You hear a lot about the popularity of El Salvador’s authoritarian-trending president, Nayib Bukele, who has overseen an anti-gang “state of exception” that has jailed more than 1 percent of the country’s population since March 2022.
The result has been a sharp drop in violent crime that has people throughout the Americas saying “we need a Bukele here.” But there’s a dark side that’s evident to all who care enough not to look away.
One who’s not looking away is filmmaker Amada Torruella, whose short film “La Isla” appears today on the website of the New Yorker. It’s about the family of a man who authorities took away during a sweep early in the state of emergency, even though the part of coastal El Salvador where he lives does not have a significant gang presence.
The subjects of Torruella’s film are all female—the wives, mothers, and sisters of the men who have been arrested and sent to prison. “We had just come back from doing some shopping,” one of them says, “when suddenly an officer from the Armed Forces approached him.” She sits on a tidy bed in a small house, sifting through legal papers; her partner has been gone eighteen days. “It’s a lie,” she says, of the government’s accusation. Five months later, she’s still not heard anything from him.
Even though El Salvador’s homicide rate is now purported to be nearly as low as Denmark’s, there is no end in sight to the “state of exception” limiting basic rights, which has been renewed 18 times by Bukele’s legislative supermajority. As Bukele heads for re-election next year even though the country’s laws forbid it, he at least needs to end the pain of thousands of innocents caught up in his sweeps.
From El Salvador’s Gato Encerrado, reporting on the government’s encirclement of Soyapango, a poor San Salvador suburb, with 8,500 soldiers (about 1/3 of El Salvador’s military) and 1,500 police. The troops and cops are doing sweeps to arrest people whom they believe are gang members.
Translated caption of this photo, credited to Melissa Paises: “According to the human rights organization Cristosal, the majority of the more than 56,000 people detained under the emergency regime have been young men between the ages of 18 and 30, who were detained simply for their appearance or for living in stigmatized areas such as Soyapango.”
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 Yorkerprofile 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.”
With an assist from WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, I booked a fantastic but deeply troubling conversation with two fighters for democracy in El Salvador, Mauricio Silva and José Luis Sanz. This is a rough moment for a democracy born at a moment of hope, when El Salvador negotiated the end of its conflict in the early 90s.
El Salvador’s citizens go to the polls on February 28 to elect a new legislature and mayors. Nuevas Ideas, the party of President Nayib Bukele, is expected to gain a strong majority. This raises concerns because Bukele, though quite popular, is eroding institutional checks and balances, blocking access to information, infringing on independent media and freedom of expression, and politicizing the armed forces.
The implications for U.S. policy are significant, as the new Biden administration proposes a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, along with similar priorities, in Central America.
We discuss this with two experts who give us a comprehensive view of what’s at stake:
Mauricio Silva, a member of WOLA’s Board of DIrectors, worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for 20 years, 10 of them as a member of the IDB’s Board as director for El Salvador and Central America.
José Luis Sanz, a veteran investigative journalist, was the director of the independent media outlet El Faro (The Beacon) between 2014 and late 2020. He is moving to Washington to serve as El Faro’s correspondent.
Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.
For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:
COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.
An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.
Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
This makes three podcasts in three weeks. I can’t believe it, either. Here’s the latest (which you can download directly here):
An update from Cristian Schlick of El Salvador’s IDHUCA
El Salvador is inaugurating a new president amid a severe security crisis. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans are abandoning their homes each year—most displacing internally and many moving to other countries—due to gang violence. Despite incipient recent reform efforts, government institutions have been either too absent or too corrupt to protect people.
CNN published a devastating report this week about U.S. assistance to El Salvador’s security forces:
One police unit that killed 43 alleged gang members in the first six months of last year received significant US funding, CNN can reveal. Several of those deaths have been investigated as murders by Salvadoran police.
While the unit — known as the Special Reaction Forces (FES) — was disbanded earlier this year, many of its officers have joined a new elite force that currently receives US funding.
These abuses were revealed in August 2017 by El Salvador’s Revista Factum investigative journalism website. At the time, we wanted to know whether the FES had received U.S. assistance. We had two three thorough recent written sources:
We had worked with a congressional office on a request to the Defense Department for “a list of Central American military and police units that received more than $50,000 in U.S. assistance in FY 2014, FY 2015, and FY 2016, or are likely to receive that amount or more in FY 2017.” The April 2017 response names four Salvadoran units, none of which is the FES (the four are Naval Task Force Trident, Joint Group Cuscatlán, Air Force, and Navy). So either the Defense Department deliberately omitted the FES, or the unit’s funding came entirely from the State Department’s aid budget (which seems unlikely but is possible).
We had obtained a copy of a very detailed report of worldwide police assistance in 2015 and 2016, which is supposed to report on both State Department and Defense Department aid. Though the entire “National Civilian Police” often gets named as a recipient unit, the FES does not appear.
(Update 11:15am—I actually forgot about this one) A May 2016 response to “questions for the record” from legislative staff listed 10 Salvadoran police units. The FES is not one of them.
It appears that the Obama and Trump administrations omitted critical information relevant to human rights from congressional requests for information. We’ll be following up on this.
Congress appropriated $750 million in aid for Central America for 2016, and $655 million more for 2017. What’s in these aid packages? Which countries are getting what? What do U.S.-funded programs propose to do? Are they achieving their goals?
Next Wednesday (May 17) my colleague Adriana Beltrán, who runs WOLA’s Citizen Security program will join some partners from the region to launch the “Central America Monitor,” an effort to answer these questions.
This looks like a very cool project, collecting a lot of data both to document aid and to try to measure its results in the region. I talk to her about it here.