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El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly adopted the Special Law for the Aid and Integral Protection of Persons in a Condition of Internal Forced Displacement on January 9, 2020. The legislation mandates the creation of a registry of displaced persons and the establishment of a National System with the same name, SINAPI, headed by the Ministry of Justice. Resources permitting, the SINAPI is meant to coordinate humanitarian assistance, such as housing in temporary shelters, protection, and durable solutions, including the safe return or resettlement of victims of forced displacement.
The law is the result of years of civil society activism, and responds to a July 2018 ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice in an amparo proceeding (a remedy for the protection of constitutional rights). In July 2017, the human rights organization Cristosal presented the amparo on behalf of a 35-member family group that had been displaced twice in 2016: first, after enduring repeated gang violence because two of the relatives were members of the Armed Forces; and second, when police fatally wounded one mother in an anti-gang operation after they had relocated to another town.
The amparo alleged that the family’s rights to security, property, and freedom of movement had been violated. The Court agreed and ordered the Salvadoran state to create statutes and policies that ensure that displaced persons receive the humanitarian assistance and protection they require. Cristosal and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) applauded the recently passed law.
The decree is an important achievement and should help address the various impacts of forced migration, including emotional disorders, temporary or permanent family separation, loss of income, and interrupted educational processes. This is all the more important since, with the exception of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, the Salvadoran government had long refused to even acknowledge the reality of forced displacement. It was only with the publication of a Ministry of Justice report in 2018 that the government began to speak euphemistically of “violence-motivated internal mobility.” The law, however, may well have only a modest scope, because its implementation hinges on the state’s ability to ensure the confidentiality of victims’ data, to reduce the gangs’ territorial control, and to build public institutions’ technical and material capacity.
The Violences of Migration
Salvadorans have migrated northwards for decades, chiefly for economic reasons and family reunification. This external mobility has often been perceived as voluntary, even though migration decisions motivated by structural violence (threats to livelihood) are forced. But for the past decade or so, physical violence (threats to life) has increasingly driven both internal and external migration. It includes persons forcibly displaced within national borders—the subject of the new law—and those crossing international borders: refugees fleeing persecution under the narrow grounds recognized in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as individuals who may not qualify for refugee status but nonetheless have no choice but to abandon their country.
In the Forced Migration from Central America Project (FMCAP), my research team documents why and how people are fleeing from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—also known as the Northern Triangle. We see many cases tied to economic insecurity and/or aggressions—real or threatened—by gang members or state agents. The migrants we encounter in Mexico, while desperately poor and traumatized by uprooting, have managed to scrape together some money for their perilous and uncertain journey. But the internally displaced, who lack even the most minimal resources, are perhaps the most vulnerable among the forced migrants. They tend to be invisible, because fear of reprisals makes them want to hide, rather than report what has happened. Moreover, there are few systematic data for measuring, understanding, and responding to displacement.
El Salvador has been struggling for years to contain street gangs—mainly MS-13 and the Barrio 18—which split in two rival factions more than a decade ago. Both groups were originally formed in the United States by children of Mexican immigrant laborers and Central American war refugees. Under the illusion that expulsions could rid the country of its homegrown gang problem, successive U.S. administrations deported those who had broken the law.
Over the past three decades the gangs developed in the Northern Triangle thanks to a combination of initial inertia and mano dura (iron fist) policies. Pursued since the early 2000s by governments across the political spectrum, this repressive approach aimed to crack down on gangs. It has proved popular with voters, but can only be described as a politically rewarding policy failure. Focused on arrest and incarceration in segregated prisons, the strategy bolstered the gangs’ growth, cohesion, and criminal capacity.
According to United Nations estimates, El Salvador has the highest number of gang members of any nation in the region. The groups maintain a nationwide networked presence, especially in marginalized areas, and possess surveillance and communication capabilities that allow them to track people down virtually anywhere in the country. President Nayib Bukele admitted that the gangs had become de facto powers in many communities—places where the state has no presence nor holds the monopoly on the use of force.
El Salvador’s small size—comparable to the U.S. state of Massachusetts—together with the gangs’ embeddedness in communities, local governments, and the security forces, makes it practically impossible for displaced persons to relocate safely within the country. In the past, the Salvadoran government has placed victims in temporary shelters until it deemed the security situation had sufficiently improved. The challenge, now and in the years ahead, is not just to provide safe housing options. People need to be able to go to work and school or to visit family and friends—in short, to lead a normal life. So long as the gangs rule entire neighborhoods through fear, this will be difficult to do. Many of the threatened migrants we interviewed in Mexico felt that staying behind would have been a death sentence.
