After a dramatic spike in murders here over a single weekend last month, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s reaction was swift and extreme.
He sent soldiers into poor neighborhoods to round up thousands of people he claimed were gang members, then paraded them in front of news cameras in their underwear and handcuffs.
tweeted photos of detainees who had been bruised and bloodied by security forces, suggesting they “perhaps fell” or “were eating French fries with ketchup.”
and began feeding the nation’s prisoners two meals a day instead of three, warning that if the violence continued, “I swear to God they won’t eat a single grain of rice.”
It’s a distinctive look for Bukele, who has focused in recent months on presenting himself to the world as a modern tech innovator on a quest to turn El Salvador into a cryptocurrency paradise.
Bukele is now not only adopting the iron fist techniques of Latin American leaders of the past, but is going much further and using the wave of homicides, which left 87 dead in three days, as pretext for suspending civil liberties and attacking the press.
In recent days, bukele and his supporters in the legislative assembly ordered a state of emergency that restricts freedom of association, suspends the rule that detainees are informed of their rights at the time of arrest, and denies access to lawyers to prisoners.
Suspects can now be held for 15 days without charge instead of just 72 hours, meaning the vast majority of recent arrestees have yet to see a judge.
Congress also authorized prison sentences of up to 15 years for media outlets that spread gang messages, a vaguely worded statute that press freedom activists fear Bukele will use to crack down on his critics in the media. .
“The increase in homicides should not be a justification for the total suspension of rights,” said Ruth López, anti-corruption director of the Central American human rights organization Cristosal.
Since taking office in 2019, Bukele and his allies in Congress have steadily amassed more power. they took control of the supreme court, replaced the attorney general with an ally of bukele, and removed hundreds of prosecutors and lower court judges, a purge that human rights watch says has left “virtually no independent institutions capable of overseeing power.” executive”.
That Bukele would use the wave of homicides as a pretext to further consolidate power comes as no surprise to many of his critics, who believe he could be preparing to stay in office beyond 2024, when he is supposed to leave office, despite the fact that the constitution of el salvador prohibits consecutive presidential terms.
But they also say there may be another reason for his new tough stance on crime: to divert attention from the growing failure of his cryptocurrency experiment.
“This is not a public policy or part of a security plan,” López said. “this is a total improvisation based on public relations and polishing their image.”
Last year, bukele took many in el salvador by surprise when he pushed a proposal through the legislative assembly that made bitcoin legal tender alongside the united states. dollar.
The move was praised by global cryptocurrency evangelists, but worries economists and international lenders such as the International Monetary Fund, which has indicated it will not give El Salvador a much-needed loan unless it ditches bitcoin.
In response, Bukele announced a $1 billion “bitcoin bonus,” the first of its kind. The offering, which has been criticized by traditional banks, was expected in March but has been delayed indefinitely. This week, Bukele pulled out of a planned appearance at a major cryptocurrency conference in Miami, citing “unforeseen circumstances in my home country that require my full-time presence.”
Bukele’s war against suspected gang members began late last month after three straight days of intense killings. authorities said 62 people were killed on the second day, March 26, making it the country’s most violent day this century.
the gangs of el salvador, which emerged in the 1990s after the united states. began deporting thousands of immigrants who had been convicted of crimes, they have long taken advantage of society, extorting small business owners in many regions.
In 2018, the country averaged nine murders per day, a significant drop from just a few years earlier, when there were 17 homicides per day. under bukele, that average dropped to around four.
bukele has credited his so-called territorial control plan, a security program whose details he has never revealed.
But investigative journalists and US officials explain the drastic reduction in homicides very differently, saying that the Bukele government has negotiated with the gangs to reduce murders.
united states the treasury department recently announced sanctions against deputy justice minister de bukele and a top presidential adviser for reaching a deal with the leaders of the ms-13 gang. The sanctions followed a report by the investigative news site El Faro that revealed evidence of the pact, including prison reports of covert meetings between officials and gang leaders.
Bukele has vehemently denied those claims.
many in el salvador assume that the explosion of violence late last month marked the breakdown of the truce.
In the ensuing crackdown, the army has set up checkpoints in poor neighborhoods and police have been ordered to stop and frisk anyone they suspect. more than 6,000 people have been detained by the security forces.
Bukele says they’re all gang members, and given the country’s history of gang warfare, a large segment of the population seems to have little problem with their tactics.
But human rights advocates say the arrests have been indiscriminate, with many innocent people arrested and denied basic due process rights.
In the country’s capital, families gather every day in front of detention centers awaiting news of the disappearance of their loved ones.
“My son has never been detained, he has never had any problems,” said this week a woman who was waiting outside a police station known as El Penalito and asked not to give her name because she fears reprisals from the government.
Her 20-year-old son was arrested on March 27 in a government raid in her town, a few miles west of San Salvador, and has not been heard from since.
“He and my daughter used to sell fruits and vegetables where we live,” he said. “He just went to work and came straight home. people at my church have been raising money to help me. Do you think they would do that if my son was a gang member?”
The crackdown has left many young people in poor neighborhoods wondering if they will be arrested next, said Pastor Pedro Gonzalez, who has asked parishioners at his church in a working-class neighborhood in the capital to write letters that members men can show security forces explaining that they are Christians.
“Almost the entire church has offered to sign letters, so that when the police stop them, they at least have something to show,” said Gonzalez, whose nephew, a mechanic, was among those arrested in the raids.
“I don’t want to stay silent,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not going to say that everyone who lives in gang-controlled communities is a criminal.”
linthicum reported from mexico city and special correspondent rauda from san salvador.