For several months, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has been leading a campaign to mass arrests.
Repackage an old strategy
The arrests are on an unprecedented scale, but the underlying strategy is not new.
Since 2003El Salvador and neighboring countries have used this anti-crime strategy – called the mano lasted“hard hand” – or zero-tolerance policing. Reviews accuse these policies of having criminalized entire communities, portraying all poor youth as likely gang members. National Civil Police of El Salvador once valued the number of “gang-related” individuals is staggeringly high, around 500,000, in a country of only 6.5 million people.
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Not All Criminal Groups Are Alike
Like my to research shows, governments in Central America and the United States often take a unique approach to combating transnational organized crime. For example, then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions listed MS-13, the Sinaloa drug cartel, and Hezbollah among the top criminal threats against the United States, as if they were of similar organizations.
But they are not. The resulting law enforcement strategies treat all criminal groups as transnational mafia- or cartel-type criminal organizations: highly profitable, well-resourced, diverse in their activities, and with a hierarchical structure resembling that of ‘a company.
In reality, transnational gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 are relatively resource-poor, decentralized, horizontally organized by franchise, and involved in unsophisticated criminal activities like street-level drug trafficking and extortion of vendors and of local residents.
By conflating very different criminal groups, the governments of the countries of origin and destination of the migrants overlook the essential characteristics which help to shape their choice of leaders and their evolution towards transnational activities.
It matters that the gangs of El Salvador come from the United States
Although the media often describe MS-13 and Barrio 18 as “Central American gangs,” the groups began in Los Angeles among Salvadoran refugees fleeing the 1979-1992 civil war. During the 1980s, they were little more than neighborhood gangs of juvenile, non-transnational delinquents.
The mass deportations of the Clinton administration changed this status. After the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Accountability Act (IIRIRA) in 1996, which lowered the bar for deportable offenses, the US government deported thousands of people for often minor offenses. These included gang members. In fact, the United States exported the gangs through immigration enforcement policy.
United States deportation policies have filled Central American countries with a steady influx, for decades, of deportees with no job prospects. Relatively few are gang members, but given the rhetoric of American politicians, all face the social stigma of deportation and the presumption that they are”gangsters.”
With gangs now established in countries with limited public security resources, these countries responded with indiscriminate arrests and mass imprisonments. As of last year, El Salvador has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the world. The latest crackdown has put 2% of the population behind bars, overtaking longtime world leader the United States. In overcrowded prisons, gangs consolidate their power and direct their activities onto the streets.
How Deporting Immigrants from the United States Increases Immigration to the United States
My to research finds that the zero-tolerance policing and eviction policies in the United States and El Salvador are linked and counterproductive. Gangs are largely under control in the United States. But when exported to countries with limited public safety resources, those countries respond with mano dura approaches that strengthen gangs and drive further migration to the United States.
First, peaks in violence tend to follow lulls. This is what happened in March. After a year-long drop in homicides after Bukele’s election, gangs reportedly killed 87 people in two days. When mano dura failed before, the next administration revived it and renamed it “super mano dura”. Bukele dubbed his strategy “Plan Territorial Control,” but it is essentially the same as his predecessors.
Second, governments often make secret pacts with gangs. The administration of then-president Mauricio Funes brokered a gang “truce” that led to a drop in homicides in 2012. Officials in his government have been prosecuted over the deal by the current government. The latest drop – and the drop in gang arrests by police before the crackdown – coincides with the Bukele government’s own negotiations with the gangs. Reports and alumni civil servants exposed this last pact. The US Departments of Justice and Treasury have investigation and sanctioned senior government officials who facilitated the negotiations.
Third, while the Bukele government locks up teenagers, it has released the main leaders of MS-13 known as “ranfla”. A senior official personally escort a gang leader in Guatemala so he can evade extradition to the United States to be prosecuted for conspiracy to engage in narcoterrorism. The government’s latest pact with gangs – rumored to include cash payments to gangs in exchange for campaign support and a drop in homicides – led to a murderous rampage in March, after the government allegedly suspended these payments. This spike triggered the current state of emergency and mass arrests.
Bukele is just the latest president to run for crime reduction. But this strategy strengthens the gangs. As warps found, the only way to lower the homicide rate is to negotiate. The exact terms are secret, though they likely involve benefits for imprisoned gang leaders, payments and protection from extradition, in exchange for a break in violence. Even that is only a mirage, as the drop in murders has coincided with an increase in disappearances. And as the gangs have learned, politicians’ sensitivity to the homicide rate means the easiest way to win new concessions is to dump more bodies on the streets.