El Salvador’s gangs are becoming Frankenstein’s monsters

After a record-setting gang killing spree in El Salvador this past March, the country’s lawmakers approved emergency powers that suspended constitutional guarantees to counter gang-related violence. Revealingly, in recent days audio recordings of members of the MS-13 gang disclosed that the killings were in response to what they characterized as a “betrayal” by the administration of President Nayib Bukele of a covert pact that reduced homicides.  

Gangs have terrorized El Salvador for decades, but the real rub comes by supposing that the Bukele administration is further politicizing gang violence. 

Despite Bukele’s dubious denials about talking to terrorists in the past, El Salvadoran officials held secret negotiations with gang leaders. Bukele’s acute problem is that imprisoned MS-13 gang members — considered terrorists by El Salvadoran courts — reportedly received benefits by pledging a decrease in homicides in exchange for electoral support for Bukele’s political party. If true, turning violence on and off like a spigot is not only corruption but also mobilizes dangerous and violent terrorists as political surrogates. Bukele should be gravely concerned that his malign alliances with dangerous gangs like MS-13 are already coming back to bite the very hand that feeds them. 

The recently declared state of emergency in El Salvador and past deal-cutting with violent gangs foreshadow how Bukele’s increasingly authoritarian strategies sow the seeds of more political violence. To consolidate more presidential power, Bukele’s administration makes MS-13 look more like state-sponsored terrorist proxies, rather than vicious criminals. Elevating criminal gangs to a status once held by leftist guerrillas during El Salvador’s civil war is dangerous. In other words, gangs in El Salvador must not be artificially politicized. 

The troubles in El Salvador are not just about the recent spike in gang violence that triggered a state of emergency. Gang violence is symptomatic of a more worrying trajectory. Bukele, the charismatic populist president of El Salvador, is weaponizing the state to harass criticsjournalists and activists. If that’s not concerning enough, El Salvador has been warming up to Russia and China, too. 

Taken together, while the U.S. is focusing on Putin’s authoritarianism, the war in Ukraine, and a more threatening China, El Salvador’s president is emboldened enough to dip his toes into troubled Great Power Competition waters. During the Cold War, cozying up to Marxist Cuba and Russians proved to be the wrong side of an ideological divide in the Western Hemisphere.

Keep in mind that MS-13’s evolution, in particular, was an unintended byproduct of the Cold War and the 1980s civil war in El Salvador. For its survival, MS-13 constructed a cult-like social structure in prisons and vulnerable communities, where it used gruesome violence as a means of social control.    

The good news is that the U.S. continues to go after MS-13. During the early years of the Trump administration, El Salvador’s MS-13 problem was not on the U.S. counterterrorism radar. In fact, MS-13 is not a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. However, MS-13’s horrific wave of violence that terrorized communities across the U.S. garnered the attention of the Trump administration. Fittingly, the attorney general created Joint Task Force Vulcan (JTFV)  to coordinate and lead interagency efforts against MS-13 in order to dismantle the group. Fortunately, the task force still relentlessly pursues MS-13. 

In 2020, Joint Task Force Vulcan used terrorism charges against an alleged leader of MS-13 as part of a raft of charges against members of the El Salvadoran gang implicated in dozens of murders. A year later, JTFV again brought terrorism charges against what they characterized as the gang’s “board of directors” — 14 of its highest-ranking leaders, most of them jailed in El Salvador. Those gang leaders issued orders from prison and directed MS-13 violence for decades. Alarmingly, MS-13 even established military-style training camps for its members and obtained military arms, grenades, improvised explosives and rocket launchers.

El Salvador is at an inflection point. Security matters in El Salvador directly impact communities in the United States. Notwithstanding Bukele’s immense popularity, his authoritarian actions could be self-defeating for the former advertising executive turned president. 

All of this takes me back to the 1980s. Then, during my time in Honduras as a U.S. intelligence officer, I focused on monitoring the activities of leftist guerrillas during El Salvador’s civil war and ended up in Manuel Noriega’s unsettled Panama during a U.S. invasion in 1989. There are few serious comparisons to be made between an appealing popular leader like Bukele and a dictator like Noriega, especially when El Salvadorans seem to tolerate authoritarianism measures as a tradeoff for stopping gang violence. But Noriega waded into a fast-moving current of corruption and repression of the media, and he flirted with Cold War competitors like Cuba. The Panama strongman mobilized units of thugs to suppress opposition to his rule, but perhaps most fatally, he negotiated deals with drug traffickers and was eventually indicted by federal grand juries on charges of racketeering, drug smuggling, and money laundering. It’s not a stretch, then, to imagine that there are risks for Bukele going too far harassing opposition groups and turning gangs into El Salvador’s Frankenstein’s monsters. 

Still, it’s not too late for the Bukele administration to navigate a new course. In the near term, the most valuable currency in this fight should be rebuilding trust between the U.S. and the El Salvadoran government. And the most potent tools against gangs and corruption should be investigations, extraditions, and trials.   

Christopher P. Costa, the executive director of the International Spy Museum, a former intelligence officer and former advisor to the Department of Justice on transnational criminal organizations, was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.

Tags Gangs in El Salvador MS-13 Nayib Bukele Politics of the United States

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