Nayib Bukele negotiated with the gangs in search of political partners. Something went wrong and resulted in a terrible wave of murders and a country in a state of exception.
The sham called the Territorial Control Plan has led to a bloodbath unrivaled in the 21st century in El Salvador and Bukele’s administration has turned to the usual playbook to face the crisis: histrionics and lies in order to mask negligence and improvisation. We Salvadorans awoke this Monday to find our civil liberties curtailed by an authoritarian government that no longer needs a judicial warrant to open our correspondence, listen in on our conversations, or detain us for up to fifteen days without pressing charges. The reason: Bukele’s secret negotiations with the gangs have gone awry.
Indeed, the police and military have had no plan all along. The reduction in homicides for the past two years was based on the gangs’ ability to open and close the valve of homicides at will, as a bargaining chip in their under-the-table negotiations with Bukele. By all indicators, the horrors of this weekend reveal the failure of those talks. Seventy-four deaths in 48 hours. The end of the farcical Territorial Control Plan publicized by the administration.
Since the 2012 government truce with the gangs led by then-President Mauricio Funes and his minister of defense, the gangs learned to play politics with the murder statistics. They communicate through bodies in the streets and, should their demands not be met, they fill El Salvador with cadavers. Bukele negotiated with these criminals since the moment he took office in an effort to pretend that he is in control of public security. He lied to us by denying the negotiations since El Faro first revealed them a year and a half ago. Then he protected the gangs’ figureheads from extradition to the United States. The Supreme Court that he instituted through a coup against the judiciary in May 2021, ensured that not one of the gangs’ leaders would be extradited without presidential permission.
In the almost three years since he took the presidency, Bukele has not taken any step to weaken the gangs nor improve security. Not one. That’s why gang leaders were still able to open the valve when they saw fit and, in one fell swoop, left 70 people dead in a country of 6.7 million.
By the sheer unprecedented number of homicides in one day, the bloody spectacle of leaving a cadaver in plain sight along the highway to Bukele’s main tourist project known as Surf City, and the spread of the killings across the whole country, the gangs left a clear message: They demanded something that they did not receive.
Deciphering the details of that criminal disagreement is complicated — the government has closed off access to public information. The message nonetheless remains, in the form of more than 70 dead bodies.
In response, Bukele and his people ignited a media frenzy. The approval of a state of exception during the bloodbath is case-in-point: In an emergency legislative session in the middle of the night before March 27, not one legislator could articulate how the suspension of civil liberties fights crime. Do the police not already have the power to arrest active gang members during their meetings? Would it have been impossible to raid gang members’ homes for weapons before the state of exception? What of the fact that judges have for years approved wiretaps of gang members’ phones in under 24 hours? Are the gangs not already classified as criminal organizations, and is membership not already legally considered illicit association with the intent to commit crimes?
Nobody has explained the true purpose of those measures, but we know that they give an autocrat like Bukele more tools to fasten himself in power.
The statements of various ruling-party legislators during the emergency session were clear: They suggested yet again, without a shred of evidence, that the political opposition was behind the homicides.
For two years, the president and his propagandists have branded anyone protesting against the trampling of judicial independence and rule of law as apologists for the gangs. They have accused the opposition and the international community of financing the gangs and protests, and even tried to associate the independent press with criminals in the public eye. This state of exception is not needed to fight crime, but it is custom-tailored to an autocrat bent on pursuing his critics.
Today all Salvadorans must pay the consequences of Bukele’s falsehoods, irresponsibility, obsession with media circuses, and lack of a real strategy.