‘Stuck in this hell’: How an El Salvador city was transformed under Bukele’s rule | Human rights news

Puerto El Triunfo, El Salvador – The day the army overran Puerto el Triunfo is etched in Rosa’s memory like a painful scar.

Rosa, who asked that pseudonyms be used for her and her family, was born and raised in a small fishing town surrounded by emerald green mangroves on the southern coast of El Salvador.

One night in the spring of 2022, she drifted off to sleep after texting in the early hours of the morning with her younger brother, Jorge Antonio, who lived a short walk away.

The two had always been close. As children, they ran hand in hand, digging their toes into the sandy beach not far from their family home. Now that they were adults, they were dreaming up plans to move abroad.

But a sudden phone call woke Rosa up that night. Her parents were on the other end of the line, terrified.

“At 4 a.m., soldiers were raiding every house in the area,” Rosa said. They knocked on the door of her family’s home, where Jorge Antonio, his son Santiago, and their parents live.

The soldiers were looking for gang members. But as Rosa’s parents later told her, they quickly focused their attention on Jorge Antonio, a single parent and public sector employee.

“They searched the house but didn’t find anything suspicious. They checked his body to make sure there were no tattoos, but my brother doesn’t have any,” Rosa said.

The soldiers decided to arrest him anyway. Jorge Antonio was dragged along with other local men accused of gang involvement.

The last time Rosa saw him, he was kneeling and handcuffed in the street outside the local police station. He was usually dressed nicely, and was still wearing the pajamas from which he had gone to bed.

He will be one of thousands of Salvadorans who have been swept up in mass arrests since President Nayib Bukele took office.

Nayib Bukele, wearing a black long-sleeved shirt, stands behind the podium and delivers a speech with his arms outstretched in a gesture.  Behind him is the flag of El Salvador.
President Nayib Bukele has overseen a nationwide gang crackdown in El Salvador, raising human rights concerns (File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

On Sunday, Bukele will seek a second term, while Salvadorans go to the polls to cast their votes in the country’s elections. General elections.

But while Bukele has widespread support, residents like Rosa have seen their communities transformed because of his community Crime suppression – And it’s not always for the better.

For many years, Puerto El Triunfo, with a population of 16,000, has been terrorized by gangs. They demanded extortion fees from corporations, recruited children as members, and made people who disobeyed them disappear.

Rosa still remembers the time when screams and bullet explosions pierced the stillness of the night.

“There was shooting. They beat women. You can’t enter (other parts of the city) if you’re from a different neighbourhood. They will kill you,” Rosa told Al Jazeera.

Rosa explained that under Bukele, the gangs have now disappeared. But the same also applies to dear community members: fishermen, barbers, a former mayor, and even a motorbike taxi driver who dressed up as the town’s Santa Claus and delivered gifts to children every year.

The city is quieter than it was before. Gang members with tattooed faces and guns have been replaced by men in uniforms and guns — with the authority to do as they please, Rosa said.

She described it as a new kind of nightmare, even more terrifying than before.

“Recently, soldiers dragged some old and sick people who could barely walk – good, humble people who have worked hard all their lives,” Rosa said.

Her uncle, cousin, and several friends were also arrested in the military raids, not to mention Jorge Antonio.

She explained in despair, saying: “We, the ‘free,’ live in pain and anguish every day without knowing anything about the detainees.” “I’m trapped in this hell. We’re all here.”

A row of young men - some shirtless and with tattoos, another wearing a green T-shirt - stand with bowed heads outside in Puerto el Triunfo.
Police line up suspected members of the 18th Street Gang in Puerto El Triunfo, El Salvador, in 2017 (File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

The campaign began in March 2022, after a surge in gang violence that left 87 people dead in one weekend. In response, Bukele announced a national campaign Emergencyand suspend some civil liberties in order to quickly quell the violence.

Decision sent Military forces cascading into every corner of the country.

Those with criminal records and bodies covered in tattoos, a common trait among gang members, were arrested. But critics say many innocent people have also been detained, with little recourse to appeal their detention.

By the end of 2023, more than 75,000 people Those accused of gang membership were absorbed into the prison system, about 1 percent of the total population.

But the Salvadoran group Humanitarian Legal Relief (SJH) – also known as Humanitarian Legal Aid – estimates that about 20,000 of those imprisoned are innocent.

