Just a few weeks ago, Sandra García envisioned a brighter future that Nayib Bukele had promised to Salvadoran youth starved for opportunities when he came to power three years ago.
“I gave him my vote thinking we would have a better life,” said the 23-year-old, one of hundreds of thousands of young Salvadorans who have chosen the authoritarian-minded millennial as president.
Those dreams imploded when the man she was planning to marry, Juan José Ibáñez García, was arrested in one of the fiercest security operations in recent Latin American history.
Two days later, Ibáñez — who friends and family say worked at a local pizzeria and had no connection to the crime — was moved to a maximum-security penitentiary housing many of the more than 38,000 people he the government claims to have imprisoned her since the start of the offensive in late March. A fortnight later, the 21-year-old was dead – one of at least 35 prisoners who have would have died under mysterious circumstances since Bukele declared a draconian state of emergency meant to wipe out his country’s gangs.
An undertaker showed up at García’s doorstep in Salcoatitán, a bucolic tourist town in the heart of El Salvador’s coffee culture, early one morning to deliver the news. “My world has fallen apart,” she said later, as she stood by a coffin containing her lover’s remains.
Bukele declared his “war on gangs” on Sunday March 27 after an outburst of bloodshed shocking even for a country that until recently was considered the most violent on earth. El Salvador’s murder rate has plummeted since the populist seized power in 2019 – allegedly thanks to a secret pact with leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. But on the eve of the crackdown – in a wave of attacks seemingly calculated to crush one of Bukele’s main claims to success – 62 people were murdered in a single day.
“That Saturday was just awful…I told my kids not to go out because things were really messy,” said Jorge Beltrán, a crime reporter who has covered gangs for more than two decades. “Once, on the most terrible day, there were something like 50 [murders]. But the sixties? This had never happened before.
A body was dumped at the entrance to Bukele’s pet project: a resort dubbed Surf City with which the former advertising executive hopes to boost the economy and rebrand El Salvador as a tropical paradise for sun-seekers and cryptocurrency fans.
“It was a blow to the president’s public image – and the image is so important to him that he had to come up with something that had never been done before,” said Crisis Central America analyst Tiziano Breda. Group.
Bukele’s ‘something’ was a state of exception that was immediately approved by the parliament his party controls by an overwhelming majority.
The results have been stunning, with more people arrested in the past two months than in the whole of last year – mostly young, disadvantaged men and women whose names and photos are featured in the media every day. ‘State. “It’s really, really beautiful,” Breda said. “This is a large-scale nationwide operation to capture anyone who may have or has had a relationship with gangs.”
The specter of Bukele’s security offensive is hard to escape in Central America’s smallest country.
Billboards invite citizens to denounce potential “terrorists” on a telephone hotline. Radio stations broadcast government propaganda in which the authorities swear to fight to the end: “We won’t stop until we eliminate the gangs”.
A sign outside a large prison, La Esperanza, shows a security guard towering over half-naked suspects with a baton. “Do you want to be next? You decide!” it reads.
Many of El Salvador’s 6 million citizens are elated by the onslaught on US-born gangs, which have wreaked havoc since taking root here following the end of the 12-year civil war in 1992 .safer,” said Sandra López, 61, a supporter who attended a recent pro-Bukele protest in downtown San Salvador. Polls show that Bukele has become even more popular since the start of the state of exception, with approval ratings of over 90%.
But the crackdown has been a nightmare for the hundreds of women sleeping rough outside La Esperanza, desperate for information about loved ones arrested on vague charges.
Many of these women voted Bukele in 2019, but after weeks of camping on dirty sidewalks, they have second thoughts.
“This is not a war on the gangs, this is a war on the people,” fumed a Santa Ana City woman who was looking for her brother and asked not to be named.
Further up the street sat an even more distressed woman. Mari Hernández said her partner, Saul Gómez, worked at a sugar milling factory until police arrested him at their home in late April.
