Bukele's War for Peace

By Benjamin Braddock · 7 February 2024

How El Salvador Fought the Gangs and Won
2019. El Salvador’s new president Nayib Bukele faces a staggering challenge. In office barely a month, his country is in international headlines again. For decades, El Salvador had never made international headlines because of good news. This time was no different. A Salvadoran father and daughter had drowned in the Rio Grande attempting to cross into the United States. Immigration activists in the US were using the tragedy to accuse the Trump administration of endangering migrants by pacing the number of asylum seekers being processed at the border. Instead of going along with blaming the US, or suggesting that perhaps the US government should send them more aid, as a typical developing-world politician would do, the young president had taken the responsibility squarely on his own shoulders: 
 
“We can speak blame to any other country, but what about our blame? I mean, what country did they flee? Did they flee the United States? They fled El Salvador. They fled our country. It is our fault. We haven’t been able to provide anything, not a decent job, not a decent school.” 
 
What was interesting about Bukele’s statement was that he could have credibly blamed the US government for his own country’s dysfunction. The Carter administration, the Reagan administration, and the Bush Sr. administration all bore enormous responsibility for the bloody civil war that had dragged on from 1979 to 1992. Many tens of thousands were killed. Others were tortured or “disappeared”. Over 1 million fled the country. Even today, over 20% of El Salvador’s population lives abroad, mostly in the United States. It was in this diaspora that the gangs were born. 
 
The typical kid who wound up in a street gang was not irredeemably evil or sociopathic from an early age. More often they were shy and awkward. Many were deeply traumatized, first by witnessing the atrocities of war at a young age, then by being uprooted from El Salvador and transplanted to the strange multi-ethnic concrete jungles of the United States. Many had also spent years separated from their parents, and with their parents typically working long hours just to get by, there was very little time that could be spent with them once they were back together. This was in the generation of Americans that came to be known as latchkey children, dubbed that because as the first generation to have a significant percentage of working mothers, they often came home from school to an empty house. This phenomenon was sharply intensified for the Salvadoran refugees who came here in utter poverty and only had marginal, low-paying jobs available to them. The public schools in LA were essentially ghetto daycares, but without having the good sense to segregate by ethnicity. The Salvadoran kids were picked on and beaten up in the schools relentlessly by the Mexicans and the blacks, both of which already had their own ethnic gangs. There was little recourse but to seek safety in numbers; joining a gang was a way to manage conflict. They still had to fight, and often they ended up fighting even more than they had prior to joining, but they no longer had to fight alone. 
 
Before they were the MS-13 street gang, they were the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. A group of Salvadoran youth in 1970s Los Angeles who would hang out to smoke marijuana and listen to heavy metal. What made them distinct from other stoner groups, and then later other street gangs, was that some of the hardcore inner circle members of the clique were also heavy into Satanism, replete with ritualistic animal sacrifice, and later, human sacrifice. It was onto these roots that the street gang iteration of MS was grafted onto in the 1980s. At the same time that MSS was transforming into MS, Salvadoran youths were also joining other street gangs like 18th Street, the Rebels, the Harpies, the Crazies, and numerous others. 
 
It was likely the competitive presence of those other street gangs that helped drive the transformation of MS from a stoner gang to a street gang. There were other trends at play as well. The Cocaine Boom was reaching ever greater heights thanks to the work of the Medellin and Cali cartels. Supply had increased so dramatically that wholesale prices collapsed by some 80%. Dealers started making and marketing crack cocaine, which first hit the streets of Los Angeles in 1981. Throughout the decade, black gangs like the Bloods and the Crips and Mexican gangs like Venice 13 and El Hoyo MaraVilla turned vast swaths of Los Angeles into a war zone as they battled for turf. In other words, Los Angeles in the 1980s was the perfect petri dish to grow a metastasizing social cancer like MS-13. And unlike the cartels or some of the more organized street gangs, the leadership structure of MS-13 was decentralized and the activities were disorganized.
 
