El Salvador has become a byword for hyperviolence. Dominated by ruthless, organized gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18, the country was infamous for its sky high murder rate. El Salvador, with a population of 6.3 million, had 6,600 murders in 2015. For comparison, New York City’s highest ever murder total was 2,600, at a time when that city had a population of 7.3 million people. Rape, extortion, etc. were also pervasive in El Salvador.
Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele got huge global attention when he tweeted out a high production value video of his government transferring 2,000 prisoners to a new gang super-prison.
Bukele’s government has instituted program it calls the Territorial Control Plan. As part of that, a state of emergency was declared that allows suspected gang members to be arrested and detained without trial. About 65,000 gang members were rounded up, and Bukele says he plans to keep them for “decades” in his new super-prison, which has a reported capacity of 40,000 people, making it by far the biggest in the world.
Crime had already started to drop before he took office, but after Bukele took office, there’s been a stunning collapse in the murder rate. El Salvador now appears to be much safer than most US big cities. So far this year, the country has had fewer murders than Indianapolis (population only 950,000). The de facto hold the gangs have had over much of the country has been broken and Bukele’s government has a 90% approval rating.
This video caught global attention. Many on the US right reacted approvingly. They also loved it when he sent out crews to destroy any tombstone with gang symbols on them.
He later defended this by noting that allied forced did the same to tombstones with Nazi insignias after World War II.
In our country, where crime has been growing, and a significant class of urban leaders are in effect pro-criminal and pro-crime - let’s be honest, they are — it’s tempting to praise a place like El Salvador that has basically cleaned up violent crime in a very short period of time.
El Salvador does show that it’s actually not as impossible to stop crime as many American leaders would like us to believe. However, there are reasons why I’d urge caution before taking too much of a public stand in favor Bukele and his approach.
First, we are a very different country. I’m a law and order kind of guy. But when I watched that Bukele prisoner transfer imagery, I found it disturbing at some level. I do not believe police state type imagery and tactics play well with the American public. Bukele has obviously also been explicitly leaning into fascist aesthetics in his videos, which again do not resonate in America.
Also, few of us know very much about El Salvador or Nayib Bukele. We should be cautious about drawing conclusions about the country from recent tweets and news articles. Some people have suggested that the crime drop there was really because Bukele negotiated with the gangs. If so, that would have a long pedigree, including extending to plenty of politicians in the US. The key is, whatever has actually happened in El Salvador, most of us have no clue what’s really going on there.
Additionally, once leaders get a taste of the kind of power Bukele is using, they tend not to give it up, and it tends to produce at a minimum bad decisions over time. Consider the case of mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, for example. In the 1990s he was viewed as one of a crop of new supermayors, beautifying the city, building Millennium Park, presiding over a boom, etc. But as he rolled up almost total power in the city, he started making errors like a poorly conceived bid for the 2016 Olympics and a disastrous 75 year lease on the city’s parking meters (approved three days after being announced with basically no public scrutiny).
In my experience, people tend to like dictatorial style leaders when they do something we like, but then savage them when they do things we don’t like. Over time, they tend to do less and less smart things, and more and more dumb things. Dumb things lead to a loss of popularity, which in the US means you eventually get voted out, but in countries like El Salvador could mean the transition to autocracy and a more grim environment. Remember, this is a country long known for death squads, too.
By all means let’s celebrate the stupendous accomplishments in crime reduction in El Salvador and give more study to what’s going on there. But I’d be cautious about anyone staking themselves too publicly on Nayib Bukele lest you make statements that could look stupid in the future or even come back to bit you if Bukele ends up going off the rails.
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If this happened in the US, it wouldn't be street thugs being put in these prisons, but Jan. 6 protestors, pro-life protestors, and eventually the unvaxxed.
How true. We watched as totalitarian governors and government bureaucrats loved imposing nonsensical mandates and restrictions on people during COVID. When people fear the government we have tyranny, when governments fear the people we have freedom.