One day after work, Luís found a hole in his bedroom ceiling. Pieces of the roof were scattered all over the bed, and dirt and footprints covered the bedsheets. “It must have been them,” he thought when he found the mess about five years ago. Luís and his family were used to hearing people on the rooftops. “The boys were always running from the police across the rooftops in this neighborhood, shooting at each other,” said Luís in front of the tiny brick house he built in the La Campanera neighborhood on the outskirts of San Salvador. It was a neighborhood controlled by Barrio 18 gang for years.
“They” or “the boys” is how Luís (a pseudonym) refers to the gangs, the criminal mafias that brutalized lives for more than 30 years in the country’s poorest neighborhoods through extortion, kidnapping, rape and murder. They turned El Salvador into one of the most violent countries in the world. All this pain has been ebbing slowly during President Nayib Bukele’s savage war on gangs launched just over a year ago. Amid an outcry about human rights abuses, Bukele is achieving what once seemed impossible. The gangs are being dismantled in strongholds they controlled for decades, places where even the police didn’t dare go.
La Campanera, one of four communities visited by El PAÍS, sits at the bottom of a ravine. It has a single street that runs down the middle and a maze of narrow alleys branching off to hundreds of tiny homes huddled together. Many are empty, abandoned by owners fleeing the terror. The gang that controlled the community charged a fee just to let people live there and forced them to keep their doors unlocked in case they needed a quick hiding place. Tangles of wires tap electricity directly from street lamps. Garbage is strewn everywhere, choking the narrow alleys.
Where gang lookouts once loitered in these warrens, troops now stand guard in pairs. One hand rests loosely on a rifle while the other fans a cap for relief from the tropical heat. On the once silent street, vendors loudly announce bags of water for sale and delivery trucks with milk and bread trundle by. Taxis can pick up and deliver passengers in La Campanera again, and the water and electricity companies are starting up service.
Despite the stark contrast with the past, few people in La Campanera want to talk to us. Fear and distrust linger after decades of oppression. Before leaving to pick up his children from school, Luís tells us, “Some neighbors are thinking about returning to their abandoned houses, but many still can’t believe this is really happening.” It’s a feeling shared by the whole country, summed up in one oft-heard phrase “Imagining El Salvador without gangs is like imagining an ocean without water.”
Bukele’s soaring popularity
Bukele’s war on gangs has produced a surge in popularity and helped him consolidate power, as his party now controls the legislative and judicial branches. Four years after taking office, his approval rating is around 90%. Everyone expects him to win reelection next year after a recent legal maneuver circumventing the constitutional one-term limit. The reason? The overwhelming success of his war on gangs. According to government data, the country experienced 20 murders daily in 2015. Today there are less than three. Back then, El Salvador had a homicide rate of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in the world; in 2022, the year ended with a rate of 7.8 per 100,000.
In light of irrefutably better security, authoritarian abuses have fallen on deaf ears. Bukele’s storming of the National Assembly in 2020 and his removal of the attorney general and 10 magistrates of the Constitutional Court didn’t seem to bother many Salvadorans. Nor did the harsh state of emergency imposed a year ago that suspended many constitutional rights. The whimsical but dangerous declaration of Bitcoin as legal currency in one of the region’s poorest countries hasn’t hurt his popularity, nor have his squabbles with the US and flirtations with Russia and China.
Instead, all these moves have propelled Bukele forward because they assuage the bruised pride of a small country of seven million citizens wracked by decades of violence and displacement. A long, bloody civil war (1980-1992) led to massive outbound migration of 25% of the population. After the war ended, two gangs born in Los Angeles – MS-13 and Barrio 18 – began returning to El Salvador voluntarily and through deportation, bringing their criminal apparatus to a place many had never known.
This is the setting for Bukele’s revenge against the country’s domestic and international enemies. Eating ice cream with his two children in downtown San Salvador, truck driver Victor Manuel Vasquez said, “The president is tough, but he’s fixing El Salvador’s problems. For the first time, the world sees us as an example instead of pitying or fearing us.”
