“I’ll Bring Down the Deaths for You"

Carlos Martínez

Under the Bukele administration, the murder rate in El Salvador has plummeted. The question is: how has he done it? What’s the real story behind the miracle? In looking for answers, things stop being so black and white. / Publicado el 27 de March de 2020

El Salvador is a safer country since President Nayib Bukele came to power in June of 2019. This is a fact. It is incontestable. Moreover, it must also be said, the country is not just a little safer—it is much, much safer. Safer than at least this journalist could have imagined possible. 

In fact, under Bukele, things have improved rapidly and in a sustained and increasingly profound way. Throughout his first nine months in office, the national murder rate was about 23 per 100,000 inhabitants. Any European country, and even most countries in the Americas, would consider this figure horrendous, savage, maddening. But El Salvador is El Salvador: At the end of 2018, the last full year under leftist president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the murder rate was at about 50 per 100,000, a figure that pales in comparison to the even bloodier 2015, when it reached 103 per 100,000. In other words, we have emerged out of something that was not quite a war, but which, in its ugliest aspects, undoubtedly resembled one.

In the midst of the atmosphere of polarization incited by the figure of Bukele—where apparently one must either love him blindly or hate him passionately—there is no shortage of critics attempting to deny him this achievement, arguing that many of the dead are not being accounted for—that they are being disguised among the numbers of the disappeared. But disappearances have also decreased. In January 2020, for example, reports of disappearances were down, from January of 2019, by more than 30 percent. So, in short, there is no trick, no sleight of hand with the numbers—today, El Salvador is a country where people are simply killing each other less. There are even—and increasingly—days when we do not kill each other at all.

The question, of course, is how has the administration achieved this miracle, and at what cost? That's where things stop being so black and white.

As one might expect, the president attributes this achievement to a strategy called the “Territorial Control Plan,” which he touts as El Salvador’s miracle cure, while only disclosing 10 percent of its contents to the public—the other 90 percent of the plan’s details remain secret. On the ground, though, Bukele’s plan is just more of the same, just better filmed and better tweeted: deployment of the military alongside the police, routine patrols in poor communities, more restrictions in prisons, and an aggressive anti-gang discourse.

It is highly unlikely, however, that these actions are to thank for the remarkable reduction in killings. These are the same things that have been tried over and over again—in uglier, more belligerent ways—but ultimately they are the same. The gangs—all you have to do is walk through any poor neighborhood in El Salvador to see it—have not taken a single step back from their position of territorial control. Both the Mara Salvatrucha-13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 (Revolucionarios and Sureños)—which together have more than 62,000 members, in a country of around seven million people—continue to control the same communities they controlled before Bukele came to power. They continue to impose their laws, and the people in these communities continue to live under their grip.

The number of extortions have not decreased—in fact, the public prosecutor’s office has registered a 30 percent increase in reports of extortion since Bukele assumed the presidency. The head of the anti-exortion unit of the prosecutor's office, who is an optimist, tries to see these numbers in a positive light: he says that what this figure represents is a 30 percent increase in citizen confidence in government institutions, and that this confidence is what inspires citizens to file complaints. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to see it as just further evidence that the gangs have maintained their capacity to intimidate, to assert their authority by force, and to impose their law—all without needing to kill. Or, at least, that they are making a more rational and perhaps more efficient use of such murderous violence.

As is our custom at El Faro, we seek answers by going directly to the source. In this case, we went directly to the gangs, to ask them about this exceptionally strange situation. We have yet to find any answers, and the situation remains difficult for us to explain. What we have encountered is an atmosphere of intense hermeticism among the gangs, whose members have told us that they had decided to suspend all contact with journalists during the first 100 days of Bukele's government. When those first 100 days were up, we were told that the agreement had been extended indefinitely. Some sources simply disappeared from our radar… But not all of them.

One high-ranking gang member, with nationally recognized authority, agreed to talk to me on condition that I did not reveal his name, his nickname, or the name of his gang. He told me there were certain things he could not disclose—that there were things he could only hint at, and that I would have to be satisfied with just these clues.

In the middle of our conversation, this man said something regarding the agreement the gangs made with the government of former president Mauricio Funes in 2012 that’s stuck with me,. At that time, the government thought they had scored big when they made a pact with the gangs in hopes of reducing the number of murders nationwide. Despite the fact that the murder rate did indeed plummet overnight, the agreement was deeply unpopular. Salvadorans hated the truce, the government had to let the negotiation process die, and the ruling FMLN party had to vehemently renounce the process in order to win the presidential elections in 2014.

This is what the gang member told me:

I recognize that there were some problems with the truce. One of these, from our perspective as outlaws, is that we believed that murders were at the heart of the truce. When I found out that this, the murder rate, that it wasn’t what people cared about, I realized it didn’t matter, you know? At the time, we didn’t understand it. We decreased the murders, and what happened? Nothing. Nothing, man! The Salvadoran people don’t give 100,000 yards of shit about the murders. That’s why, when I realized this, I offered to do it without anyone having to ask: ‘Hey, I’ll put the brakes on this shit for you, I’ll slow it down right now if you want.’ I already understood that the people don't value that, it doesn’t matter to them.

“What really did have an effect on me,” he continued, “were the rent payments [extortions]. No one mentions that. No one is talking to me about that at all. It might seem like I gave a lot and only received a little, but really I didn’t give anything. At least not anything that actually mattered to me.”

His words have not totally solved the puzzle, but they do reflect a dark vision of the society in which this man—and perhaps his whole gang—thinks he lives. I don’t know about you, but I still give a shit, and those 100,000 yards still keep me up at night.

*Translated by Max Granger

EL PAÍS and EL FARO have joined forces to expand the coverage of, and the conversation about, Central America. Every two weeks, on Saturday, a journalist from EL FARO contributes his or her perspective to the pages of EL PAÍS, providing insight into a region undergoing one its most turbulent periods to date.