“They said it was an order from the president that people were to be brought in whether they were criminals or not…and if they didn’t have it they themselves would be arrested for non- respect for the law,” said the pregnant 24-year-old. Age.
Officers told Hernández her 25-year-old partner would soon be free – but five weeks later he remained behind bars as she was two weeks away from giving birth.
To make matters worse, the doctors had detected a murmur in the baby’s heart during a prenatal check-up. Prior to the arrest, Hernández was undergoing treatment, but without Gómez’s income, she could no longer afford to pay for it.
“The reality is that in El Salvador it is now a crime to be young. You’re not safe anywhere,” Hernández said.
Beltrán, the crime reporter, said it was obvious that many prisoners genuinely had no connection to a gang and had been apprehended “simply because the police didn’t like their appearance” or had perhaps being in trouble with the law years earlier.
A former soldier, Beltrán said he supports a surgical offensive against murderous criminal groups. “But they didn’t. They just take people indiscriminately,” he added. “And like in all wars, it’s always the poor who suffer.”
The Bukele administration and its cheerleaders are championing what they call a long-needed assault on dangerous “terrorists,” though the president and his security minister declined to be interviewed.
“This is a war between honest Salvadorans and criminals who have condemned us for years to a life of anxiety, mourning and misery,” Bukele said last week in a speech marking his three years in office. “We have God and the Salvadoran people on our side.”
Tourism Minister Morena Valdez celebrated the crackdown during a visit to Surf City, where an international surfing competition was taking place. “For the tourism sector, it’s been a boom,” Valdez said.
Yet critics see the state of exception as the latest phase in El Salvador’s march toward tyranny under a messianic leader who has already amassed enormous power and sarcastically calls himself “the coolest dictator of the world”.
“I see this as one more step towards building an authoritarian state in which power is concentrated around a person and a family – it’s very similar to what is happening in Nicaragua,” said Jimmy Alvarado, an investigative reporter for El Faro, the combative media outlet that exposed the government’s secret pact with the gangs.
Johnny Wright Sol, one of the few opposition politicians in parliament, said: “History tells us that many of these populist governments end in authoritarian experiences and [what’s striking] is the speed at which [this is happening]. It took [Daniel] Ortega many more years in Nicaragua than it took Bukele.
Wright feared that the crackdown on gangs would trigger a human catastrophe, bringing more violence and disease to overcrowded prisons and plunging poor families further into misery. “It could quickly escalate into a very serious humanitarian crisis,” he said.
For Sandra García, the crisis has already arrived.
She had a miscarriage and told the policeman who took her partner away who replied, “We don’t care, we have an arrest quota that we have to meet.
Two weeks later, Ibáñez was taken from prison to hospital for reasons that remain unclear. He died there in the early hours of May 25. “Nobody told me anything, nobody explained to me why,” García said.
Hours after identifying his body, García stood next to his coffin in Juayúa, the town where Ibáñez was born, reflecting on his loss. “We had so many dreams…of being parents; start a business together; to study together… and it was all over. It all ended with his death,” she said. “So many Salvadorans trust us [Bukele] – and we were deceived.
The next day, mourners walked through the city center to a red and white church where a priest read the book of John, urging the shocked mourners to turn their sadness into joy. “You will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.”
There was resignation and bitterness in the quiet wooded cemetery, where García passed out as the coffin containing Ibáñez’s remains was lowered into the earth.
Stunned mothers – many with sons languishing in prison – mumbled words of outrage at what they called Bukele’s war on Salvadoran youth.
‘It’s wrong,’ brooded one woman, lamenting that so many ordinary Salvadorans still support their populist leader because of the $300 (£27.35) benefit he gave them during the coronavirus pandemic. coronavirus.
The woman balked at the idea that Ibáñez had died of natural causes, but saw no chance of ever finding out the truth. “God will see to it that justice is served,” she said as mourners began to disperse, returning to frightened communities where young people now fear leaving their homes.