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Earlier this month in El Salvador, authorities discovered a clandestine mass grave containing 26 bodies, all apparent victims of the gang MS-13, including three youths aged 18-21 who had gone missing in 2021. The gruesome discovery was not, in itself, unique: Other mass graves have been discovered since 2019, including in the municipalities of Ilopango, Colón, and Chalchuapa: the first two also apparent victims of gangs, the latter of a cop-turned-serial killer.
What was unique about this discovery was its location, in Nuevo Cuscatlán, a suburb of the capital San Salvador not far from the country’s military academy. It is where the current president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, had previously been mayor, and where he currently owns a home less than a mile from the grave. Bukele, the country’s popular millennial president, is internationally known for his carefully crafted image of shades and leather jackets, his social media savvy, and his pitch of El Salvador as a paradise for cryptocurrency speculators. In his own country, he is known for ruthlessly pursuing his opponents—attacking the press and NGOs and sending armed soldiers to occupy the legislature—but also for keeping crime under control, a remarkable achievement in a country that was the world’s murder capital only a few years ago. It is even more remarkable considering Bukele’s policing plan, dubbed the Plan Control Territorial, is indistinguishable from previous governments’ failed policies, called “mano dura,” or iron fist policing (which, when they did not work, were rebranded “super mano dura”). Yet official homicide rates have indeed fallen, and Bukele has reaped the reward in the form of sky-high approval ratings—the highest for any president in Latin America.
What is increasingly apparent is that this security plan, and the murder statistics themselves, are a mirage. The drop in homicides has been matched by a concurrent rise in disappearances. Exact numbers are hard to estimate, given they are disappearances, but one report found disappearance rates doubled from 2020 to 2021. As news reports of missing persons have become more frequent, the government has denied there has been any increase in disappearances, suggesting they are teenagers running away from home on their own. The security minister has discouraged people from reporting disappearances at all. The public is not buying it: for months, the phrase “El Salvador es una fosa clandestina” (El Salvador is a clandestine grave) has echoed across Salvadoran social media.
Coinciding with the disappearance issue is the revelation of the Bukele government’s secret pact with the country’s principal gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. Though the government continues to deny it, news reports and former officials detail negotiations between the government and gangs. Such deals are not unique either: every Salvadoran government of every party has negotiated with the gangs, and then denies it. So too do local officials: Bukele himself made a deal with Barrio 18 as mayor for the refurbishing of a downtown commercial center in the capital.
These are always some variation of the same deal, with the government seeking the cooperation of the gangs in keeping the murder rate down, and access by the ruling party to gang territories, in exchange for certain concessions for the gangs. These can be relatively benign— perks for imprisoned gang leaders—to more sinister. The exact terms cannot be known, as the gangs are officially designated terrorist organizations, and it is illegal to negotiate with them. Indeed, the Bukele government has prosecuted officials of past governments for doing the same thing.
What appears most likely is that the negotiated solution to the murder problem involves making them disappear: that the gangs do a better job of hiding bodies and the government does not try too hard to look for them. No body, no crime, so homicide rates remain low and presidential approval ratings remain high.
Despite ongoing denials, the existence of this gang pact has been acknowledged by the United States government. The U.S. Treasury has levied Global Magnitsky sanctions on several officials of the Bukele government, including Director of Prisons Osiris Luna, who helped broker the gang pact and also reportedly stole $1 million worth of food assistance destined for COVID-19 relief and sold it for his own profit. He also redirected food assistance to be repackaged and distributed instead for a mayoral campaign by a ruling party candidate, using prison labor.
Yet it is not this graft, nor the disappearances, which has raised the ire of the United States. Rather it is extraditions. The Department of Justice seeks to prosecute certain gang leaders for international narcotics trafficking, most prominently MS-13 leader Armando Melgar Díaz, known by the street name “Blue.” The Bukele government has denied these extradition requests. The attorney general has gone a step further, suggesting the revision of the 100-year extradition treaty between the U.S. and El Salvador, which could transform El Salvador into a safe haven for organized crime.
Thus it is clear the other provision of the gang pact is a no-extradition agreement between the Bukele government and the gangs. This deal comes at a high cost: it has provoked a breakdown in relations between the United States and El Salvador and precipitated sanctions and visa restrictions on top officials.
That the Bukele government is committed to maintaining this gang pact at all costs underscores the political importance of the crime issue as well as the enormous power that gangs have to extract concessions. They demonstrated this power in November, with a spate of murders over two days, the fourth such murder spree under the Bukele government. The message from gangs is clear: give us what we want, or we can increase your crime rates and lower your poll numbers at any moment.
And with the U.S. sanctions, it is clear that the gangs’ power now extends to the realm of foreign relations. The United States has faced the challenge of working with unreliable partners in the region, most notably Juan Orlando Hernández, the former president of Honduras, who now faces an extradition request from the United States on drug charges. Journalists and activists dubbed Honduras under Hernández a “narco-state.” El Salvador today is emerging as a new version of the narco-state: a gang state, in which organized crime and authoritarian rule go hand-in-hand.
There is some irony to this, given that the gangs did not start in El Salvador but in Los Angeles, and grew into transnational criminal organizations due to mass deportations by the United States. These developments are the products of a long and troubled history between the two countries: of both the “war on drugs” and a real civil war, of U.S. immigration and deportation policies, zero-tolerance policing in both countries, and migration and security deals buttressing corrupt and authoritarian regimes throughout the region.
President Bukele came into office promising to break with the past and with a political system long dominated by two largely corrupt and ineffectual parties. Increasingly, that means breaking with the U.S. itself, as he turns to China for investment and backing. But regardless of his patron, his agenda is the concentration of power in his own hands. Bukele has done this by threatening lawmakers, removing judges, Supreme Court justices, and the attorney general, and spying on his opponents, turning a fragile democracy into a one-party state. The only remaining power he has to contend with is that of the gangs. And for them, he is proving willing to do anything, if they will help keep him in power.
Michael Paarlberg is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. Twitter: @MPaarlberg.