President Nayib Bukele’s regime has arrested nearly 72,000 Salvadorans over the last 16 months for allegedly assisting or belonging to criminal gangs. This includes at least 1,600 children.
It also includes “Teo” (not his real name), a boatman arrested in May 2022 when he declined to give a ride to members of the armed forces. He explained the boat didn’t have sufficient fuel, and his aunt had gone to buy more.
And “Julio” (not his real name), a laborer at a coconut cooperative. In July 2022, a soldier grabbed Julio’s friend — a man with epilepsy and speech difficulties — and asked his name. When he couldn’t speak, Julio explained his friend’s condition. The soldier released the friend — and arrested Julio.
Neither Teo nor Julio had any criminal records. Both are still in custody.
Last year, Bukele said that perhaps 1 percent of these mass arrests were made in error. But members of his own government disclosed that 20 percent of the arrested are likely innocent. And Ingrid Escobar, director of El Salvador’s Socorro Jurídico Humanitario (Humanitarian Legal Assistance), claims that at least 20,000 innocents have been detained.
While many Salvadorans applaud Bukele’s “iron fist” approach against the country’s gangs, others are having flashbacks to the repression during the country’s 12-year civil war.
The “Coolest Dictator”
More than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed during that conflict, which ended in 1992 with the signing of the Peace Accords. Among other things, the accords called for “reducing the armed forces and placing them under civilian control” and reforming the judiciary. The result was an imperfect but newly open democratic space.
However, as national parties shifted into peace-time politicking and elections, Salvadoran gang members were being deported from the United States. They landed in their native country as “outcasts” emblazoned with tattoos and speaking Spanglish. Over time, the gangs morphed “from marginalized youth groups to organized criminal structures that competed with the state for control,” as an El Faro editorial explained.
Obviously, living with the gangs has been a real challenge for Salvadorans still recovering from a devastating war.
But Bukele seems intent upon vanquishing not only the gangs, but also the Peace Accords. He’s called the latter a “farce” that has benefited political parties more than the people. Expelled from the FMLN — the country’s leading left party — in 2017, Bukele won the presidency in 2019, campaigning as an iconoclastic rebel.
But he’d soon show his autocratic side.
For starters, in February 2020, Bukele entered the Legislative Assembly to pressure the deputies to approve a loan for further equipping the armed forces. Accompanied by heavily armed police officers and soldiers, he prayed, demanded the loan, and finally withdrew.
Bukele’s bullying of legislators parallels his harassment of the press, including accusations of false reporting and money laundering. Clearly, he prefers his state-run media and personal social media accounts to an independent, often critical news media.
Bukele’s authoritarian slide accelerated after a breakdown in negotiations with the gangs.
The independent online newspaper El Faro reported that Bukele’s government had been negotiating covertly with the main gangs in the prisons. The gangs demanded in part better prison conditions — and promised in turn to keep “the national homicide rateat a historic low.”
Nevertheless, during the last weekend in March 2022, 87 people were killed. According to El Faro, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang took responsibility for the deaths, claiming the government had reneged on their agreement. As evidence, MS-13 shared audio files of conversations they’d had with Carlos Marroquín, Director for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, during that horrific weekend.
On March 27, Bukele’s government responded with a state of exception. It suspended a number of basic rights, among them: due process, freedom of association, legal representation, and privacy in communication.
Under the new rules, children as young as 12 could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment — and children aged 16 and older could get up to 20 years — for “committing a crime as part of a criminal group.” Penalties for adults increased dramatically as well.
Meanwhile a gag order demands that journalists and media cannot share gang messages “that could generate uneasiness or panicin the population.” The Salvadoran Journalists’ Association claims “these gag order reforms are a new tool to criminalize journalistic work.”
Journalists refusing to be so gagged could face prison terms of up to 15 years. Not surprisingly, Bukele and his regime have been hammered with accusations of egregious human-rights abuses during their extended state of exception.
So far, approximately 6,000 detainees have been released, supposedly cleared of gang membership and association. But they are not really free: former detainees have reported that they must check in with authorities every 15 days, and they risk being re-arrested if they speak out about their prison experiences.
In April 2023, Salvadoran human-rights group Cristosal reported that 153 people had died in detention. Three months later, it was announced at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that 174 detainees had died in Salvadoran custody.
Isla El Espiritu Santo
The year after the signing of the Peace Accords, international activists joined with grassroots organizations to start the Center for Exchange and Solidarity (CIS) in San Salvador. For 30 years, they’ve collaborated with Salvadoran communities, working for greater economic opportunity and social justice.
CIS director (and my friend) Leslie Schuld has been working for the release of 25 innocents who were detained as supposed gang members from Isla El Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit Island) in Usulután — including “Teo” and “Julio.”
In fact, Espiritu Santo has always been removed from crime and gangs. “The island has been organizing to take care of its own citizen-security for years,” Schuld said. Identification must be shown to even disembark there.
At a hearing for the first five fishermen, the judge stated that CIS and the families had proved neither the innocence of the detained nor their ties to the island. Schuld disagreed: “We had stacks of sworn statements from community leaders, clients, and family members — for the men who had lived on the island for 40 years or were born there.”
She maintains, “The system is upside down; it is not working. They have suspended due process; they have suspended the presumption of innocence. And the unfortunate thing is that it affects the poorest people.”
So far, just seven of the 25 detained from the island have been released.
Polling shows strong support for the state of exception — although some supporters do oppose the arbitrary arrest of innocents. With a newer, friendlier Supreme Court, Bukele’s anticipating an arguably unconstitutional re-election in 2024.
But Schuld sees beyond the brute efficacy of the “iron fist.” She’s adamant: “The state of exception is undermining human rights and the democratic institutions that were put in place by the Peace Accords. Those institutions were meant to right the wrongs that led to the civil war.”
Meanwhile thousands of innocents remain detained, neglected, and abused in prisons. Schuld promises, “We’re going to keep on fighting. We’re going to keep the pressure on.”
U.S. citizens can help. Ask that diplomacy be used to help restore the rights of the Salvadoran people — and that U.S. aid for the Salvadoran armed forces be withheld. Call senators and representatives through the switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
This piece first appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.