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El Salvador

From murder capital to lock-up capital

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

In 2015, El Salvador was “the world’s murder capital”, with 107 homicides per 100,000 people, says Megan McArdle in The Washington Post. Since then, the figure has plummeted to 7.6, comparable with the US, and it “may still be falling”. Instead of murder capital, the small Central American country now boasts another, equally dubious title: “Grand Champion Incarcerator”. Under President Nayib Bukele, the government has “shredded basic judicial protections” and locked up more than 1% of the country’s population in “horrific conditions”, often on as little basis as “tattoos or anonymous phone calls”. But even Bukele’s critics concede that he has “functionally destroyed” El Salvador’s criminal gangs and restored order to the streets. As next year’s election approaches, his approval ratings are as high as 90%.

This is tough to digest for opponents of mass incarceration, myself included. But living under a police state is clearly preferable for Salvadorans than the alternative. Football pitches are “now overrun with kids rather than thugs”; gangs no longer control people’s movements and extort their businesses. And yes, Bukele has little respect for the rule of law – but neither did the criminals who murdered people for testifying in court. El Salvador offers an important lesson for liberals everywhere: don’t let crime get out of control to the point where voters have to choose between human rights and safe streets. “They will choose safe streets every time.”