Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador

Publication Year
International Crisis Group

Economics of Conflict Fellow Jane Esberg contributed to the empirical analysis of this report. 

After decades of harrowing gang crime, homicides have plunged in El Salvador on the watch of the new president, Nayib Bukele. Faced with the growth of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, previous governments resorted to “iron fist” policies to crush them, only to find these fueled a backlash. Since his 2019 election, President Bukele, a self-styled outsider, has won huge public support by presiding over a 60 per cent fall in murders. Yet prospects that this achievement will endure are in doubt. The collapsing homicide rate may stem not only from the government’s public security policies, but also from the gangs’ own decision to curb bloodshed, possibly due to a fragile non-aggression deal with authorities. In addition, Bukele’s confrontational style, which has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, risks entangling his security reforms in political battles. Broadly backed efforts to support affected communities, assist members wishing to leave gangs and encourage local peacebuilding are more likely to end definitively El Salvador’s cycle of violence.


International Crisis Group, 2020

Publication Topic
Crime and Policing
Publication Type
Policy Report