Under persident Nayib Bukele, El Salvador has taken a hard line against gangs and drugs resulting in the world's highest incarceration rate. Since March 2022, the country has been in a state of emergency in order to deal with gang violence.

World incarceration rates

For the time being the policy seems to be working, with crime and murder rates in El Salvador drastically reducing.

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This has in turn lead to a cementing of Mr Bukele's popularity and it seems likely that he will win another term in the upcoming elections. However, there are concerns being voiced about the drastic nature of the arrests and imprisonments.

Long term, what is El Salvador's plan for dealing with the high incarceration rate? Do they plan to imprison gang members indefinitely? If yes, how do they intend to fund the costs of an ever increasing prison population? If not, how do they plan to safely release gang members without a return to violence?

  • 2
    "If yes, how do they intend to fund the costs of an ever increasing prison population?" By taxes as everywhere else? How much of the governments budget is going towards this? Maybe also forced labor of the imprisoned population? For the first graph, would it be possible to add an explanation of the meaning of the numbers? What does 1086 mean? Feb 4 at 22:11
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution 1086 is the "number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population". Feb 4 at 22:26
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    As Mr. Bukele only assumed office in June 2019 I find it very strange to attribute the fall in homicides to his policies. Homicide rates were already falling quickly when he assumed office, they merely didn't stop falling during his policies.
    – quarague
    Feb 5 at 7:45
  • 1
    Well... 2023 homicide rate is supposedly 2.4/100k so this claim that he didn't have much to do with it seems rather specious. Going from 100+ to 36 is great, but 36 is still exceptionally high. Dropping to <5 is a massive change and hard to argue against. Whatever "shortcuts" got them there. Feb 5 at 21:31
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica If we go by ratio, we have from 2015 to 2019 a factor of 2.8, a 23% decrease per year. From 2019 to 2022, we have a factor of 4.6, a 40% decrease per year. But if we look at it by absolute numbers, it went from a 16 percentage point drop per year, to 9.4. Feb 6 at 5:22

2 Answers 2


Part of the solution seems to be cutting down on the living conditions:

Each cell is to hold 100 prisoners, with only two sinks and two toilets for the group

This is less than the ICRC (international committee of the Red Cross) suggested minimum of one per 25 inmates, and far below the one to 4 inmates suggested by COE (council of Europe).


Frame challenge: What Fizz said, but also, why should he care?

(btw, as mentioned in comments, 2023 homicide is reportedly 2.4/100k)

He's just gotten reelected and apparently cleanly so *, so he's not facing public pressure to reverse that, quite the reverse.

And he has no real economic incentive to reverse that policy either.

The murder rate has fallen from 51 per 100,000 people to three, a huge improvement. Ordinary folk were previously too scared to testify against gangs. Now, their testimony is not needed: any gangster who walks down a street demanding protection money can be arrested on the basis of an anonymous phone call. Normal life has returned to bullet-pocked neighbourhoods.

This has had economic consequences. Gang crime used to cost a staggering 16% of gdp, by one estimate. As safety has improved, small businesses have re-opened or expanded. Investment by multinational firms has picked up, too, and the price of the country’s government debt, which had collapsed to distressed levels in 2022, has bounced. JP Morgan Chase, a bank, reckons El Salvador’s potential annual growth rate has risen from 2% to about 3%. The number of Salvadoreans trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States fell by a third in the last fiscal year.

Now, the question may have been asked during electoral campaigning and maybe he's on the record explaining his future policies (a quick Google of "Bukule prisión pregunta elección" only showed me how bad my Spanish is). But he doesn't seem to be facing all that much pressure.

Mr Bukele plans eventually to hold “collective trials”, with hundreds of suspects in a single hearing and little chance for any of them to mount a coherent defence.

That doesn't sound like a plan to empty those jails either.

Now, I am normally against high incarceration rates myself. But I don't live in El Salvador (and I don't live in Ecuador either). What would constitute a massive policy failure in a rich Western democracy may not look that way to the locals.

And, no, don't count that as a endorsement of Bukule. Just a reminder to consider the context of questions.

* if one overlooks term limits.

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    +1, its perfectly plausible for the policy to continue as-is, with tons of suffering, horrendous conditions, a huge false-positive rate of arrests, etc. Feb 5 at 21:33
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    Yes, it seems the population as a whole is throwing most "humane and fair justice" considerations out the window, let's not lose track of that fact. Feb 5 at 21:36
  • I wouldn't call this a frame challenge, OP's question is 'how do they deal with the huge prison population?' and the answer is: 'the results are popular, so they will continue doing it and consider the price of the prisons worthwhile'.
    – quarague
    Feb 6 at 8:02

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