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Dany Díaz MejíaApril 13, 2022
Heavily armed police guard the streets in down town San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 27. El Salvador's congress has granted President Nayib Bukele request to declare a state of emergency, after a wave of gang-related killings. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)Heavily armed police guard the streets in down town San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 27. El Salvador's congress has granted President Nayib Bukele request to declare a state of emergency, after a wave of gang-related killings. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

A three-day weekend of extreme gang violence in El Salvador, March 25 to March 27, ended with 87 people dead. March 26, when 62 people were killed, was the deadliest day since the country’s civil war ended in 1992. Victims included people seemingly shot at random by gang members across the country.

The government of President Nayib Bukele responded by declaring a state of emergency on March 27, suspending various civil liberties for 30 days and expanding the armed forces’ enforcement powers. Civil liberties suspended by the emergency declaration include freedom of association, the right to legal counsel in case of detention and the right to remain silent if arrested.

Celia Medrano, a longtime human rights defender in El Salvador, warned that the rhetoric used by the government to justify the state of emergency will lead to human rights abuses and more violence.

“The government’s rhetoric revolves around hate, arguing it should respond to the alleged perpetrators with the same violence they have exerted on people, justifying its use of force and humiliation,” Ms. Medrano said. “This will only cause more victims, violence and pain. The government’s approach is based on political calculations rather than tackling the root causes of insecurity.”

Celia Medrano, a longtime human rights defender in El Salvador, warned that the rhetoric used by the government to justify the state of emergency will lead to human rights abuses and more violence.

In a sign of the uncertainty that the new laws are creating around free expression, a source from SPASS (Servicio Social Pasionista), a human-rights organization affiliated with the Catholic Church in El Salvador, asked to remain anonymous in order to discuss the Bukele administration’s latest moves. This source sees the state of emergency as a measure that stigmatizes men who are poor and young, cutting off the possibility of deploying less repressive strategies to intervene against gang violence.

“Right now, the last thing you can talk about is social reinsertion and rehabilitation [of gang offenders]. The government’s actions go hand in hand with a discourse full of hatred, encouraging the cruel treatment of those being arrested,” the source said.

The emergency declaration allows the government to arrest citizens for 15 days without charging them, listen to private communications without a warrant and detain anyone suspected of belonging to a gang. The government also announced new restrictions in prisons that included limiting meals to two per day, locking inmates in their cells 24/7 and removing sleeping mats as a type of collective punishment.

Three days into the state of emergency declaration, the Salvadoran Congress approved significant increases in prison sentences for gang members, including those arrested as minors. Now gang membership can be punished with 30 years’ incarceration, and minors aged 12 to 16 can receive up to 10-year sentences; 16-year-olds can be sentenced up to 20 years.

“These reforms will lead to the criminalization of journalists and those who report on the government’s negotiations with gangs.”

On April 5, Congress approved reforms to the criminal code that will punish anyone who “reproduces or transmits messages from gangs” with a possible prison term of 10 to 15 years. The source from SPASS believes this reform is intended to silence journalists who are speaking out against human rights abuses by the government. “These reforms will lead to the criminalization of journalists and those who report on the government’s negotiations with gangs,” the source said.

During a recent legislative session, Walter Coto, a member of Congress from Mr. Bukele’s ruling party, waved off criticism that the state of emergency violates fundamental human rights. “Human rights are only for humans,” he said, a statement that tracks the president’s recent hashtag, #WarAgainstGangs.

The two main gangs in the country, MS-13 and Barrio 18, originated in Los Angeles and started operating in El Salvador in the 1990s following the widespread deportation of gang members from the United States to El Salvador. Now an estimated 70,000 gang members control streets and communities across the country.

Gangs gain most of their income from extortion, especially in communities where they have become the de facto rulers. They drive much of the homicidal violence in the country, force internal and external migration, and engage in drug trafficking and other illicit activities.

A February article in the journal Social Problems finds that 60 percent of active gang members in El Salvador want to leave their gangs. When asked about what they must do to exit the gang, a little over half—51.2 percent—said they must join a church or follow God. That finding suggests that faith communities could play an important role in tackling the gang problem.

José Miguel Cruz, a gang expert and coauthor of the study, believes the government has missed the opportunity to use its political capital to transform El Salvador’s approach to gangs and instead has relied on repressive tactics that have failed in the past.

Asked about what they must do to exit the gang, a little over half said they must join a church or follow God. That finding suggests that faith communities could play an important role in tackling the gang problem.

A pastor of an evangelical church that works with former gang members, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that reconciliation is the only way to stop the cycle of violence. “Many young people are seeking to quit the gangs, but neither society nor our churches have been willing to open those types of spaces for them,” he said. “But the truth is that it doesn’t matter how low you have fallen, the Gospel gives us a clear example of a man possessed by demons who finds transformation. So, you see, exclusion and stigma go against the Gospel.”

