SOYAPANGO, El Salvador — Soldiers arrived at dawn, shut down an entire municipality in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, stopped cars, forced passengers to get off buses and ordered the men to take off shirt off and show them that they don’t have gang tattoos. .
For many in this once gang-ridden community, displays of force are welcome.
“In the past, thugs were responsible,” said María, a shop owner who asked not to publish her last name for her safety. “Now, there are almost no gang members.”
When gang violence broke out in March, killing more than 60 people in the country’s bloodiest day since civil war in El Salvador 30 years ago, President Nayib Bukele’s government quickly declared a state of emergency. emergency, suspending important constitutional rights.
The measure was supposed to be temporary, a means to quickly restore public order and give the government greater powers to impose a nationwide crackdown on organized crime groups, like the sadistic MS-13 gang, which has long terrorized this Central American country.
But more than eight months later, the emergency decree is still in force, the army patrols the streets, mass arrests occur daily, and prisons fill up, moving El Salvador toward a police state. really.
Now, a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Wednesday offers a comprehensive assessment of Mr Bukele’s heavy-handed approach, documenting a campaign of arbitrary arrests, torture and death. died while being detained in a state of emergency.
“It’s the perfect recipe for abuses and violations of human rights,” said Juan Pappier, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The president’s press secretary did not respond to a request for comment, but Mr Bukele, in a speech to the National Police last month, dismissed international criticism of his tactics and praised law enforcement agencies in solving crimes.
“You are bringing peace to the people of Salvador,” he said.
Despite condemnation outside El Salvador and among human rights groups at home, Mr. Bukele’s policy appears to be achieving several goals: Murders have plummeted, while neighborhoods once have. Many raging gangs that they consider unsafe to enter are relatively peaceful.
From January to the end of October, 463 people were killed in El Salvador, down 50% from the same period last year, according to a national police document produced by Human Rights Watch and a Salvadoran advocacy group. , Cristosal, also worked. about the emergency verification report.
The emerging picture highlights a fundamental tension: In a country traumatized by chronic gang warfare, the crackdown has provided a respite for violence, overcoming fear of indifference. democracy and leverage an increasingly autocratic leader to implement his policies.
“I can’t enter this neighborhood because of the thugs,” said Ricardo, a 37-year-old street merchant in San Salvador’s Las Margaritas neighborhood.
Extortion, a major source of revenue for the gangs, also appears to have declined. According to the country’s security minister, extortion cases have dropped by 80% since the state of emergency began. This number is difficult to independently verify, but several business leaders interviewed by The New York Times say extortion has dropped significantly.
Although the Bukele government’s lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess the reliability of official crime data, experts say there is little doubt that violence has decreased significantly since began to issue an emergency decree.
“This crackdown is unprecedented,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst at the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization. “Without a doubt, this has weakened the gangs.”
But if criminal groups have been crippled, so are many of El Salvador’s civil liberties.
Since March, the Legislative Council, controlled by Mr Bukele’s party, has passed legislation allowing judges to imprison children as young as 12, restricting freedom of speech, and expanding the use of the measure. pre-trial detention and allow prosecutors and judges to try them in their absence.
But Mr Bukele’s approval rating, according to polls, remains above 80%, suggesting that many Salvadorans crave more safety, even if it means a repressive system. than.
“They were desperate because of the level of violence and control of the gangs,” says José Miguel Cruz, an expert on El Salvador’s gang violence at Florida International University, “that they would accept that kind of deal with the devil.”
However, even if there is less violence in El Salvador, such a drop may be temporary without addressing the root causes, including poverty and corruption. alarm analysis.
And indiscriminately imprisoning young men who may have done nothing wrong along with gang members could lead to large numbers of disgruntled youth, who can be more easily recruited for the gangs.
“Similar policies of mass detention and iron fists in El Salvador and the rest of the region have shown that in the long run, they fail to achieve sustainable results and fuel violence,” said Mr. Pappier. increase again.
As Human Rights Watch reports, the state of emergency has been used as a blunt tool, with police commanders setting up a quota system that requires officers to arrest a certain number of people. certain every day.
The prison system is at a breaking point, with nearly 100,000 people behind bars as of November, three times the capacity of the country’s criminal system. At least 90 people have died in custody since the state of emergency began. Human Rights Watch has documented at least two cases where authorities appear to have failed to provide detainees with necessary medications.
The crackdown wiped out not only gang members, but also children, women, and people with physical and mental disabilities. Some residents in poor neighborhoods who used to be afraid of gang members said they were more afraid of the Salvadoran police.
Hilda Solorzano, 34, who lives in the town of Jucuapa, in the east of the country, said: “The government can do much worse things to you.
Solorzano’s younger brother, Adrián, 30, was arrested in April and charged with terrorism. “It was shocking when the police came and said they had to take him away,” she said, adding that her brother had done nothing wrong.
Adrián was eventually transferred to a notorious prison commonly known as Mariona, near the capital, according to his sister, before being ordered to be held for six months before his trial.
Then on July 5, representatives of a funeral home came to the family home and announced: Adrián was dead, strangled to death while in custody. It is unclear how or by whom he was killed.
Ms Solorzano, who identified her brother’s body, said the government offered no explanation and denied the family’s request for an official autopsy report.
“Going to bed at night, closing my eyes is the picture when I go to pick up my children,” she said.
Now, Ms. Solorzano fears that because she spoke out about the incident, she too could be a target.
“When I go out to work, I get scared,” she said. “I’m afraid that one day they’ll say, ‘You’re under arrest too.'”
Bryan Avelar reported from Soyapango, El Salvador and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.