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In Focus

El Salvador’s ‘cool dictator’ wins re-election thanks to a gang crackdown – but many have paid a high price

Beloved by many in his country for a huge fall in murder and extortion rates, Nayib Bukele won by a landslide in the latest presidential election. But the cost has come in human rights. Rory Sullivan speaks to some of the thousands believed to have been wrongly caught up in the mass incarceration drive

Monday 05 February 2024 09:18 GMT
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A mural at the Zacamil apartment complex in Mejicanos depicting Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele. It reads ‘Step by Step'
A mural at the Zacamil apartment complex in Mejicanos depicting Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele. It reads ‘Step by Step' (AFP via Getty Images)

When El Salvador’s populist president Nayib Bukele announced his “war against the gangs”, Rodrigo*, a young farmer in a remote, gang-controlled part of the country, was hopeful. At last, something might be done to stop the extortion, the threats, the rapes, the deaths that these criminal groups meted out on communities like his, he thought.

Central America’s smallest nation had been terrorised for decades by two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, which rose to prominence after the end of its civil war in 1992. The poverty and disgruntlement of young Salvadorans made recruitment easy.

With murder rates at staggeringly high levels, successive governments negotiated with the leaders of the gangs to bring about intermittent “truces”. Bukele’s administration was no different. However, an agreement brokered by his ministers collapsed in early 2022. In retaliation for the slight they felt, gang members unleashed a wave of murders in March, killing 87 people in just three days.

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