Ingrid Escobar, Director of SJH, explained that judicial reforms introduced under the state of emergency in Bukele eroded the right to a trial. Fair trial and presumption of innocence.

“They are not listening to the call of human rights groups to look into the cases of thousands of innocent people who have no tattoos or criminal records but are paying a penalty they do not deserve,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bukele’s supporters defend the restrictions under Emergency As a necessary part of tackling entrenched crime.

Ingrid Escobar, with long hair in braids and wearing a yellow T-shirt, sits at the table in front of her laptop, while a second woman speaks to her.
Ingrid Escobar, director of the humanitarian organization Socorro Juridico, meets with families who say their loved ones have been unjustly detained (Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera)

Once the most dangerous country in Latin America, El Salvador has seen its homicide rate decline by more than 106 murders per 100,000 people in 2015 to a rate of 2.4 in 2023, according to government figures.

However, critics point out that the numbers were already declining before Bukele came to power in 2019. They also question whether Bukele “With a steady handThe policies – or “iron fist” – are sustainable.

“Mass incarceration and isolating gang leaders in maximum-security prisons never weakens gangs in the long run,” said Sonia Wolfe, a researcher at Mexico’s National Council for the Humanities, Sciences and Technology and author of Mano Dora. : The policy of gang control in El Salvador.

“Such a fragile peace is remarkably unstable,” Wolf added.

In Puerto El Triunfo, for example, the armed forces themselves have been suspected of illegal activity. The community raised accusations that some members of the military provided false testimony to make arrests.

For example, a Navy lieutenant was implicated in allegations that he threatened to arrest local women — or their partners — if they rejected his sexual advances. He was arrested but reportedly released pending his case.

“The military has been given excessive power in Puerto el Triunfo,” said Escobar of Humanitarian Legal Aid. Her group helped free seven of the 25 people it believes were arbitrarily detained on an island in the municipality of Puerto El Triunfo.

She added: “We win cases because there is no evidence, just lies.”

A man in a red shirt stands at the back of a small boat as it crosses the water.  In front of him are two old women, a child, and a woman with a child on her lap.
Residents of Puerto El Triunfo claimed that their innocent family members had been detained in military raids (Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera)

However, with his approval ratings so high, Bukele appears set for another landslide victory at the polls on Sunday, something Wolff believes will encourage him further.

“We can expect not only continued repression, but also continued institutional erosion,” she said.

However, Bukele has faced intense international pressure to limit his government’s abuses and avoid further democratic backsliding.

Last year, for example, the United Nations Named The authorities called on Bukele to comply with international human rights law, amid reports of “serious violations of prisoners’ rights,” arbitrary detention, and general “ill-treatment” of suspects.

But Wolff warned that Bukele was unlikely to pay much attention to the criticism, especially as his country expands its relations with China.

“If El Salvador can get economic support from a country that is a competitor of the United States and does not care much about human rights, Bukele will have no reason to embrace the democratic part of the international community,” Wolf said.

Colorful wooden boats parked at a dock in Puerto El Triunfo, El Salvador.
Nestled in the shadow of a volcano, Puerto El Triunfo is a fishing town with a population of about 16,000 (Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera)

Santiago, Rosa’s nephew and Jorge Antonio’s son, is among those grappling with the changes under Bukele.

As a result of gang repression, the teenager was left without a father. Rosa takes care of him instead. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Santiago mourned the life he lived before.

“My father would take me out to eat. He would take me to the mall, which is one of my favorite places,” he said.

“Now we don’t go out. After all this time of not hearing from my father, my family has become sad and hopeless. The joy and happiness I used to feel has disappeared.”

He also finds himself anxious when he sees the heavy military presence on the city’s streets.

“I feel terrified when I see the soldiers because I think they will take me too. I can’t even go to the river to swim because of the regime,” Santiago said, crying quietly.

He has not been able to speak to his father since his arrest in 2022, due to… Strict restrictions He faces the prisoners.

Life has changed dramatically in Puerto El Triunfo. Some of the colorful fishing boats around the pink brick pier are deserted. Where laughter once filled homes, there is now a void, according to Santiago and others.

But fear and uncertainty remained.

“If I could talk to my dad, I would tell him I miss him,” Santiago said. “I would say he needs to keep going and stay strong, because one day, we hope to see each other again.”

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