Monday, May 29, 2023

El Salvador gangs: Mass arrests bring calm but at what price?

El Salvador gangs: Mass arrests bring calm but at what price?

The sprawling municipality of Soyapango was once a battleground for El Salvador's two biggest and most feared street gangs.

For decades, the MS13 and the 18th Street Gang dumped victims' bodies in ditches and streams, on roadsides and wasteland across the notoriously dangerous district of the capital, San Salvador.

These days, though, the only war being waged is by the government.

Following a weekend of extreme gang violence in March last year, El Salvador's young and media-savvy president, Nayib Bukele, imposed a state of exception - an emergency measure under which several constitutional rights were suspended and police were granted wide-ranging powers of arrest.

Since then, some 66,000 people have been detained.

Police and soldiers are much more visible since the state of emergency was declared

In Soyapango, a joint police and military operation sweeps through the backstreets as a helicopter whirrs overhead.

Some officers carry out search warrants at specific addresses while others randomly stop young men in the streets, checking them for gang tattoos and criminal records.

"On a scale of one to ten, it's a twelve," jokes one local resident when asked how much calmer the neighbourhood has become over the past year. "It's incredibly quiet."

Not prepared to give his real name, such is the ingrained fear of speaking about gangs, "Joel" says his neighbourhood is unrecognisable under the tighter security conditions: "Things were so bad here before, so ugly."

"This [area] was run by the MS-13. If we went into the neighbourhood next to ours, run by the 18th Street [gang], you might never come back. Now we can come and go as we please," he added.

The government's heavy-handed approach enjoys more than 90% support with the Salvadorean public, exhausted after years of gang intimidation and extortion.

Document checks and searches are a common occurence

While most Salvadoreans applaud the ruthless new policy, it has not brought peace for everyone. Thousands of people with no discernible link to gang activity have also been swept up in the dragnet of arrests.

Far from the capital's urban neighbourhoods, in the dusty village of La Noria, a young tractor driver, José Duval Mata, was among them.

Soon after the state of exception was imposed, soldiers entered his community and stopped him on his way home.

They took his telephone and accused him of "unlawful association", a catch-all term under which tens of thousands have been detained for alleged gang affiliation.

His mother, Marcela Alvarado, has not seen or heard from him since and is desperate with worry.

Marcela Alvarado's son has been under arrest since April 2022

"You hear so many things: that they're torturing them in there, that they hit them," she says between sobs.

"When my son was imprisoned, I went to the jail and spent 18 days outside, with a crowd of people. And you'd hear their cries coming from inside: 'Help us, help! I can't take any more!' That caused me so much pain in my heart."

Ms Alvarado says her son's only legal proceeding, so far, was a mass hearing with 360 other inmates. They were all sentenced to an initial six months in prison - a sentence which has subsequently been extended.

Before the hearing, Ms Alvarado was advised to bring a stack of documents - from his clean criminal record and high school diploma to a reference from his employer - which attested to his innocence and lack of involvement in gang activity.

She says that the court ignored them all.

José Duval is far from the only one caught in such a Kafkaesque situation.

On the first anniversary of the state of exception, hundreds of families gathered in the centre of San Salvador to demand the immediate release of their relatives who, they say, were arbitrarily detained without cause.

Some have loved ones who died in prison, like Eva Sandoval's sister, Noelia.

Eva Sandoval (right) was told that her sister Noeli died from a tumour while in custody

"When they took her into custody, she wasn't ill," Eva Sandoval explains. "But then, in February, we learned that she had died, apparently from a cancerous tumour on her nose."

Noelia Sandoval had not been convicted of any gang-related crime at the time of her death.

El Salvador's vice-president, Felix Ulloa, argues that the controversial security plan has brought widespread peace to the country.

"It's not perfect, but it's good. We've done something really good here," he said in an exclusive BBC interview.

Mr Ulloa does acknowledge that thousands of those arrested have probably not committed any gang-related crimes: "It could be (the case). When you have an operation of this size, with so far more than 65,000 people imprisoned, there probably could be some mistakes and some people could have been arrested with no links to the gangs."

He says that the legal system is gradually working through the backlog of cases. "Three thousand people have already been released by the due process of law."

That is of little comfort to Marcela Alvarado, whose son, José Duval, has not even been able to meet his baby son, who was born after his arrest.

Now the bank is threatening to repossess a half-finished house he was building for his family as they cannot keep up the repayments.