He fears the state of emergency will make his work harder. “This type of measure increases judgments and accusations against those of us who work on reinsertion [to society from gang life]. I’ve been accused of being a pastor for gangsters, but I know I must stay true to my calling. Fewer people will want to sign up for this work after the government’s actions,” he said.

According to Mr. Cruz, when a young person leaves a gang because they have joined a church, gang leaders monitor them to see if the conversion is genuine and check for visible practices. These are more common and easier to track in evangelical churches, which might explain why there has been less acceptance from gang leaders when members claim they wish to break away to become closer to the Catholic Church.

However, the pastor sees opportunities for ecumenical work among Catholic and other Christian anti-gang initiatives. “The gang situation affects the whole country. All Christian organizations need to unite efforts to face it. Politicians have their projects, but there’s nothing like what we can do because we can see people just as humans in need of a living word. I think that if [St. Óscar] Romero were alive, he would be speaking about what the Gospel has to say about getting closer to those who are most excluded,” he said.

Mr. Bukele, who took office in 2019, drew widespread public support by vowing to make El Salvador safer and to fight corruption, promising to never repeat the mistakes of the “same-old ones,” a term he used to refer to members of the country’s ruling parties and to people critical of his administration. He founded the New Ideas party, which won a sweeping majority in Congress during the 2021 midterm elections.

“Many young people are seeking to quit the gangs, but neither society nor our churches have been willing to open those types of spaces for them.”

Since Mr. Bukele took office, the yearly homicide rate has decreased from 36 to 18 per 100,000 people. He attributes this drop to his security strategy, the Territorial Control Plan, an effort by the government to snatch power from the gangs in communities across the country. Little is known of the actual plan since the government has kept its details under wraps.

The plan has been questioned by independent journalists and civil society organizations because of this lack of transparency. A 2020 investigation by El Faro, a media outlet based in San Salvador, concluded that the drastic fall in homicides was the result of secret negotiations between the Bukele administration and the MS-13 gang, rather than any public security improvements that could be attributed to the T.C.P.

In December 2021, the U.S. government sanctioned El Salvador’s prison director and the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit director, charging that they had “led, facilitated and organized a number of secret meetings involving incarcerated gang leaders, in which known gang members were allowed to enter the prison facilities and meet with senior gang leadership.”

Mr. Bukele has denied any dialogue with gangs by his administration, claiming these accusations come from members of former leading parties, Arena and F.M.L.N., who want to see him fail in his efforts to transform El Salvador.

The police and the military increased their visibility across El Salvador on March 27. In San Salvador the military is restricting access to residents of neighborhoods controlled by the MS-13 gang. On April 10, President Bukele said via Twitter that the government had arrested over 9,000 people since declaring the state of emergency.

Jeannette Aguilar, a Salvadoran security expert, said there was “no evidence that can credibly link the Territorial Control Plan and the fall of homicides in El Salvador. We must also note that even as homicides have fallen, the number of people who go missing and are later found interred in clandestine graves has increased.

MS-13 manages most aspects of everyday life in Fátima’s community. “They check your mail, decide if you can open a business and even whether a pizza delivery can go into the neighborhood.”

“The plan is just a tool for political marketing,” she said.

“Gangs hold the real power in the territory. Nothing happens without their backing,” Ms. Aguilar said. “The only way to compete with the gang’s control of the territory is with economic opportunities, with real state presence, with social investment, with inclusion alternatives for youth, and with a long-term and measurable security strategy.”

Fátima is a young woman who lives in a neighborhood controlled by the MS-13 gang in San Salvador. She said MS-13 manages most aspects of everyday life in her community. “They check your mail, decide if you can open a business and even whether a pizza delivery can go into the neighborhood,” she said.

Although there’s a police station near her house, she has little trust in the police. “When you live in my neighborhood, it is not only the gang that harasses you. I can’t count the number of times a police or military officer stopped my cousins, beat them up or just searched them for no reason.”

Danilo Flores, director of the Human Rights Observatory at the University of Central America, a Jesuit university in El Salvador, charges that Mr. Bukele has used security worries to concentrate power in his office, violating human rights and eroding democracy, but he has so far suffered no political consequences. He enjoys high approval ratings from a Salvadoran public exhausted by crime. Mr. Flores believes the emergency declaration has escalated this trend toward public acceptance of more authoritarian control.

“Congress has taken actions that undermine democracy, like removing the attorney general and justices of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, replacing them with officials closely aligned with the New Ideas Party, and transferring power from the local government to the national government, a move that shows the president’s authoritarian streak,” Mr. Flores said.

“The executive controls the police, the military, the Supreme Court and Congress. It also claimed to have violence under control, but if the government had taken away control from gangs in communities, then you wouldn’t need to declare a state of emergency,” he said.

The situation in El Salvador echoes the Los Angeles gang challenges in the 1990s that Greg Boyle, S.J., described in a recent article for America. Perhaps the country will come to his realization that “no kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang; he is fleeing something. No hopeful kid has ever joined a gang.”

Correction: Jeannette Aguilar's and President Nayib Bukele’s names were misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

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