“Trapped in this hell”: how a city in El Salvador transformed under Bukele | Human Rights News

Puerto el Triunfo, Salvador – The day the army invaded Puerto el Triunfo is etched in Rosa’s memory like a painful scar.

Rosa, who asked to use pseudonyms for herself and her family, was born and raised in a small fishing village surrounded by the emerald green mangroves of El Salvador’s southern coast.

On a spring night in April 2022, she fell asleep after texting early in the morning with her younger brother, Jorge Antonio, who lived a few doors away.

The two had always been close. As children, they ran hand in hand, dipping their toes in the sandy beach not far from the family home. Today, as adults, they were planning to go abroad.

However, a sudden phone call woke Rosa up that night. His parents were on the other end of the line, frantic.

“At four in the morning, soldiers would raid every house in the neighborhood,” Rosa said. They had come to knock on the door of the family home, where Jorge Antonio, his son Santiago and their parents lived.

Soldiers were searching for the gang members. But as Rosa’s parents would later tell her, they quickly focused their attention on Jorge Antonio, a single parent and public sector employee.

“They searched the house but found nothing suspicious. They checked his body for tattoos, but my brother doesn’t have any,” Rosa said.

The soldiers decided to arrest him anyway. Jorge Antonio was taken with other local men accused of gang membership.

The last time Rosa saw him, he was kneeling, handcuffed, in the street outside the local police station. Usually well dressed, he always wore the pajamas he went to bed in.

He is believed to be one of thousands of Salvadorans victims of mass arrests since President Nayib Bukele took office.

Nayib Bukele, wearing a long-sleeved black shirt, stands behind a podium and delivers a speech with his arms outstretched in gesture.  Behind him is a Salvadoran flag.
President Nayib Bukele has overseen a nationwide crackdown on gangs in El Salvador, raising human rights concerns (File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

On Sunday, Bukele is seeking a second term, as Salvadorans go to the polls to vote in the country. general election.

But even though Bukele enjoys widespread support, residents like Rosa have seen their communities transformed by his mandate. crime suppression – and not always for the best.

For years, Puerto El Triunfo, a town of 16,000 people, was terrorized by gangs. They demanded extortion fees from businesses, recruited children as members, and disappeared those who disobeyed them.

Rosa still remembers a time when screams and explosions of bullets pierced the calm of the night.

“There were shootings. They hit women. You couldn’t enter (other parts of the city) if you came from another area. They would kill you,” Rosa told Al Jazeera.

Under Bukele, the gangs are now gone, Rosa said. But also dear members of the community: fishermen, barbers, a former mayor and even the motorcycle taxi driver who dressed up as the town’s Santa Claus and gives gifts to children every year.

The city is calmer than it used to be. Gang members with tattooed faces and guns have been replaced by men wearing uniforms and guns — and with the power to do whatever they want, Rosa said.

She described it as a new type of nightmare, even more terrifying than before.

“Recently, the soldiers took away old and sick people who could barely walk – good and humble people who had worked hard all their lives,” Rosa said.

His uncle, his cousin and many friends were also arrested during the military raids, not forgetting Jorge Antonio.

“Those of us who are ‘free’ live every day in pain and anguish without knowing anything about those detained,” she explained despondently. “I am trapped in this hell. We all are here.

A line of young men – some shirtless with tattoos, others in green shirts – stand with their heads bowed outside in Puerto el Triunfo.
Police identify suspected members of the 18th Street gang in Puerto el Triunfo, El Salvador, in 2017 (File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

The crackdown began in March 2022, following a surge in gang violence that left 87 people dead in a single weekend. In response, Bukele announced a national initiative emergency statesuspending certain civil liberties in order to quickly curb the violence.

The decision sent military troops cascading to every corner of the country.

People with criminal records and bodies covered in tattoos, a common characteristic of gang members, were arrested. But critics say many innocent people have also been arrested, with little recourse to appeal their arrests.

By the end of 2023, more than 75,000 people Those accused of gang membership had been absorbed into the prison system, approximately 1 percent of the total population.

But the Salvadoran group Humanitarian legal aid (SJH) – also known as Humanitarian Legal Aid – estimates that around 20,000 of those imprisoned are innocent.

