El Salvador’s Mano Dura: Balancing Order and Rights in the Shadow of Gang Violence

El Salvador’s Mano Dura: Balancing Order and Rights in the Shadow of Gang Violence

Laura Reyes, University of Minnesota Law Volume 35 Editor-in-Chief

“We can arrest anyone we want,” a Salvadoran law enforcement officer remarked to a mother after detaining her son.[1] As of February 2024, more than 76,000 people—nearly two percent of the Salvadoran population—have been detained, imprisoned under inhumane conditions,[2] and are awaiting trial in El Salvador. [3] President Nayib Bukele’s militarized mano dura (firm hand) crackdown on gang violence, which has plagued the country for decades,[4] is resulting in mass arbitrary arrests as police scurry to meet arrest quotas.[5] A dramatic 70% decrease in homicides during 2023 garnered unwavering crackdown support from most Salvadoran citizens, who reelected President Bukele in a landslide election this month.[6] Salvadoran human rights activists, however, warn against the inhumane nature of the crackdown and its harmful effects on El Salvador, stating that “visible absence of gang structures is a fundamental change in the life of Salvadorians. But the price we’ve had to pay for it is sky-high. The cure could be just as harmful as the disease.”[7]

In direct response to a deadly gang violence spike two years ago,[8] President Bukele declared a national state of exception on March 27, 2022.[9] The Salvadoran legislation correspondingly issued criminal code reforms suspending civil liberties, enabling mass, arbitrary detentions, and resulting in numerous reports of human rights abuses.[10] Salvadoran police refuse to show arrest warrants, and rarely inform detainees or their families about the reason for detention.[11] By March 2023, the U.N. Security Council expressed concerns about the conditions of overcrowded prisons, including prolonged solitary confinement and inmates with chronic disease not receiving prescribed medications.[12] Human Rights Watch and the Cristosal Foundation interviewed and reviewed arrest records for victims in May of 2022, already finding evidence of innocents’ detentions, disappearances, and alarming causes of death in custody.[13] As starkly put by Amnesty International (AI), El Salvador is gradually replacing “gang violence with state violence.”[14]

Unsurprisingly, what began as a short-term crackdown on gang violence became the new normal. Article 30 of the Salvadoran Constitution provides that a period of suspension of constitutional guarantees cannot exceed 30 days but may be extended for an equal period through a new decree if the circumstances which motivated it continue.[15] Pursuant to this rule, the Salvadoran Congress has continued voting to extend the state of exception through the present day.[16]

El Salvador invoked its international and constitutional rights to derogate from (i.e., suspend) certain human rights obligations under the state of exception.[17] This catalyzed the legislature’s extreme mano dura criminal code revisions, including lengthy prison sentences and arbitrary arrests.[18] Bukele imposed these measures under Article 29 of the Salvadoran Constitution, which allows for suspension of the constitutional guarantees of liberty, expression, association, and correspondence, in cases of “serious disturbances of the public order.”[19] The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) declared that El Salvador’s harsh measures under its state of exception are inconsistent with international human rights standards, and are thus non-derogable.[20] El Salvador, in response, claims that its suspension of certain human rights is compliant with the ICCPR because the government lawfully invoked its derogation right under Article 4 by declaring a state of emergency.[21]

A majority of Salvadoran citizens strongly argue that President Bukele’s extreme measures brought the relief that El Salvador needed by sweeping away violent crime.[22] By May 2022, Bukele enjoyed an 87% approval rating after conducting over 22,000 arrests.[23] Proponents of the state of exception take the opinion that extraordinarily tough measures are necessary to combat gangs, which may come at the expense of committing international human rights law violations to achieve social order.[24] Critics of the criminal code reforms and of mano dura have urged for a more humane solution to the gang violence problem.[25]

El Salvador faces a tension between the need to rid itself of persistent street gang violence, and the pressures from the international community to cease its human rights law violations and abide by international human rights agreements.

[1] We Can Arrest Anyone We Want” Widespread Human Rights Violations under El Salvador’s “State of Emergency”, Hum. Rts. Watch (Dec. 7, 2022), https://www.hrw.org/report/2022/12/07/we-can-arrest-anyone-we-want/widespread-human-rights-violations-under-el [hereinafter Widespread Human Rights Violations].