The same international interests who had funded the war and told the Salvadorans that it was in their best interests to fight it, then turned around and said that both sides needed to come to a peace agreement. The result of the peace process was that both sides came together and agreed to hold themselves completely unaccountable for the mass murder, terrorism, disappearances, torture, rape, and mass population displacement that occurred as a result of their activities in the war. With the war over, the Clinton administration stepped up deportations of undocumented Salvadorans, but failed to inform the Salvadoran government of the criminal offenses which had led to their capture. Thousands of those deported were members of MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang. In short order, members from these gangs connected and the cliques began spreading across El Salvador, recruiting locals, many of them only 11, 12, or 13 years old and orphaned or abandoned by the war. Many of the members snuck back into the United States where they stayed or were captured and deported once again. This created a steady exchange between the cliques in the States and the cliques back in El Salvador. To make matters worse, the US government and international human rights groups exerted influence to pressure El Salvador into weakening the criminal justice system, by for instance, making it illegal to apply criminal sanctions to anyone under 18 years old. Which were precisely who the gangs were recruiting and using to carry out their criminal activities.   
 
The violence that occurred after the so-called peace as a result of the newly established gangs in the country exceeded that of the brutal civil war. More died from gang violence during the “peace” than had died in the civil war at the hands of the guerrillas, death squads, and soldiers. And more were displaced. While the war had displaced 1 million, the ranks of those displaced to the United States (and some to other countries) swelled to over 3 million — one-third of the Salvadoran population — after the war as a result of the gang violence. And gang members mixed in with those displaced, following them and becoming established in new places in the United States, like the affluent suburbs of Northern Virginia.
 
In the earliest days of MS-13, when it was still a stoner gang, the Satanic ritualism was mostly confined to a small handful of members who practiced it much in the same way as other bored delinquent teens in the 1970s. By the mid-2000s, the nature of the gang crimes as well as the frequency began to grow worse. The Satanism of early MS-13 started to return, and also be practiced by the 18th St Gang, the main rivals to MS-13. I am told that this was likely not passed down through the group but picked up again independently from the Mexican Mafia, of which many members are involved in the cult of Santa Muerte and in other occult practices and witchcraft. “The brutality of the gangs’ crimes is increasingly horrific,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2004. “Homicide victims, including many women and teenage girls, often are found so mutilated that Spanish priest Jose Maria Morataya, who runs a San Salvador rehabilitation and job training center for former gang members… suspects that some gang members practice satanic rituals.” During a sweeping 2016 case against MS-13 tried in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, Jose Del Cid, an MS-13 member who started his career as a killer at the tender age of 9 testified: “When you [are involved in MS-13], you feel that the devil is helping you, and sometimes the devil asked you to do things for him.” Scores of interviews with former and imprisoned gang members have turned up talk of pacts with the devil and hearing the voice of the devil or “the beast” as the entity is frequently referred to — “The beast… wanted a soul,” an MS-13 member nicknamed Diabolical testified in a Houston courtroom about the 15 year old girl he murdered — and also to actual possession by the devil in the commission of murder.

Members of the MS-13 gang, Chalatenango Prison, El Salvador, 2018

Under the Presidency of Mauricio Funes from 2009-2014, the first Salvadoran president to represent the leftist FMLN party, the government and the gangs negotiated a deal (endorsed by the Catholic church and the Organization of American States) which would allow the leaders of the gangs to be transferred to lower security prisons, which the gangsters would effectively control, in exchange for lowering the homicide rate. During this period the rival gangs largely stopped killing each other, but continued to prey on the civilian population through extortion and other crimes. The “peace” agreement merely allowed the gangs space to consolidate and strengthen. The lower security prisons were worse than a joke, they were an offense to normal people. Strippers and Pollo Campero were brought in for the bosses. 

