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El Salvador

From crime capital to police state

Inmates at El Salvador’s new mega-prison. Getty

You’ve probably seen those pictures of heavily tattooed gang members being moved to a new 40,000-capacity prison in El Salvador, says The Economist. Almost as extraordinary is the popularity of the country’s president, Nayib Bukele: his approval rating has never dropped below 75% since he took office in 2019; a month ago it reached 90%. The biggest reason is the country’s drop in violence and crime. The murder rate has fallen from 106 per 100,000 people in 2015 – the world’s highest – to just 7.8 last year, on a par with the US. This has boosted the economy and revived the tourism industry. Lonely Planet lists the country as one of its “top destinations” for 2023.

But the crackdown has come at the expense of democracy. Bukele’s government passed a law last year allowing police to arrest anyone without cause. Since then, the state has locked up some 62,000 people – an astonishing 2% of the adult population. Rather than being terrified of the gangs, people are now frightened of being harassed by the army and police. And the authoritarian president is hoping to export his mano dura (“iron fist”) policies to the rest of the region. His associates have set up a sister party in Guatemala, and are trying to do the same in Costa Rica; El Salvador is opening an office in Haiti to advise the government there on its gang problem. If Bukele’s hardline approach works, he could become “a role model in Central America and beyond”.