[2] See, e.g., Leire Ventas, Coming Face to Face with Inmates in El Salvador’s Mega-Jail, BBC (Feb. 15, 2024), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-68244963.

[3] Megan Janetsky, El Salvador VP Acknowledges Mistakes in War on Gangs but Says Country is ‘Not a Police State’, AP News (Jan. 30, 2024, 8:36 P.M.), https://apnews.com/article/nayib-bukele-gangs-el-salvador-vice-president-ulloa-interview-2aef0dbcc4bbed3c3a52cdc85a593241; see also Alex Papadovassilakis, Keeping a Lid on Prisons, Insight Crime (Dec. 6, 2023), https://insightcrime.org/investigations/el-salvador-keeping-lid-on-prisons/.

[4] See, e.g., Mary Fran T. Malone, Raising an Iron Fist: The Militarization of Public Security Policies in Latin America, in Mano Dura Policies in Latin America 15, 15 (Jonathan D. Rosen & Sebastián A. Cutrona eds., 1st ed. 2023).

[5] Thousands of Innocent People Jailed in El Salvador’s Gang Crackdown, PBS News Hour (Feb. 13, 2024), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/thousands-of-innocent-people-jailed-in-el-salvadors-gang-crackdown.

[6] Nayib Bukele Re-Elected as El Salvador President in Landslide Win, Guardian (Feb. 5, 2024), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/feb/05/nayib-bukele-re-elected-as-el-salvador-president-in-landslide-win.

[7] No Gangs, but No More Democracy, El Faro (Feb. 3, 2023), https://elfaro.net/en/202302/opinion/26697/No-Gangs-but-No-More-Democracy.htm.

[8] Int’l Crisis Grp., Latin Am. Rep. No. 96, A Remedy for El Salvador’s Prison Fever 8 (2022) [hereinafter Crisis Grp.] (explaining that March 26, 2022, is known as the most lethal day in El Salvador’s recent history as gangs indiscriminately killed more than 60 people in 24 hours, and roughly 87 people over three days); see also Malone, supra note 4.

[9] Decreto No. 333, Mar. 27, 2022, Declárase en Todo el Territorio Nacional “Régimen de Excepción,” [Declaration of National Regime of Exception] (El Sal.); U.N. Secretary-General, Depository Notification, El Salvador: Notification Under Article 4 ¶ 3 (Mar. 27, 2022) [hereinafter Depository Notification].

[10] See Decreto No. 337, Mar. 30, 2022, Refórmase el Código Penal; Adiciónaase un Inc. Final al Art. 162 y Refórmase el Art. 345 [Criminal Code Reform; Addition of a Final Initiative to Art. 162 and Reform Art. 345] (El Sal.) (imposing 20–30 year sentences for facilitating or favoring gang-related groups);

Decreto No. 338, Mar. 30, 2022, Refórmase la Ley Reguladora de las Actividades Relativas a Las Drogas, Adicionando un Inicio Final al Art. 54, Incrementando la Pena de Prisión [Reform to Laws Regulating Drug-Related Activities, Addition of a Final Initiative to Art. 54, Increasing Prison Sentences] (El Sal.) (increasing prison sentences for drug-related charges to 20–30 years); Decreto No. 341, Mar. 30, 2022, Refómase la Ley Especial Contra Actos de Terrorismo, En Sus Arts. 4 y 13, Relativo a Las Organizaciones Terroristas y el Incremento de Años en la Pena de Prisión [Reform to Special Law Against Terrorism in Arts. 4 and 13, Relative to Terrorist Organizations and an Increase in Years in Prison] (El Sal.) (increasing prison sentences for gang-related crimes to 15–20 years); Decreto No. 342, Mar. 30, 2022, Refórmase la Ley Penal Juvenil (Arts. 8 lit.g) [Reform to Juvnile Criminal Law (Arts. 8 Lit.G)] (El Sal.) (implementing a provision that allows 12-year-olds to be imprisoned for up to ten years); Decreto No. 344, Mar. 30, 2022, Ley de Recompensa y Eliminación de la Impunidad de Actos de Terrorismo [Law Rewarding and Eliminating Impunity for Acts of Terrorism] (El Sal.) (rewarding those who provide information which leads to the capture of gang members); Decreto No. 349, Apr. 5, 2022, Refórmase el Codigo Penal [Criminal Code Reform] (El Sal.) (criminalizing messaging related to gangs and gang-related activities); Decreto No. 350, Apr. 5, 2022, Refórmase la Ley de Proscripción de Maras, Pandillas, Agrupaciones y Organizaciones de Naturaleza Criminal [Reform to the Law for the Proscription Of Gangs, Gangs, Groups, Associations and Organizations of a Criminal Nature, Associations and Organizations of a Criminal Nature] (El Sal.) (criminalizing depictions of gangs and gang-related activities). E.g., Malone, supra note 4, at 15.

