As El Salvador cracks down on gangs, one community unites to say ‘enough’

Elipe Mahé
Families from different communities of Bajo Lempa in El Salvador traveled in May to the capital San Salvador to fight for the release of their relatives detained under the country's state of emergency. Here they are singing a Cuban revolutionary song set to lyrics decrying the Salvadoran situation.
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The government of President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency at the end of March, in what he describes as a “battle” against gangs that have taken control of broad swaths of El Salvador. But, with the suspension of many civil liberties have come widespread reports of arbitrary arrests. It’s kicked up dust from civil war-era traumas and created new divisions in communities like the Bajo Lempa region.

Life has become “worse than during the war, because we distrust even our neighbors,” says Rosa Idalia Chicas, whose brother was arrested under the state of emergency, despite, she says, not being part of a gang. Since his arrest, she has felt ostracized by friends and neighbors who don’t want to be associated with relatives of arrestees.

Why We Wrote This

Turmoil often breeds distrust. But in El Salvador, some lean on lessons learned from the civil war to unite amid fresh conflict in the Central American nation.

Grassroots organizations that date back to the country’s civil war have jumped into action as they’ve watched divisions emerging since the state of emergency was enacted. Gossip and “hatred within the population” has grown hand-in-hand with the state of emergency, says José Salvador Ruiz, a leader of Comunidades Eclesiales de Base, an organization that worked with survivors of a 1981 massacre here.

It propelled him and others to help families like Ms. Chicas’ march to the capital to draw attention to their missing loved ones, petition the government for information, and to put a public face on the fear many are suffering silently following these arrests.

“United,” a song written by these families says, “we will free each case.”

Rosa Idalia Chicas remembers her fear growing up in El Salvador during the civil war. The military could show up and take away a loved one at any moment and without explanation – sometimes forever. Even though the conflict ended 30 years ago, lately her community has felt similarly on edge.

In March, following one of the deadliest days in El Salvador since the civil war, President Nayib Bukele’s government declared a state of emergency to crack down on local gangs that have taken control of entire swaths of the country. It has been extended four times, currently in effect through August, and it restricts freedom of assembly, access to legal representation and due process, and allows the government to make indiscriminate arrests.  

More than 45,000 Salvadorans have been detained, according to the Security Ministry. Rights groups say many have no gang ties and were arrested without their families having any knowledge of their well-being.

Why We Wrote This

Turmoil often breeds distrust. But in El Salvador, some lean on lessons learned from the civil war to unite amid fresh conflict in the Central American nation.

The arrests have hit Ms. Chicas’ community in eastern El Salvador hard, pitting neighbors against one another. Gang activity has been present here for decades, and no one wants to be mistaken as a sympathizer. Ever since her brother, Julio Cesar Chicas, was arrested at his home in May, even her extended family has kept its distance. He has never been involved with a gang, she says, but those who are still speaking with her only do so cautiously, out of fear of association.

The community divisions that are emerging are a red flag to civil war-era organizations that dedicated the past three decades to conflict resolution. Several have jumped into action first to unite families of the wrongfully detained and then to help them denounce the state of emergency and counter some of the stigmas tearing the community fabric at its seams.

Elipe Mahé
Cristosal, an NGO that works with victims of violence in El Salvador, has supported families from the region Bajo Lempa to demand the release of family members detained under the state of emergency.

Gossip and “hatred within the population” has grown hand-in-hand with the state of emergency over the past several months, says José Salvador Ruiz, a leader of Comunidades Eclesiales de Base, a grassroots organization that worked with survivors of a 1981 massacre here.

It propelled him and others to help families like Ms. Chicas’ petition the government for information on their loved ones and to put a public face on the fear many are suffering silently following the arrests.

Life has become “worse than during the war, because we distrust even our neighbors,” Ms. Chicas says of the past four months. Yet for those coming together to speak out against the detentions, these families are showing others that as a united front they can better fight for their rights. “We are their voice,” she says.

Worse than war

It’s no coincidence that it’s communities from this region, known as the Bajo Lempa, that united to take action: They’ve suffered outsized violence at the hands of the government before. Between 1980 and 1992, families here were regularly harassed by the armed forces, and soldiers killed some 500 unarmed civilians in the La Quesera massacre in 1981.

The 1992 peace accords limited the role of the armed forces to national defense and created a new civilian police force meant to be professional and apolitical. But “the police never had a squeaky-clean record,” says Rina Montti, director of human rights research at Cristosal, a nongovernmental organization that works with victims of violence. Security forces have been implicated in serious abuses in recent years, from extrajudicial killings to sexual assaults and forced disappearances. Some 64% of Salvadorans have little or no trust in the police, according to a 2017 poll.

