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War on gangs forges new El Salvador, but the price is steep

One year ago, President Nayib Bukele suspended constitutional rights and started an all-out offensive on gangs, leading to the arrest of more than 65,000 people

Inmates identified by authorities as gang members are seated on the prison floor of the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, El Salvador
In this photo provided by El Salvador's presidential press office, inmates identified are seated on the floor of the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, El Salvador, on March 15, 2023.AP

For the family of 44-year-old Maritza Pacheco, opening a corner shop outside their home four months ago was a small miracle. Pacheco had lived like many in El Salvador’s capital: in constant panic. Warring gangs – MS-13 and Barrio 18 — would send gunfire ringing out over flimsy tin-sheet homes, terrorizing and extorting poor communities like hers.

Her family isolated themselves, determined not to get sucked into the lawlessness around them until the gangs began closing in on her teenage son. Early last year, Pacheco paid to have him and a sister smuggled to the U.S.

But over the past year, El Salvador has undergone a radical transformation since President Nayib Bukele – the self-described “world’s coolest dictator” — suspended constitutional rights and started an all-out offensive on the gangs.

Bukele has imprisoned over 65,000 of the nation’s 6.3 million people, packing thousands inside a “mega-prison.” Gang presence has dwindled, and bloodshed across the country has faded away.

Pacheco and her daughter no longer sell produce in secret to avoid gang payments. Fruit vendors and food deliveries that wouldn’t dare to enter their neighborhood started rolling through. Then came banks, one of which gave them a loan to open their shop. Selling candies, sodas and pastries to neighborhood kids, the family went from subsisting to saving for the future.

“People come and stay sometimes until 12 or 1 in the morning,” she said. “And it’s so safe that we can stay open.”

Salvadorans cherish small new freedoms: traversing the capital at night, ordering pizza delivery, doing aerobics in a park. For others, the transformation comes at a steep price.

Large swaths of San Salvador remain militarized, and officers push into homes to strip-search families. Tens of thousands of children have been separated from their parents. The crackdown has fueled a flood of reports of human rights abuses. And for many, fear of the gangs has been replaced by fear of the very government claiming to protect them.

“The long term question, and what I fear, is: Is this going to become a police state?” said Michael Paarlberg, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University researching El Salvador.

Bukele’s government declined requests by The Associated Press for interviews, comment or access to the prisons.

Bukele’s administration has wielded a robust disinformation machine, suppressed critics and journalists. Nowhere is that more evident than with prisons, likened to torture chambers by two government officials and a former prisoner who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution by the government and gangs. At least 90 have died in custody, the government said in November. Since, it has been tight-lipped about death counts.

Little is known about the facilities outside highly produced videos with action-movie soundtracks that Bukele plasters on social media showing images of tattooed men filling his “mega-carcel.” “This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, mixed together, unable to do any more harm to the population,” Bukele tweeted.

Security officials are under great pressure to boost arrests, which can earn extra Christmas vacation days, said one of the officials who spoke to AP — who has worked for decades in gang-controlled zones.

“Many innocents were detained,” said the officer. “We’ve committed crimes.”

Nearly one in six people who have been imprisoned are innocent, estimates the country’s police union tracking detentions. Local rights group Cristosal documented 3,344 cases of human rights violations in the first 11 months of the gang crackdown.

Yet the president’s approval rating has soared to 91%, according to a March poll by LPG Data. So, too, has approval for the crackdown.

“The president is doing what no one has been able to. You know there are a lot of innocent people caught in the middle,” said Jorge Guzmán, a pastor in Pacheco’s neighborhood. “But you accept what’s happening as something that had to happen.”

Bukele has harnessed his approval to further consolidate control. “It’s a model that sells a kind of punitive populism to gain popularity and stay in power,” said Abraham Abrego, a leader of Cristosal.

The government has extended Bukele’s state of emergency a dozen times. In September, he announced a run for reelection despite El Salvador’s constitution banning presidents from consecutive terms.

When asked what she thought of Bukele, Pacheco, the corner shop owner, responded: “I’ve never voted in my life. Now, I would vote for him.”

Even as Bukele has dealt a historic blow to the gangs, they quietly lurk in the areas they once controlled, according to locals and government personnel.

The police official said many of those captured by the government were low-level foot soldiers, people collecting extortion payments or lookouts. Gang members remain free in parts of Mexico and Guatemala, and their families still hover in areas they once controlled.

Inside prisons, officials and former prisoners say, gang members simmer with a sort of vengeful rage. The police officer said there is widespread fear among colleagues that they eventually will be targeted in revenge attacks by gang members.

“They’re still here. All day. Listening, overseeing things,” said Jennifer Luna de Diaz, Pacheco’s 27-year-old daughter. “I’m scared for my kids, my two boys.” Others agonize over whether they will again see their son, their mother, their brother.

Gisel was 17 when authorities came for her parents chasing an anonymous tip. She and her eight-year-old brother, Brayan, lived quietly in a coffee-growing town, playing soccer on weekends with her construction worker father, who she said was never involved with gangs.

She spoke to AP on condition that her family’s full name not be used out of fear of retribution. Six months ago, she returned from class to find her community teeming with soldiers and her parents sitting handcuffed. It was the last they heard of their parents.

For more than 45,100 children, at least one parent has been detained, according to government data shared with AP. At least 1,675 children have been left without family to care for them.

Gisel and Brayan’s extended family helps them, and their aunt buses four hours from San Salvador to care for them. Still, Gisel hears her brother sobbing at night.

“The pain eats him from the inside,” Gisel, now 18, said. “Now, he doesn’t share his feelings; he isolates himself. He suffers, I know he suffers.” While they await news of their parents, Gisel clings to small pieces of their past life, flipping through a photo book. “I miss the love that we can’t get from them now. Hugs from my mom, hugs from my dad,” Gisel said.

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