Bukele underpins his approval with nine months of heavy hand

SAN SALVADOR (HPD) — Salvadorans have been in a perennial state of emergency for nine months, which was decreed in March by President Nayib Bukele as a legal instrument to carry out a heavy-handed policy against gangs. Despite the decrease in the figures of daily crimes in El Salvador, the persecution against criminal gangs has been harshly criticized for lack of guarantees for human rights. For the president, it is a political catapult with a view to re-election.

“I don’t care what the international organizations say, that they come to take away the gang members, if they want them, we will hand them over to all of them,” Bukele responded to questions and complaints from non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Cristosal, which registered in less than a year, 1,000 serious cases of rape, abuse and the death of at least 90 people in the custody of the Salvadoran State.

Marked as authoritarian and overtones of a dictator by the most critical of his management, Bukele closes ranks in the face of questions about his strategy to persecute criminals. What he calls the “war against gangs” has left him with a very high rate of public acceptance that would make it easier for him to be re-elected in the 2024 elections.

A recent poll by LPG Data from the morning newspaper La Prensa Gráfica of El Salvador says that 87.8% of Salvadorans approve of his three and a half years in office and 89.5% of the fight against gangs. According to the survey by the NGO Fundaungo, 89.8% approve of the exception regime.

“If the opposition newspaper says 88%, how much will it really be?” boasted the president, referring to the LPG Data survey.

The popular support is explained, according to the lawyer and political analyst, Thanya Pastor, by the feeling of defenselessness of Salvadorans in the face of the regime of fear sown for years by the gangs. “People right now are not going to understand anything about human rights, nothing about democracy, nothing about authoritarianism, what interests them is their security and the opportunity to live a free life.”

Although he supports the prolonged state of emergency – renewed every 30 days for eight occasions in 2022 – Pastor told the HPD that the State must give an account of the people who died in its custody and answer for the abuses and alleged torture of the detainees.

The Bukele government, which mobilized thousands of police and soldiers to surround and detain alleged gang members, is responsible for violating the right to defense and due process, forced disappearances, torture, and mass arrests of people. that they have nothing to do with the gangs, according to complaints from humanitarian organizations.

In fact, the Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights, Raquel Caballero, confirmed that 2,100 people have been released during the emergency regime for not having ties to criminal gangs and announced that a verification plan will begin in January on the situation in prisons, which will have the accompaniment of the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Everything has happened, reproaches Juanita Goebertus, director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch, “with the supposed objective of guaranteeing their safety.”

Attorney Pastor is critical of organizations that defend human rights. She admitted to being surprised “that they have not been shocked in the past by all the deaths as a result of gang actions,” as they are now by alleged State abuses.

Since Bukele warned that he would not stop until the last of the gang members were removed from the streets and his general prison director, Osiris Luna, promised on Twitter that “gang members are going to suffer from the pain that their homeboys (members) cause outside,” thousands Heavily armed soldiers and police stormed neighborhoods and populated communities, gang strongholds, and went door to door, dragging out hundreds of people without any legal restrictions on suspicion of belonging to or collaborating with criminal structures.

It was the forceful response of the government to a particularly violent day in El Salvador last March, which resulted in 62 homicides in one day and which supported the declaration of a state of emergency that has been in force since then. Congress, with an official majority, granted the president all the power to persecute the maras or gangs.

They fenced off residential areas with barbed wire, the entrances were guarded by armed military trucks and soldiers armed with M-16 rifles, and they decided who went in or out, demanding identification and checking everyone.

The term of administrative detention -without going to court- was extended from 72 hours to 15 days. The right of association was suspended and the authorities were allowed to seize the correspondence and cell phones of those considered suspicious.

The detainees lost their right to be duly informed of the reasons for their arrest and to have access to a lawyer for their defense.

“They did not expect it, they were unawares and they devastated almost everyone; they were dragged away,” recalled Manuel Torres, who works in one of the factories in the area where San José El Pino is located, a stronghold community of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, which controlled the entire municipality of Santa Tecla. , on the western outskirts of the capital.

