María spent Monday searching for her 16-year-old son, checking several prisons and juvenile detention centers with no luck — he was one of hundreds of people detained in the hours after a state of emergency went into effect across El Salvador the day before.
“The police told me they would only book him and I haven’t seen him since,” she said nervously, asking her to remember her last name for fear of police reprisals.
The arrests of María’s son and others came after 62 people were killed by gangs on Saturday, the bloodiest day in the country since the end of the civil war three decades ago. But human rights groups and analysts have expressed concern that the mass arrests have little to do with the weekend’s killings. and fear that the new measures will allow El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele to further consolidate power.
The violence prompted a swift response from the Salvadoran government: military and police surrounded neighborhoods, searched vehicles and searched anyone who wanted to enter or exit. El Salvador’s parliament approved the 30-day emergency decree, suspending some civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution and giving the government the ability to make arbitrary arrests, wiretap telephones without a court order and break public meetings.
On Sunday night, Salvadoran security forces said they were… had held 576 people in different neighborhoods around the capital. Some people said they were not even given basic information as to why their loved ones were being held or where.
“There is no major evidence linking many of the arrested people to Saturday’s murders,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central American analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank that analyzes global conflict and unrest.
“Some of the inmates are old gang members and have been inactive for a while. Others are not necessarily gang members,” he said. “It’s a stigmatized cleanup where anyone who looks like a criminal can be arrested.”
María’s son, José Luis, was among those arbitrarily detained while he and his mother were at their home in Santa Tecla, near the capital San Salvador. On Sunday afternoon, the police knocked on their door and took José Luis forcibly, without explanation, María said.
He was hardly the exception; security forces also arrested a well-known evangelical preacher who used to be a mobster but dropped out more than a decade ago. The pastor, William Arias, had devoted his life’s work to persuading gang members to reintegrate into society. He was arrested near his church, according to a neighbor.
On Monday afternoon, several women were looking for their sons and husbands in the naval barracks in the capital, a detention center.
Eugenia, a street vendor, arrived looking for her 18-year-old son, Kevin, who was arrested Sunday afternoon, along with some of his friends, while they were watching a football game in their neighborhood. Local police officials told Eugenia he had been charged with the crime of being part of an “illegal group”, but provided no details or evidence.
“Now the police and military are not asking for anything,” said Eugenia, who, like everyone else interviewed, asked not to mention her last name for fear of retaliation.
“They’re hitting all the people,” she added.
El Salvador’s government went to great lengths to demonstrate its efforts, tweeting videos of security forces raiding houses in poor neighborhoods and arresting dozens of people on the street. Mr Bukele implied: on Twitter that there had been about 1,000 arrests since Sunday morning, in addition to the 16,000 gang members who, he said, were already in jail and would also be punished for the weekend’s violence.
The president said on Sunday the government could extend the state of emergency beyond the 30 days approved by parliament, raising fears the ruling could be used to extend the crackdown and arrest critics of the government.
“The suspension of certain constitutional rights in El Salvador opens the door to all kinds of abuses,” said Juan Pappier, senior analyst at Human Rights Watch. said on Twitter on Monday.
Bukele has been criticized for using the military to interfere with the legislature and for his decision last year to fire Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General in what the opposition called an unconstitutional coup. On Monday, the president — who accused the United States of supporting the opposition in the past — appeared keen to involve the international community in his ongoing fight against the gangs.
After saying on Twitter that he had ordered prisons to ration food to incarcerated gang members, Mr Bukele issued a thinly veiled challenge to the United States: “And if the ‘international community’ is concerned about their little angels, come and bring them food, because I will not take money from schools to feed these terrorists.”
Such statements have disturbed the president’s critics, especially after Mr Bukele’s administration urged parliament to propose a bill that human rights groups say could restrict the work of independent journalists and civil society groups if they use funding or support from the government. received abroad. The proposed law is currently under discussion and would force entities to register as foreign agents, with their funding subject to a 40 percent tax.
Last year, the United States accused Mr Bukele of making a secret deal with the country’s most feared gangs, such as MS-13. The Treasury Department sanctioned several top officials in Mr. Bukele’s government in December, accusing them of providing financial incentives, prostitutes and access to cell phones to gang leaders imprisoned in Salvadoran prisons in exchange for containing violence by the gangs.
Mr. Bukele is one of several Salvadoran presidents accused of making such deals to reduce crime in the run-up to the election. The president campaigned promising to bring order and calm to the streets of El Salvador, some of the world’s most violent. Since taking office nearly three years ago, he seemed to deliver on that promise.
But on Saturday, the gangs murdered at random: street vendors, people who bought bread and taxi drivers. Analysts and a US official said on Sunday the government deal with the gangs may be falling apart – the killing spree appeared to be pushing to renegotiate the terms of the alleged settlement.
Mr Bukele has denied that his government made a deal, saying instead that the lower levels of violence are the result of a secret security strategy called the Territorial Control Plan, which has never been released publicly.
“The territorial control plan remains one of the best-kept secrets of President Bukele’s administration,” said Astrid Valencia, a Central American researcher at Amnesty International. “This shows the authorities’ rejection of transparency.”
Ms Valencia added that the tool the authorities seemed to rely on – mass arrests – had been used by previous governments with little success.
“We need a comprehensive strategy,” she said.
The gang violence that the country suffers from in many ways originated on the streets of Los Angeles. During the country’s civil war, thousands of Salvadorans migrated to the city, settling in poor and marginalized communities already riddled with gang violence. Many of those migrants joined existing gangs or started their own gangs for protection.
After the war ended in 1992, thousands of Salvadoran immigrants arrested for gang violence in the United States were deported and returned to their homeland only to find it in ruins. The scars of the war in El Salvador had cut the fabric of society, leaving a decrepit state with few amenities — perfect conditions for the recent deportees to set up divisions of their gangs in Los Angeles, Central America.
Now MS-13 has evolved into a transnational criminal organization with a hand in everything from garbage collection to illegal drugs in several countries.