In the midst of criticism, controversy, and praise, the controversial emergency regime decreed by the government of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, also called by the president as a “war against gangs” —a policy that has been consistently endorsed and renewed by Congress in 11 times—, it has been in force for one year.
The application of this controversial government policy is gaining followers in the regional right, especially in the most conservative. At the same time, it causes alarm and rejection by human rights organizations, while in the Latin American left it has generated the so-called ‘Bukele effect’, an intense debate on the fight of a State against criminal structures that occupy territories, which can sometimes break the fine line that leads to authoritarianism and jeopardizes freedoms and respect for human rights.
Bukele’s state of exception entered into force on March 26, 2022 and was decreed as a result of an emergency call made by the president to the Legislative Branch, after an escalation of violence that left 62 people murdered that day aloneand in less than a week, a balance of 87 fatalities at the hands of gangs.
Exactly one year ago, we closed the day with 62 homicides. That was one of the most difficult days of my life and of this Government. Now, one year later, we closed with 0 homicides, and March 2023 is close to being the safest month in all of our history. https://t.co/cbik9ekPLy
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) March 27, 2023
“Exactly one year ago, we closed the day with 62 homicides. That was one of the most difficult days of my life and of this Government. Now, one year later, we closed with 0 homicides, and March 2023 is close to being the safest month in our entire history“Bukele said early Monday morning through Twitter, where he cited figures from the National Civil Police of El Salvador.
This same Monday, the Minister of Justice and Public Security of El Salvador, Gustavo Villatoro, offered a balance on the results that the implementation of the exception regime has given during its first yearwhich is perceived in a significant decrease in the homicide rate and in the capture of people linked to criminal organizations.
However, the questions against this government measure do not stop. Human rights organizations warn that during the emergency regime the security forces have committed more than 4,500 abuses against the populationincluding arbitrary arrests, harassment, threats, sexual violence, torture and personal injuries.
According to Minister Villatoro, during this first year of the exceptional state, the police and military authorities have managed to capture 66,417 people who are classified by the Bukele administration as “terrorists” and “gang members”.
In the procedures carried out against criminal activity, the security forces have seized 2,547 firearms, 3,292 vehicles, 15,878 cell phones and three million dollars in cash. Besides, they have broken up the main gangscapturing 10 of the 15 leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS), and detaining the “national pillar” of the Barrio 18 criminal group.
In relation to the homicide rate that was calculated based on the last 12 months, Villatoro explained that during the state of emergency the current figure is 3.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitantsthat is, when the average in 2015 was more than 106 people murdered for every 100,000.
The minister also referred to the mega-prison that the Bukele Administration recently opened, which includes punishment cells without beds, windows or light. To that compound, said the senior official, since 4,000 prisoners have been transferred They are kept under strict maximum security regulations.
2. Control over the territory
According to the senior official, the measures applied under the exception regime, which grants Bukele exceptional powers, have allowed the Executive regain control over territory Salvadoran, something that had not happened for years.
“The exception regime is the State recovering the territory, it is the State recovering the guardianship and surveillance of our population. This leads us to more than 96% approval,” added Villatoro.
“At the police level we are coordinating with neighboring countries, such as Mexico, the US, Belize and Costa Rica, to bring these gang members to face Salvadoran justice. We know how they operate in the southern part of Mexico and Guatemala, and we are capturing,” he said.
Minister Villatoro added that before the country entered under the exceptional regime, the distribution of justice in El Salvador privileged impunity in cases of lethal violencebecause there was a shortage of judges to face the crimes generated by the gangs.
“Before starting this war we had 400 judges to hear cases of common crime and only 11 to face the main enemy of society. The changes made allow us to have a judicial infrastructure according to the enemy we’re up against,” he explained.
For Villatoro, Bukele’s decision to decree the controversial exception regime, “It was not easy, nor whimsical”However, it has served for the Executive, through “the Constitution”, to impose “a Rule of Law” to “be able to launch a protocol of war against gangs.”
“Before starting this war we had 400 judges to hear cases of common crime and only 11 to face the main enemy of society, the changes made allow us to have a judicial infrastructure according to the enemy we are facing”: @Vi11atoro. pic.twitter.com/KnfGHO3dCk
– Ministry of Security (@SeguridadSV) March 27, 2023
4. “Culture of Death”
In addition, Villatoro added, government policy has been able to give him a blow to impunity and especially to the “culture of death” that the gangs imposed, such as the constant abuses that they perpetrated against the population.
“We come from a culture of death where, if the rent was not paid or the sons were sent to be part of the gangs or the daughters were sent to have sexual relations, they killed, and that not understood by many international community and some organizations,” he said.
In addition, he said, the exception regime broke the figure that the gangs call ‘valve opening’. “As these terrorist groups said, they used it to try to make a profit and show their power.”
Bukele tooth and nail defends both the emergency regime and his so-called “war against gangs.” His position has led him to confront international organizations human rights defenders who warn about the violations and abuses of authority that are being carried out in the current context.
Similarly, Bukele’s political propaganda in favor of his government actions keeps him in tension with a large part of the international press, which he describes as “dantesque” photographs and videos of piled up prisoners in the same place, which the Salvadoran president himself publishes on his social networks.
Besides, Bukele has been designated as “authoritarian” and criticized by governments of different profiles such as the US, Chile and Colombia. In the same way, it has earned questions from the Organization of American States (OAS), which has provoked the anger of the Salvadoran president, to the point of entering into controversial media fights with these countries, as recently happened with his Colombian counterpart, Gustavo Petro. .
6. “Exemplary model”
The regime of exception sets off the alarms of the left and of human rights organizations, which warn of the danger that it can generate a state policy in favor of excessive repression and the lack of constitutional guarantees.
Beyond these criticisms, Bukele’s policy is pleasing in parallel to the regional right-wing, which sees this measure as a radical position that can gain followers and be used for electoral purposes, as it is a policy with popular support.
Despite the fact that Bukele’s exceptional regime limits constitutional guarantees, it allows police and military make mass arrests against any person considered to be a criminal, immediately deprive them of their liberty, prosecute them without witnesses or defense, and cut them off from their families; already at the regional level, there voices in favor of replicating the “model” of Bukele and are observed in countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, to name a few.
The positions in favor of Bukele come, above all, from sectors of the ultra-right, like Uribismo in Colombia; allies of former Chilean presidential candidate Antonio Kast; the deputy and possible candidate for the presidency of Argentina, Javier Milei; the different extremist factions in Venezuela, among others, who describe this policy as an “exemplary model”, regardless of the fact that it has been denounced as opaque and a violation of human rights.
Although Bukele’s emergency regime began as an emergency measure that sought to address a specific situation, it spread and became the fundamental axis of his administration, while the constitutional rights and guarantees of the population were suspended.
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