Breaking the Democratic Fabric: Assessing the Impact of Gang Violence in El Salvador

– Executive Summary

Violence and corruption have permeated El Salvador’s democratic history, and the recent deviation in the country’s political landscape has drawn increased attention from the international community.[1] Although onlookers see the drastic decline in gang violence as a positive development, the country shows democratic backsliding, too.[2] At the helm of the deconsolidation is President Nayib Bukele. A polarizing figure who empathized with citizens’ grievances regarding increased government corruption and lack of security, he campaigned on promises to end corruption and gang violence. In the end, Bukele manipulated the gangs and their violent tactics to gain more political power and weaken the democratic traditions promised to the citizens of El Salvador.[3] This research examines the relationship between Bukele and the gangs, its contribution to his autocratic rise, and the fall of democracy.

To better understand the history of El Salvador and the declining trends in its democracy, this thesis relies on qualitative research methods to illustrate the beginnings of democratic backsliding based on the five arenas of democracy presented by Linz and Stepan. These arenas include “a free and lively civil society, a valued political system, rule of law, state bureaucracy, and institutionalized economic society.”[4] Scholars also argue that the same arenas contributing to the birth of democracy also play a role in democratic deconsolidation, typically at the hands of the citizenry.[5] Accordingly, this research applies such concepts to El Salvador’s past and present state.

As a newer democracy, El Salvador historically struggled to build and maintain a democracy because of intensified gang violence, an unstable and inequitable economic system, mistrust in the political system, and a lack of regard for the effective rule of law. Even so, several democratic traditions existed, such as the right to due process, checks and balances, and the freedom of the press. [6] Although transparency in governance was inconsistent, multiple arrests for corruption by political leaders and a ban on negotiations with gang members to preserve democratic norms produced some consequences.[7] Flawed as democracies are, El Salvador’s history showed that preserving democracy remained a priority.

Nonetheless, the ban did not stop Bukele from illegally negotiating with gangs and circumventing the rule of law to gain more political power, beginning democratic backsliding in El Salvador.[8] Negotiations resulted in a drastic drop in homicides, and thus, El Salvadorans felt safer in their communities. Their trust in the government grew as Bukele appeared to uphold his campaign promises. This immense civilian support allowed Bukele to control the legislative and judicial branches of government by establishing majority rule in the legislature with elected members from his self-made political party. The legislature authorized the removal of Supreme Court justices, prosecutors, judges, and the attorney general investigating Bukele for his illegal actions while subsequently voting to remove the previously unconstitutional ban on presidential reelection.[9] With control over all three levels of government and continued civilian support, Bukele seems destined for reelection in 2024, and fear over the stability of El Salvador’s democracy intensifies.

Because of his stronghold on the government, Bukele undermined democratic traditions and civil liberties in El Salvador. A state of exception enacted to stop a rise in gang violence derailed the right to due process. Arbitrary arrests, including thousands of children and innocent civilians, result in overcrowded prisons that limit the detainees’ availability for competent legal counsel. At the same time, restrictions on the freedom of the press disallowed any news outlet to investigate and report on his actions.[10] Bukele claims, and many of his supporters believe, that these actions are necessary to combat increased gang violence. Instead, gang violence has become the scapegoat for democratic backsliding.

Bukele’s actions are not only a cause for concern for democracy in El Salvador but also in Latin America. Other countries in the region also take note of Bukele’s tactics, praise his initiatives, and explore ways to implement his methods in their respective countries.[11] The continued constitutional and human rights violations against El Salvador’s citizens undermine democratic traditions and thus intensify the migration of Salvadorans to countries such as the United States.[12] Therefore, this thesis recommends that the international community focus on fighting corruption in El Salvador and encourage politicians and security forces to uphold the rule of law and constitutional decrees, emphasizing accountability. Reinstating the traditional democratic institutions disbanded in El Salvador would also encourage investment from more countries and private companies to ensure prosperity for those in the region.

[1] Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, “Latin America Erupts: Millennial Authoritarianism in El Salvador,” Journal of Democracy 32, no. 3 (2021): 19–20,

[2] Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, “Bukele Has Defeated El Salvador’s Gangs—for Now. How? And What Does It Mean for the Region?,” Lawfare (blog), March 28, 2023,

[3]  Meléndez-Sánchez.

[4] Juan J. Linz and Alfred C. Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 7.

[5] Milan W. Svolik, “Polarization versus Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 3 (2019): 23–24,

[6] José Miguel Cruz, “Fighting Gangs to Dismantle Democracy: How Anti-Crime Policies Have Contributed to the Authoritarian Drift in Central America,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 29, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2022): 45–50,

[7] Miguel Meléndez-Sánchez, “What’s Behind the Spike of Violence in El Salvador?,” Lawfare (blog), April 11, 2022,

[8] Cruz, “Fighting Gangs to Dismantle Democracy,” 53.

[9] “El Salvador: Legislature Deepens Democratic Backsliding,” Human Rights Watch, November 1, 2021,

[10] Human Rights Watch, “We Can Arrest Anyone We Want”: Widespread Human Rights Violations Under El Salvador’s “State of Emergency” (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2022).

[11] Meléndez-Sánchez, “Bukele Has Defeated El Salvador’s Gangs.”

[12] National Security Council, U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America (Washington, DC: White House, 2021), 5.

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