Outrage, shock and dismay greeted the publication of a report from El Faro news site claiming that El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele “cut deals” with the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) in order to reduce homicides and gain the gang’s political support (Washington Post). Although negotiating with criminal groups is hardly new in the region, El Faro’s claims are particularly startling because Bukele is known for his hardline, tough-on-crime rhetoric. In fact, Bukele has been so tough on crime that Human Rights Watch has maintained that his treatment of imprisoned gang members violates international human rights standards.
The Bukele administration’s negotiations unquestionably breach the trust of the Salvadoran people and undermine Bukele’s credibility. Moreover, the report’s allegation that MS-13 pledged to support Bukele’s political party in exchange for benefits is especially troubling, and nothing I say below should be construed as support for corruption. At the same time, I argue that the outcome of such corruption (Bukele’s party remaining in power) offers some positives. In particular, the negotiations represent a highly pragmatic and targeted approach which, I predict, will improve the safety and security of the Salvadoran people.
In order to contextualize President Bukele’s negotiations, we must first consider how states and organized criminal groups (OCGs) interact. Contrary to the common assumption that states and OCGs exist in two separate and oppositional spheres of influence, scholars Trejo and Ley argue that these spheres coexist and overlap, creating, what they term, “a gray-zone of criminality.” Essentially, informal state representatives either actively support the OCG or turn a blind eye to its criminal activity, often in exchange for bribes. The deals cut by the Bukele administration can be understood as simply a higher-level example of this phenomenon.
President Bukele’s anti-gang rhetoric is certainly popular in El Salvador, a country riddled with gangs and violence. It is so popular indeed that as of February, 2020, Bukele boasted a 90% approval rating. However, sometimes, the most popular and superficially persuasive rhetoric does not translate into the best pragmatic strategy. In fact, the hardline policies that Bukele claims to promote are hardly innovative in El Salvador. In 2000, then-President Francisco Flores initiated a policy known as “mano dura” (or iron fist) aimed at criminalizing youth gangs and arresting scores of gang members. His tactics backfired. By the time the policy ended, the homicide rate in northern Central America had increased by over 70% (Cruz). Thus, a hardline program motivated by the public’s zero-tolerance attitude toward gangs ended in disgrace, having increased the very violence it intended to reduce. Given this history, it is entirely plausible that President Bukele propounds his hardline rhetoric to retain popular support, but he knows, due to the previous failures of mano dura, that he must employ a more nuanced strategy if he wants to actually reduce gang violence.
Not only have hardline policies previously failed in El Salvador, but negotiating with the gangs has succeeded. In 2012, the Salvadoran government negotiated a truce with the MS-13 and Eighteenth Street gangs. Although the truce only lasted for just over a year, while it was in place, it was an astonishing success. Homicide rates dropped 53%, meaning that countless civilian lives were saved. In the end, the truce unraveled because its governmental supporters were replaced and because public support dwindled. Given the strong popular disapproval of the truce, El Salvador’s governing party at the time, FMLN, had no choice but to break the truce in order to retain political power.
Seen in this light, Bukele’s strategy appears highly pragmatic. Although corruption and clandestine negotiations rarely benefit the public over the long term, Bukele’s negotiations avoid the pitfalls of mano dura while securing a safe Salvadoran society where citizens no longer fear death at the hands of a gang. Because mano dura is popular, he must continue to espouse it to maintain political support. However, he recognizes that a proven way to reduce violence is to engage with the perpetrators. Thus, although Bukele’s tactics are not savory, they are in the best interests of the Salvadoran people. Of course, Bukele wants to maintain power, so such negotiations must take place clandestinely to avoid losing popular support as FMLN did following the 2012 truce.
Of course, the most troubling aspect of the negotiations is Bukele’s insistence that MS-13 pledge future political support. Although requiring gang support is certainly a self-interested move at least in part, one can argue that it also has the potential tobenefit the Salvadoran people. The agreement is between Bukele’s government and the MS-13. Thus, if another government were to replace Bukele’s, the agreement would likely collapse. Scholars Trejo and Ley argue that maintaining a single party in power allows OCGs to engage in long term planning. When OCGs constantly have to readjust to different political parties and relitigate their informal relationships to the state, violence often ensues. For instance, when OCGs cannot consistently rely upon state protection due to changing personnel and policies, they seek to forcibly control their own territory instead. Indeed, after the breakdown of the 2012 truce, violence reached an astounding high of 104 murders per 100,000 people in 2015. Thus, to prevent an uptick of violence and to preserve an agreement, that, given historical precedents, seems likely to be beneficial, the Salvadoran people would be best served by Bukele’s government remaining in power with gang support. Consequently, President Bukele’s effort to remain in political power will (perhaps inadvertently) provide stability and reduce gang violence.
Certainly, Bukele’s corruption is outrageous and, in ordinary circumstances, would be indefensible. But, these are no ordinary circumstances. El Salvador is a country riddled with gang violence, where gangs control and regulate civilian activities. For this reason, Bukele’s approach, though corrupt, arguably is the lesser of two evils. If his approach can save the lives of countless Salvadorans who otherwise would have become victims of gang violence, his corruption is tolerable. At the same time, deals like Bukele’s should not be long-term solutions. But when a country is the grip of powerful criminal elements that the government is incapable of controlling, the government may need to resort to sub-optimal practices to alleviate the present conditions before transitioning to a more defensible long-term strategy.
In summary, President Bukele’s negotiations with the gangs
represent a surprising, but potentially successful approach to enhancing security
in El Salvador. Although one would hope that such a strategy would not be
necessary, Bukele’s approach draws upon lessons of the past both in terms of
civilian psychology and policy effectiveness. Critics rightly argue that
negotiating with gangs risks legitimizing them, but if it will save thousands
of civilian lives, legitimizing criminal groups is probably worth it, at least
in the short term. It is a terrible shame that a government must resort to corruption
to control criminal groups, but at the end of the day, a government has a
responsibility to protect its people, and that is exactly what President Bukele
seeks to do.
 To be sure, Bukele’s government has vehemently denied El Faro’s allegations. This post, however, will proceed on the assumption that the allegations are true.
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