The next President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, also of FMLN and a former guerrilla himself, allegedly paid MS-13 $250,000 for votes in the 2014 presidential election which he won by just 6,634 votes. By the end of Funes’ term and before Sánchez was even sworn in, the truce had broken down. By 2015, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world. 
 
2015 was the year that El Salvador attained the status of the most dangerous country in the world and it was also the year that Nayib Bukele was narrowly elected as the Mayor of San Salvador as the candidate of the leftist FMLN party. His tenure as mayor foreshadowed how he would eventually come to govern as President. He made the city cleaner and safer and successfully implemented a number of popular public works and initiatives. In 2017, he was expelled from the FMLN for criticizing party leaders. Rejecting both the traditional left-wing and right-wing parties, FMLN and ARENA respectively, and looking forward to the 2019 presidential election, he formed his own party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). 
 
Leading up to the 2019 presidential election, Bukele was already polling higher than any of the other potential presidential candidates. The old parties, FMLN and ARENA, teamed up to block his participation in the election. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal — the nation’s highest election authority — ruled that, despite meeting the conditions to register in time for the next election, Nuevas Ideas would not be allowed to compete in elections until after the presidential election was concluded. In order to run for President, Bukele had to run as the candidate of another party. The centre-left Cambio Democratico (Democratic Change) party was the most logical choice, as Bukele had ran for mayor as the FMLN candidate but in alliance with Cambio Democratico. But on the evening of July 25th, 2018, just hours before the deadline for candidates to register themselves for the election, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal secretly met and decided to cancel Cambio Democratico’s eligibility to participate in the election. They also decided to wait until the next day to announce it, when it would be too late for Bukele to change his party affiliation. Bukele got wind of the secret meeting and what was being plotted around 9 or 10 pm. He immediately and secretly withdrew his affiliation with Cambio Democratico, and with less than an hour to go before the midnight deadline, he officially affiliated himself with GANA, a small centre-right party.
 
The following day, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced that Cambio Democratico’s participation in the presidential election was cancelled, and with it, Nayib Bukele’s bid for the presidency. After the court’s press announcement, Bukele made his own announcement. He had switched parties and was in fact very much an active and eligible candidate for the presidency. He had outmaneuvered the anti-democratic forces which had conspired to prevent the citizens of El Salvador from being able to vote for him. Democracy was saved. He stood in the election, and won outright in the first round, taking 53% of the total vote, more than all of his opponents combined. 
 
President Bukele was sworn into office on June 1st, 2019. At midnight on June 20th, in front a crowd of police officers and soldiers standing in Gerardo Barrios Plaza, he announced the Territorial Control Plan. 
 
Phase I of the plan was called “Preparation”. It involved concentrating on disrupting the finances of the gangs and taking back control of historic city and town centers in twelve key municipalities. 2,000 police officers from the National Civil Police and 3,000 soldiers of the armed forces. Another 1,000 soldiers were added one month later. Prisons were put on lockdowns, with cell phone signals around the prisons blocked, all visitors suspended, and higher ranking prisoners transferred to higher security prison. 
 
Phase II was called “Opportunity”. It was an effort conducted in parallel with other operational phases and focused on offering youth a different path than the gangs; the creation of a Social Fabric Revitalization Unit: construction of schools and sports centers, expansion of educational opportunities and vocational training, and so on. 
 
Phase III, “Modernization”, involved equipping the military and police force with modern weapons, vehicles, body armor, helicopters, night vision, etc. It was announced in August, and by October, an agreement with the Central American Development Bank was negotiated to secure a $109 million loan. When approval of the loan came up before the Legislative Assembly, it was initially opposed by the leftist FMLN but was expected to pass with support from ARENA, the traditional right-wing party. But then, ARENA pulled its support for the loan. The Bukele-aligned parties, Nuevas Ideas, Cambio Democratico, and GANA, together only held 20 of the 82 seats in the Legislative Assembly. A large segment of ARENA’s 37 member caucus was needed to get over the 43 vote threshold for approval. This set the stage for the most dramatic moment yet of Bukele’s presidency. 
 
