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South Africans are gunning each other down in numbers. The murder rate in the last quarter of 2022 was 46 people per 100,000. On average, 82 people are killed every day.

Many of us are scared to sleep in our own homes, frightened to walk down load-shed streets and petrified that a gang member will look our way. Murder, rape and robbery most foul. And no-one thinks the situation will get any better anytime soon. There’s no solution in sight.

From 1979 to 1992 a brutal civil war wrecked the small Central American country of El Salvador: massacres, scorched earth policies, kidnappings, assassinations and more human rights abuses than you can shake an M16 assault rifle at. Government forces were responsible for 85% of the atrocities.

The Americans provided equipment, money and armed advisers to the military junta and its successors. The Soviets and Cubans supported the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Out of a population of 5.4-million, about 550,000 people fled the country and 500,000 were internally displaced. The UN estimates the death toll at 75,000.

Like many internal conflicts, long-standing social grievances played a part, such as high levels of inequality, widespread poverty and skewed land distribution. After a negotiated peace deal multiparty elections took over. So there are some similarities between SA and El Salvador: a repressive past, a gulf between rich and poor, lots of guns, corruption and a culture of violence.

Many of the civil war refugees went to the US, including a significant number of unaccompanied minors. Some young El Salvadorans got wrapped up in gang culture. Starting in the 1980s, the US government adopted a policy of deporting Central American gangsters to their home countries.

They arrived back in El Salvador, an almost foreign country, with no economic prospects. So they carried on with gangsterism, and extortion quickly became a main source of income. Soon enough, rival gangs ran their operations with considerable impunity. Successive governments negotiated truces with the gangs in return for electoral support. By 2015, the murder rate in El Salvador had climbed to 103 per 100,000. Active gang membership peaked at 70,000. 

Then, in 2019, the country elected a 37-year-old as president. Nayib Bukele founded his party, Nuevas (New) Ideas in 2018, and is famous for making bitcoin legal tender. He was the mayor of San Salvador, the capital city, from 2015 to 2018 and negotiated with the gangs.

In late March 2022 the Mara Salvatrucha gang massacred 87 people. At 2am on Sunday, March 27, Bukele’s government declared a state of exception, what we would call a state of emergency. Basic human rights were suspended, including protection against arbitrary arrest and the right to a lawyer. Suspects can be held up to 15 days without seeing a judge.

The army and police went into neighbourhoods and swept up every gangster they could find. Innocents were also caught up in the dragnet. More than 63,000 people were arrested, mass trials were held and the Bukele administration built the world’s largest prison, big enough to hold 40,000 inmates. In its November 2022 reportWe can arrest anyone we want”, Human Rights Watch stated that less than 4% of those detained had been released, and then often only on bail.

El Faro is an independent El Salvadoran investigative journalist outfit and staunch critic of Bukele. In January 2023 El Faro investigated the impact of the state of exception. The gangs are gone. Members are either in jail or have fled the country. The worst crime-ridden neighbours are at peace, children now play in former no man’s lands, and the extortion rackets are a thing of the past. About 80% of the country favours the continuation of the state of exception and neighbouring Honduras has just declared one. According to El Salvador’s national police, there is now less than one murder a day.

Our commitment to democracy, thankfully, remains too strong. Yet there are worrying signs. If there were a referendum, we’d abandon the right to life and bring back the death penalty.

But the peace has a price. In a recent oped El Faro wrote: “We Salvadoreans gave up the rights of presumed innocence, legal counsel, fair trial and institutions that punish government abuses. We gave up the rule of law that comes with abiding by laws and the constitution. We gave up freedom of expression, freedom to dissent, separation of powers, transparency in public finances, and mechanisms to fight corruption. We gave up alternation of power. We’re back to corrupt chieftainship.”

Would we trade in our freedoms for safety and security? For not having to cry over slain children, mothers and fathers? For living without fear? Not now. Our commitment to democracy, thankfully, remains too strong. Yet there are worrying signs. If there were a referendum, we’d abandon the right to life and bring back the death penalty. The common view of the guilty is to throw them vengefully into a putrid cell and throw away the key.

Lockdown strictly restricted our liberties in the name of a disaster. The army and police were unleashed. Collins Khosa was killed for drinking a beer and 400,000 were arrested. A toddler walking on a beach was considered a criminal offence. Complaints at the Independent Police Investigative Directorate languish. Dockets turn to dust. And still we are desperate for someone, anyone, to stop the assaults, rapes, thefts, murders and extortions.

One of our possible futures is that some politician like Bukele will arise, declare a state of emergency and go all out. One suspects that many would cheer the end of democracy, for our current levels of crime are unsustainable. Societies cannot endure such a situation forever; something must and will break.

But El Salvador’s present doesn’t have to be our future. We can reduce crime without giving up on democracy, though it will be hard. Trying to explain to a foreigner why SA is so violent involves a long conversation with no clear answer. Even so, it is possible to turn things around.

Eastern Europe was wild in the 1990s. Today, young girls walk down democratic streets alone at night. In 2003, Transparency International’s corruption perception index placed Georgia 124th out of 133 countries. After the nonviolent Rose Revolution in late 2003 the new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, fired 85% of the police force and Georgia now ranks 41 out of 180.

SA’s next election should be about crime. We can’t solve the electricity crisis if there are no copper wires, to save both our lives and our democracy. It is absolutely clear that the ANC is totally, utterly and completely incapable of solving the problem. The statistics speak for themselves.

• Dr Taylor, a freelance journalist and photographer, is a research fellow in environmental ethics at Stellenbosch University.

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