In early November 2021, President Nayib Bukele sent troops to patrol the streets of the capital of the state, San Salvador. There was a sharp rise in murders that week which caused the President to use police intervention to locate known gang members. This was occurring at the same time that Bukele’s foreign agents law was being reviewed by Congress. It aims to, “ban foreign donations or funding for any non-governmental groups carrying out political activity in El Salvador”. His administration argues that this has the ability to help fight against gang violence due to the groups accepting donations and using the money to bolster the wealth of gangs and continue their illegal activities.
El Salvador is no stranger to gang violence. Throughout the last 20 years, the country has attempted to battle the gangs that have made life difficult for its citizens. Through multiple administrations, they have used a variety of different tactics in order to combat their actions and apprehend the individuals responsible. This has come at a cost to the freedom of the citizens as actions to limit the violence extend to the actions of civilians.
After the end of the countries 12 year civil war dating from 1980-1992, gang violence began to rise as right-wing death squads inflicted much civil unrest onto new regime and the country. This along with natural disasters created a country with much economic and social instability; the perfect breeding ground for gangs. The gangs took advantage of a poverty ridden country with a government that did not provide efficiently for its citizens. This has lead to the countries currently situation where it is estimated that 8% of the countries citizens are directly involved in gang activity amounting to 500,000 people.
In 2015, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in world at 103 murders per 100,000 citizens. While the rate has dropped significantly in the years preceding, the toll it has taken on the country has not. In 2020, the rate dropped to 19.7 murders per 100,000 citizens; while this is promising, the country still ranks as one of the highs homicide rates in the world. The two largest gangs in El Salvador, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (La 18) have accounted for a large majority of these murders with no end to their reign of terror in sight.
The groups speaking out against this law argue its affect on the state of Democracy. They feel as though this is a direct assault on their movements and their capabilities to protest against their government. This is true as the bill would place a 40% tax increase on income received outside of the country. Much of the funding the activists groups receive comes from out of the country; making this bill a direct threat to their goals.
When looking at the implications of the recent actions of President Nayib Bukele, it is understandable as to why the citizens of El Salvador are upset. With the recent increase in protests around the country, any efforts to lessen the impact of the rise of opposition groups will be taken as a threat.
According to recent polling, President Bukele is very popular in the country. His approval rating has hovered over 75% since October 2021, with some polls having him at above 90%. This may be why he feels as though he is able to do this; with public opinion so high he takes this as his opportunity to suppress any outside voices that go against him and his administration. He also understands how important framing the bill is to the public. The more he insists that it will help to reduce gang violence and overall murder in the country, the more public support he is likely to gather. This goes for the patrol units as well, if he presents them as only being used against gangs, it will deter citizens from feelings as though they are being used to suppress protest.
It will be very interesting to see how the citizens react to the deployment of the patrols and recently proposed bill. Some could see the patrols as a safety measure taken to insure peace in the streets of the nations capital. Others may view it as an excuse for President Bukele to suppress upcoming protests that are attacking the failures of his administration. The bill could also be viewed by the public in a similar light as gangs do use money funneled from outside of the country to aid in their violence.
Depending on the publics feed back to these actions, these political maneuvers by President Bukele will test the support of the public and their willingness to allow him to take actions that suppress the freedom of its citizens.