El Salvador's murder rate has fallen dramatically - but at what cost?

US Correspondent Dan Rivers reports from El Salvador - a country whose problems with gangs can be traced back to Los Angeles in the United States

The images from inside El Salvador's new mega prison - the Centre for Terrorist Confinement (CECOT) - are stark and shocking.

Hundreds of inmates, all with shaved heads and covered in tattoos cower in front of heavily armed guards. The government’s war on gangs has resulted in more than 1% of the population being incarcerated.

The state admits it’s locked up 75,000 people for gang-related offences in the past year. Human rights groups estimate more than 1,000 children have been locked up and have documented 153 deaths in custody.

The zero-tolerance approach has been successful in dramatically cutting the country’s previously chronic murder rate since a State of Emergency was introduced in March 2022.

El Salvador used to have the world’s highest murder rate; 106 homicides per 100,000 people in 2015. But now it’s fallen to 7.6 per 100,000 and may drop even lower this year. The government says there have been 69 murders this year. In the worst days of the gang violence, they were getting that many killings every other day.

But it has come at a high price in terms of human rights. 

To understand why President Nayib Bukele, the self-styled "coolest dictator in the world", embarked on such a drastic crackdown, you have to appreciate just how bleak life was during the worst years of gang violence.

The MS-13 and Barrio 18 crime networks had a stranglehold on the country, ruling the streets with fear and violence. In some neighbourhoods, the gangs were the law. They raped with impunity, and killed with indifference. They were often better armed than the police, who seldom dared to enter their territory.

El Salvador's new mega prison - as seen below in footage from the country's government - is the largest in Latin America, with capacity for 40,000 inmates

The country’s security minister, Gustavo Villatoro, says the gangs tried to form a parallel state, establishing a stranglehold on justice, policing and business. He likens them to a terrorist organisation with whom only the most hardline policies would succeed.

I challenge him about the eroding of human rights and liberties under the state of emergency and he is dismissive, arguing the human rights of wider society were being infringed by the gang violence.

The “centre of gravity” has shifted, he argues, insisting the Salvadoran people deserved security, liberty and hope, even if that means a curtailing of civil liberties.

The story of how these gangs formed traces a twisting and complex journey from Central America to the west coast of the United States and back again.

Many families of gang members had fled El Salvador during the civil war of the 1980s. The conflict saw US-trained death squads terrorising the civilian population forcing many to flee.

Large numbers ended up in Los Angeles, where their uprooted children formed gangs to protect themselves on tough streets in unforgiving inner city suburbs. Here they mimicked the dress style and violence of more established gangs.

At the end of the civil war in 1992, many were deported back to El Salvador where they consolidated their power, forming alliances with the Mexican mafia.

'We've moved our centre of gravity of human rights': El Salvador's security minister Gustavo Villatoro told ITV News from the country's Police Investigations headquarters

In 2019, Nayib Bukele became President and sought to tackle the gangs with a “Territorial Control Plan”, which introduced sweeping new powers for the police and army.

El Salvador’s murder rate was the highest in the world in 2015, but dramatically tumbled as tens of thousands of suspected gang members were locked up.

But plenty of innocent people were also imprisoned. 

We went to meet Karla, whose husband Milton was arrested last year. She claims the police summarily executed her cousin and two other men during the raid, and then savagely beat her with a stick.

She shows me photos of the welts across her back and buttocks, and the gruesome image of the three bodies of the executed men.

She is in hiding in her humble home with a dirt floor, working three jobs to make ends meet. Karla prays she will see Milton again. But her hope is being tested.

She weeps as she recalls the life she used to have with her partner and how it was abruptly ripped away. She is adamant neither he nor her cousin had any connections to the gangs whatsoever.

The human rights organisation Cristosal, based in El Salvador, is forthright in its criticism of the government’s approach.

Rina Montti tells me only about a third of the people arrested under the emergency powers have links to gangs and many are detained for months without any trial or access to independent legal advice.

We were invited on two patrols with the police and army to see how the crackdown is continuing. During one, a teenager was searched for incriminating tattoos, merely for playing loud music from his bedroom.

During another, a middle-aged shopkeeper was taken away for allegedly being a gang collaborator, with the officer in charge admitting it may be months before his case is heard.

El Salvador’s housing minister, Michelle Sol, met us in one newly "liberated" neighbourhood to justify the hardline approach.

She argues the human rights of the gangs can’t outweigh the human rights of the general population, and when I challenged her about innocent people being rounded up she insisted they would be freed if no evidence was found incriminating them.

'I don't care about the human rights of the gangs': El Salvador's housing minister Michelle Sol took ITV News to a neighbourhood that was previously under gang control

Perhaps one of the starkest illustrations of the lengths to which the government has gone to expunge all traces of the gangs can be found in the country's cemeteries.

The ornate mausoleums erected for gang leaders have been demolished by chain gangs of prisoners.

The authorities are determined that not only will they pursue the criminals in this life, but want to ensure that they won’t rest in the next.

Walking around the centre of San Salvador, the country's capital, there is no doubt normal life has returned and the streets feel safe.

But peace has come at a price.

For the innocent ones, unlucky enough to be swept up in this widespread crackdown, the cost is measured in years of detention with little prospect of justice.

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