Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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El Salvador

Bukele’s gang crackdown has imprisoned nearly 1 percent of El Salvador’s population

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.

“During the state of emergency, the military performs public security tasks, an assignment that the Salvadoran Constitution gives only to the police,” reads the caption of this image from La Prensa Gráfica photojournalist Luis Martínez.

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.”

Quite a spending spree…

…by the populist president of El Salvador, which is one of the world’s governments most likely to default on its debt by early next year.

WOLA Podcast: A Critical Moment for El Salvador’s Democracy

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.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

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.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

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.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Security, Impunity, and Reform in 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.

This podcast features Cristian Schlick, a lawyer with the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (IDHUCA) in El Salvador. He will be speaking at an event on “Violence and Hardline Citizen Security in El Salvador,” hosted by WOLA and the Due Process of Law Foundation, this Thursday March 14 at 4:30PM.

We’d asked for information about U.S. police aid to El Salvador. We apparently didn’t get a full answer.

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.

WOLA Podcast: The Central America Monitor

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.

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