In El Salvador, a Chance at Life Over Certain Death (OPINION)

Feb 12, 2020
11:41 AM

Supporters of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele gather outside Congress, Sunday, February 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Salvador Meléndez)

On Sunday afternoon, thousands of people gathered outside of El Salvador’s legislative assembly after President Nayib Bukele summoned legislators to vote to approve a $109 million loan to finance his Territorial Control Plan. Not surprisingly, the Salvadoran diaspora took to social media to discuss Bukele’s display of power as he walked into the assembly escorted by gun-wielding military and police personnel. Even though Bukele said Tuesday that he would follow a court order to not pressure lawmakers, it was clear that Sunday’s actions have raised serious concerns.

The digital dialogues highlighted the need to reflect on our position as diasporic Salvadorans in the country’s politics. Do the majority of Salvadorans living in El Salvador actually want harsher penalties (more Mano Dura policies) or more funding for social programs to provide education and jobs in order to reduce homicides?

Using nationally representative survey data collected by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) in El Salvador for 2016, I found that the majority of people (65%) believed that the government should provide more funding for jobs and educational opportunities as homicide prevention ​over ​harsher penalties for people who commit homicides.

We can find examples of prevention programs throughout El Salvador, particularly in Chalatenango, but these are often underfunded and not replicated in other regions. There are several towns throughout El Salvador that have reached zero rates of homicides by implementing multi-generational social programs that foster learning, creativity, and community building.

In the United States, hyper-policing and high rates of incarceration plague our Black and Brown communities, resulting from embedded racism within all aspects of social, political, and economic life. Why should we think it is any different in El Salvador, a country known for its deep racism against Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and Asian communities?

Special Forces soldiers of the Salvadoran Army, following orders of President Nayib Bukele, enter at Congress to give security upon the arrival of the representative in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, February 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Salvador Meléndez)

My findings suggest that white Salvadorans, and lighter-skinned Salvadorans, are more likely to want harsher penalties as a way to prevent future homicides over prevention programs. This points us to a darker reality that we as diasporic Salvis do not always admit to: that structural racism exists in the Salvadoran context and is maintained through racism and colorism in everyday life. Zero tolerance policing policies in El Salvador are documented to have led to high rates of incarceration, but not prosecution because of the lack of evidence to prove any crime was committed by people profiled by police as criminals.

The people most impacted by zero tolerance policies are people living at or near poverty and extreme poverty, but scholars have found that there is a racial and color divide in economic inequality in El Salvador. Resistance to harsher penalties exists and does happen throughout El Salvador. Communities impacted by gang violence in the last 12 months from when the survey was conducted by LAPOP, were not more likely to want harsher penalties. This shows that people are interested in the opportunity to imagine an alternative way of addressing gang violence that does not include the already used zero tolerance policies that are only being copied through Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan.

As Salvadorans living in the diaspora, we can get easily consumed by Salvadoran media outlets that claim that people want harsher penalties and stricter policing to combat gang violence. We should be as critical of these outlets (if not more so) as we are of U.S. media outlets. These are biased sources of information that have been closely tied to promoting propaganda that benefit the elites in the country.

So this is a call for all diasporic Salvadorans to reflect critically on our roles and knowledge on politics in El Salvador. We should all ask ourselves:

  1. What is our responsibility to be informed?
  2. Who is most impacted by policies, and are they being integrated in the policy process?
  3. What alternatives have not been explored that are already effectively achieving results?

Think about your answers and discuss them with your fellow Salvadorans. It is critical.

With love and solidarity,


Nalya Rodríguez is a current PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research looks at the intersections of racism, colorism, and gang violence.