Governance in Local Territories
The Supreme Court ruling that spurred the new legislation stresses that the Salvadoran state must find a way to break the gangs’ stranglehold over marginalized neighborhoods. Not only has no government achieved this, but the gangs have become more combative and managed to outnumber the police and military combined. The security policy has generally given short shrift to social prevention and insertion. Instead, it has prioritized harsh law enforcement tactics and legislation criminalizing gang membership, eradicating acts of terrorism, sanctioning organized crime, and banning street gangs.
The high murder rate, combined with a debilitated security and justice apparatus, led the government of Mauricio Funes to broker a gang truce in 2012. The initiative fell apart after one year amid political recriminations and a lack of socioeconomic opportunities that were required to encourage youths to desist from gangs. The ceasefire was widely credited with achieving an impressive—albeit short-lived—reduction of homicides. But other forms of criminal violence, such as extortion, sexual abuse, and forced recruitment were not controlled and play a role in forced migration. Bukele, during his tenure of mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018), recognized that he had to buy the gangs’ goodwill to prevent them from obstructing the city’s projects. Under Funes’s successor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the government refused to negotiate with gangs and doubled down on iron first policies.
Bukele, like his predecessors, claims to break with this past. His Territorial Control Plan aims to recover gang-controlled territories in the country’s largest municipalities, attack the gangs’ finances, and cut off communication from the prisons. Since Bukele took office in June 2019, the murder rate has dropped significantly, down to an average of seven homicides per day compared to nine in 2018. But it is unclear whether the government’s strategy or potential renewed—and secret—negotiations with the gangs have prompted this decline.
Among Salvadorans, both at home and among the migrants we interviewed, there is a perception that Bukele is effectively eliminating the blight of gangs and restoring tranquility at least in parts of the country. That perception may be shored up largely by the social media savviness of a politician who capitalized on popular disenchantment with the traditional parties. There is a risk that, once again, social policy will become an afterthought and that Bukele’s security strategy will remain stuck in the repression-retaliation cycle that characterized previous administrations. Policy is one element in this puzzle, but police performance is another one.
Law Enforcement Outside the Law
El Salvador’s National Civilian Police (PNC) is the main institution tasked with providing public security. The Armed Forces have, despite their limited constitutional role, played a supportive function throughout the postwar period. The police has a dismal human rights record that is rooted in both the institution's origins and its weak accountability mechanisms. Officers are regularly accused of corruption, abuse during stop-and-frisk, arbitrary arrests, leaking of sensitive law enforcement information, and extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. The government of Bukele’s predecessor, Sánchez Cerén, even acknowledged that security agents sometimes cause forced displacement.
Police misconduct has shaped citizen perceptions of the agency. A 2016 survey by the local Central American University (UCA) showed that 70 percent of respondents had little or no trust in the police. At best, officers are seen as useless. At worst, they are feared. Journalists have witnessed, for example, how police have offered internally displaced persons prayers rather than protection. The migrants we spoke to thought officers were often bribed or coerced into colluding with gang members. Like many Salvadorans, they had decided not to report crimes, because they thought doing so would not change anything or might even get them killed. Our research participants told harrowing stories about officers ignoring their pleas for help, framing them for crimes they did not commit, or raping them at a police station and covering up the act.
These testimonies reflect the loss, the terror, and the feelings of injustice and impotence forced migrants have experienced. They also raise questions about the extent to which victims of displacement will make use of the SINAPI in a context where institutional trust and data confidentiality are sorely lacking.
The new law serves to raise the visibility of the displacement issue and the needs of forced migrants. But it remains to be seen how effectively the institutional system can be mobilized and inspire trust in its potential beneficiaries. Bukele, mirroring a trend elsewhere in Latin America, is helping the Armed Forces return to a position of power. The attendant investment in personnel and equipment may well drain already scarce resources from the SINAPI and make significant international donor support indispensable.
The legislation’s intended institutional response also risks being a palliative gesture unless structural measures are also included. The government must control the police’s use of force and strengthen the capacity of a justice system that relies on witnesses rather than investigations and achieves few convictions. If El Salvador took a more decisive stance against impunity, it might even restore hope for change in those who no longer feel the country has much to offer them.
The prevention of forced migration also requires a sustained effort to reduce the marginalization that drives young people into gangs. The state will never take back local territories by incarcerating or shooting gang members while ignoring their desire to “be someone.” In the face of the continuing exodus from Central America, policymakers need to stop treating migrants as a burden or a threat, and understand that they abandon their homes because of threats to their lives and livelihoods. Mexico and the United States must do more than deter irregular migration through publicity campaigns and border barricades. Leaving desperate people in limbo will only cost more human lives and make no one safer.
Sonja Wolf holds a Ph.D. in International Politics and is a Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) Research Fellow at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico. She conducts research on street gangs, migration as well as security and drug policies in Central America, and is the author of Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (University of Texas Press, 2017). Currently she is coordinator and principal investigator of the Open Society-funded Forced Migration from Central America Project (FMCAP) at the CIDE.