In El Salvador, the president cracks down on civil liberties and is loved for it

TONACATEPEQUE, El Salvador — Four weeks have passed since the shoemaker disappeared from his hometown, handcuffed by Salvadoran police.

The family of the man, 29-year-old Heber Peña, has collected business receipts and customer signatures to prove he earns his money honestly. They fear that he is now trapped in an overcrowded prison, accused of being a gang member.

Still, the shoemaker’s family sees the benefits of the police crackdown that led to his arrest and admires the leader behind it: President Nayib Bukele.

“Apart from this,” said Caleb Peña, Heber’s brother, “everything the president has done is magnificent.”

Heber Peña is one of more than 18,000 Salvadorans jailed in recent weeks, after a spike in murders in March prompted the government to declare a state of emergency, suspending key civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution and allowing children of up to 12 years old are tried as adults for gang affiliation.

Human rights groups have denounced the actions as violations of fundamental freedoms. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the Salvadoran government to “defend due process and protect civil liberties.

But most Salvadorans are not complaining. The country has grown tired of the endless bloodshed, the gangs that terrorize them, the lawlessness that has inspired so many to travel more than 1,000 miles to the US border.

Much of the Salvadoran public is simply relieved that Bukele is cracking down, even if he is also undermining the fragile democracy their country has struggled to build over the past three decades.

The end of a brutal civil war in 1992 ushered in a new force of lawlessness in El Salvador, Central America’s smallest country: gangs that gained a foothold after the United States deported thousands of Salvadorans to the country, many of them which criminals had built. Networks in Los Angeles.

The gangs fueled a cycle of bloodshed that deepened frustration with a political system that could not deliver lasting peace. Now, many Salvadorans have embraced a young leader with an authoritarian bent who has, at least temporarily, given them stability that has proven elusive.

Bukele, the 40-year-old Salvadoran president, has become one of the most popular leaders in the world. His supporters say it is due in large part to the rapid decline in gang violence since he took office in 2019, as well as his handling of the pandemic, during which he kept many afloat with food. .

Analysts and US government officials believe the violence has only subsided thanks to a secret truce between the gangs and the government, something Bukele denies.

And critics have been alarmed by the president’s systematic efforts to subvert the country’s fragile institutions and increasingly consolidate power in his own hands.

His party summarily removed five Supreme Court justices and removed an attorney general who was investigating the administration, while relentlessly attacking the media and advocacy groups.

However, most Salvadorans do not seem to feel that they are being repressed, or simply do not care. Satisfaction with democracy in El Salvador is at its highest level in more than a decade, an August poll from Vanderbilt University showed. And a CID-Gallup poll released last week showed that 91% of those surveyed approved of the government’s security measures.

“For many people in El Salvador, democracy is basically the ability of the political system to respond to their plight,” said José Miguel Cruz, an expert on El Salvador at Florida International University. “By that standard, they see this as the best option they have.”

Fear of arbitrary arrests has spread across the country, according to interviews with dozens of residents and police officers in towns now controlled by security forces. But many remain convinced that it is perfectly legitimate for the government to do everything it can to crack down on the gangs that torment them.

In fact, long before Bukele declared a state of emergency, basic freedoms were already severely limited in much of the country. The only difference is that in the past, it was not the government that made the decisions. It was the gangs.

In many of the poorest towns in El Salvador, the gangs are the ultimate authority. They decide who can enter and when, which entrepreneurs can open a business and how much they must bribe, who lives and for how long.

“In these communities, people have already been under a state of emergency,” said Edwin Segura, head of an investigative unit at La Prensa Gráfica, a prominent Salvadoran newspaper. “People say, ‘Well, if I’m going to go from being in the authoritarian, murderous hands of the gang to being in the authoritarian hands of the state, I’ll accept it.'”

Peña grew up and lived in a town north of San Salvador, the capital, called “Distrito Italia,” which got its name after Italy donated the funds to build the community for people displaced after a major earthquake in 1986. it has become a stronghold of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which, until the state of emergency, ruled all aspects of life.

Current and former residents and police officers say the gang taxed many local businesses and anyone from abroad who came to deliver goods. The lookouts reported who was entering the city, warning the gang’s higher-ups when strangers or the police were approaching.

Gangs even stepped in to quell disputes between spouses or neighbors, imposing their own brand of law and order.

“If you fight with your neighbor, you go to the people who take care of these places, not to the police,” said a man named Rogelio, whose full name is being withheld to protect him from possible reprisals..

Once, he said, a group of gang members beat him until he was bloody because he said a word they didn’t like. A few years ago, while Rogelio watched, his best friend was shot to death because they thought the man was “too quiet.”

“If I were the government, if I had the power, I would make them disappear,” Rogelio said, referring to the gang members. “They don’t deserve to live.”

Last year, the US Treasury Department sanctioned high-ranking officials in the Bukele administration for giving gang leaders “financial incentives” and prison privileges in exchange for fewer murders.

But any deal seemed to break down in late March, when a weekend of killings pierced the veneer of calm, and now Bukele appears to be taking on the gangs head-on.

Since El Salvador’s Parliament first passed the emergency decree, soldiers have been stationed at the entrance to the Italian District, inspecting every vehicle and checking the bodies of visitors for tattoos that might indicate gang links.

Many residents say they feel safer now, including Rogelio, who said those who criticize Bukele’s treatment of gang members have no idea what it’s like to be subjugated by them every day.

“They’re just talking,” he said of the president’s detractors. “We are here living this.”

Bukele has made sure to air his crackdown on social media, boasting of denying prisoners sunlight and rationing their food. On Twitter, he has posted videos of prison guards pushing tattooed men to the ground and inmates being served small portions of food.

Such public displays of cruelty seem designed to score political points. A 2017 survey found that more than a third of Salvadorans approve of the use of torture and extrajudicial killings in the fight against gangs.

“It has to be a cathartic image,” Segura said, “to see gang members lying on the ground after seeing them emboldened, humiliating and terrorizing others.”

Bukele himself admits that the government has imprisoned innocent bystanders, although he maintains that they represent a tiny percentage of the arrests. Marvin Reyes, who heads a police union, said his superiors have ordered officers to meet “a daily quota of arrests.” A spokesman for the president’s security cabinet declined to respond.

Many gang members have gone underground, fleeing to the mountains or hiding in safe houses, so police have met the demand for mass arrests by detaining anyone who seems suspicious, according to Reyes.

“They have received an order and they don’t want to get in trouble with their boss,” Reyes said.

Like almost everyone in the Italian Quarter, the family of Heber Peña, the shoemaker, dreams of a more peaceful life.

But they and many other neighbors insist that the young man has nothing to do with the gangs. When police kicked down his tin door in March, he was putting together a pair of black shoes.

“I was working here,” said his father, Víctor Manuel Peña, pointing to a pile of unfinished sandals outside the two-bedroom home he shares with Heber. “What gang member lives in a house with tin walls?”

When his wife died of cancer a few years ago, Víctor Manuel Peña, 70, took on the responsibility of cooking for the family. He now has nightmares that his son wants food in prison.

He voted for Bukele, along with the rest of the family. “We saw that he was interested in improving the country,” she said. “We never imagined that he would make mistakes like this.”

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