“Here they practically disappeared, but they say there are still some,” said the man, looking from one side to the other, still afraid that they would hear him talking to journalists. “It is that there are still several,” he added.

Bukele ordered that jailed gang members only receive two meals, with two taco shells, a serving of beans and an egg. They took away their sleeping mats and locked them up in small cells where they live overcrowded. And the gangs threatened to retaliate.

The government boasts that it is on its way to making El Salvador one of the safest countries in Latin America and defeating the gangs. But human rights organizations, who do not deny the decline in homicides, question the strategy as a definitive solution.

The acting associate director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch, Juan Pappier, in an interview with the HPD, censured the “strong-handed policy” and warned that it would be a serious mistake to think that “success can be achieved on the basis of massive violations to human rights”.

These types of policies, he affirmed, are not sustainable in the long term because they do not focus on attacking violent crimes and leaders, but rather on giving quick results. They do not allow the destructuring of criminal organizations.

According to official information, within the state of emergency they have captured more than 60,000 gang members or gang collaborators, including 843 leaders of cliques or groups from the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. The authorities have a record of 76,600 gang members and say that there is a lack capture more than 20,000.

From January 1 to December 14, 602 homicides are officially registered, 45% less than the 1,086 recorded in the same period of 2021. The government estimates that, if this continues, El Salvador would close 2022 with 633 homicides, for a rate of 10.0 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. So far in December, four homicides and eleven days without deaths due to homicidal violence have been confirmed.

When the Human Rights Watch representative for the Americas urged the executive to develop a security policy that protects the population and achieves justice for abuses, without violating human rights, Bukele immediately responded with a blunt “no.”

“They are not interested in El Salvador, their fear is that we will succeed, because other governments will want to imitate it. They fear the power of example,” she said on Twitter.

As in El Salvador, Honduras decreed a state of emergency in 89 neighborhoods and neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and 73 in San Pedro Sula, the main cities in the country where the highest levels of crime are recorded, also attributed to the Mara Salvatrucha gangs ( MS-13) and Barrio 18.

Of the 602 officially registered homicides in El Salvador as of December 12, 91 include homicides of alleged gang members who died in alleged confrontations with the police or soldiers.

According to the Constitution, the period of suspension of constitutional guarantees cannot exceed 30 days. Once this period has elapsed, it may be extended for the same period and by means of a new decree, if the circumstances that motivated it continue. Failure to do so would fully reinstate any suspended warranties. It has been in force since March 26 of this year.

To combat gangs, Congress approved some reforms to the Penal Code to make it a crime to be part of gangs, which can be punished with a sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison. The ringleaders can receive sentences of 40 to 45 years.

In crimes related to organized crime, which includes gangs, 20 years in prison are applied to adolescents over 16 years of age and up to 10 years to those over 12.

Lawyer Eduardo Escobar, from the NGO Acción Ciudadana, acknowledged that “some peace of mind has been brought to the communities by scaring away gang members”, but he affirmed that the implementation of the emergency regime “is without a doubt signifying a flagrant violation of international treaties on of human rights”.

He added that “this measure has brought applause from the people, it has been a well-regarded measure despite the inconveniences it has” and that Bukele is exploiting it in the face of the next electoral process.

Entrepreneurs of public passenger transport assure that extortions from gang members to the sector have decreased almost entirely. They say that monthly they paid up to 700 dollars per bus in extortion, an approximate of more than 19 million dollars per year between all of them.

“Here the gangs ruled, they had their territories well marked,” Cristóbal Benítez, an informal trader who works in downtown San Salvador, told the HPD. “You paid or they killed you, but now it seems that the government is in charge again,” added the 55-year-old man.

Lawyer Pastor affirmed that in El Salvador “there was a parallel government, the government of the gangs” that imposed their law, “see, hear and shut up,” especially in areas such as the historic center of the capital where the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara Salvatrucha gangs roamed. Barrio 18. According to local authorities, these groups are involved in drug trafficking and organized crime.

In 2012, the US government included the Mara Salvatrucha on a list of international criminal organizations. Three years later, the Supreme Court of El Salvador declared her a terrorist, as well as the Barrio 18 gang.

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