Salvo 03.17.2023 4 minutes

American Bukele

Nayib Bukele Attends Legislative Assembly For His Second Anniversary In Power

What we can learn from El Salvador.

Editors’ Note

This article originally ran in a different form in Newsweek.

Since the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has, to varying degrees, sought to instruct the nations of South and Central America on how to manage their affairs. Today, Americans could reverse that paradigm and look to El Salvador, a small but proud nation, as a blueprint for governance and public safety. 

When Salvadorans elected President Nayib Bukele in 2019, they gave him a mandate to fix their failing country. Since the conclusion of the Salvadoran Civil War, which raged from 1979 to 1992, El Salvador has experienced modest economic growth. However, persistent corruption and inflation hampered the quality of life, and emigration to the United States drained the nation of productive members of its labor force. Money remitted home by Salvadoran migrants represents one-quarter of El Salvador’s GDP. 

Bukele directly addressed the problems facing El Salvador when he took power. As he told VICE News in an interview, “The gangs have been running this parallel state. They charge taxes, they control territory, they provide security. But I’m not gonna convert their de facto power into formal power.” 

Bukele was referring primarily to two gangs, MS-13 and M-18, which effectively controlled vast areas of El Salvador and brought drug and sex trafficking, violent crime, and extortion to every community. Traveling between towns put lives at stake, as gangs controlled public transportation. MS-13, in particular, has exported its violence abroad, including to the United States

Bukele took decisive action. He promptly launched the popular Territorial Control Plan to rein in gang violence. After a sudden spike in homicides in March 2022, which resulted in 87 deaths over a weekend, Bukele cracked down hard. With the strong backing of Salvadorans (over 90% of them approving), Bukele expanded the capabilities of law enforcement and empowered them to detain gang members for immediate processing. 

Within a month, Bukele’s language became more firm: “There are rumors that [gang members] want to start taking revenge on random, honest people. If they do that, there won’t even be one meal in prisons. I swear to God, they won’t eat a grain of rice, and let’s see how long they last.” 

Salvadorans applauded. Safety returned to the streets. The nation dropped from the most dangerous in the world to the safest in the Americas. As recently as 2015 there were 103 homicides per 100,000 people; last year, that rate dropped to eight, which is lower than 20 American states. 

The response of the United States and the international human rights bloc has been predictable.  

Amnesty International decried alleged human rights violations. Human Rights Watch claimed that “officers refused to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts.” Every complaint is predicated on the idea that the nation has no right to take effective measures against gang members waging violent war on the citizenry. 

Fortunately for the bleeding hearts at Human Rights Watch, their concern around “detainees’” has been addressed. Bukele commissioned a new facility, the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism, doubling the detention capacity of El Salvador’s prison system, and began filling it on February 24. As he noted, “This will be [the gang members’] new house, where they will live for decades, mixed up, unable to do any more harm to the population.” 

The single facility will house a majority of the 63,000+ gang members identified by Salvadoran security forces in safe but unluxurious conditions. The point is clear: join a gang, go to prison. 

El Salvador is not the United States, and we would not suggest that identical standards of detention be applied here. However, the responsive mentality to crime that Bukele demonstrated stands in stark contrast to the permissive attitude that American politicians at federal, state, and local levels have adopted in the wake of the BLM riots and a national crime wave.  

American society has been subsumed by rampant criminality, and it must end. 

Police must be empowered to detain and arrest criminals without fear of losing their livelihoods or suffering prosecution on tenuous charges of unnecessary force. Prosecutors must seek the highest reasonable charges for crimes, and those district attorneys who seek office in order to exercise endless “discretion” not to do their job should be removed from power. Judges must sentence as harshly as permitted as deterrence rather than perpetuate a plea deal conveyor belt. Politicians must stop their ridiculous histrionics about the criminal justice system being racist, when there are indisputable demographic differences in the commission of certain crimes. 

Bukele understands that rehabilitation is not the only reason we imprison people. By the time someone has fallen so deep into criminality that they are a sworn member of a vicious gang, removing them from society for their crimes serves to incapacitate them from preying on the public and deter others from pursuing a similar way of life. American justice should scare the would-be criminal into the pursuit of an honest life. 

Bukele’s spirit has shown that this model can succeed. We now need a champion to bring it to our shores. 

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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