On Thursday, February 6th, President Bukele invoked Article 167 of El Salvador’s constitution to convene an extraordinary session of the Legislative Assembly. The next day, he then called on the citizens to join him at the Legislative Assembly. Thousands responded and surrounded the legislature that Sunday afternoon, along with the police and military. But fewer than half of the deputies of the Legislative Assembly appeared for the session. Addressing the crowd from a hastily-erected stage, he railed against the members of the legislature for failing to approve the financing of the war against the gangs, calling them criminals and charging them with collusion with the gangs and indifference to the safety of the public. He then asked the crowd: “I want to ask you to let me enter the Blue Hall of the Legislative Assembly to say a prayer and that God give us wisdom for the steps we are going to take and then the decision will be up to you. Do you authorize me?” “Yes!”, the crowd responded. “God bless you, Salvadoran people. I ask you to wait for me here. I’ll be back in a moment.” 
 
Then, flanked by rows of military school cadets in dress uniform and as the Granadera march sounded, the President entered the Legislative Assembly and walked into the legislative chamber. A detachment of riot police and armed soldiers were already standing inside. Bukele walked up to the dais and sat in the chair of the Assembly President, Mario Ponce. He spoke briefly to the 31 deputies who had gathered, thanking them for their attendance and decrying their absent colleagues, concluding by saying, “It is clear who is in control of the situation. We are going to put the decision in the hands of God,” and then began to pray for several minutes. After he finished praying, he got up without a word and went back outside to address the crowd for a second time. He gestured for calm and said “the entire Salvadoran people know, our adversaries know, the international community knows it, our Armed Forces knows it, our Police know it, all the factual powers of the country know it: if we wanted to press the button, we just press the button. But I asked God and God told me ‘patience.’ Patience, patience.”  
 
The crowd responded in disagreement, they were ready for action. “Patience!”, responded Bukele. “On February 28, all those scoundrels are going to come out the outside door and we are going to take them out democratically. Why are we going to question the true power of the people in democracy? Why, if we are going to have this Assembly in a few months? Why are we going to take it by force, even if the Constitution gives them the right and I’m not going to prevent them? I ask for your patience. If these scoundrels do not approve the Territorial Control plan this week, we will convene here again on Sunday, we ask God for wisdom again and we say: God, you asked me for patience, but these scoundrels do not want to work for the people.”
 
The crowd continued to murmur in dissatisfaction. “God is wiser than we are. God is wiser than we are. One week, gentlemen. One week. No people that goes against God has triumphed.” As President Bukele left the stage and shook hands with a few supporters, the crowd began happily chanting “Insurrection! Insurrection! Insurrection!”

Bukele approaches the balcony of the National Palace to address the nation after being re-elected, February 4, 2024

(Photo: courtesy of Jessica Solce)

The El Salvador opposition’s leaders called this an attempted coup. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court requested that President Bukele refrain from using the police and military in such a manner. The American ambassador condemned the action. So did the European Union and the Vatican. The crisis appeared to be at an impasse. Bukele ordered the mobilization of another 1,400 soldiers to fight the gangs, saying “we have to go out and work with or without resources”. And then suddenly another crisis emerged that washed the present one away. COVID-19 cases were starting to pop up around Latin America; for the next year it would occupy an inordinate amount of time and energy. One year after the President’s brief incursion into the legislative branch, his Nuevas Ideas party succeeded in its permanent takeover via the ballot box, winning an astounding 56 seats. Now, Bukele was free to govern with the full support of the legislature. 
 
