Bukele’s hell in El Salvador: a country submerged in a police state

At the beginning of July, the government of El Salvador moved its diplomatic machinery to stop the presentation of a work at the International Book Fair of Guatemala, the largest literary event in Central America. Populist President Nayib Bukele’s officials demanded that the collection of stories — Sustancia de hígado [Liver Substance], by the Salvadoran writer Michelle Recino — be suspended from the program. The collection denounces the arbitrary arrests conducted by the Salvadoran authorities over the past 16 months, since a state of emergency was imposed by the president. These policies have been deployed to deal with endemic gang violence that has been bleeding the country dry for decades.

This censorship was mostly focused on a story called Barberos en huelga [Barbers on Strike]. This dramatic and terrifying narration describes how a group of young men — street vendors, barbers’ assistants and public transit drivers — disappear. They are arrested after the authorities link them – sans evidence – with the so-called maras (organized gangs). It’s an account of a hellish reality in a country where more than 77,000 people have been detained, citizens’ rights have been suspended, censorship has been imposed, public safety has been militarized, while torture and disappearances have been denounced.

hombre camina frente a un mural que festeja la política de seguridad del presidente Nayib Bukele
A mural of President Bukele, in the streets of San Salvador.Salvador Melendez (AP)

President Bukele, who enjoys high levels of popularity that are the envy of other Latin American leaders, imposed the emergency regime in March 2022. His allies in Congress and the courts gave him the green light to restrict constitutional rights, in a country that still hasn’t healed from the wounds of a civil war that, in the 1980s, caused more than 70,000 deaths and left painful memories of military abuses. Through the state of emergency — or the “state of exception” — the Salvadoran authorities have unleashed a manhunt that recalls the abuses of that time. Thousands of people are stopped and searched daily at military checkpoints across the country, while security forces search for heavily-tattooed young men living in gang-controlled areas. There are reports of torture and inhumane conditions in prisons, in addition to at least 100 deaths in custody due to mistreatment by prison authorities. Censorship is already a norm: the persecution of critical voices, journalists and trade unionists has imposed a state of terror on society.

“Anyone can be arbitrarily captured,” says Abraham Abrego, director of strategic litigation at Cristosal, an organization that ensures respect for human rights in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. “In the complaints we have received, [we have learned of] day laborers, trade unionists, fishermen, farmers and others who have questioned the police and have been arrested [as a result]. There are trade unionists jailed for protesting — their salaries haven’t been paid. More than 3,000 informal vendors have been evicted from San Salvador (the capital) and threatened with arrest under the emergency regime if they protest,” the activist explains.

This NGO released a devastating report at the end of May, in which it denounced that at least 153 inmates in El Salvador had died from torture, beatings, strangulation or lack of medical attention during the state of emergency. The agency has documented that 75 corpses presented lacerations and bruises, injuries with sharp objects, or signs of hanging. “Massive and systematic rapes are already a state policy,” Cristosal warned when the report was released.

To reinforce his security policy, President Bukele ordered the construction of what he has called the “largest prison in the Americas” — an immense maximum-security complex where thousands of inmates have been transferred. It has been denounced as a torture center. Added to this prison hell is the anguish that the constant presence of the military on the streets has caused some citizens to feel.

Centro de Confinamiento del Terrorismo
Gang members wait to be taken to their cells at the Terrorist Confinement Center in El Salvador.SECRETARIA DE PRENSA DE LA PRESI (via REUTERS)

Soldiers have the green light to stop buses and pull out those who they consider to be suspicious. They can search houses without warrants — based on anonymous tips — or impose curfews in certain areas of the country, where locals lock themselves up for fear of being captured. “Of the complaints that we’ve received — more than 3,400 — in 98% of the cases, there’s no evidence that the detainees have ties to the gangs. The procedure used for these arrests shows that there’s no prior investigation, nor are arrest warrants issued by [judges]. Police operations and arrests are carried out at the discretion [of the security forces]. This level of arbitrariness makes a good part of [the arrests illegitimate],” explains Abrego. The president, who controls Congress and the courts, has achieved a reform that allows the justice system to carry out mass trials, with hearings of up to 900 prisoners per sitting. “These collective trials limit the [rights] of the defense, because they give lawyers less opportunity to prove that their defendant is innocent,” Abrego laments.

What baffles analysts is that despite the hell unleashed by Bukele in his war against gangs, his popularity levels remain high — up to 90% according to some polls. That popularity is due to the fact that many Salvadorans now finally feel safe. Before Bukele, the gangs had imposed their law in large swaths of the country. They used to tax food vendors, charge fees for residents to enter or leave their own neighborhoods, or unleash violent raids that left dozens dead. El Salvador had one of the highest homicide rates on the continent prior to 2022.

“There are practices of human rights violations that we haven’t seen since the armed conflict. The [state of emergency] is being used for repression, to limit freedom of expression. The government has a very strong communication apparatus and a very successful marketing strategy; the idea that security is above human rights permeates. The low crime rate makes people feel relieved,” explains Abrego. A relief that, however, keeps Salvadorans in constant tension: no one is safe from being arbitrarily arrested in the hell unleashed by the young president Bukele in his small Central American country.

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