JOHN DERBYSHIRE: El Salvador Takes On Anarchy—And Shows Why America Doesn't Need Salvadorans
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[Adapted from the latest Radio Derb, now available exclusively on]

El Salvador got some attention last week. That’s unusual; it’s a small and inconsequential country, the size of New Jersey, population a bit less than Indiana.

It’s not an immediate neighbor of ours, either. If you want to walk to El Salvador, you’ll first have to trek through the length of Mexico and then Guatemala—around 1,200 miles from our border.

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. Their population pyramid looks like a Hershey’s Kiss—masses of kids, not many geezers—but they seem to have started getting fertility under control.

That’s all according to the CIA World Factbook. I always rely on the CIA for data. They never get anything wrong, do they?

So why is this totally inconsequential place, this Nowheresville, why is it in the news?

Well, the place was in a state of anarchy for many years. Those densely populated streets were ruled by criminal gangs who took what they wanted and killed anyone who opposed them. It got to a point when last March the nation’s legislature declared a state of emergency. That quickly became a war of the gangs versus the police and army.

The country’s president, name of Nayib Bukele, has been taking a strong line against the gangs. From the beginning of the state of emergency down to last week—eleven months—an estimated 65,000 gang members were arrested. That’s one percent of the entire population.

Last July President Bukele announced the construction of a huge new prison to house the gangbangers.

That prison was formally opened at the end of January. This week the government’s been moving convicts in. That’s why El Salvador’s in the news.

We’ve been seeing some astonishing video clips in which hundreds of men, wearing only boxer shorts and with their heads shaved, hands cuffed behind their backs, have been hustled in ranks and files through containment areas onto buses and off to the new mega-jail.

Those video clips have generated much approving commentary from conservative commentators here in the USA. On Wednesday there was a striking opinion column by Gavin Wax and Nathan Berger of the New York Young Republican Club in Newsweek, of all places.

I hardly ever read Newsweek or its website. I’ve vaguely supposed it was Regime Media, taking the side of criminals against normal people. Perhaps that is their editorial line; in which case, all the more credit to them for allowing this column.

Closing lines from Wax and Berger:

American justice must be fierce; it must scare the would-be thief into the pursuit of an honest life, and it must assure American citizens that their lives will not be upended.

Bukele’s spirit has shown that this model can succeed. We now need a champion to bring it home.

We Need an American Bukele,  March 1, 2023

What do I think about this? As a law’n’order guy I’m right there on board with Wax and Berger. Still, I have to register some doubts.

Is that video footage for real? I’m skeptical of any footage out of a small, corrupt country. There are only two ways to get hardened criminals to behave in the disciplined way we see in the clips: either put the fear of God into them, or pay them.

I wouldn’t rule out Option Two, that the whole thing has been staged for some purpose that’s comprehensible only if you have a full understanding of Salvadoran politics, which of course I don’t.

I’ll allow that Option One is more probable. It has all sorts of dangers for El Salvador’s rulers, though. To put the fear of God into the 40,000 inmates this new jail accommodates, you need a major force of very tough law-enforcement officers indeed. Is Bukele quite sure his country’s politics is robust enough to control that force?

And is the force even adequate? A French report from last month tells us about the new jail that

Six hundred soldiers and 250 police officers will provide around-the-clock security, and electronic jamming equipment will prevent any communication by prisoners with the outside world.

Inside the cell blocks, guards will carry pistols and assault rifles.

A visit to Salvador’s new ’mega-prison’ points to severe conditions, France24, February 5, 2003.

Pistols and assault rifles? If I were one of those eight-hundred-odd turnkeys watching over 40,000 desperate, feral inmates, I’d want tactical nukes.

And of course there’s not much justice going on here. Sure, some of those guys in boxer shorts are evil masterminds with a lot of innocent blood on their hands, but many more are lower-level ”buttons” with perhaps nothing more on their consciences that some beatings and robberies. A few are innocent of anything more criminal than thinking a whole-body tattoo would be cool.

For all that, the news reports all tell us that ordinary citizens of El Salvador approve of Bukele’s policy by large majorities.

No surprise there. Speaking last December about a different part of the world I said

For ordinary people trying to live a normal life—modest prosperity, useful work, and the chance to raise a family—anarchy is worse than despotism.

Over a lot of the world, and still today, the practical choice facing normal citizens is not between constitutional democracy and despotism, or between constitutional democracy and anarchy; it’s between despotism and anarchy. They’ll choose despotism every time.

And while I’ve watched those clips with interest, and enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing bad guys get their comeuppance (if that’s truly what I was seeing), I don’t care one way or the other about El Salvador. It’s not my country.

This is my country. To the degree that we, the U.S.A., have any interest in El Salvador, it’s in preventing Salvadorans from bringing their gang culture here.

Our governments have failed dismally at that. One of the Salvadoran gangs, MS-13, is thriving here. Where I live, in Long Island, they are a significant criminal nuisance—as I’ve been writing for 20 years.

I don’t wish Salvadorans any ill. I hope they can find a path to constitutional democracy. Until they have, though, I want my government to keep them the hell out of my country.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire’s writings at can do so here.

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