Critics in the country’s civil society organizations and the international community say it’s the same old heavy-handed recipe repackaged by a president skilled at public relations who knows how to read the times. Bukele, with his baseball cap worn backward and his pocket squares, plays simultaneous roles as media maven, televangelist and Twitter jackhammer. He’s a postmodern strongman who governs the country like a reality TV show host or a Youtube influencer.
The coolest dictator
Bukele’s communication strategy is to play offense all the time. He calls himself the coolest dictator in the world and spouts slogans like “he who forgives the wolf sacrifices the sheep.” He audaciously records conversations with ambassadors secretly and accuses international organizations of being “gang collaborators.” Bukele’s PR machine has even released videos of prisoners that look like slick movie trailers. Politics as performance, as a spectacle, was there from the beginning of Bukele’s meteoric career. He first entered politics at 30, and seven years later, he became the youngest head of state in the world.
Despite being raised in privilege, Bukele has always presented himself as an outsider. Early in his career, he belonged to the FMLN party – one of the country’s two dominant parties – and then capitalized on the public’s weariness and frustration with both. The three presidents before Bukele have all been charged with public corruption – one is in prison, and the other two are fugitives.
“Give back what you stole!” That was one of Bukele’s campaign slogans as he rose to become mayor of San Salvador, the nation’s capital. He implemented some progressive policies and slowly distanced himself from the FMLN until he broke away from the party and formed a new one in his own image and likeness: the Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party. He maintains a tight circle of trust and keeps his right-hand younger brother, Karim, at his side. People who have worked closely with Bukele say he’s a compulsive social media user whose behavior is often erratic. “We had 30 WhatsApp groups, and meetings were a show where he was the only speaker,” said a former senior cabinet official who prefers to remain anonymous. “His brother was always at every meeting.”
After a brief and uneventful relationship with the Trump administration, Bukele’s authoritarian drift has led the Biden administration to rachet up its criticism. Last year, his announcement about plans to run for reelection, constitutionally prohibited at the time, drew US sanctions for corruption and anti-democratic behavior that canceled visas and froze assets for some of Bukele’s closest allies.
Jean Manes, the former US Chargé d’affaires in El Salvador, once compared Bukele to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Salvadoran and international organizations like Human Rights Watch have denounced systematic abuses during the state of emergency that has jailed over 60,000 citizens. Reports abound about deaths in the prisons, torture and arbitrary detentions, including minors. The prisoners are completely isolated from the outside world and allowed no contact with lawyers and relatives. Virtual trials are conducted without witnesses in a process shrouded in opacity and irregularity. A government spokesperson we contacted has declined to comment on these allegations. The only official information is a Bukele tweet: “There is only a 1% rate of error in the arrests.”
An end to the truce
Eimy (a pseudonym) sits on a plastic chair outside her home, embroidering a flower-patterned tablecloth. She tells us how, late last March, police and soldiers lined up “more than 10 boys” against the yellow wall next to her house. “Then they handcuffed and took them away in the patrol car.” Eimy lives in Distrito Italia, a slum in northern San Salvador and an MS-13 gang stronghold where the anti-gang security operation began. As a show of force a week earlier, gangs killed 83 people in three days, an indiscriminate massacre in 12 of the country’s 14 departments. The secret truce Bukele’s team negotiated with the gangs was now dead.
During those bloody three days, Eimy found a dead soldier a block from her home. “They were shooting at each other, and you didn’t know who was who,” she said. Eimy’s toddler daughter plays on the sidewalk with a rabbit. Her 19-year-old daughter emerges from the house and sits in a hammock hung between lampposts. The house next door is abandoned, and behind the hammock are piles of garbage and a couple of decrepit cars.
The gang that controlled her neighborhood charged Eimy’s family $40 monthly for the right to live in their own little ramshackle home. Her husband earns about $300 monthly from his job as a messenger. Their teenage daughter hardly ever went outside back then – her parents would take her to and from school and lock the doors when they returned home. “The boys would hassle her all the time, and some girls from the neighborhood were kidnapped,” said Eimy. Eimy’s daughter said from the hammock, “It was fun and games for them, but I didn’t like it. They would say sexual things to me.”
