In March, after a violent weekend likely caused by a secret truce’s breakdown, El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared all-out war on the country’s MS-13 gang.
This isn’t the first time a Salvadoran president has announced a “mano dura” (iron fist) policy against MS-13, Barrio 18 and other gangs that have made daily life in El Salvador dangerous for a generation. But Bukele’s campaign is the broadest and most indiscriminate.
As of late August, over 51,800 people had been arrested and jailed since March 26 when, in a 3:00 AM meeting with security officials, Bukele gave an order for sweeping arrests. Every day, families surround one of the country’s main prisons, awaiting news about loved ones seized off the streets or even from their homes, as Jonathan Blitzer detailed in a September 5 New Yorker profile of Bukele.
A September 12 investigation by the Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica includes new information about the draconian policy’s origins. “They told us to go that very day and capture all the MS gang members that were identified. They told us: you have to bring in the heads of the gang; you have to touch the gang’s finances. The order was to surround them, to surround their family members, their acquaintances,” an official present at the March 26 meeting said.
The police chiefs were told that they would not have to “worry about the Attorney General’s Office.” According to the sources, the instruction, which was later passed on to all active police officers in the country, was that “the Attorney General’s Office is going to receive the MS gang members that we send them. Without much proof.”
“There was no officer or anyone in that room who did not know that they were asking us to go against the law, but that was the order: to bring this to an end,” said one of the sources.
This is not entirely a police operation. El Salvador’s military, a significant recipient of U.S. military aid, plays a robust role as well. The initial 3:00AM meeting “was not attended by Armed Forces commanders,” La Prensa Gráfica reported, but “military and police officials consulted said that they received orders at another meeting called by Minister Merino Monroy,” referring to the country’s defense minister, René Francis Merino Monroy, an active-duty vice-admiral.
A veteran police agent told La Prensa Gráfica:
This state of emergency has been the first time that he has seen, for example, soldiers patrolling on their own, soldiers detaining civilians, with the freedom to act as if they knew anything about public security tasks. The Minister of Defense has assured that some 18,000 military operatives are carrying out tasks that the Salvadoran Constitution entrusts to the PNC [Civilian National Police].
The newspaper’s investigation continues:
To date, human rights organizations in El Salvador have counted more than 3,000 complaints of human rights violations for the same number of detainees under the state of emergency. The cases analyzed for this investigation confirm a common denominator: the Attorney General’s Office, more than 150 days later, is still unable to prove the gang membership of hundreds of detainees, and in dozens of cases the link between the detainees and these structures is based on informants, the “public voice,” or supposed police records of the detainees, about whom the same arrest records indicate that they had no criminal record or records in databases.
Today, “In El Salvador, having tattoos, being drunk, acting nervous or just looking suspicious are enough reason for police to arrest people.”