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Bukele, the caudillo in a state of exception

2023-03-19T10:39:23.899Z


The Salvadoran president's extreme war against gangs is reducing violence at the cost of accumulating abuses against rights and freedoms. Never has a president been so popular in El Salvador


When he came home from work one afternoon, Luis found a hole in his bedroom ceiling.

The pieces of uralite were scattered all over the bed and the sheets full of dirt and footprints.

"It must have been them," he thought when he found that wreck about five years ago.

For a long time, Luis got used to hearing people trot over his head and his family's head as if they were galloping horse races.

"It was common for the boys to escape from the police through the roofs of our houses while they shot each other," he now recalls in front of a tiny tin and brick house built with his own hands in the Campanera neighborhood, on the outskirts of San Salvador, one of the historic strongholds of the Barrio 18 gang.

"Them" or "the boys" is the way that Luis, a fictitious name for security, has to call the gang members, the criminal mafias that for more than 30 years have been literally trampling the lives of the poorest neighborhoods of El Salvador - extortion, kidnapping, rape, murder– and that came to place the country as the most violent in the world.

An endless number of pains that have been reducing in recent months.

The extreme war launched just a year ago by President Nayim Bukele, who accumulates complaints of human rights abuses, is achieving what seemed impossible.

The gangs are effectively being broken up in their own strongholds, places where for decades it was sometimes impossible even for the police to enter.

Neighbors of La Campanera.

The community is under a military siege, in the midst of the emergency regime. Víctor Peña

La Campanera, one of the four communities that El PAÍS has covered, is a sunken ravine between some hills.

There is a main street that runs through the neighborhood down.

On either side is a labyrinth of narrow passages with small houses crammed in like Luis's.

Many are abandoned because the neighbors have been fleeing from terror.

It was usual that they had to pay the mafia an extra a month just for living there or that they were forced to keep the door open in case they needed it to hide.

There are tangles of cables that connect the light to the houses directly from the streetlights and rubbish accumulated in corridors barely a meter and a half.

In these kind of burrows where gang sentinels used to take refuge to warn of the arrival of an enemy, now there are couples of soldiers with one hand on their rifles and the other fanning themselves from the tropical heat with their caps.

And along the main street, where before there was only silence, now the delivery men sell bags of water loudly, the milk truck and the bread truck pass by.

Taxis can come back in again and even electricity and water companies are beginning to dare to provide service to residents.

Despite the obvious change, not many want to talk about the past in the Campanera.

There is still a mixture of fear and mistrust after decades of subjugation.

Before saying goodbye to go pick up his children from school, Luis says that "some neighbors are thinking of going back to the houses they abandoned, but many still can't believe that what is happening is true."

The same astonishment that runs throughout the country, where a phrase is repeated that accounts for it: "Imagining a Salvador without gangs was like thinking of an ocean without water."

skyrocketing popularity

The war has catapulted Bukele's popularity, making him the president with the most power – he also controls parliament and the judiciary – and with greater approval since there are records.

Four years after coming to government, he is around 90%.

And no one doubts that in the presidential elections next year he will be re-elected after a recent legal ruse that has opened the door for him to run again.

The biggest explanation is the overwhelming official balance of its war against the gangs: in 2015 the country collected 20 corpses from the streets a day and today less than three.

El Salvador then had a rate of 103 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in the world, which only dropped moderately in the following years.

However, 2022 closed with 7.8.

General view of the Campaneras neighborhood, in the municipality of Soyapango.

This territory was controlled by the Barrio 18 for many years.

Victor Pena

On the back of these unappealable security results, the list of authoritarian outrages during his tenure has not mattered much.

Not even the entry into the Assembly in 2020 with the military and the final assault the following year imposing an Attorney General and the 10 magistrates of the Constitutional Court to their measure.

Nor the abuses of the harsh emergency regime that is protecting the war against the gangs at the cost of cutting constitutional rights.

Neither is the dangerous eccentricity of converting bitcoin into the legal currency of one of the poorest countries in the region.

Not even that he has launched an open pulse to the US while flirting with Russia and China.

Rather, all this is precisely what has propelled it because it feeds the bruised national pride of a small country, barely 7 million inhabitants, and traversed by a recent history of violence and uprooting: a long civil war (1980-1992), bloody and encouraged by the US, which caused a massive migration (nearly a quarter of the population).

And upon the return of democracy, a new rivalry to the death, now, between MS-13 and Barrio 18. Two gangs formed in California by the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who found a home in those two clans when they fled the war and who, after being deported by the US in the nineties, replicated the same criminal methods in their former country.

With this breeding ground, Bukele is serving up a feeling of revenge against supposed internal and external enemies on a platter.

