Uprooting Homicide:

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan has sparked political debate among Latin American countries and human rights organizations about the regional feasibility and potential limitations of El Salvador’s approach to consolidating security and the rule of law.

According to 2019-2022 data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Latin America has experienced one of the world’s highest rates of violence over the last two decades. Although the region contains only 8 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 33.2 percent of homicides worldwide. Data from InSight Crime indicate that homicide rates rose in Venezuela, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico from 2022 to 2023. Statista’s data also demonstrate that although El Salvador saw fewer homicides in 2022, the country still has the second highest homicide rate in Central America and the 13th highest in Latin America (after Venezuela, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, and Guatemala, among others).

Bukele’s high approval ratings and hardline image, coupled with his country’s 56.8 percent reduction in homicides, have made El Salvador a security model for other countries in the region. Presidents, presidential candidates, and members of civil society in Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Chile have shown enormous interest in emulating the "miraculous" Salvadoran plan. Countries in the region have debated various proposals to adapt Bukele’s plan to confront organized crime and related violence, and to promote democracy, security, and economic growth.

Bukele’s plan is a governmental policy that aims to reassert state control and reduce violence and crime through establishing a temporary state of exception. This plan contains seven stages, although only five have been implemented thus far: (1) preparation (preventing communication with prisoners and cutting off funding sources for criminal organizations), (2) opportunity (building social programs to discourage young people from entering the world of crime), (3) modernization (improving infrastructure and equipment for the National Guard and Armed Forces), (4) incursion (of police and military personnel, which involves recruiting and deploying more security agents), and (5) extraction (of criminals that are still active in various areas with the help of the Armed Forces). In addition, the government program included plans for the construction of a new detention center, known as the Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT) which is now the largest prison in Latin America.

Salvadoran government data from 2023 indicate that there has been a drop in homicides since Bukele’s plan was implemented in June 2019. As of July 2023, homicide rates per 100,000 inhabitants had fallen drastically (from 35.8 to 2.2). At the same time, the prison population grew rapidly from 39,646 inmates in 2018 to 97,525 in 2022, with almost 70,000 people in prison as of August 2023.

Based on the above data, El Salvador has become one of the safest countries in Latin America. However, Bukele’s plan also has certain drawbacks, since the state of emergency and concerted action against criminal gangs has paved the way for the potential development of an authoritarian political system that violates human rights, lacks transparency about full data on violence in the country, and does not hold gangs and law enforcement accountable for their actions. The plan curtails the right of association, surveils telecommunications, and arrests persons deemed suspicious, including those whose personal tattoos resemble the insignia of criminal gangs.

Bukele is also counting on the mobilization of political and economic resources. His party has a supermajority in the Legislative Assembly, which has enabled him to expand spending on public security and national defense by almost 50 percent to an annual average of more than $838.4 million dollars. The deployment of the Armed Forces for public security purposes has led to an increase in disappearances and extrajudicial deaths. Meanwhile, the removal of judges from the Supreme Court of Justice and the appointment of lower court judges has allowed Bukele to run for reelection in 2024 in contravention of constitutional norms.

Adopting Bukele’s approach could curb violence in other societies with high rates of corruption, political attrition, lack of transparency, and crises of representation. However, Bukele’s plan also stands to bolster populism and rapidly resolve conflict. Even with adjustments for the individual circumstances of each country, broader regional adoption of this kind of approach could strengthen authoritarian rule and further expand clientelism in public office.

Bukele’s heavy-handed, messianic style will not strengthen democracy or help regional economies recover. We must ask whether it is acceptable to choose a model for addressing public security that could put democratic institutions at risk. Bukele’s plan would exacerbate corruption, foster xenophobia towards certain groups, and make it impossible for the region to develop in key areas such as poverty reduction, social justice, and human rights. Without such guarantees, no public security policy can be sustainable. Therefore, it will be necessary to develop a different model for security policy with firmer democratic grounding.