Languishing in prison and branded a gang member, his only hope is a judicial system that has so far refused to accept any of the evidence presented in his defence.


Related Articles

If you donated to BLM, you got played
Pfizer, the EU, and disappearing ink - Smoke, Mirrors, and the Billion-Dose Pfizer Vaccine Deal: EU's 'Open Secret
Actor Tom Hanks told Harvard University graduates to be superheroes in their defense of truth and American ideals, and to resist those who twist the truth for their own gain
The Sussexes' Royal Rebound: Could Harry and Meghan Markle Return to the UK?
A provocative study suggests: Left-Wing Extremism and its Unsettling Connection to Psychopathy and Narcissism
France Arrests 10 on Suspicion of Failing to Respond in Time to Migrant Drowning
Neuralink Receives FDA Approval for First-in-Human Clinical Study
Saudi Arabia and Canada Restore Diplomatic Relations
Bernard Arnault Loses $11.2 Billion in One Day as Investors Fear Slowdown in US Growth Will Reduce Demand for Luxury Products
Russian’s Wagner Group leader: “I am not a chef, I am a butcher. Russia is in danger of a revolution like in 1917.”
TikTok Sues Montana Over Law Banning the App
Ron DeSantis Jumps Into 2024 Presidential Race, Setting Up Showdown With Trump
Last Walmart in North Portland Closing Down
Florida's DeSantis seeks to disqualify judge in Disney case
Talks between US House Republicans and President Biden's Democratic administration on raising the federal government's $31.4tn debt ceiling have paused
Disney has canceled plans to build a new campus in Florida worth almost $1 billion
Biden Administration Eyeing High-Profile Visits to China: The Biden Administration is heating things up by looking into setting up a series of top-level visits to Beijing by top officials in the coming months
New evidence in special counsel probe may undercut Trump’s claim documents he took were automatically declassified
A French court of appeals confirmed former President Nicolas Sarkozy's three-year jail term for corruption and influence peddling
Debt Ceiling Crises Have Unleashed Political Chaos
Weibao Wang, a former software engineer at Apple, was charged with stealing trade secrets related to autonomous systems, including self-driving cars
Mobile phone giant Vodafone to cut 11,000 jobs globally over three years as new boss says its performance not good enough
Elon Musk compares George Soros to Magneto, the supervillain from the Marvel Comics series.
Warren Buffett Sells TSMC Shares Over Concerns About Taiwan's Stability
New Study Finds That Secondary Bacterial Pneumonia Is a Major Cause of Death in COVID-19 Patients Who Require Ventilator Assistance
King Charles III being crowned.
'Godfather Of AI' Geoffrey Hinton Quits Google To Warn Of The Tech's Dangers
A Real woman
Vermont Man Charged with Stalking After Secretly Tracking Woman with Apple AirTag
Elon Musk Statements About Tesla Autopilot Could Be 'Deepfakes,' Lawyers Claim. Judge Evette Pennypacker Does Not Understand How Far and Advanced This Technology Became
Ukraine More Prepared for Counterattack as Reinforcements Arrive
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Discuss Migration, Defence, and Ukraine
Tucker Carlson is back, soon!
AT&T's Successful Test of Satellite-Based Phone Call Raises Possibility of Widespread Coverage
CNN: "Joe Biden is asking for four more years — when 74% of Americans think the country is heading the wrong way“
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Cuts Short Live TV Interview Due to Health Issue
US Congresswoman threaten Twitter Files journalist with arrest
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh slams New York Times' pro-government stance and treatment of sources
Enough is enough: it's time to end the war in Ukraine. While Russia may be to blame for starting it, Russia is not the one refusing to stop it
Fox News Settles their case with Dominion Voting Systems for a staggering $787.5 MILLION
The land of the free violence
Speaker Kevin McCarthy
21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira has been arrested for leaking classified Pentagon Documents
The Supreme Court will allow a 12-year-old transgender West Virginia girl to compete on her middle school’s girls' sports teams amid a lawsuit over a ban
Iran and Saudi Arabia hold first diplomatic talks in seven years, brokered by China
Bank of America cuts short conference after outrage at Ukraine comments
Mitt Romney calls Trump indictment 'overreach,' says charges were 'stretched' to suit a 'political agenda'
The G-7 aims to make global crypto regulations tougher
Russia arrested an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal on espionage charges
Don’t Dismiss China’s Peacemaking Bid