[11] Widespread Human Rights Violations, supra note 1.

[12] Press Briefing, Security Council, El Salvador State of Emergency, U.N. Press Briefing (March 28, 2023), https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-briefing-notes/2023/03/el-salvador-state-emergency.

[13] See, e.g., Rights Groups Criticize El Salvador’s Mass Gang Roundups, AP News (May 2, 2022, 6:11 PM), https://apnews.com/article/arrests-homicide-nayib-bukele-el-salvador-san-ae3b7cfb1e8d9559886c3341133f59b8 [hereinafter Rights Groups].

[14] See, e.g., Leire Ventas, Coming Face to Face with Inmates in El Salvador’s Mega-Jail, BBC (Feb. 15, 2024), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-68244963.

[15] Constitucion de la Republica [Constitution] Dec. 16, 1983, art. 144 (El. Sal) (amended 2003).

[16] See Juan Rojas, Nayib Bukele Is Not the Hero Conservatives Think He Is, Telegraph (Feb. 14, 2023), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/us/comment/2024/02/14/nayib-bukele-el-salvador-libertarian-murder-rate/ (describing the state of emergency as “ongoing.”); Press Release, Special Procedures, El Salvador: Extended State of Emergency Undermines Right to Fair Trial, UN Experts Say, U.N. Press Release (May 22, 2023); see also El Salvador: Authorities Extend Nationwide State of Emergency Until at Least Aug. 14, Crisis24 (Jul. 14, 2023, 5:28 PM), https://crisis24.garda.com/alerts/2023/07/el-salvador-authorities-extend-nationwide-state-of-emergency-until-at-least-aug-14-update-16; Decreto No. 358, Apr. 25, 2022, Prolongación del Régimen de Excepción [Prolongation of State of Exception] (El. Sal.).

[17] Depository Notification, supra note 9.

[18] Decreto No. 333, Mar. 27, 2022, Declárase en Todo el Territorio Nacional “Régimen de Excepción,” [Declaration of National Regime of Exception] (El Sal.).

[19] Constitucion de la Republica [Constitution] Dec. 16, 1983, art. 144 (El. Sal) (amended 2003); see id. arts. 5, 6, 7, 24.

[20] E.g., U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, El Salvador: Concern at Measures in Response to Rising Gang Violence, Apr. 5, 2022; see also Clare Ribando Seelke & Joshua Klein, Cong. Rsch. Serv., RL47083, El Salvador: In Brief (abstract) (2022).

[21] See Depository Notification, supra note 9.

[22] See, e.g., Juan Rojas, Nayib Bukele Is Not the Hero Conservatives Think He Is, Telegraph (Feb. 14, 2023), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/us/comment/2024/02/14/nayib-bukele-el-salvador-libertarian-murder-rate/.

[23] See Rights Groups, supra note 13. E.g., Malone, supra note 4, at 15.

[24] See Karla Martinez, Marrero o Terrorista? Examining the Supreme Court of El Salvador’s Designation of Gang Members as Terrorists, 47 Ga. J. of Int’l and Compar. L. 683, 684 (2019).

[25] See, e.g., Crisis Grp., supra note 8, at 1–29 (proposing gang members’ reintegration into society).