El Salvador’s false dilemma | CNN


They were stripped down to their boxers and left barefoot. Many had their heads shaved because they had to run with their hands behind their backs or necks. A total of 2,000 convicts were transferred last week to El Salvador’s new “mega prison”, officially called the Terrorist Containment Center.

The event was announced not only on national television, but by President Nayib Bukele himself, who tweeted a much-discussed video of the transfer to dramatic music.

Many in El Salvador (and overseas fans) applauded the footage – further proof of Bukele’s tough “mano dura” approach to crime. And while critics and the families of those incarcerated found the footage chilling, their arguments found little resonance in the country, where Bukele effectively offered a false dilemma: either adopt his lockdown strategy or abandon the control of the country to a murderous criminal. groups.

Last year, after an infamous weekend of killings, Bukele declared a state of emergency with the backing of his country’s Legislative Assembly, controlled by his New Ideas party. The state of emergency allowed the government to temporarily suspend constitutional rights, including freedom of assembly and the right to legal defense.

Under the state of emergency, which has been extended 11 times, suspects can be detained for up to 15 days without charge, instead of the constitutionally mandated 72 hours. Once charged, a suspect can spend months in detention before being tried.

Many of those arrested under the state of emergency have been charged but not convicted and have had little opportunity to plead their innocence in El Salvador’s mass hearings. By early January, just over 3,000 detainees had been released for lack of evidence – out of more than 64,000 people arrested since the start of the state of emergency.

Overview of the cellblocks during the inauguration of the megaprison on February 2, 2023.

Criminal gangs in El Salvador trace their origins to those formed in the United States by Salvadoran immigrants fleeing the country’s civil war in the 1980s. More than 330,000 Salvadorans came to the United States between 1985 and 1990, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

In the 1990s, US immigration authorities deported large numbers of MS-13 gang members, many of whom had arrived as children, to their country of origin, mostly El Salvador. Once there, these groups metastasized, controlling large swaths of the country and making life miserable for many law-abiding citizens.

The question is no longer the validity of the repression or the decision to free Salvadorans from the scourge of criminal gangs. For observers, analysts and human rights groups, the question is at what price? How long will Salvadorans allow the suspension of their basic constitutional rights in the name of security? Are they prepared to live under a state of emergency indefinitely?

For decades Salvadorans endured criminal gangs who robbed, extorted, killed, raped and terrorized the population. Today, the vast majority of Salvadorans (and some in Latin America) back their president as the first leader to take the issue seriously.

In El Salvador, there is little room for criticism or dissent over the state of emergency. In the country of more than six million people, you are either with the president or against him; those who question Bukele’s brutal politics are met with harsh rebuke from the president’s supporters and the Central American version of cancel culture (at best). For lawmakers to question his policy would be political suicide; in November last year, according to a poll by the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica, 89% of Salvadorans approved of their president.

Bukele effectively framed criticism of his politics as unsympathetic to El Salvador’s bloody and painful history, describing rights groups, for example, as “not interested in victimsthey only defend murderers, as if they liked to watch bloodbaths.

Media organizations and NGOs that document human rights abuses by his government are ‘partners of gang members’, Bukele recount supporters.

Javier Simán, a former presidential candidate, said in September 2021 that Bukele “used the power of the state to go against his critics” and that he “attacked and delegitimized civil organizations”. Simán went on to say that Bukele “has used social media, government institutions to target those who criticize his government […] and journalists.

In June last year, Amnesty International published a report entitled “El Salvador: President Bukele plunges his country into a human rights crisis after three years in government”. One section alleges government reprisals against five journalists, including three who “had to move or leave the country because of government harassment”.

The same report describes the case of Dolores Almendares, a trade union leader, who was charged and detained for alleged ‘illegal meetings’, although her family and union colleagues believe her detention may have something to do with her advocacy. work.

Juan Pappier, Human Rights Watch’s acting deputy director for the Americas, recently told me that his organization had witnessed some of the abuses under Bukele’s policies, including detentions of innocent people.

“We have documented in the field that some of these people [the detained] have nothing to do with gangs, are innocent Salvadorans, workers, children who have been arrested and are now facing Kafkian lawsuits to prove that they have nothing to do with these criminal organizations” , said Paper.

Bukele’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this topic. The Salvadoran president typically does not speak to the media, preferring to express himself on Twitter, where he often claims that human rights groups are more interested in defending the rights of criminals than law-abiding citizens.

In a tweet last April, Bukele acknowledged mistakes were made in one case, saying, “There will always be a 1% error that a fair system must correct.

But the families of many detainees have been protesting for months, saying their loved ones were arrested and charged with being gang members simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maribel Flores, the mother of a detained woman, recently joined a group protesting Bukele’s policies at the headquarters of El Salvador’s Human Rights Office in San Salvador, the capital, demanding an end to what they call them “arbitrary detentions”.

Among those who think Bukele’s policies are doing more harm than good are Rafael Ruiz and Norma Díaz. They are the parents of five children who live near San Salvador, the capital. They told CNN that one of their sons was arrested last April and a second in December. They are now both charged with gang crimes, despite their parents insisting they are innocent.

“They’re practically taking my life,” Díaz told CNN as he choked. “My children are not criminals. They are good and hardworking people. »

“Little by little, we are eaten away by the sadness of trying to find out why our children are there. [jail]. Maybe they don’t give them medicine or food or anything,” Ruiz said.


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