Since Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele began his crackdown on violent street gangs, the Biden administration, international media, and NGOs have made the small Central American republic the focal point of negative attention about accused corruption, civil liberties violations, and creeping authoritarianism. In contrast, the Dominican Republic, which is using much harsher forms of “preventative detention,” has seen virtually no hand-wringing about “democratic backsliding,” corruption, and human rights violations. Instead, the Biden administration has praised the Dominican Republic’s criminal justice system. The media and U.S. government’s disparate treatment of these two Latin American nations demonstrates a lack of consistency and principles in our diplomacy towards our neighboring countries.
After an unprecedented spike in gang-related homicides, El Salvador instituted a state of exception to address the violence. The crackdown increases the time someone can be detained without charge from three to fifteen days, restricted bail and other alternatives to pre-trial detention, and strengthened police powers. Even critics acknowledge the moves have popular support and have dramatically reduced violence. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the crackdown because it “lends itself to attempts to censor the media, prevent reporting on corruption and other matters of public interest, and silence critics of the Salvadoran government.” The United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights called it a violation of human rights law, focusing on the fact that “the previous two-year limit to pre-trial detention has been eliminated.” International media has put the spotlight on these criticisms with heavy coverage for an otherwise obscure country of six million.
In contrast, there has been almost no attention given to the Dominican Republic’s far more draconian “pre-trial detention” regime. According to the country’s National Office of Public Defense (ONDP), 70 percent of the prison population in the country is held under the “preventive detention” mandate imposed by President Luis Abinader. Most of the inmates are imprisoned for extended periods, even years, without formal charges or court proceedings. A recent ONDP report acknowledges that half of these detainees remain in confinement even past the expiry of their preventive detention mandate, the exact issue raised by the United Nations.
While Blinken warns that El Salvador’s pretrial detention can be used to silence critics of the government, the Dominican Republic has arrested nineteen members of the opposition leadership including Abinader’s 2020 opponent, Gonzalo Castillo. Six of these leaders were ordered to serve eighteen months of preventive detention without any charges, as the investigation continued. These preventive orders do not expire until after the 2024 re-election, effectively neutering their ability to conduct a campaign.
The U.S. embassy in the Dominican Republic has expressed significant concern over the pretrial detention programs, noting that the detention periods “equaled or exceeded the maximum sentence for the alleged crime, with some detentions reportedly lasting years.” It also reported that “Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and other government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; [and] arbitrary interference with privacy.”
Yet these reports are ignored and contradicted by the White House and State Department leadership. Instead of criticizing the pretrial detention of political opponents under the guise of anti-corruption, President Joe Biden recently praised Abinader for “moderniz[ing] its anti-corruption law.” In contrast, there has been little evidence that El Salvador’s gang crackdown has been used on political opponents. Under Secretary of State for Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Urza Zeya has called the Dominican Republic a “bright spot” for "combating corruption, improving citizen security" and "protecting human rights"
Part of the disparity is no doubt caused by Bukele’s eagerness to highlight his crackdown on Twitter and criticize the Biden administration. But our foreign policy should react to substance rather than social media. To the extent that the U.S. and international organizations enact diplomacy in Latin America based on civil liberties, we should look to the actual policies rather than the bombast of media coverage and Twitter.
John Bugnacki is an attorney and director of government affairs for a technology company. He has served as a Fellow at the American Security Project focusing on Latin America, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. He received his J.D. from the University of Chicago.