This is how Victor Manuel Vásquez, a 45-year-old driver, explains it while eating ice cream with his two children on a walk through the square in the center of the capital: “The president is tough but he is fixing El Salvador's problems.

And for the first time the world looks at us as an example and not with pity or fear”.

For its critics, civil organizations and the international community, it is the same old heavy-handed recipes but packaged by a skilled publicist who knows how to read our times.

Bukele, with his cap on the back and his scarf on his jacket, would be at the same time a media leader, a preacher, a hammer on Twitter, a postmodern caudillo who governs the country as the presenter of a reality show or an

influencer

on

YouTube

.

The coolest

dictator

Its communication policy is a succession of coups de effect.

Slogans such as −"The coolest dictator in the world", "he who forgives the wolf sacrifices the sheep"−, bravado such as secretly recording conversations with ambassadors or accusing international organizations of being "partners with gang members";

even promotional videos showing the detainees that look like a movie trailer.

The spectacularization of politics was there from the beginning of a brilliant career.

At 30 he entered politics and at 37 he was already the world's youngest prime minister.

Nayib Bukele greets his followers during a rally in the Mejicanos area, in San Salvador, in February 2023. JOSE CABEZAS (REUTERS)

Presenting himself as an

outsider

, despite coming from a privileged family and starting out in one of the big parties, Bukele has capitalized on the weariness and frustration of the citizenry with the formations, Arena and FMLN, which dominated the country since the end of the war. .

Of the last four presidents, two are imprisoned for corruption and the other two are fugitives for the same charges.

"Return what was stolen."

That was one of his mottos during his rise from the mayoralty of a small municipality to the government of the capital.

Along the way he implemented some progressive policies while distancing himself from his then party, the FMLN.

Until breaking completely and forming a new one in his image and likeness: New Ideas.

His circle of trust is very small and includes his little brother, Karim, the shadow right-hand man.

Close sources agree on the compulsive use of social networks and the erratic behavior of the president.

"We had up to 30 WhatsApp groups and the meetings were a show where only he spoke," says a former cabinet official who prefers to remain anonymous.

"Of course, there was not a meeting in which his brother was not present."

After a brief affair with the Donald Trump Administration, Bukele's authoritarian drift has led the current government of Joe Bien to raise its tone.

The announcement last year that he was willing to run for re-election, constitutionally prohibited, was responded to by the White House with sanctions against his closest circle, the withdrawal of visas and the blockade of assets of a dozen current and former officials of his Government for corruption and undemocratic conduct.

The US business manager, Jean Manes, has even compared him to Nicolás Maduro and Salvadoran and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch have denounced systematic abuses during the emergency regime, which has already accumulated more than 60,000 detainees.

Deaths in custody in prisons, torture, arbitrary arrests, including minors.

The total isolation of the prisoners from the outside, including lawyers and relatives, virtual trials without the intervention of witnesses and, in general, a process plagued with opacity and irregularities.

Consulted by this newspaper, a government spokeswoman has declined to give her version of these allegations.

The only official information is the words of the president on Twitter: "the margin of error in arrests is only 1%."

end of the truce

Eimy, 36, is sitting on a plastic chair outside her house.

As she weaves a flower-patterned tablecloth, she recalls that on March 27 of last year a group of police and military officers placed "more than 10 boys" against the yellow wall next to her house.

"They put them in single file, handcuffed them and took them away in the patrol car."

Eimy, a fictitious name, lives in the Italia District, another neighborhood north of the capital.

This stronghold of the MS-13 gang was one of the first places security operations began.

A week earlier, gangs murdered 83 people in three days.

They attacked indiscriminately in 12 of the 14 departments of the country, demonstrating their implementation throughout the territory.

The truce that the president had secretly forged since he came to power,

Police transport new detainees during the emergency regime.

These are taken to the headquarters of El Penalito, in San Salvador. Víctor Peña

Eimy also remembers that during those three leaden days a soldier was found dead a block up the street.

"Here they were shooting each other and you didn't know who was who."

While she weaves the tablecloth, her year-and-a-half-year-old daughter plays on the sidewalk with a rabbit, and her eldest, 19, leaves the house and lies down in a hammock attached to a lamppost.

The house next door is abandoned and behind the hammock are piles of rubbish and a couple of rickety cars.

During gang rule, the family paid $40 a month to live in their ramshackle house.

The husband, a messenger, earns a little more than 300. At that time, the eldest daughter barely went out on the street.

Her parents took her to and from the institute and when they returned they locked her up at home.

"The boys bothered her and it has already happened in the colony that they end up kidnapping the girls," says her mother.

The young woman, lying in the hammock, explains that "for them it was like fun but I didn't like it because they said intimate things to me."

