El Salvador’s ongoing crackdown on violent criminals, which has seen thousands of suspected gang members locked up in a new mega-prison, could prompt those still free to flee the embattled nation, experts warned.
Late last month, officials transferred thousands of prisoners to the country’s new maximum security prison in central El Salvador, the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca. On Wednesday, another 2,000 prisoners were locked in the new prison, which can hold up to 40,000 inmates.
Striking video footage showed lines of shirtless, heavily-tattooed prisoners with shaved heads running bent over and handcuffed as they were moved to the new prison facility.
🇸🇻 | Nayib Bukele, con mano dura somete a miles de pandilleros y criminales que antes aterrorizaban a la población de El Salvador. ¿Estás de acuerdo con el trato que les da el Presidente Bukele a los delincuentes? pic.twitter.com/iJQWWr5akt
— Eduardo Menoni (@eduardomenoni) February 26, 2023
“They are never going to return to the communities, the neighborhoods, the barrios, the cities of our beloved El Salvador,” declared El Salvador’s justice minister Gustavo Villatoro.
While more gang members behind bars is presumably a good thing for El Salvador, the crackdown has pushed the gangs north.
Some leaders of the infamously violent MS-13 gang have already fled to Mexico.
“We know that they are in Mexico, and that from there they are giving instructions in a cowardly manner,” the El Salvador justice minister said.
Mexican authorities have also reported a larger presence of gang members associated with El Salvador like MS-13 and their rival, the 18th Street gang over the past year. At least three public transportation drivers in Mexico were recently shot to death by Salvadoran gangs, who have begun terrorizing and extorting the drivers.
“If we don’t do anything we’re going to be a little (El) Salvador,” one of the Mexican drivers said.
El Salvador’s gang members and leaders are always trying to get into the U.S., warns Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.
“They can make more money here and enjoy themselves more here, and there are many new places for them to set up shop for the gang, and many vulnerable youth to recruit,” Vaughan told The Daily Wire.
MS-13 had more than 10,000 members in the U.S in 2017.
If El Salvador’s war on gangs does drive gangs up to the southern U.S. border, they will be met by the Biden administration’s overwhelmed border forces and likely have little trouble sneaking into the country.
“Right now it’s not difficult for them to get in,” Vaughan said. “There is much less threat of border and interior enforcement than in prior years, especially if they have not been in the United States before.”
If gang members have previously been deported from the U.S., they have to keep a lower profile to avoid the risk of being criminally charged and removed again.
“It would be smarter for them to go to another country, but MS-13 members are not known for being smart,” Vaughan said.
In recent years, MS-13 operatives have engaged in human smuggling and served as protection for the drug cartels. Their new presence in Mexico could exacerbate an already dangerous environment.
“That is a tricky business, because they would have to have a relationship with a cartel, with all the risk and volatility that would bring, not to mention even more involvement in violence,” Vaughan said. “Adding MS-13 to the organized crime mix in Mexico is likely to make the situation even more volatile, because they are usually aggressive and brazen in trying to carve out a niche to operate and audacious in competing with other crime organizations.”
With nearly 2% of the adult population incarcerated, El Salvador is one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world. The government crackdown on gangs — which Vaughan notes is a “regular cycle” in El Salvador — began a year ago when the government declared a state of emergency as the country battled a spike in murders.
Since then, about 65,000 people have been arrested as part of the operation as the state of emergency was repeatedly extended. Human rights advocates have expressed concerns that the government’s approach veers authoritarian — about 57,000 of those arrested are still waiting to be formally charged and face a trial.
Meanwhile, though, citizens have celebrated El Salvador’s streets becoming safer, and murders have plummeted by about half.