The arrests under the state of emergency are most common in poorer areas, long stigmatized as gang hotspots where police harassment was already systematic, according to Cristosal. “Our territory has been overwhelmed by gangs for years,” Mr. Ruiz says. “But, we have to look at the root of what makes young people join these groups. Our communities fled the war, were repatriated, and then dealt with ... a state that never invested in youth, education, health, or decent housing,” he says.

Elipe Mahé
Neighbors in the region of Bajo Lempa in El Salvador who have family members detained under the country's state of emergency gathered in May to share their experiences and discuss ways to mobilize.

Mr. Bukele has made a name for himself as a social media-savvy leader, at one point describing himself as “the world’s coolest dictator” in his Twitter bio. He has previously pushed the limits on democracy, using his growing power and alliances to stack the Supreme Court with allies, and in his response to the pandemic, which raised concerns about an iron-fisted approach to keeping order.

In a June speech marking his third year in office, he called for support for the “battle” he’s waging via the state of emergency: “This is a war between all honest Salvadorans against the criminals who have kept us in fear, mourning, and misery for years,” Mr. Bukele said.

But imprisoning all gang members would hardly resolve violence in El Salvador, experts say. “There’s a structure of organized crime that’s been fostered for decades, and it is not going to disappear so easily,” says Verónica Reyna, director of human rights at Social Service Pasionista.

Portraying government detractors as associates or supporters of gangs is part of the administration’s divisive approach under the state of emergency, rights workers say.

Esmeralda Domínguez of Bajo Lempa was arrested on April 19. A community leader active in women’s rights and environmental organizations, she was targeted after trying to get her husband released after his arbitrary arrest earlier that month, says her mother María Dolores García, who is a survivor of the La Quesera massacre. Now family and friends have shunned the family.  

Another 60 people – including farmers, construction workers, and tortilla sellers – have been detained in the Bajo Lempa region and their families similarly ostracized.

Elipe Mahé
Images of late Salvadoran priest Oscar Romero hang inside La Noria Chapel. He is famous for his preaching in defense of human rights and was very active in the community of Bajo Lempa during the country's civil war.

“United we will free each case”

This was the stigma Comunidades Eclesiales de Base hoped to confront. They organized meetings with the families of detainees, creating a space to share their uncertainties and pain.

A strategy for action emerged from that initial sense of unity. Family members composed a song called “Hasta darles el abrazo” (Until we embrace them), which tells the story of arbitrary arrests – including their frustration with the state for refusing to share information about a loved one’s whereabouts or the humiliation they’ve felt at the hand of government institutions. But, in the song, the family is motivated to keep fighting, “reunited and united we will free each case,” reads one refrain.

As confidence and trust grew, the group tried something even more radical: Some 65 neighbors traveled to the Supreme Court of Justice in San Salvador twice in May to file more than 30 habeas corpus petitions in defense of their loved ones. This legal measure is used to bring detainees before the court to determine if their imprisonment is lawful, and the collective filing is the first of its kind during the state of emergency.

They signed an open letter as the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the State of Emergency and read it before entering the court. “Do not be afraid, you are not alone. Get organized and demand respect for your rights,” the statement urged.

That message was received by loved ones of the wrongfully detained in other parts of the country. Groups in at least two other departments have contacted Mr. Ruiz for guidance on demanding answers from the government. “It takes some courage to get involved,” he says.

This experience underscores the importance civil war-era organizations still hold, says Jorge Cuéllar, assistant professor of Latin American studies at Dartmouth College. The trust and the connections they’ve maintained with the community puts them in a unique position to mobilize members.

“This bond needs to be reactivated and reoriented toward” today’s struggles around upholding human rights, he says.

Even though the state of emergency enjoys broad support – 74% in one poll – that breaks down when respondents are questioned about the suspensions of each right specifically.

President Bukele’s political strategy is to maintain a constant crisis that requires extraordinary measures, says Ms. Reyna. “The population eventually gives up its rights to attend to the emergency,” she says.

The lack of transparency and the way in which the government is flaunting its arrests is giving rise to further polarization. “You cannot continue to build a society that rejoices because others suffer,” says Mr. Ruiz.

Ms. Chicas’ brother and her neighbors’ loved ones are still in jail. The judicial authorities have not responded to their petitions. Still, these families are plotting their next steps.

“We should take to the streets, 500,000, 2 million people to demonstrate, to defend their rights,” says Manuel de Jesús Martínez, whose son Elías, the goalkeeper for his local soccer team, was arrested on March 26. His detention was prior to the announcement of the state of emergency, yet he received the same treatment – no explanation for his arrest or access to legal aid.

“As fathers and mothers we categorically reject the unjust incrimination of our children,” Mr. de Jesús Martínez says. “We know, and the community knows, that they are innocent.”

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