The mother and daughter now live more calmly, although they say that among the mass arrests of these months, the police took a cousin of theirs.

“He is a bricklayer and one morning they came for him.

It's not fair because it's impossible for him to have done anything.

He has Down syndrome and he doesn't even understand well when they talk to him.

We don't know anything about him."

Human rights organizations have denounced several cases of arrests of people with disabilities.

Eimy remains silent for a few seconds before giving his opinion on the dilemma: "Everything that the Government is doing is difficult, but the failures are less than the benefits."

The tearing of social ties in the troubled Salvadoran society is one of the central themes in Horacio Castellano Moya's novels, one of the most authoritative voices in Central America.

For him, the civil war began even earlier, from the 1932 communist insurrection to the 1991 peace accords. Almost 60 years of conflict.

For the social psychologist, Verónica Reina, the violence did not end with the return of democracy either.

“The culture and use of violence has never subsided.

It has always been the way to address collective problems.

And it has affected how institutions were built, how authority is understood.

The good leader is the one who punishes.

In addition to the level of subjugation of the gangs to the communities for decades, and also accustomed to the systematic abuse of the police,

Threats and opacity

Fear, silence, apathy and complicity.

This is how judge Antonio Durán describes the climate among his companions.

“Since the 2021 coup, there has been no judicial independence,” he says, sitting in the cafeteria of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, where he has been a criminal law professor for more than 30 years.

Durán refers to the sudden dismissal of the Attorney General and the five Constitutional magistrates to place, bypassing all the rules, the president's faithful shortly after sweeping the legislative elections two years ago.

He was one of the few who raised his voice and the response was, after a succession of threats, to remove him from his court in the capital and transfer him to a small town on the outskirts.

Antonio Durán, Salvadoran judge in his office, in the municipality of Zacatecoluca. Víctor Peña

Bukele's attacks on the judiciary began almost from the beginning of his term.

In 2020, before a ruling against his confinement measures during the pandemic, the president said this on a television channel to the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber: “I would have shot them all if he were really a dictator.

I'd rather save a thousand lives in exchange for five."

Months before, Bukele had entered parliament with the military to demand that they approve special budgets for his security plans.

In addition to the exile, Durán also denounces threats from other colleagues aligned with the government, visits from the military and the police, and even drones flying over his house.

"The harassment has stopped in recent times because international organizations have intervened, but the campaign to persecute those who do not think like them is a constant."

The harassment of the independent press is another of the complaints, including the spying on at least 22 journalists from

El Faro

with Pegasus software.

At least five senior officials, including a minister, from the past government are in jail or have open legal proceedings for corruption.

An opposition spokesman, who prefers not to be named, denounces a campaign to put an end to them: “They control the prosecutor's office and the judges.

They can do whatever they want".

Complaints for arbitrariness have also reached the accountability system and, in general, the increasing opacity that surrounds the management of the Salvadoran Government.

In the last two years, the Executive has been placing padlocks on the law on access to public information, including the public procurement system and the Information Institute itself, one of the institutions born with the return to democracy as a counterweight to powers .

The lack of transparency also affects the controversial operation of bitcoin.

Since 2021, cryptocurrency has been a legal tender in El Salvador, but both its implementation and its consequences are surrounded by uncertainty.

In the square in the center of the capital, neither the fried chicken chain nor the cafeteria next door even have the system that allows you to pay with bitcoin.

“It's very expensive and my boss hasn't done it,” says an employee.

The only figures that are known are the $200 million initial spending.

Beyond the president's tweets, the exact investment of the country in the digital currency is not known.

International organizations have already warned of the risks to public finances, even warning of a possible bankruptcy.

Above all, after the collapse of more than 40% of the value of bitcoin since last year.

Fourth stage of the Las Margaritas urbanization, in the municipality of Soyapango. Víctor Peña

"The law is like a snake, it only bites those who go barefoot."

The phrase is from Monsignor Romero, assassinated at the beginning of the civil war for defending poor peasants from the abuses of the Army.

And the one who remembers her is a neighbor from the Las Margaritas neighborhood, while he helps his son to do homework sitting on the curb of the street.

This is one of the main bases of operations for the MS-13 gang and, like other tough neighborhoods, today it looks peaceful and quiet.

Manuel, also a fictitious name, is 52 years old and was a soldier during the war.

“It was a way to earn an income,” he recalls of the time when he tattooed a small owl on his left arm.

"It was said that if you were killed like this at least your family could identify you."

He is satisfied that the gang members are not suffocating the neighborhood, but he is wary of what could happen in a few months, when the media attention subsides and the police and military stop patrolling the streets.

After slowly sharpening his son's pencil, he says: "This country seems to have fallen under a biblical curse, but we will be here to bear it."

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Source: elparis

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