever presidents. He rose to prominence as a business leader and mayor of El Salvador’s capital city. Having started his career in the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, in 2018 he joined the centre-right Great Alliance for National Unity – an ideological leap that foreshadowed his future populist opportunism.
On the campaign trail Bukele focused on corruption and inequality, speaking to people’s hunger for change. His populist attacks against the aloof ‘political class’ won him support from right and left. He won 53 per cent of the vote, ending the longstanding dominance of the two mainstream parties.
A digital native, Bukele is never without his phone and routinely communicates decisions through Twitter. This enables him to react to events in real time and set the tone of the conversation. He despises critical journalists and independent media and hasn’t responded to questions from the press in months. He appears to think people can get all the information they need from him.
Bukele not only rules through social media, but for social media. He routinely invites people to follow him and tries to create interesting and controversial content to keep their attention. His style of governance exploits and intensifies the tendency of social media – by encouraging the sharing of sensationalist content – to fuel extremism.
Down the slippery slope: civic space decline
For his first two years in office, Bukele didn’t have a legislative majority. He bristled at this constraint: when the Legislative Assembly refused to approve a loan to fund his security policy, he bullied legislators and led a ‘self-coup’ attempt, bursting into the Assembly surrounded by police and military officers, calling for a popular uprising on his behalf.
He won control in the 2021 legislative elections and didn’t waste a minute: as soon as the new Assembly was sworn in, his party voted to dismiss and replace the five judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the Attorney General. Within a month, the new Assembly also approved the loan refused by its predecessor.
The government announced it would propose constitutional change to extend presidential terms from five to six years and allow for re-election after a one-term wait. The new judges of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber went further, ruling that presidents are allowed to serve two consecutive terms. The Electoral Court fell into line.
President Bukele and his allies have consistently sought to discredit civil society and vilified critical journalists, a trend that intensified following the legislative elections. Dissent has been stifled through threats of reprisals against journalists who refuse to disclose anonymous sources, surveillance of media outlets’ offices and journalists, the obstruction of journalistic work and access to public information, public vilification by high-ranking public officials, digital harassment, intimidation and criminalisation.
In August 2021, an op-ed by the presidency’s press secretary accused civil society organisations (CSOs) of corruption and acting out of self-interest. Six CSOs were named as groups that ‘do not contribute to the country’. In November, the offices of seven CSOs were raided on the basis of alleged irregularities in allocating and managing public funds.
Following anti-government protests in September and October, protesters were systematically vilified as ‘vandals’ causing public disorder. On 20 October, the Assembly banned mass gatherings for 45 days, supposedly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although sporting and cultural events were exempted.
Restrictions were lifted on 17 November, but by then the protests were being invoked as justification for the submission of a ‘Foreign Agents’ bill that would limit the activities of organisations and individuals who receive foreign support; it could even entail prison sentences for ‘foreign agents’ who ‘alter the public order’ – an expression often used to mean participation in or organisation of protests. The bill was shelved following outcry from civil society and human rights experts, but government spokespeople assured it would sooner or later become law.
That same month, 23 journalists reported receiving alerts about state-sponsored attackers attempting to gain access to their mobile phones. Similar alerts were received by the director of the press association APES (Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador) and two CSO leaders. In January 2022, civil society investigations revealed the presence of Pegasus spyware on devices belonging to 35 journalists and activists – an illegal move that was retrospectively legalised through a change in the Criminal Procedure Code in February, which included ambiguous language to enable the use of digital surveillance tools with little control or accountability.
Many of the journalists affected by the spyware worked with a news outlet critical of the government, El Faro, which reported on alleged government negotiations with Mara Salvatrucha, a criminal gang. At least four civil society members were also targeted. While researchers could not conclusively connect the hacks to the Salvadoran government, they said that the country-specific focus strongly suggested a link. The NSO Group, which provides Pegasus, only sells the technology to governments.
The WhatsApp accounts of APES and at least eight independent journalists were hacked. Among the accounts hacked was a number used by APES to receive reports of attacks on journalists.
Not surprisingly, for the second year in a row El Salvador experienced one of Latin America’s steepest declines in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
Bukele’s ‘war’ on gang violence
Civil society voices insisted that the state of emergency had no legal basis, as it was not meant to be used to deal with common crime. They also questioned the consistency of the government’s narrative, which first bragged about the success of its security policy and then highlighted security challenges to justify the state of emergency.
The government had boasted that its ‘territorial control plan’ had ‘brought gangs to their knees’, translating into a marked reduction in homicides, from 2,398 in 2019 to 1,147 in 2021. But if the plan had been such a success, why had homicidal violence surged to levels that justified the adoption of the state of emergency? The suspicion is that Bukele is trying to look aggressive to cover up his own links with gangs.
Leaked recordings suggest that the relative peace that followed Bukele’s inauguration was the result of a secret truce with transnational gangs, with the new surge of murderous violence a consequence of the end of that agreement. Instead of responding to these accusations, the government has systematically discredited the media outlet that broke the news.
