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El Salvador’s Anti-Gang Crusade

A growing number of countries are sacrificing civil liberties for increased public security.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
Soldiers listen to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.
Soldiers listen to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.
Some 14,000 soldiers listen as Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele addresses them in a field near a military barrack on the outskirts of the town of San Juan Opico, El Salvador, on Nov. 23. MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at El Salvador’s controversial crackdown on gang violence, Peru’s new president, and China’s move away from zero-COVID

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Will Neighbors Follow El Salvador’s Anti-Gang Strategy?

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at El Salvador’s controversial crackdown on gang violence, Peru’s new president, and China’s move away from zero-COVID. 

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Will Neighbors Follow El Salvador’s Anti-Gang Strategy?

For more than eight months, El Salvador has been waging a war against its powerful gangs, jailing more than 58,000 suspects and deploying thousands of soldiers to gang strongholds to weed out members. 

The government’s latest crackdown was catalyzed by a deadly outbreak of violence in March that killed at least 62 people, following the apparent breakdown of a secretive government-gang truce. Authorities responded by declaring a 30-day state of emergency, under which certain constitutional rights were suspended and police could freely carry out arbitrary arrests

Those emergency measures are still in effect now, allowing the government to expand its powers and get tough on crime at the worrying price of crumbling civil liberties—and other nations are paying close attention.

“It’s really a short fix. It’s a Band-Aid,” said María Fernanda Bozmoski, an expert at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, who noted that the government’s measures fail to address the causes of gang violence. “The wound is just getting bigger and bigger, and it’s going to be harder to cure in the long term.”

In the short run, the government’s harsh measures appear to have improved public safety and reduced homicide rates, making them widely popular. It has also been a boon to President Nayib Bukele’s approval score, with ratings hovering above 80 percent, the New York Times reported. 

This has proven to be attractive to other leaders. This week, neighboring Honduras began a partial state of emergency in a bid to stamp out the gangs. So did Jamaica, with Prime Minister Andrew Holness insisting that the country has “to use all the powers at our disposal.” 

“In the case of Honduras, I think that [Honduran President Xiomara Castro] is taking a page out of Bukele’s book,” Bozmoski said. “It’s not crazy to think that part of the surge in violence in Honduras has been due to the repressive measures from El Salvador.”

In El Salvador, months under the government’s state of emergency have resulted in extensive human rights abuses, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch and the Central American rights group Cristosal. In the 94-page report, they drew on interviews with more than 1,100 people to detail cases of torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and other violations. 

“There are serious reasons to question the long-term effectiveness of President Bukele security measures,” the report said. “Iron-fist strategies attempted by prior governments have proven to be ineffective and have at times led to more violence.” 


What We’re Following Today

Peru’s new president. Dina Boluarte, Peru’s former vice president, was sworn in as president on Wednesday, becoming the country’s first female leader. “What I ask for is a space, a time to rescue the country,” she said.

She succeeded Pedro Castillo, who had been facing an impeachment vote scheduled for Wednesday. In a bid to cling to power, he instead attempted to dissolve Congress and establish an emergency government, sparking a political crisis and fueling fears of a coup. Lawmakers then ousted him from power, and he was arrested. 

China’s shift away from zero-COVID. Beijing has shifted away from many of the rigid testing, lockdown, and quarantine measures that defined its harsh zero-COVID policy, more than a week after defiant protests roiled the country.

In this week’s China’s Brief newsletter, FP’s James Palmer explains what to expect next, especially since vaccination levels are still low among older adults and Chinese-made vaccines don’t work as well as Western ones. “Although the current approach may provide mild mitigation, the super infectious omicron variant will spread fast,” he writes. “And with local governments adjusting their measures, the situation may be messy for a while.”


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Keep an Eye On

The Taliban’s public execution. The Taliban have publicly executed someone for the first time since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021. The executed man had been convicted of murder, and hundreds of people and high-level Taliban officials viewed the execution.

Ethiopia’s Tigray region. More than a month after Ethiopia’s warring parties agreed to a truce, electricity and communications services have been reinstated in some areas in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Tigray had previously been under a lengthy blockade that left millions of people on the brink of famine.


Wednesday’s Most Read

The Perpetually Irrational Ukraine Debate by Stephen M. Walt

Biden’s ‘America First’ Economic Policy Threatens Rift With Europe by Edward Alden

Europeans Have Weapons but Aren’t Warriors by Alexis Carré


Odds and Ends 

German police have asked the public for information on around 60 stolen containers of bull sperm that were meant to be used for artificial insemination—a common practice in the breeding of dairy cows. The containers, which were taken this week, must be supercooled to stay at a temperature of -320 degrees Fahrenheit, The Associated Press reported.

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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