The president of El Salvador arrives at the Legislative Assembly for a special session on heavy-handed anti-crime measures he’s proposing. Only he doesn’t arrive alone: along with the standard entourage of presidential advisers and staff, he’s accompanied by police officers and a retinue of soldiers in military fatigues carrying what appear to be U.S.-made M16 rifles in a clear display of force.
Opposition figures describe the situation as an “attempted coup,” and the United Nations calls for dialogue. A few Latin American national governments condemn the move, joined by a smattering of U.S. lawmakers. The U.S. ambassador tepidly writes that he “didn’t approve” of the soldiers’ presence, but otherwise there are crickets from the State Department. Less than two months later, in a statement on foreign assistance for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the secretary of state writes that the United States will fund “support programs to continue our joint efforts to deter illegal immigration to the United States” and “complement existing security plans.”
When does this scene take place? Absent knowledge of the specific events, a reasonably well-informed observer might pin it sometime in the 1970s, leading up to the 1979 coup that overthrew Carlos Humberto Romero, or perhaps the latter half of the 1980s, after elections were again allowed by the military junta. In actuality, these events all transpired this year. The Salvadoran president in question is current President Nayib Bukele, who marched troops into the assembly in February, as part of a broader turn toward despotism.
Bukele appears to relish over-the-top displays of state power and aggression. In April, rights groups recoiled at horrific photos of imprisoned men handcuffed together in long lines, their medical masks a darkly absurd detail as they were sandwiched against each other during the worst pandemic in a hundred years. A couple of days later, additional photos showed workers hunched over sheets of metal, sparks flying as they were cut to be placed over cell doors.
If U.S. executive branch officials weigh in on El Salvador, it’s typically to discuss just how many people they intend to forcibly send there.
While many of the photos had the tenor of whistleblower shots one might see in a damning inspector general report or presented as evidence in a tribunal, they were in fact disseminated by the government, including Bukele himself, who tweeted that “from now on, the cells of all the gang members in our country will remain sealed . . . they will be inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang.” This was a reference to the fact that the government had decided to intermix members of different gangs—the largest of which are the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18—in the same cells, perhaps in an effort to have them kill each other off. This possibility isn’t theoretical; the gangs have been kept separate in the nation’s prisons specifically in response to a number of riots and murders between rivals.
Meanwhile, if U.S. executive branch officials weigh in on El Salvador, it’s typically to discuss just how many people they intend to forcibly send there, whether they’re Salvadoran deportees or—as a result of a recent bilateral agreement—asylum seekers from other Central American nations who were not permitted to even begin the process of applying for asylum in the United States. Any other statements tend to consist of pledging some sort of security assistance, partly to keep people from making the trek north in the first place.
This might leave any close observer with a certain foreboding déjà vu: the United States, materially and politically supporting an administration consolidating power and perpetrating human rights abuses in a time of crisis, while deporting large numbers of people back into the mess. We’ve seen this before, and we’ve seen where it ends.
For all of the U.S. hand-wringing about transnational Central American gangs—Trump has repeatedly brought up MS-13, usually as a way to insinuate that all undocumented immigrants are one bad morning away from callous homicide—it’s no great secret that years of naive and poorly considered U.S. foreign and domestic policy set them in motion and incubated their growth.
In El Salvador, the United States followed its Cold War playbook to a T. In the late 1970s, as the country teetered on the brink of civil strife brought on by a failed agrarian reform and widening wealth gulf, U.S. officials picked their allies. Surprising no one, they threw their lot in with whoever promised to keep the prospect of communist revolution at bay. When the Salvadoran military deposed Romero, a former general with a record of antidemocratic repression, in October 1979, the United States was all in with the new government.
Over the next several years, as Marxist guerrillas fought the military government—as well as private paramilitaries that were organized by wealthy landowners and often loosely connected to the state military—the United States kept the “security aid” spigot open, letting guns, technical assistance, and training flow freely into the bloodshed. By some estimates, U.S. military aid averaged about $1 million daily, mostly during the Reagan administration, for a total of about $3.5 billion: greater than El Salvador’s GDP for 1981.
There were some high-profile atrocities during this period, like the massacre at El Mozote, where around a thousand civilians were killed by a Salvadoran battalion trained at the infamous School of the Americas at Fort Benning, with the apparent awareness of U.S. officials. But mostly, it was a daily pattern of killings and disappearances, a situation which forced more than a million Salvadorans to flee. Many ended up in the United States, where another round of short-sighted U.S. policy sealed the deal on violence in El Salvador.
Surprising no one, they threw their lot in with whoever promised to keep the prospect of communist revolution at bay.
Many of the Salvadoran refugees who fled settled in California. There, they were met with a lack of support and social services, an existing local gang culture, and the tough-on-crime policies of Reagan and then-Governor George Deukmejian. Taken together with the earlier traumatic experience of war, a pressure cooker was formed in which the Mara and the other Central American gangs went from being motley groups of teenage rebels to something more violent altogether. In lieu of any attempt to reverse this trend or deal with its underlying issues—such as through funding for mental health services, more robust English learner programs in schools, or treating teenage offenders as people to be helped instead of criminals to be over-policed and heavily punished—the United States resolved to export the problem, deporting large numbers of Salvadorans to a country that was still reeling, with ample fertile ground for the gangs to take root, a policy that was turbo-charged by draconian immigration laws signed in the mid-1990s by President Bill Clinton.