Ingrid Escobar, the director of the SJH, explained that judicial reforms introduced under Bukele’s state of emergency have eroded the right to a fair trial and presumption of innocence.

“They are not listening to the call from human rights groups to examine the cases of thousands of innocent people who have no tattoos or criminal records but are paying a sentence they should not not,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bukele supporters defend restrictions imposed by the emergency state as a necessary element in combating deeply rooted criminality.

Ingrid Escobar, with long braided hair and wearing a yellow T-shirt, sits at the table in front of her laptop, while a second woman speaks to her.
Ingrid Escobar, director of Socorro Jurídico Humanitario, meets with families who say their loved ones were unjustly arrested (Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera)

Once the most dangerous country in Latin America, El Salvador has seen its murder rate drop by more than 106 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 at a rate of 2.4 in 2023, according to government figures.

Critics, however, point out that the numbers were already declining before Bukele came to power in 2019. They also question whether Bukele “hard hand» – or “iron fist” – policies are sustainable.

“Mass incarceration and isolation of gang leaders in maximum security prisons never contributes to weakening gangs in the long term,” said Sonja Wolf, a researcher at Mexico’s National Council of Humanities, Sciences and Technology. technology (CONAHCYT) and author of the book Mano Dura. : The politics of gang control in El Salvador.

“Such a precarious peace is notoriously unstable,” Wolf added.

In Puerto El Triunfo, for example, the armed forces themselves are suspected of illegal activities. The community has made accusations that some soldiers gave false testimony to make arrests.

A navy lieutenant captain, for example, was accused of threatening to arrest local women – or their partners – if they refused his sexual advances. He was arrested but was reportedly released while his case was processed.

“The military has been given excessive power in Puerto El Triunfo,” said Escobar of Humanitarian Legal Aid. His group helped free seven of the 25 people he said were arbitrarily arrested on an island in the municipality of Puerto El Triunfo.

“We win cases because there is no evidence, only lies,” she added.

A man in a red shirt stands on the back of a small boat crossing the water.  Before him are two older women, a child and a woman with a baby on her lap.
Residents of Puerto el Triunfo said innocent family members were taken away in military raids (Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera)

Yet with extremely high approval ratings, Bukele appears poised to score another landslide victory at Sunday’s polls, which Wolf says will further embolden him.

“We can expect not only repression but also institutional erosion to continue,” she said.

Bukele nevertheless faced intense international pressure to end his government’s abuses and avoid further democratic backsliding.

Last year, for example, the United Nations called for Bukele to comply with international human rights law, amid reports of “serious violations of prisoners’ rights”, arbitrary detentions and general “mistreatment” of suspects.

But Wolf cautioned that Bukele is unlikely to pay much attention to the criticism, especially as his country expands its relationship with China.

“If El Salvador can get economic support from a country that rivals the United States and has little regard for human rights, Bukele has no reason to accept the democratic side of the international community,” said Wolf.

Colorful wooden boats parked on a dock in Puerto el Triunfo, El Salvador.
Located in the shadow of a volcano, Puerto el Triunfo is a fishing town of around 16,000 inhabitants (Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera)

Santiago, Rosa’s nephew and Jorge Antonio’s son, is among those grappling with the changes under Bukele.

As a result of the gang crackdown, the teenager was left without a father. Rosa takes care of him instead. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Santiago mourned the life he once had.

“My father used to take me to restaurants. He would take me to the mall, one of my favorite places,” he said.

“Now we don’t go out anymore. After all this time without news of my father, my family became sad and desperate. The joy and happiness I had is gone.

He also feels anxious when he sees the increased military presence on the city streets.

“I’m terrified when I see soldiers because I think they’re going to take me too. I can’t even go swimming in the river because of the diet,” Santiago said, crying softly.

He has not been able to speak to his father since his arrest in 2022, due to strict restrictions that prisoners face.

Life has changed dramatically in Puerto El Triunfo. Some of the colorful fishing boats around the pink brick pier are abandoned. Where laughter once filled homes, there is now a void, according to Santiago and others.

But fear and uncertainty remain.

“If I could talk to my dad, I would tell him I miss him,” Santiago said. “I would say he has to keep going and stay strong, because one day, I hope, we will meet again.”

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