Why ‘Plan Bukele’ Does (and Doesn’t) Work

Plan Bukele does not represent a coherent set of policies and tactics, but rather a unique fusion of coincidence, brutality, and hard-nosed calculation.


Image Source: World Politics Review.

“We are interested in adapting the Bukele model”. These words, spoken by Argentina’s Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich, seem to encapsulate evolving attitudes towards security policy in Latin America.

The region has long held the dubious honor of having the highest homicide rate in the world. Home to roughly 8 percent of the world’s inhabitants, Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for a third of all murders in 2021. The discourse on citizen security policy however has been shaped in recent years by two primary trends: the rising relative power of violent criminal groups, and the appearance of a prophet who claims to have found the solution.

The first trend is not a universal occurrence, but still captures a tangible feeling among millions across the region that organized crime is on the march. Indeed, places once thought to be islands of peace have found themselves rocked by brutal criminal violence. Ecuador, most notably, has seen its homicide rate skyrocket from little over five murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018 (better than the U.S. average for the past decade), to nearly 45 per 100,000 in 2023. Similar stories have played out, to varying degrees, in Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina, where transnational criminal groups have sought to violently contend with each other, and local governments, for access to revenues from extortion, narcotics, and other illicit trades. No matter where this battle plays out, civilians are caught in the crossfire.

Yet in the midst of a security context that seems to be only getting worse, one country has succeeded in executing a dramatic about-face. El Salvador, under the presidency of Nayib Bukele, has seen its homicide rate decline from 38 murders per 100,000 inhabitants when he assumed office in 2019, to just 2.4 per 100,000 in 2023. Only Canada boasts a lower murder rate in the Western Hemisphere today.

Bukele’s success in achieving a dramatic and (so far) sustainable reduction in violence has won him acolytes and admirers across the Americas. It has also provoked consternation and condemnation from both civil society and governments appalled by the brutality with which Bukele has enforced his security strategy. Calls around the hemisphere to put forward an alternative to Plan Bukele have grown louder and louder. But these cries suffer from an incomplete articulation of what precisely ‘Plan Bukele’ means. Existing explanations gesture towards mass incarceration and militarized security policy, crime control approaches which have been experimented with in the region for decades with mixed results.

In reality, the Bukele model’s astounding success at reducing homicide rates has depended on three factors: 1) Strategic surprise of the gangs; 2) centralized control over the political apparatus; and 3) maintenance of control over the prisons. These ingredients are not easily replicable, and Bukele’s execution, however impressive at face value, may have sown the seeds of its own downfall.

The first element of Plan Bukele, strategic surprise, may have been the decisive factor in its immediate success. Following a weekend of violence in March 2022 which at its peak saw 62 homicides in a single day, El Salvador authorized a state of exception, one which would later be extended month-after-month for more than two years straight. But as Salvadoran police and military forces began rounding up suspected gang members by the hundreds, these criminal groups appeared to lay low. Analysts have noted that this is because the gangs were “poor and predatory” actors unprepared for a sustained campaign of violence against the agents of the state. Contrast this with the state of affairs in Ecuador, where gangs were ready and willing to fight in the face of a government offensive, stymieing progress on security in many of the country’s most violent regions. It may also be due to the fact that for years Salvadoran criminal groups had engaged in secret negotiations for the government, enjoying impunity in exchange for helping keep homicide rates down. Bukele himself had pacted with the gangs, while reporting by El Faro has revealed his 2018 election campaign was even bankrolled in part by MS-13. When the secret agreement between Bukele’s government and the gangs broke down towards the end of 2021, the criminals appear to have resorted to a form of violent negotiation to restore the status quo. However, this strategy on the part of the gangs was eminently unprepared to confront the full force of the Salvadoran security apparatus Bukele deployed in response. The gangs were even less prepared for Bukele’s ability to marshal the political will to maintain this response for so long.

This feeds into the second ingredient in Plan Bukele’s success. The fact that Bukele’s party held a supermajority in the legislature, the supreme court had been packed with loyalists a year earlier, and Bukele himself was already a wildly popular executive granted the Salvadoran state a unity of purpose with respect to security policy few other countries in Latin America could hope to match. Bukele could also count on the loyalty of the security services, especially after he infamously employed the military to temporarily occupy the National Assembly in order to pass a significant budget expansion. While these measures were toxic to El Salvador’s democracy, they were indispensable to ensuring the armed forces would have the funds and authority to carry out a multi-year campaign of mass arrests and law enforcement. Contrast this with the case of Ecuador, where President Daniel Noboa must steer his security policy through a legislature controlled primarily by the opposition, whose consensus on crime-fighting strategies is already fraying.

