Argentine Security Minister Meets With Salvadoran Officials

Trent Barr
Trent Barr
Trent has years of experience and training in open source intelligence gathering and journalism. He specializes in Latin American, German, and Vatican affairs, with a broader interest in European politics. Trent serves as the Latin America Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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Argentine President Javier Milei’s government announced on Tuesday that they would begin to undertake similar policies employed by El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in regards to targeting criminal structures within Argentina. This announcement has been met with mixed reactions, as many have expressed concern regarding the nature of the Salvadoran president’s crackdown. Others have praised the move, noting that through President Bukele’s crackdown, El Salvador saw a massive decrease in violent crime, quickly becoming one of the safest countries in Latin America with a murder rate lower than the United States.

Bukele’s Measures

President Bukele’s controversial measures include the mass detention of those suspected of being members of violent criminal gangs, such as the American-born MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, which have a significant presence within El Salvador. Both gangs were formed in Los Angeles by Salvadoran refugees fleeing their home country’s civil war, with the criminal organizations establishing themselves in El Salvador following their deportations from the US under the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Bukele began his crusade against crime within El Salvador in 2022 after the murder of 87 Salvadorans within 72 hours. These killings were in retaliation for the alleged breaking of a deal between Salvadoran authorities and a prominent MS-13 leader who remains unnamed. Authorities allegedly agreed to not prosecute key members of the gang as well as provide preferential treatment to those incarcerated in exchange for the organization to lower the rate of violent crime within El Salvador.

Police arrive in Soyapango, El Salvador, Dec. 3, 2022. The government of El Salvador sent 10,000 soldiers and police to seal off the community on the outskirts of the nation’s capital to search for gang members. (Photo – VOANews)

The declaration authorized mass detentions of individuals suspected of gang affiliations and came with a suspension of certain rights, empowering law enforcement to detain suspects without legal representation and curtailing the right to assembly. Following the declaration, authorities arrested nearly 75,000 Salvadorans, 7,000 of whom were later released.

Accusations of abuse by authorities, some resulting in deaths, arose following the initial wave of arrests, leading to condemnation from human rights groups as well as the United States government.

Despite backlash by various organizations, Bukele bragged about the nearly 70% decrease in murder rates within the country, an increase to an already downward trend in the rate.

This decrease in crime can be attributed to Bukele’s original reforms targeting police in 2019, when the newly elected President armed police with better firearms and protective equipment, as well as the increase in police presence in areas rife with crime. Bukele dubbed these reforms the “Territorial Control Plan,” a plan that successfully saw a decrease in homicides from 52 killings per 100,000 people in 2018 to 36 per 100,000 just the year after, with the trend continuing into 2020 and 2021 with 19.7 and 17.6, respectively.

By 2023, El Salvador would become the country with the lowest rate of homicides in Latin America, with a mere 2.6 homicides per 100,000 people, a rate lower than that of the United States, standing at 5.5 in 2023, and quickly approaching Canada’s, which stands at 2.25 as of 2022.

El Salvador’s murder rate is now the lowest among Latin American countries (Photo – Latinometrics)
El Salvador’s murder rate is now the lowest among Latin American countries (Photo – Latinometrics)

Previous decreases in crime have been attributed to deals brokered between gangs present in El Salvador and authorities who allegedly grant imprisoned gang members special treatment in prison as well as look past some crimes.

Bukele also built what has been dubbed a “super prison,” known as the Terrorism Confinement Centre (CECOT), in February 2023. This prison provided essential space for newly arrested gang members, able to fit 40,000 convicted criminals. This prison was constructed to address the rampant overcrowding issue within El Salvador’s prisons and to establish a secure location for the leaders of various criminal organizations within El Salvador.

El Salvador’s model for addressinFbg crime has drawn severe criticism from human rights organizations. However, a number of Latin American countries have unveiled their own plans to implement similar strategies in their own war against criminal elements, notably with the construction of their own high-security prisons. Both Ecuador and Honduras have announced plans to build similar massive detention centers, with Ecuador’s having begun construction of two such prisons in January. On June 15, Honduras announced their own plans to build a similar prison amid increasing arrests of those connected to violent crimes and narcotrafficking. These arrests have swelled Honduras’ prison population to 19,500 within a system that is only designed to hold approximately 13,000.