As the crackdown started, many gang members went into hiding. Under pressure to meet arrest quotas, the police began picking up anyone they could allege looked ‘suspicious’. Sometimes this just means having tattoos. Police have been disproportionately deployed in marginalised neighbourhoods, meaning that vulnerable groups are most at risk of arbitrary detention. Detainees are put ‘under investigation’, meaning they can spend a long time in overcrowded prisons in which conditions worsen by the day. At least 18 will not be coming back – they have died while in state custody.
Days after declaring the state of emergency, the Assembly passed further measures in response to Bukele’s request. The law on criminal groups was changed to allow the authorities to criminally charge people who ‘reproduce or transmit messages or statements created or allegedly created’ by gangs, or in any ‘explicitly or implicitly’ convey a message related to criminal gangs. The penalty for this is up to 15 years in jail. Critics warn the law is so vague it could be used to charge virtually anyone who speaks about gangs and gang violence, and describe it as an attempt to censor the media. Under the new law judges can imprison children as young as 12. The use of pretrial detention and counterterrorism legislation was also extended.
After the first month of the state of emergency, local civil society groups had registered at least 338 complaints of abuses of power by security forces – mostly arbitrary detentions. They also documented cases of deaths in custody, torture, ill-treatment and other human rights violations.
Civil society targeted
Not unlike Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines, Bukele’s ‘war’ against gang violence is enabling a myriad of human rights violations and also being weaponised against civil society. Two days into the state of emergency, human rights defender Roselia Elvira Rivas Alfaro was beaten and detained at home, allegedly for ‘resistance’ and ‘criminal association’. Also arbitrarily detained were community leaders Alicia Yamileth Pineda Chicas, under accusations of ‘illegal association’, and Esmeralda Beatriz Domínguez de Peña, on undisclosed charges.
Shortly after, a trans human rights activist and member of the CSO Cultura Trans, known as Esteban M, was detained and subjected to degrading treatment on the basis of his gender identity. He was only released due to the public outrage that followed his detention.
President Bukele and other high public officials are increasingly vilifying civil society and the media with baseless allegations linking them to criminal gangs. Legislators from the ruling party claimed new legislation would allow the government to classify them as terrorists. The president of the Assembly mocked journalists over their complaints of intimidation for criticising the government and said they should leave the country.
Journalists reporting on gang violence continue to be attacked and accused of sympathising with gangs or ‘advertising’ gang action. Public officials have tweeted insinuations that news outlets are sponsored by foreign powers and should therefore be banned, and journalists have been insulted and threatened by emboldened government supporters.
The state of emergency was also used to try to stop people marching on 1 May, International Labour Day: the Minister of Labour warned that those marching would be viewed as demonstrating support for criminal gangs. The march went ahead regardless, with hundreds protesting for labour rights and against the government’s human rights violations. Two weeks later, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, LGBTQI+ people marched both to push for the gender identity law shelved by the government and to defy the state of emergency.
President Bukele retains very high approval rates. According to pollsters, high levels of public support may be partly related to the subsidies provided during COVID-19 lockdowns and as part of the government’s efforts to promote the use of bitcoin as a parallel currency.
Opinion polls also show high rates of approval of Bukele’s measures against gang violence, including the state of emergency. An overwhelming majority sees the government as dealing vigorously with the challenges previous administrations had been unable or unwilling to tackle and views the state of emergency as a hard but necessary action. Even the families of some people wrongly imprisoned under accusations of gang membership see their individual case as a mistake but otherwise support Bukele’s policies.
According to all measures, the quality of Salvadoran democracy is in decline. But people’s satisfaction with democracy is at an all-time high, possibly because they view the authorities as responding to their security concerns. When people fear insecurity and experience arbitrary violence at the hands of gangs, they may see the risk of arbitrary arrest as not such a big deal.
Bukele continues to demand the spotlight, bragging about his crackdown, sharing videos showing alleged gang members being mistreated by the police. Far from arousing widespread outrage, these videos seem to have a cathartic effect among many who have encountered gang violence.
Bukele not only rules through social media, but for social media. He routinely invites people to follow him and tries to create interesting and controversial content to keep their attention.
In a recent tweet, Bukele acknowledged that innocent people were being detained: he said that ‘about one per cent’ of those arrested were probably innocent but this was a reasonable price to pay for keeping the other 99 per cent in prison. Many seem to share this reasoning, although human rights groups insist it is never acceptable to keep an innocent person in jail, and also that the proportion of detainees with no links to gangs is much higher. But Bukele has further played to his audience, repeatedly claiming that civil society and the media only defend murderers and don’t care about victims.
Although Bukele continues to face constitutional limits, about 70 per cent of Salvadorans currently support his re-election. The country seems on the road to authoritarianism through public acclaim. Here lies the greatest challenge for civil society: how to stop a would-be dictator who commands an overwhelming popular majority.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of El Salvador must immediately reverse all measures that violate human rights, free those who are arbitrarily detained and restore due process guarantees.
The government must engage with civil society and regional and international human rights mechanisms to implement effective security policies in ways that respect human rights.
Civil society should join together around a strategy to protect democratic institutions from the attacks of a government empowered by a popular majority.
El Salvador is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Cover photo by REUTERS/José Cabezas via Gallo Images