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7 Apr 2022 | Commentary

WaPo Op-Ed: El Salvador’s President Overreaches in the Fight Against Gangs

In recent weeks, El Salvador has seen a tragic return to some of the country’s most violent years. At least 80 people were killed on the weekend of March 26-27, and in response, President Nayib Bukele quickly summoned the Legislative Assembly, which in the early hours following the killing spree declared a state of emergency for 30 days.

The move effectively suspended some human rights, such as the right to a defense, knowing the charges against you, the right not to incriminate yourself and having access to a lawyer. The decree also suspended the right to freedom of assembly and association and allows the government to intercept private communications without a court order.

Human rights organizations, social leaders, journalists and analysts were quick to point out that the decree blatantly contradicted the many commitments Bukele made when he took office in 2019. It also goes against the human rights treaties El Salvador has committed to uphold. These are more than words on paper.

Let’s be clear. The security crisis in El Salvador requires an urgent and solid response. The many victims of some of the most violent gangs in the world have the right to justice and to live without fear of being harassed, assaulted, extorted and killed.

Suspending sections of the country’s Constitution, however, will not make that happen. Nor will banning rights in the hope of protecting other rights. Breaking the complex dynamics that keep gangs strong requires a comprehensive approach involving community-based prevention programs, justice and police reforms, and improving criminal investigation. El Salvador already has plenty of tools to fight these crime groups. There is no need to resort to repressive policies and the suspension of rights.

But Bukele does not want to hear this. Instead, he chooses to discredit anyone who dares to question his decisions. An army of well-trained bots online is used to do the rest of the work. Over the past few days, Bukele’s well-oiled PR machine created a cloud of noise so deafening that at times it was hard to see what the arguments in favor of the measures taken actually were.

Discrediting the opinions of human rights activists who have been working to promote and protect human rights in El Salvador for decades is little more than a cheap tactic designed to distract from the policies that, by action or omission, are impeding the country from tackling the wave of violence that is destroying so many lives.

But for years, Bukele has been working hard to silence the voices he does not agree with. He is doing it on Twitter but also attempting to limit the support that local organizations can receive and even meddling with the independence of the judiciary in his quest to remain in power.

The Twitter tit-for-tat is not the debate El Salvador needs. Instead, we must talk about the kind of policies the country should put in place to break up the gangs.

Strengthening the judiciary, particularly the special prosecutors in charge of investigating complex crimes by allocating sufficient resources and personnel so they can carry out their work effectively and independently, for example, is one of them.

Also, a concerted effort should be made to truly professionalize and support the country’s police force, including by improving working conditions for staff but also ensuring that police are provided with the tools to deter and fight crime efficiently and have the trust of the population.

That is not all. The authorities must also invest more time and resources in developing community-based programs to tackle violence by, among others, providing youths with educational and other opportunities so joining gangs does not become their only option as well as protecting them from being forced to join these groups. Intervention and rehabilitation programs for those who wish to leave gangs are also needed.

None of these are quick fixes. It will take time and work. Most important, the Bukele administration should be open to having honest dialogues with all sectors of society and the international community, including human rights activists — the kind of conversations that can’t take place only on TikTok or Twitter, where the president prefers to get defensive rather than constructive.

Carolina Jiménez is the president of the Washington Office on Latin America. Katya Salazar Luzula is the executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Washington Post.