Finally, despite incarcerating nearly 2 percent of El Salvador’s adult population, Bukele has retained control over the country’s filled-to-bursting jails. This is a marked departure from elsewhere in Latin America, where gangs like the First Capital Command in Brazil, or the Choneros in Ecuador use prisons as their bases of operations. El Salvador has achieved this at a steep cost, housing members of rival gangs in the same cell blocks, cutting off family visitations, and regularly brutalizing inmates to the extent that more than 240 have perished, their causes of death tellingly unreported and unknown. The inability of gangs to reconstitute their hierarchies and coordinate with the outside world from prison is an important feature of the durability of the state of exception and decrease in violence. It may also be the most fragile element, as over the medium-term El Salvador will have to choose between maintaining an ever-growing and restive incarcerated populace, or reintegrating thousands of ex-convicts to daily life.

Thus, Plan Bukele does not represent a coherent set of policies and tactics, but rather a unique fusion of coincidence, brutality, and hard-nosed calculation. When Argentina speaks of “adapting the Bukele model,” it is therefore not likely thinking about cutting secret deals with drug traffickers in a bid to achieve strategic surprise, nor packing the court with Milei sympathizers to ram through constitutional changes. Rather, policymakers have championed Bukele as a signifier for their cause, a means of attaching their own personal views on citizen security and policing to a popular figure.

But even staunch admirers of Bukele should pay close attention to how he contends with the next great challenge facing El Salvador, that of translating the gains in security to tangible economic growth. There are reasons to believe that the very factors which enabled El Salvador’s success in its war on gangs may undermine Bukele’s bid to become the “Singapore of Central America.”

To attract new investment, El Salvador will need to demonstrate fiscal and institutional stability. However, Bukele’s penchant for grandiose, economically questionable initiatives — such as his embrace of Bitcoin and efforts to develop geothermal-powered startup cities — have failed to woo investors. Nor have they been encouraging for the International Monetary Fund, with whom Bukele desperately needs to cut a deal for additional financing. Nevertheless, in an interview with one scholar, Bukele’s vice president Félix Ulloa confidently stated that El Salvador would continue to pursue its Bitcoin experiment over an IMF deal if it ever came to that.

Furthermore, businesses contemplating opening operations in El Salvador will want sound guarantees of regulatory stability and institutional health. Corruption continues to sour attitudes on doing business in El Salvador, and while Bukele has at times made shocking anti-corruption declarations, such as investigating his entire cabinet for corruption, in practice he has worked to dismantle many of El Salvador’s transparency safeguards. And even though some companies (including tech titan Google) are clearly investing in El Salvador, economic growth is further complicated by the state of exception itself. Mandatory curfews limit the hours in which business can be conducted, checkpoints along roads create unnecessary hassle for logistics, and El Salvador’s workforce is missing more than 70,000 overwhelmingly young people who are currently languishing behind bars.

Despite these very real challenges, Plan Bukele will appeal to policymakers and electorates elsewhere in the hemisphere so long as it continues to deliver on security. The beginnings of a counternarrative can be found in “adapting” — with a more discerning eye and long-term vision — the three ingredients of its success.

First, security forces throughout Latin America can achieve strategic surprise against the criminals they face by investing in new tactics, training, intelligence sharing, and by rooting out corruption. In particular, closer cooperation across the justice system will be invaluable to allow police, prosecutors, judges, and in some cases the military, to effectively map criminal operations and dismantle networks. Colombia’s success in devising exploitation plans, using intelligence acquired to target whole networks rather than individual kingpins, as well as Ecuador’s ongoing “Metastasis” anticorruption probe, are both valuable examples for countries seeking to shift their law enforcement tactics in a new direction.

Second, political will and unity of purpose remains foundational to any serious long-term security policy. This extends beyond rhetorical commitments to counter crime, and into the nuts-and-bolts of taxation, appropriations, and prioritization. In his recent book, Perry Center Director Paul Angelo demonstrated that the buy-in of Colombian political and economic elites was instrumental to the success of Plan Colombia, while distrust between these communities in Mexico undermined the efficacy of the Mérida Initiative.

Finally, carceral reform is long overdue across the Americas. This includes not only enhancing oversight and control within prisons to prevent them from becoming home bases for criminal operations, but also rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. It does not, however, necessitate the abuses sanctioned under El Salvador’s state of exception. Unfortunately, recent reporting from Ecuador appears to suggest the Ecuadoran military, now trusted with imposing order in prisons, has copied all the brutality of the Bukele model, without much of its success.

These are not the quick wins Plan Bukele appears to promise. Unlike the case of El Salvador however, they are replicable across different countries and contexts, and without sacrificing human rights and democracy upon the altar of security at any cost.

Henry Ziemer is a research associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he supports the program’s research agenda and coordinates event planning and outreach. His research interests include transnational organized crime and human rights and security in Central America.

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