Inside El Salvador’s brutal gang crackdown

Bukele’s violation of human rights is winning votes


In her cramped breeze-block home on the outskirts of El Salvador’s capital, across an alley from a school currently occupied by soldiers, 65-year-old Francisca Alas rolls down her sock to show a scar from the machete of a gang member. The maras, as gangs here are known, were attacking her son, a factory worker, for refusing to pay an extortion demand. They were smashing his face in with rocks when she stood in the way and was hacked down. Shortly after the attack in 2016, her son fled to the United States, while Alas had to live with the maras operating brazenly on her street, carrying out murders, rapes and shakedowns, and deciding who could enter the neighbourhood.

This situation has radically changed since March, however, when President Nayib Bukele launched an unprecedented and brutal crackdown on gangs, involving mass imprisonment. “It’s a huge improvement,” Alas tells me, explaining that the maras on her block have disappeared. “Now we can go outside when we like. Our family can come and visit us. No president has cared about us here before.”

Alas’s comments reflect the widespread support for the anti-gang offensive and for Bukele: a December survey found 87.8% of voters approved of him, making him the most popular president on the continent, perhaps even the world. Such popularity contrasts sharply with the harsh rebuke of Bukele’s crackdown by human rights groups, journalists and members of the US Congress.

This gang offensive, though, is ruthless and violates human rights. Following a record 62 murders in a day, Bukele beseeched his legislative assembly to pass a State of Emergency on March 27, and ordered heavily-armed military units to move into the barrios — the poor neighbourhoods where most people live. “No terrorist involved in the wave of violence against the Salvadoran people will go unpunished,” Public Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro posted on Twitter, a favoured communication tool of the government. “We will take them off the street and put them behind bars.”

Since then, more than 60,000 people have been imprisoned — 1% of the entire population — adding to another 40,000 already in jail. It’s a mass incarceration comparable with some of the harshest regimes and wars in history — the equivalent of locking up more than three million in the United States in under a year.

Outside the Mariona prison, in the northern outskirts of the capital San Salvador, hundreds of family members are gathered, mostly mothers and wives, waiting to pass on packages of rice, cornflakes, soap and even prison uniforms to their loved ones. Javiera Maricela, 37, describes how police and soldiers called on her house in a farming village in April and took away her 20-year-old son, saying he would be processed and returned. She has had no contact with him since and does not know if he is still in that prison, let alone alive.

“The lack of information is torturous,” Maricela says. Like most of the detainees, her son is charged with a crime called “agrupaciones ilícitas”, roughly translated as “gang affiliation”, although it applies to those who help gangs as well as actual members. It carries a maximum sentence of 30 years, or 45 years for gang leaders.

Through a contact, I meet a prisoner who succeeded in getting his charges dropped and being released from Mariona. He describes how he was crammed into a cell with 162 inmates and the stink of faeces, had his ribs broken by guards, and frequently heard the screams of prisoners being tortured. During his month in jail, he says, he saw five corpses being carted out. Human rights groups have documented 90 deaths in prisons since the emergency was declared, although many believe the real number is much higher.

“Many of those captured are innocent,” says Samuel García, a former government official who has founded the Victims of the Regime Movement. “The families have proof but the regime doesn’t care. Bukele is very Machiavellian… What he is doing is illegal. He has broken the rule of law.”

Categories: Geopolitics

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