On July 19, 2021, President Bukele announced phase IV of the Territorial Control Plan: “Incursion”. This phase focused on the government reestablishing security control of the no-go zones that police had previously found it difficult or impossible to operate in. I’ve spoken to several Salvadorans who lived in such barrios. Taxi drivers who had to pay extortion fees when they entered and left the barrio. Little ladies with pupusa stands who had to pay the gangs a percentage of receipts or face the disappearance of their sons. Men who could not cross certain geographic boundaries to buy food or they would be killed — they had to send their wives to do it. This phase of the plan was to take away the gang’s ownership of space and allow the citizens to freely work and come and go as they pleased without fear. As part of this phase, a new goal was also announced to double the size of the armed forces from 20,000 to 40,000 troops. 
 
The operations to reclaim the barrios had put the gang members in a defensive posture. For months, the homicide rate had been extraordinarily low as gang members were forced into hiding. But on March 26th 2022, the gangs went on a killing spree, targeting street vendors, bus passengers, and grocery shoppers. It was El Salvador’s bloodiest day since the civil war. The gangs intended to send a message to the government. 
 
I was told by a high-level source that there was great anxiety all throughout the war on the gangs that this would happen. It’s why one of the first steps that had been taken was to secure and move the high ranking gang leaders in prison, out of concern that after the crackdowns began, one of them would be able to get a message to the outside that would give the order for the gangs to begin carrying out mass casualty attacks on soft targets in an effort to intimidate the public and the government into submission. Pablo Escobar pioneered this tactic in Colombia but he certainly wasn’t the last gangster to use it. In the parts of Latin America riddled with organized crime, nearly everyone in society is a hostage and a human shield. 
 
The reaction by the government was swift and resolute. In the early hours the next day, the National Assembly passed a state of emergency and a state of exception. The gangs had treated the public as hostages, now the president began treating their imprisoned homeboys similarly. Meal rations were cut, mattresses and clothes were taken away, the inmates now wore only underwear and slept on concrete. The President vowed that if there were any more waves of gang violence that the imprisoned gang members would not be fed “a single grain of rice.” This was met with howls of disapproval by International NGOs like Human Rights Watch, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the United Nations, to which the president responded, “They can take their gang members if they want; we’ll give them all of them.”
 
Over the next few months the war against the gangs intensified. Tens of thousands of gang members were arrested, more than the prisons could reasonably hold. In July 2022, Bukele announced the construction of the largest prison in Latin America, CECOT (Center for the Confinement of Terrorism), with a capacity for 40,000 inmates. 
 
In November 2022, Phase V of the Territorial Control Plan was announced: “Extraction”. Police and soldiers began encircling communities where gang members were suspected of hiding and conducting house by house searches until every single person was checked. In February 2023, the opening of CECOT was accompanied with the publication of videos showing prisoner transfers there.
From the United States and over the internet, it seemed as if the atmosphere in El Salvador was authoritarian and tense. I had to experience it for myself. I flew down for a week in March 2023, but instead of the neofascist police state I had been told by the media to expect, there was instead an air of peace and freedom. I could wander around the poor neighborhoods of San Salvador on foot and drive along remote rural roads at night with no threat of danger. It was not just how I was received (I am fully aware that gringoes in Latin America are often treated differently than the locals) — I observed and talked to many of the locals. They were able to go out in the plazas and to the soccer fields and enjoy themselves for the first time in decades. For some, it was the first time in their life that they had experienced such peace. There was a noticeable police presence in the poorer areas of San Salvador, but they were not rough with the locals as I had witnessed previously in Colombia and Brazil. They were well professionalized. I returned home impressed.
 
In August I was taken on a helicopter tour of the countryside, and as CECOT came into view my first impression was not of a prison, but of a monastery. A place where the chaos and noise of the outside world is shut out and the voice of God can be heard. The harsh crackdown was necessary to provide a firebreak, an absolute halt to the violence which was feeding a downward spiral that sucked many into a life of crime. Now that there is finally peace, the work of healing and building can proceed. The gang members themselves are freer than ever before. Free from being trapped in lives of crime, free from drugs and alcohol, free from the threat of violence at the hands of rivals or their own gangs. I am told by several missionaries that there is a surge in former gang members becoming born-again Christians and the prison societies becoming gradually transformed from within into genuine spiritual fraternities. 
 