Imprisoned convicts in El Salvador’s Terrorism Confinement Center. (Photo – Gladys Serrano/El Pais)

Argentina faces a similar issue, with their own prison system only able to handle approximately 88,600 people, while the current number of those in prison stands at just under 118,000 as of 2022, according to the World Prison Brief. The construction of a similar prison would significantly aid the Argentine government in its efforts to address issues within the nation’s prison system.

Argentina has already adopted similar policies to Bukele’s, with the government announcing new protocols for dangerous criminals in federal prisons. These protocols focus on prisoners who are believed to have the ability to escape prison, intimidate or corrupt prison officials, hinder judicial investigations, coerce other inmates to achieve criminal objectives, or organize criminal action from within the nation’s prisons, a common way for gang leadership to enjoy security while still leading criminal structures.

Among this new protocol are several revisions to the everyday life of high-risk prisoners, including only allowing visitation through one-way telephone booths, more strict vetting regarding the allowance of the temporary release of prisoners, and a constant rotation of prison staff to make coercing or bribing officials more difficult, among several other reforms.

The Lead-Up

This announcement to pursue similar policies enacted by President Bukele comes after Argentine Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich visited El Salvador on Sunday, touring the nation’s “super prison” and meeting El Salvador’s ministers of National Defense and Justice and Security, Francis Merino Monroy and Gustavo Villatoro, respectively.

The main focus of Bullrich’s visit was Bukele’s “structure that allowed crime to be drastically reduced in El Salvador, which until not long ago was a country dominated by gang violence,” a spokesperson for the Minister told Clarin, an Argentine news outlet. The visit focuses specifically on El Salvador’s approach to prison management, further hinting at Argentina’s interest in constructing their own “super prison” utilizing key policies and guidelines that are used for El Salvador’s CECOT.

Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. (Photo – Maria Amasanti/Bloomberg)

“The CECOT is a key piece in the Salvadoran government’s strategy to dismantle criminal structures and reduce rates of violence in the country. Bullrich toured the facilities and learned about the security measures implemented, highlighting the importance of having prison centers specialized in the fight against organized crime.” The Argentine Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

In addition to her visit to CECOT, Bullrich also visited the National Academy of Public Security in Comalapa, the Ministry of National Defense, and the International Law Enforcement Academy, speaking to a number of officials and authorities regarding El Salvador’s largely successful policies, which saw a massive decrease in violent crime.

Among those Bullrich met was the Salvadoran Minister of Defense, Francis Merino Monroy, who provided his Argentine counterpart with El Salvador’s action plan, which included the “participation of the Armed Forces in internal security, a greater budget executed in the fight against gangs, modifications to legislative measures against the possession of weapons, and federal crimes and protocols according to their functions.”

Salvadoran Minister of Defense, Francis Merino Monroy. (Photo – Government of El Salvador)

Bullrich further signed an agreement between Argentina and El Salvador, promising collaboration, an exchange of information, joint training for security forces between the two nations, and the exchange of legal instruments. The agreement further established a new security policy laboratory that will maintain statistics regarding security-related matters, create and refine security policies, allow for the free exchange of information, and help organize joint training exercises.

Bullrich’s latest meeting was with President Bukele himself, with the two discussing the intricacies of El Salvador’s policies regarding addressing security issues within the country, notably against organized crime and drug trafficking.

Bullrich’s meetings alongside the Argentine government’s stated desire to align their own security policies with those of El Salvador showcase Bukele’s government’s continued influence across Latin America in regards to addressing criminal issues. However, despite El Salvador’s success in addressing violent crime, some worry that similar policies may have a negative effect on other nations.

Some have raised concerns regarding the possible abuse of some of Bukele’s policies, both within El Salvador and among nations that seek to implement his strategy to tackle violent crime. This has drawn concern regarding Argentina, especially as some worry the implementation of policies could lead to harsh sentences and treatment of those protesting against Milei’s government, such as those who gathered to protest the president’s “Bases Law” bill while it was debated in the Senate.

Others claim that such concerns are ill-founded, as a large portion of what Bullrich discussed with her Salvadoran counterparts is in regards to the construction and administration of prisons rather than policies relating to administering arrests.