The rest is pretty much history: deportees who had learned gang structure in U.S. prisons returned to El Salvador and organized the straggled, shell-shocked crop of young men left prospectless by the unfolding collapse of the coffee crop economy and war into regimented, heavily armed gangs that warred intermittently with one another. They derived much of their power through widespread extortion, all while subjugating the power of the state. In turn, gang violence has set off successive waves of new refugees, who have lately found nothing but closed doors in the United States.
None of this is new information, which makes it all the more exasperating that political leaders in both countries seem content to let it all more or less play out again. U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic, has never been particularly geared toward avoiding violence, but at the very least there, should have been lessons in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America about the long and unexpected spectrum of consequences for providing support and cover to an authoritarian as you force thousands of people back into the regime from which they fled.
Bukele is a different sort of aspiring despot than the junta that overthrew Romero, one for a new generation. He’s not a military man, but came from the corporate world, before running for mayor of the city of Nuevo Cuscatlán on the ticket of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party. Bukele won that race and then ran for mayor of San Salvador on the same party ticket; at the time, a local outlet called him “the most popular capitalist in the Salvadoran left.”
The dalliance came to a brusque end when he was expelled by the party in 2017 for a litany of charges, including provoking internal division, violating party rules, and harassing a female party official. Undeterred, he fashioned himself as a political outsider who had been ejected by the old guard for dangerous new ideas that threatened business as usual. Eventually, he joined the Grand Alliance for National Unity, a center-right party formed only in 2010 by defectors from the right-wing ARENA party, explicitly to mount a campaign for president. In early 2019, he was elected president, promising to implement a “new era” for the country.
Bukele’s personal styling is more suggestive of a moderately successful Miami real estate broker than a head of state. This is all part of his persona as a slick new strongman, one with millions of social media followers and a grasp on the internet meme culture through which politically curious young constituents can be wooed toward autocracy. His urbane aesthetic and savvy digital strategies provide cover for who Bukele really is and what he wants to achieve: no less than the same old twentieth-century vision for domestic order rooted in a unitary and capitalistic state power that will punish the “criminals” who have threatened that order.
The stunt at the Legislative Assembly in February was designed to pressure lawmakers into approving a $109 million supplement to what was already the country’s largest-ever security budget. Bukele has followed a familiar script, painting lawmakers and journalists who express concern over his trajectory as corrupt establishment figures defying the popular will. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he instituted a strict mandatory quarantine; when the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional, Bukele announced he would ignore the ruling, saying that the court did not have the power to “order the death of the people.”
It’s not hard to see why such a message and its messenger might resonate with Salvadorans. It’s undeniable that the gangs have wreaked havoc on the country; in a twist of irony, these organizations formed by those fleeing a prior civil war are now prompting new waves of Salvadorans to leave and seek and seek safety in the United States. The proliferation of the gangs and the inability of the government to provide any response or alternative has caused real anguish, which only makes Bukele’s approach more enticing. Looking through the responses to his sadistic social media posts about incarcerated gang members, it’s not hard to find approval and even exaltation from Salvadorans. He maintains an approval rating around 90 percent.
One key distinction between now and the 1980s, according to Salvadoran security researcher Jeannette Aguilar, is that those being deported from the United States are no longer viewed with reverence by organized crime, but rather as potential threats. “Many of these people are killed only days after arriving in the country . . . they don’t know the criminal dynamics, they enter areas delineated by invisible borders and put themselves at great risk precisely because they don’t know the rules under which these criminal structures operate,” she said.
The victimization of deportees is particularly concerning given that the gangs themselves originated at least in part as self-defense groups. Facing a hostile government on one side and an encroaching gang system on the other, the deportees could prove a catalyst for further destabilization.
We are at an inflection point, and an extremely dangerous one. It’s up to Salvadoran social and political leaders to head off a slide into autocracy, but the United States has a role to play here—I want to emphasize that this is not an interventionist role, a disastrous policy for its own slate of reasons, but rather one of harm mitigation.
Facing a hostile government on one side and an encroaching gang system on the other, the deportees could prove a catalyst for further destabilization.
Things seem to be going in the opposite direction, however. This year, the Trump administration relaxed rules for institutional arms exports, paving the way for a freer flow of weapons to Central America. And there was already no dearth of U.S.-made armaments in El Salvador; between 1982 and 1991, the country received an estimated total of over thirty-three thousand of the M16 rifles that made an appearance at the Legislative Assembly in February. Trump seems content to keep playing ball with Bukele so long as El Salvador keeps assisting his immigration agenda, even if that means building a domestic apparatus that’ll actively prevent people from leaving. Aguilar noted that despite otherwise draconian counter-pandemic measures, which have stranded a number of Salvadorans abroad, Bukele has allowed deportation flights from the United States to continue, bringing in more Covid-19. The signing of the not-yet-implemented bilateral asylum agreement adds the wild card of removal of non-Salvadorans to the country.
Bukele is keenly aware that geopolitical considerations aren’t really the main thing motivating Trump. He’s also praised Trump and even adopted some of his rhetorical flourishes; recently, he announced that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, the drug touted by Trump as an antidote to COVID-19 despite no solid evidence to that effect.
The political leadership of both the United States and El Salvador are now on the edge of a precipice. The lessons of history are there if they choose to see them. Gang violence is a problem, but propping up a repressive state security apparatus which will largely protect the interests of the wealthy even as access to public health, education, and social welfare stagnates, all while deporting those that fled from violence, is not a solution—and proved catastrophic once before.