49,000 gang members arrested in four months: El Salvador’s relentless war against the maras

A group of gang members is locked in their dungeons / efe

The state of exception allows the Bukele government to carry out a large raid in the country that raises the suspicions of civil organizations and overcrowds the prisons

The great raid that the Government of Nayib Bukele has been carrying out for four months in El Salvador has led to the arrest of 49,000 suspected gang members. An extraordinary figure for a country of just 6.5 million inhabitants, but which does not seem so high when compared to its rate of violence –about a hundred murders a month– and criminals associated with the gangs: above 100,000, of which the majority belong to the Mara Salvatruchas and another high percentage to Barrio 18, the two large criminal groups born in the 1980s in the heat of the civil war and the exodus of thousands of refugees to the United States.

The number of detainees has been offered by the Minister of Justice and Security, Gustavo Villatoro. The presumption of guilt seems more than justified in a good number of arrests if one pays attention to the declarations of the Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights and civil organizations. They affirm that the cloak of darkness thrown over this anti-violence crusade hides arbitrary arrests, abuses of power and the clear suspicion that some of the prisoners have not committed the crimes of which they are accused. There are more than 3,000 complaints of torture and indiscriminate arrests and 56 deceased prisoners about whom the Government has kept total secrecy. Amnesty International revealed in June that it had detected “serious violations” of human rights that could merit “international criminal responsibility”.

None of that seems to bother President Bukele.

At the end of March, the Legislative Assembly approved the application of the state of exception and the suspension of constitutional guarantees for one month and has now been in force for four. The minister assures that all those arrested are “terrorist-gang members” and that the Executive intends to send a list of new reforms to Parliament so that “this country is safe in the communities, in tourist and cultural sites, but also safe in the roads”.

A member of the Mara Salvatruchas shows his tattoos /


Apart from those who have found their bones in a dungeon, the government campaign has removed thousands of former gang members from the streets, individuals who joined gangs in their adolescence and youth, and migrants who did so after passing clandestinely to the United States and who have later been deported back to El Salvador. The vast majority still have tattoos with the initials M S-13 (Mara Salvatruchas), the word ‘mara’ or other signs of their iconography. It is relatively easy to join the gangs, but it is more difficult to leave them, and although some of its members have been estranged for years and now have families and jobs, those ink marks are enough to be arrested. The NGOs assure that the Police go door to door ordering the men to show their torso. The Police also say that the most difficult thing is to capture the gang members who have never been marked.

Godoy Monterrosa was known as ‘Satán’. He was living clandestinely in Louisiana working on masonry and away from MS-13. In his time in the Salvatruchas and according to his nickname, he must have been one of those guys that it is better not to contradict.

The US Immigration Service put him on a plane back to El Salvador on April 8. As he descended from the ladder, the security forces cut him off, gave him a cell phone and told him to call his family so they would not pick him up at the airport. He was detained. Since then, Monterrosa’s relatives have not heard from him again, but they are aware that he is a prisoner in a penitentiary center and faces 30 years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organization. Many Salvadorans who live illegally in the US fear becoming ‘Satan’.

The Government assumes that 1% of arrests may be wrong. Not everyone bears the marks of the maras on their skin. Among the gang members, there are those who lead routine lives, but with an extraordinarily abnormal expense train; one of the frequent mistakes among the members of these clans dedicated to extortion: they stand out like a light in the night. However, the Workers’ Movement of the National Police also denounces the existence of quotas imposed by some security force commanders to get days off or avoid reprimands: if they demand six arrested gang members from a police station and only four are captured, they will be They add two detainees for another crime, regardless of whether it is an assault or a robbery.

The March Massacre

The state of emergency was imposed at the end of March after a weekend carnage. Between Friday, the 25th, and Saturday, the gang members murdered 87 people. To this day, the exact mobile is still unknown. Ruled out the settling of scores between rival gangs, the Police did not find links between the victims either. They were of all sexes and ages. They had apparently been picked at random by the gunmen or got in the way of their revolvers and semi-automatic rifles.

Everything indicates that it was a show of force against President Bukele, autocrat for some and populist savior of the country for others, but in any case the architect of the decrease in street violence, drug trafficking and extortion since his arrival. to power in 2019. The murder rate is still very high, 20 per 100,000 inhabitants, but it is far from that registered in 2015, when El Salvador was the most violent country in the world: 103 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Now preceded by Honduras and Mexico, for example. The most insistent rumor is that Bukele, like his predecessors in office, has managed to reduce violence thanks to pacts with the gangs.

The raids have aggravated the problem of prison overcrowding /

government of el salvador

A week before the massacre, on the night of March 19, two assassins also assassinated one of the main promoters of MS-13. Capricorn. A bloodthirsty individual who, paradoxically, decided to agree with the Prosecutor’s Office and offer to testify against his former gang. Bad fix in a country where judges recognize that a protected witness can testify at ten in the morning and end up dead before lunchtime.

Capricorn was married, expecting a child, and frequented a drug-dealing bar in the capital. At about 11:30 p.m. he was inside his car parked at the door of the joint. Two gunmen approached the sides of the vehicle and fired twenty shots at it. He did not die on the spot. His corpulence allowed him to survive a few minutes. But with his death, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Government understood that the gang does not forgive or contemplate lasting truces. The Public Ministry thus lost, shot to death at the door of a bar, one of its main informers; the guy who could not only have informed them of the ins and outs of the mafia organization but also of his connections with politicians, corrupt policemen and businessmen.

Bukele has decided to cut to the chase. The state of exception allows the Police to prolong detentions beyond 72 hours, even placing them in a limbo with no expiration date, controlling private communications and suspending the right to legal assistance by the State. The president has also toughened the criminal code with the approval of Parliament. A gang member of legal age can face 45 years in prison. If the offender is twelve years old and is convicted, he typically spends a decade in a hell that not even all adults can bear. Until March, El Salvador was already experiencing a serious overcrowding problem with 36,000 inmates in its jails, and now their number has doubled. Overcrowding is suffocating. And the logistics begin to fall apart. The consequences are beginning to be so serious that the Executive has initiated a plan for sustainable gardens within the prisons to be able to feed the inmates.


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