For the kids who would otherwise be growing up into an environment that pressured them into joining the gangs, that pressure is gone and tremendous energy is going into empowering the youth of the nation to live good decent lives. The national homicide rate is now on par with Luxembourg. El Salvador is the safest country in the western hemisphere. Safer than the United States, safer than my own county, which has a homicide rate that is four times worse. Businesses no longer have the tax of extortion by the gangs, they are free to expand. Workers no longer have to pay extortion fees either, so that’s more money for them to invest in their families and enterprises. The psychic relief is incalculable. The security dividend is rapidly transforming the country. I traveled to El Salvador again in August, and then again in November. Though mere months had passed between trips, there were clear improvements upon each visit. New public works and parks. New shops and restaurants. And a renewed sense of pride and joyfulness among the people.
 
In November, I visited the new national library in the historic section of San Salvador, a gift of the People’s Republic of China. It is a magnificent building that is open 24/7, 365 days a year. Volunteers are there to work with children and there are special sections for those with special needs and disabilities. The books themselves are well-curated. The great books of the western tradition are all there. It is a palace of learning and culture, open and accessible to all. Catty-corner from the library there is a new public plaza under construction which will feature a carousel and street cafes. On the plywood walls encasing the construction site is the motto of the Ministry of Public Works, “There is enough money when no one steals,” which references the new target of President Bukele’s war on crime: corruption. A new prison is being built on the model of CECOT, but named CECOC — Center for the Confinement of Corruption. It is a place to send those who offer or take bribes. Several former presidents are either in jail for corruption or have fled from Salvadoran authorities. 
 
One would think that such a rapid transformation would be met with relief and praise in all corners of western society. But the media, the political class, and many NGOs have all responded to the Salvadoran miracle with varying degrees of hostility, claiming that El Salvadoran democracy is “in danger” (they had little to say however when the TSE tried to block Bukele from running the first time). The reason the Western powers hate Bukele is that he shows that an alternative model of governance, one where the common good is the main priority, is far superior than the post-liberal plutocratic systems we find ourselves in today. But there is little they can do about it. Millions of Salvadorans are still in the United States (though many are starting to repatriate themselves home) and they universally adore Bukele. Any overt actions taken by the US Government against Bukele would assuredly lead to paralyzing mass protests. Bukele is also supported strongly by key Republican officials in Congress who oversee the US State Department. Bukele’s position is entirely different from that of a Lukashenko or Yanukovych. 
 
Many of Bukele’s international admirers have claimed that he has shown that it is easy to fix the key problems of our societies. I disagree. What President Bukele did was simple, yes — put the bad guys in jail — but it was not ‘easy’. It took enormous will, courage, and dogged perseverance to accomplish what he did. It also took no small amount of charisma, and some trickery as well — as in the case where he had to outmaneuver his enemies to appear on the ballot. And he did it at the reins of a country whose population had experienced over four decades of turmoil. At every turn, the population was there to back him up. It is the most religious population on earth, dominated by evangelicals, mostly pentecostals, and they responded strongly to his message of carrying out a holy war against the satanic gangs. Even if we had a Bukele, it is questionable whether our weak, watered-down, secular first-world societies would stick with him and back him the way Salvadorans have consistently done with Bukele, returning him to office this Sunday with nearly 90% of the vote. But there are other countries in the region who have gone through similar turmoil and insecurity as El Salvador these last few decades. The new President of Ecuador is patterning his war against the cartels there after Bukele’s security operations. El Salvador is sending advisors to other countries like Honduras to help them adopt similar models. It may be that Latin America emerges from its dysfunction well before the so-called first world. And if it does, it will all be because of an audacious man born on the same day as the first liberator of Latin America, Simón Bolívar: Nayib Bukele.

Benjamin Braddock is an American writer and IM—1776’s Commissioning Editor. He can be followed @GraduatedBen.

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