Francisca Alas, 65, pulls down her sock to reveal a gang member's machete scar in her small apartment building on the outskirts of El Salvador's capital, down an alley from a school currently occupied by soldiers. EITHERarchive, as the gangs are known locally, assaulted his son, a factory worker, because he refused to pay an extortion demand. They smashed his face in with stones when he got in the way and knocked him down. Shortly after the 2016 attack, his son fled to the United States while Alas had to live with him.archiveoperating shamelessly on their street, committing murder, rape and beatings and deciding who gets to invade the neighborhood.
However, this situation has radically changed since March, when President Nayib Bukele launched an unprecedented and brutal crackdown on gangs, leading to mass arrests. "It's a big improvement," Alas says, explaining that thearchiveon his block he disappeared. "Now we can leave whenever we want. Our family can come to visit us. No president has taken care of us here."
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Alas's comments reflect broad support for the anti-gang crackdown and for Bukele, a December poll showed.87.8% of votersendorsed by him, making him the most popular president on the continent, perhaps even the world. This popularity stands in stark contrast to the strong rebuke of Bukele's actions by human rights groups, journalists, and members of the United States Congress.
However, this gang offensive is relentless and violates human rights. After a record 62 murders in one day, Bukele implored his legislature to declare a state of emergency on March 27 and ordered heavily armed military units to move into the area.Barrios— the slums where most people live. "No terrorist involved in the wave of violence against the Salvadoran people will go unpunished," said the Minister of Public Security, Gustavo Villatoro.awareon Twitter, a government darling. "Let's get them off the streets and put them behind bars."
Since then, more than 60,000 people have been arrested - 1% of the total population - and another 40,000 are already in prison. It is a mass incarceration on a par with some of the harshest regimes and wars in history – the equivalent of imprisoning more than three million people in the United States in less than a year.
Hundreds of relatives, mostly mothers and wives, congregate in front of the Mariona prison, on the northern outskirts of the capital, San Salvador, hoping to deliver packets of rice, corn flakes, soap and even prison uniforms to their loved ones. . Javiera Maricela, 37, describes how police and soldiers visited her home in a farming town in April and took her 20-year-old son, saying they were treating him, and brought him back. She hasn't had any contact with him since then and doesn't know if she's still in that prison, let alone alive.
“The lack of information is uncomfortable,” says Maricela. Like most inmates, her son is accused of a crime called "illegal groups', roughly translated as 'gang membership', although it refers to those who help gangs as well as actual members. The maximum sentence is 30 years or 45 years for gang leaders.
Through a contact, I know of a prisoner who managed to drop the charges and leave Mariona. He describes how they put him in a cell with 162 prisoners and that she smelled of feces, that the guards broke her ribs and that she often heard the screams of the tortured prisoners. During his month in prison, he says he saw five bodies being carried away. they have human rights groups90 documented deathsin prisons since the state of emergency was declared, although many believe the actual number is much higher.
“Many of those detained are innocent,” says Samuel García, a former government official who founded the Vítimas do Regime movement. “The families have proof, but the regime doesn't care. Bukele is very Machiavellian... What he is doing is illegal. He broke the rule of law ”.
Despite this, crackdowns remain popular and certainly have a big impact on crime reduction. For decades, the two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, were brazenly controlledBarrios, cities and towns of El Salvador. New members committed murder as part of their initiation and continued to kill to improve their status in their "clique" or gang chapter. And it wasn't just other thugs who got shot. Civilians could be killed simply for taking the wrong path. I recently spoke with a woman who was gang-raped as she traveled from a Barrio 18 neighborhood where she lived to visit her mother at the MS-13 police station. In the worst atrocity of 2010archiveset fire and shotBus killed 17 people.
I have interviewed dozens of gang members on site visits over the years; it was common to find them open in the center of the neighborhoods. But since the state of emergency, their presence has been greatly reduced:nonemost of them are in prison, have escaped or are in hiding. As a result, the number of murders dropped dramatically. Last year, the government of El Salvador reported that there were 496 murders, a homicide rate of about 8 per 100,000, which is lower than in the United States for the first time. In 2015, El Salvador suffered 105 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, making it the country with the most homicides on the planet.
"It's like having a cancer patient, the doctor has to give chemotherapy," says Tito Elias Ponce, who works at a government agency.neighborhoodRange. "These criminals are like a cancer for El Salvador." When I met Ponce, he was working with young people painting walls in a favela. Bukele not only wields the stick, but also puts the carrot to rehabilitate poor areas, build soccer fields and community centers.
