San Salvador, El Salvador – Residents of Soyapango, a densely populated municipality on the outskirts of San Salvador, woke up on December 3 besieged by 10,000 policemen and military force.
The scene, staged by the Salvadoran government in an attempt to weed out gang members in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, took place in the context of a country with exceptional status. was in place for more than eight months. As much as the security campaign was fought in the streets, it was also a battle for public awareness.
Jose Miguel Cruz, an expert on Salvadoran gangs at Florida International University, told Al Jazeera: “When you have an exceptional situation that has become the norm, you have to come up with something that is going to be shocking. wave again.
Soyapango may have been chosen because of its reputation as a hotspot for gangs and a rebellious community historically that previous governments have struggled to control, he said.
El Salvador’s exceptional status, in effect since March, suspended vital civil liberties and led to the mass incarceration of nearly 60,000 Salvadorans. It is part of President Nayib Bukele’s efforts to rid the country of warring gangs, which have led to a skyrocketing murder rate. This measure was introduced a few days after the country Bloodiest weekend for more than two decades, allegedly triggered by the collapse of a ceasefire between the government and the MS-13 gang.
Eight months later, Bukele and his allies say the state of exception has dramatically improved security and the apparent peace on the streets is proof. But experts cite a lack of reliable statistics, limited access to prisons where gangs operate and a lack of measures to address gang structures or provide prevention programs or rehibilitate. Instead, large-scale state violence against people could ultimately exacerbate El Salvador’s security problems, they said.
According to a new report by Human Rights Watch and Salvador Cristosal NGO – based on more than 1,100 interviews, case files and medical records – widespread abuses have taken place since March, including arbitrary behavior. arrestsviolation of due process, forced disappearance, torture, and death in state custody.
Violation of human rights
Of the nearly 60,000 people arrested, most were charged with “illegal association” or membership of a “terrorist group,” charges used to criminalize gang members. More than 51,000 people have been sent to Salvadoran courts for pre-trial detention, in violation of international human rights standards.
The chaos and lack of information surrounding these cases, and the inability of loved ones to contact their loved ones, is a source of anxiety and stress for affected families. In some cases, defendants face mass virtual trials with up to 500 cases grouped together, making it “difficult or nearly impossible” for judges, prosecutors and lawyers to judge. fairness of individual arguments, according to Human Rights Watch.
According to government statistics, at least 90 people have died in state custody since March, and Human Rights Watch says authorities have not meaningfully investigated cases. this. Some of those released from prison reported degrading and inhumane conditions, along with beatings and waterboarding.
Bukele has dismissed such criticisms, posting on Twitter on Thursday about NGOs documenting such abuses: “They fear that we will succeed and that other governments will want to arrest them.” imitate us.”
Many Salvadorans say they have seen a benefit from the exception status, with 75% supporting the measure, according to a recent survey by the Institute of Public Opinion at the University of Central America. San Salvador.
Luis, a resident of Nahuizalco who refused to give his last name out of fear of reprisal, said the number of murders, extortion and disappearances in his neighborhood has dropped markedly.
“We can go out safer,” he told Al Jazeera. “If you see a young man standing there, you don’t have to worry that he’s going to take everything you have.”
His remarks reflect the government’s assertion that extortion has decreased by 80% since exception status was imposed, while Bukele often touted murder-free days. But these statistics are no longer reliable, says Ricardo Valencia, assistant professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton.
“They are manipulating the data in a clear and systematic way in every respect,” Valencia told Al Jazeera, citing various examples, such as the discovery of a coincident mass grave. with a “no murder” date, indicating that the government has narrowed the definition in to reduce the murder rate.
According to Marvin Reyes, a representative of the Salvadoran police union, the low number of confiscated guns shows shortcomings in efforts to disarm and dismantle the gangs. Even though nearly 60,000 won In exceptional arrests, police confiscated less than 2,000 firearms. “This doesn’t really add up,” Reyes told Al Jazeera. “This means the gangs are still hiding a lot of weapons.”
Cruz also questioned the effectiveness of exception status in addressing gang structures, particularly through the exclusive use of force that did not address the social factors driving the gangs. gangs.
“It is very difficult to argue that the state will control the territory when the only thing you have to provide is basically armed people; when you’re not providing other things, like education and quality services, to people,” he said.
Cruz acknowledges that many Salvadorans may be experiencing changes in their communities that have strengthened their sense of security. However, he cautioned against equating changes in everyday crime with the dismantling of complex gang structures.
“If gangs and criminal groups face these external shocks from government policies, they will adapt and reform,” Cruz said. “They will turn into an organization and a structure that allows them to exist in a different way.”
jail It has historically been the birthplace of recruitment and regulation of gang structures, he added, and that’s where many young Salvadorans now live.
– Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) December 7, 2022
Some Salvadorans share his skepticism. About half of respondents to the University of Public Opinion’s survey said they don’t think gangs will go away forever because of the exception. The survey also found that El Salvadorans strongly support due process rights, such as releasing people in the absence of evidence of a crime and guaranteeing the right to a lawyer.
Luis, a Nahuizalco resident, said he knows many people have been wrongly arrested and he believes the state of exception should only continue if police focus on known gang members.
The Human Rights Watch/Cristosal report recommends that the Salvadoran government end the exception. Bukele answered on Twitter on Wednesday, the same day the report was released, with a single word: “No.”