Bukele’s Security Policy: A Dangerous Return to Hardline Policing and U.S. Military Intervention

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In response to on-going crime and violence in El Salvador, new president Nayib Bukele launched a “Territory Control Plan” during his first 100 days in office. While Bukele introduced some social and recreational programs for youth as part of the plan, the most significant aspects include recruiting more police, further integrating the military into domestic security, and bringing in new “advanced” security technologies. This commitment to hard line policies, which have repeatedly failed to reduce violence, signals Bukele’s willingness to comply with U.S. efforts to militarize the region in order to contain migrants and refugees and, as popular movement leaders warn, repress dissent.

On June 16, Bukele announced to great fanfare on Twitter that 1,487 individuals had been arrested within his first 15 days in office. But journalists at El Faro reported that many of those arrested were not charged, calling the media campaign around the arrests a political show. Shortly after, Bukele announced, again via Twitter, the increased presence of the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) in several municipalities and the recruitment of 1,040 new military personnel, with more recruits expected.

On July 31, Bukele celebrated zero homicides being recorded, marking only the eighth murder-free day since 2000. However, the government also announced that it would no longer include deaths resulting from confrontations with security forces in official homicide data, raising red flags among journalists and human rights defenders.

Funding to the nation’s security forces was increased, both in terms of the number of police and military as well as for equipment like bulletproof vests, night vision cameras, and drones.

According to a study by the Center for Citizen Studies at the University of Francisco Gavidia, 66% of Salvadorans believe that this plan has given positive results. While the country approves of Bukele’s security plan, he has not fundamentally introduced anything new. In fact, he has worsened the criminalization of youth.

Bukele’s anti-gang policies are reminiscent of the hard line Mano Dura (Iron Fist) policies first implemented under the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Mano Dura was also popular, consisting of strict anti-gang measures, tougher prison sentences, and increased police presence. But with a homicide rate that hasn’t decreased below 2,100 deaths per year since 2003, it is evident that these policies are ineffective.

Human rights defenders, international advocacy groups, youth, and social movement activists are concerned that the recent effort to militarize the country is not only intended to combat crime. They are concerned for the safety or organizers and activists, especially given a regional trend of escalating militarization followed by increased repression of environmental and human rights defenders, youth, and journalists.

Feminist organizations have also criticized the initiative for its failure to offer solutions or protections for women who experience violence at the hands of men, including police officers. “It is important that in the security policies, machismo, misogyny and sexism be considered as dangerous factors as well,” says Ruth Orellana of the Salvadoran Women’s Movement.

While the progressive administrations under the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) from 2009-2019 did not successfully dismantle the repressive policing structures they inherited from previous administrations, they did invest heavily in comprehensive solutions to violence prevention and reintegration. The FMLN launched a variety of social inclusion programs with a major focus on expanding access to public education, including initiatives to address dropout rates, gender discrimination, and the need for basic nutrition, clothing, and school supplies. Combined with shifts in police intelligence, these and other initiatives contributed to a significant reduction in homicide rates between 2012 and 2018. Unfortunately, some of these highly popular and successful programs are now either under threat, or have already been terminated under Bukele.

Another of the changes Bukele has initiated in terms of security appears to come at the direct behest of the Trump Administration. On September 12, Bukele announced the creation of a new US-sponsored border patrol unit that would be deployed to El Salvador’s border crossings including 154 “blind spots.” The new Salvadoran border patrol unit is composed of 300 immigration agents and 100 police officers from the new Border Security Division within the police. One of the promises from the State Department is $150,000 to re-design new border patrol trucks.

On the heels of this announcement, the Salvadoran government reached an agreement with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that allows the U.S. to send asylum-seekers from nations other than El Salvador to El Salvador to seek asylum, rather than permit them to pursue their claim in the U.S. The deal is tantamount to yet another ‘safe third country’ agreement intended to bar asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere. Guatemala and Honduras signed similar agreements with DHS earlier this year.

Bukele’s recent actions echo the promises he made to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, where he spoke soon after winning the 2019 presidential election to express his plans to strengthen the relationship with the United States. Policies that seek to combat El Salvador’s security crisis through increased militarization, along with recent agreements with DHS that violate the human right to migrate, are part and parcel of the Bukele administration’s intention to push forward the United States’ dangerous agenda in Central America.

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