Nearby, I spot a 23-year-old motorized infantryman who stopped at a stall to do some shopping.pupusas, a popular Salvadoran food. The military affirms that the troops are welcome in theBarriosand denies that they take innocent people. "Some of them may not be gang members, but they are a little involved," she says. “We found messages on his phone or something. Of course the mothers will protest. For a mother, her son is always an angel. This claim that innocent people are not being arrested seems dubious given the scale of the arrests. Detainees are brought before judges in closed group hearings, so it is unclear how convincing the evidence is. In the meantime, citizens are being encouraged to report gang members, which may encourage people to report anyone they have issues with.
One of the reasons the crackdown is so popular is that Salvadorans are fed up with gang extortion. Unlike the Mexican and Colombian mobstersarchiveThey're not big players in the drug trade, but they make money by rocking everyone from the bus driver to the grocer. The emergency has reportedly reduced extortion, but continued extortion remains a part of everyday life. I know a taxi driver whose base used to pay both main gangs, but now only pays one whose member drives a taxi there. "I pay these criminals half what I used to," he says, "but at least it means I have more money in my pocket."
The second reason so many Salvadorans support the offensive is deeper, a consequence of spending most of their lives in war conditions. Between 1980 and 1992, a civil war divided the country between a series of US-backed right-wing governments and a left-wing guerrilla movement. Most of the young refugees fled to Los Angeles, where they formed gangs for protection in inner-city slums. And when deported, they turned to crime in their devastated homeland, finding many willing recruits among war orphans and scarred veterans. The new rulers of El Salvador promised peace, democracy and respect for human rights. But the country was drowned in the blood of gang warfare.
Bukele, the son of a wealthy businessman of Palestinian descent, initially joined the ex-guerrilla's party.,Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation. I interviewed him in 2017 when he was mayor of San Salvador and he talked about the rehabilitation of theBarriosand rescue young people from a life of crime. He won the presidency on a populist platform, protesting corrupt elites and founding his own party to crush the power of the old guard in the midterm elections.
In 2021, Bukele halved the number of murders, but he is accused of doing so by restoring a truce with the gangs. According to reports fromindependent news agencythe lighthouse, the truce gave gang leaders better treatment in jails and allowed the gangs to continue their extortion while reducing the homicide rate. Only after that ceasefire collapsed with a series of killings did Bukele declare a state of emergency. Bukele denies that pact, although many Salvadorans I spoke to don't care if it's true; they just want less violence.
However, it remains to be seen if the drop in homicides now ensured by the state of emergency will continue in the long term. The gangs may be in hiding now, but they can regroup and perhaps resort to guerrilla tactics. It is also difficult and expensive to keep nearly 2% of the population behind bars. To accomplish this, Bukele is building a new mega-prison, dubbed the Terrorism Confinement Center, which he claims will house 40,000 inmates.
Meanwhile, outside criticism seems unlikely to change Bukele's course. US Congressman James McGovern called the change "draconiano“, during the Amnesty Internationalwarned"a human rights crisis". On the other hand, the US Treasury Department sanctioned several officials close to Bukele on corruption charges, froze their bank accounts and prohibited them from entering the states. But there is not much more room for Washington to put pressure on Bukele. Sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua have not stopped human rights abuses there. Furthermore, the idea of a return to a more interventionist US foreign policy in Latin America today draws the ire of both the left and the right.
On the other hand, other Latin American governments are taking note of Bukele's actions. Across the border in Honduras, President Ximora Castro, the country's first female leader, declared her own partial state of emergency to combat gangs. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has largely abandoned his call for "hugs, not bullets" to strengthen the army.
Outside a church in San Salvador, I see a dozen mothers behind bars lighting candles and praying for their loved ones. They tell stories, their faces full of pain, because they don't know if their children will return. I wonder if the support for this mass incarceration shows a tyranny of the majority, that is, of the victims. Or whether the benefits could outweigh the inequalities. Or when one evil was simply replaced by another evil. But the truth is that Bukele only arose out of a lack of attention to a massive problem of organized crime that is a key issue for most people here. And unless the liberal governments of Latin America come up with a better solution that works in practice and not just in rhetoric, we will certainly see more authoritarian populists and more mega-prisons in the years to come.