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Why El Salvador’s mass arrests won’t lower the murder rate

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/11/2022 Michael Ahn Paarlberg
A man is arrested for alleged gang connections in El Salvador on June 22. © Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images A man is arrested for alleged gang connections in El Salvador on June 22.

For several months now, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has pursued a campaign of mass arrests.

Under his recently extended state of emergency, police have arrested more than 43,000 people on suspicion of membership in the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18, which the government classifies as terrorist groups. Grounds for arrest include having tattoos, living in neighborhoods with gang presence or simply “looking like criminals.” Amnesty International has reported on human rights abuses, including indefinite pretrial detention, trials in absentia and lifting sentencing restrictions on minors as young as 12. At least 59 people have died in custody, according to the Salvadoran human rights group Cristosal.

Repackaging an old strategy

The arrests are unprecedented in scale, but the underlying strategy is hardly novel.

Since 2003, El Salvador and neighboring countries have used this anti-crime strategy — called la mano dura, “hard hand” — or zero-tolerance policing. Critics charge that these policies have criminalized entire communities, profiling all poor youths as likely gang members. El Salvador’s National Civil Police once estimated the number of individuals “tied to gangs” to be improbably high, around 500,000, in a country of only 6.5 million.

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Not all criminal groups are alike

As my research shows, Central American and U.S. governments often adopt a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing transnational organized crime. Then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, once listed MS-13, the Sinaloa drug cartel and Hezbollah as among the top criminal threats to the United States, as if these were similar organizations.

But they aren’t. The resulting law enforcement strategies treat all criminal groups as mafia or cartel-type transnational criminal organizations: highly profitable, well resourced, diversified in activities, and with a hierarchical structure resembling that of a corporation.

In reality, transnational gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 are relatively resource-poor, decentralized, horizontally organized by franchise, and involved in unsophisticated criminal activities like street-level drug dealing and extorting local vendors and residents.

By conflating very different criminal groups, governments in both migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries overlook core features that help shape their choices of leaders and their evolution into transnational activities.

It matters that El Salvador’s gangs come from the United States

Although news media reports often describe MS-13 and Barrio 18 as “Central American gangs,” the groups started in Los Angeles among Salvadoran refugees fleeing the 1979-1992 civil war. Through the 1980s, they were little more than neighborhood gangs of juvenile delinquents and not transnational.

The Clinton administration’s mass deportations changed that status. After passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1996, which lowered the bar for deportable crimes, the U.S. government deported thousands of people for often petty crimes. Those included some gang members. Effectively, the United States exported the gangs through immigration enforcement policy.

U.S. deportation policies have filled Central American countries with a sustained, decades-long influx of deportees with no employment prospects. Relatively few are gang members, but given U.S. politicians’ rhetoric, all face the social stigma of deportation and the presumption that they’re “gang bangers.”

With the gangs now established in countries with limited public safety resources, those countries have responded with indiscriminate arrests and mass jailing. As of last year, El Salvador has the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the world. The latest crackdown has put 2 percent of the population behind bars, surpassing the longtime global leader, the United States. In overcrowded prisons, the gangs consolidate their power and direct activities on the streets.

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Do mass arrests work?

My research finds that zero-tolerance deportation and policing policies in the United States and El Salvador are linked and counterproductive. The gangs are largely under control in the United States. But when exported to countries with limited resources for public safety, those countries respond with mano dura approaches that strengthen the gangs and drive further migration to the United States.

First, spikes in violence tend to follow lulls. That’s what happened in March. After a years-long drop in homicides following Bukele’s election, the gangs allegedly killed 87 people in two days. When mano dura failed before, the next administration relaunched it and rebranded it as “super mano dura.” Bukele has dubbed his strategy “Plan Control Territorial,” but it is essentially the same as his predecessors’.

Second, governments often make secret pacts with the gangs. The administration of then-President Mauricio Funes had brokered a gang “truce” that resulted in a previous drop in homicides in 2012. Officials from his government have been prosecuted for this deal by the current government. The latest drop — and decline in gang arrests by police before the crackdown — coincide with the Bukele government’s own negotiations with the gangs. News reports and former officials exposed this latest pact. The U.S. Justice and Treasury departments have investigated and sanctioned top government officials who facilitated the negotiations.

Third, while the Bukele government has been locking up teenagers, it has freed top leaders of MS-13 known as the “ranfla.” One top official personally escorted a gang leader to Guatemala so that he could escape extradition to the United States to be prosecuted for conspiracy to engage in narcoterrorism. The last government pact with the gangs — rumored to include cash payments to the gangs in exchange for campaign support and a drop in homicides — resulted in March in a killing rampage, after the government allegedly suspended those payments. This spike set off the current state of emergency and mass arrests.

Bukele is just the latest president to run on reducing crime. But that strategy empowers the gangs. As Funes found, the only way to lower the homicide rate is through negotiations. The exact terms are secret, though they probably involve perks for imprisoned gang leaders, payoffs and protection from extradition, in exchange for a pause in violence. Even this is a mirage, as the drop in killings coincided with a rise in disappearances. And as gangs learned, politicians’ sensitivity to the homicide rate means that the easiest way to extract further concessions is to drop more bodies on the streets.

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Michael Ahn Paarlberg (@MPaarlberg) is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies.

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