The family lives in peace now, although a cousin was swept up in the mass arrests. “He’s a construction worker, and they came for him one morning. It’s not right because there’s no way he did anything. He has Down syndrome and doesn’t even understand what they’re saying. We don’t know anything about what happened to him.” Human rights organizations have denounced several cases of arrests of people with disabilities. Eimy is silent for a few seconds before venturing an opinion about the dilemma. “What the government is doing is tough, but the benefits outweigh the mistakes.”
Shredded social bonds in the convulsed Salvadoran society are central themes of Horacio Castellano Moya’s novels. For Castellano, one of the most respected voices in Central America, the nation’s civil war began much earlier during the 1932 insurrection and lasted until the 1991 peace accords – almost 60 years of conflict. Social psychologist Veronica Reina says the violence didn’t end when democracy returned in 1991. “The culture and the use of violence have never subsided. It has always been the way to deal with social problems here. It has affected how institutions develop and how authority is understood. A good leader inflicts punishment. Having a family member in prison is acceptable after decades of gang oppression and systematic police abuse.”
Threats and opacity
Fear, silence, apathy and complicity – these are the words Judge Antonio Durán uses to describe the mood among his colleagues. “There has been no judicial independence since the 2021 coup,” said Durán in the cafeteria of José Simeón Cañas University, where he has taught criminal law for over 30 years. Durán refers to Bukele’s sudden firing of the attorney general and the five Constitutional Court judges. Violating numerous regulations, Bukele installed loyalists in their place after sweeping the legislative elections two years ago. One of the few who protested, Durán was threatened and transferred from his San Salvador court to a small town on the capital’s outskirts.
Bukele’s assault on the judiciary began shortly after taking office. In response to a 2020 ruling challenging his pandemic confinement measures, the president went on television and said, “I would have shot them all [the five Constitutional Court magistrates] if I were really a dictator. I prefer to sacrifice five to save 1,000.” Months earlier, Bukele stormed into the National Assembly flanked by troops to demand legislative approval of his security budget.
The banished judge claims he has been threatened by Bukele-aligned colleagues, harassed by military and police forces, and spied on by drones flying over his house. “The harassment eased recently because international organizations have intervened, but the persecution of dissenters is constant.” The Bukele administration has also been accused of harassing independent journalism and allegedly spied on at least 22 El Faro journalists using Pegasus software. At least five high-ranking officials of the previous government, including a minister, are in jail or have ongoing legal proceedings for corruption. An opposition spokesperson who prefers to remain anonymous said the government wants to completely silence dissent. “They control the attorney general and all the judges. They can do whatever they want.”
Government accountability has become increasingly challenging to monitor due to the opacity surrounding the Bukele administration. Over the last two years, the Executive Branch has eroded the law of public information access, blocked the release of public procurement data, and crippled the public information institute established during the return to democracy after the 1991 peace accords.
Bukele’s controversial Bitcoin initiative has also been cloaked in darkness. In 2021, the president decreed Bitcoin as a legal tender in El Salvador. But public adoption of Bitcoin has been weak. When we visited a fried chicken chain store and a coffee shop in downtown San Salvador, neither had the government-approved system for handling Bitcoin payments. “It’s a very expensive system, so my boss hasn’t done it,” said an employee. The only solid number available is the $200 million initial outlay for the Bitcoin program. Beyond a few presidential tweets announcing Bitcoin purchases, the country’s exact investment in the cryptocurrency is unknown. International organizations have warned about the program’s risk to the country’s public finances and potential bankruptcy, especially after the value of Bitcoin plunged by over 40% last year.
“The law is like a snake; it only bites the barefoot,” Monsignor Oscar Romero once said. Romero was assassinated early in the civil war for defending El Salvador’s poor against army abuses. A man helping his son do homework on a street curb recalls the famous Romero quote. They live in Las Margaritas in Soyapango, a longtime MS-13 base of operations that looks peaceful and quiet today.
Manuel (another pseudonym) is 52 and served in the army during the civil war. “It was an income,” he shrugged. Manuel shows the owl tattoo on his left arm. “If you were killed, at least your family could identify you by the tattoo.” He’s happy that the gangs are no longer suffocating the neighborhood but is wary of what might happen when the media attention dies down, and security forces stop patrolling the streets. Manuel carefully sharpened his son’s pencil and said, “This country may look like it suffered a biblical curse, but we will persevere.”
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