February 3, 2023

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How the state of emergency in El Salvador has affected crime rates

SOYAPANGO, El Salvador — The soldiers arrived at dawn, paralyzing an entire community in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, stopping cars, forcing passengers off buses and ordering men to lift their shirts and show they didn’t have any had gang tattoos.

For many in this once gang-ridden community, the show of force was welcome.

“It used to be the gangsters who were in charge,” says María, a shopkeeper who asked that her last name not be published for her safety. “Now there are almost no gang members left.”

When an outbreak of gang violence killed more than 60 people in March on the country’s bloodiest day since El Salvador’s civil war 30 years ago, President Nayib Bukele’s government was quick to declare a state of emergency and suspend key constitutional rights.

The measure was meant to be temporary, a means to quickly restore public order and give the government more leeway to impose a nationwide crackdown on organized crime groups like the brutal MS-13 gang that had long terrorized this Central American nation .

But more than eight months later, the emergency decree is still in place, the military is patrolling the streets, mass arrests are a daily occurrence and prisons are full to the brim, making El Salvador a de facto police state.

Now, a Human Rights Watch report, due to be released Wednesday, provides a comprehensive overview of Mr Bukele’s brutal crackdown, documenting a campaign of arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in custody during the state of emergency.

“It’s the perfect recipe for human rights violations and abuses,” said Juan Pappier, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The president’s press secretary did not respond to a request for comment, but Mr Bukele dismissed international criticism of his tactics and praised law enforcement for fighting crime in a speech to the National Police last month.

“They bring peace to the Salvadoran people,” he said.

Despite condemnation outside of El Salvador and among human rights groups domestically, Mr Bukele’s policies appear to be achieving some of their goals: Homicides have plummeted, while neighborhoods that were once so gang-infested that they were considered unsafe are relatively quiet.

Between January and the end of October, 463 people were killed in El Salvador, a 50 percent decrease from the same period last year, according to a national police document shared with Human Rights Watch and fellow Salvadoran advocacy group Cristosal on the state of emergency review report.

The emerging picture underscores a fundamental tension: In a country traumatized by chronic gang warfare, the crackdown has brought respite from violence, outweighed fears of democratic backsliding and pressured an increasingly autocratic leader to carry out his policies.

“I couldn’t come to this neighborhood because of the gangsters,” said Ricardo, a 37-year-old street vendor in San Salvador’s Las Margaritas neighborhood, who asked that his last name not be revealed for his safety.

Extortion, a major source of income for gangs, also appears to have declined. According to the country’s security minister, extortion cases have fallen by 80 percent since the state of emergency began. The number is difficult to independently verify, but several business leaders polled by the New York Times said extortion has dropped significantly.

While a lack of transparency on the part of Bukele’s government makes it difficult to assess the credibility of official crime data, experts say there is little doubt that violence has dropped noticeably since the emergency decree came into force.

“This crackdown was unprecedented,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst at the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization. “No doubt that weakened the gangs.”

But if criminal groups have been crippled, so have many of El Salvador’s civil liberties.

Since March, the Legislative Assembly, controlled by Mr Bukele’s party, has passed legislation allowing judges to detain children as young as 12, restricting freedom of expression, expanding pre-trial detention and allowing prosecutors and judges to try people in absentia to deliver.

Still, Mr Bukele’s approval ratings are above 80 percent, according to polls, suggesting many Salvadorans yearn for more security, even if it means a more repressive system.

“They were so desperate about the violence and gang control,” said José Miguel Cruz, an expert on gang violence in El Salvador at Florida International University, “that they will accept such a deal with the devil.”

But even if there is less violence in El Salvador, such a drop is likely to be temporary without addressing the root causes, including crushing poverty and corruption, some analysts warn.

And the indiscriminate incarceration of young men who may have done nothing wrong, along with gang members, could result in a large population of disenchanted youth who might be easier recruits for gangs.

“Similar policies of mass incarceration and an iron fist in El Salvador and the rest of the region have shown that they fail to produce sustainable results in the long term, leading to renewed waves of violence,” Mr Pappier said.

The state of emergency was used as a blunt instrument, according to Human Rights Watch’s report, in which police commanders instituted a quota system that required officers to arrest a certain number of people each day.

The prison system is at a breaking point, with nearly 100,000 people behind bars since November, more than triple the capacity of the country’s correctional system. At least 90 people have died in custody since the state of emergency began. Human Rights Watch documented at least two instances where authorities appeared to have failed to provide detainees with the medication they needed.

The raid not only hit gang members, but also children, women and the physically and mentally handicapped. Some residents of poor neighborhoods who once feared gang members say they fear the Salvadoran police more.

“The government can do a lot worse to you,” said Hilda Solórzano, 34, who lives in the eastern city of Jucuapa.

Ms Solórzano’s younger brother, Adrián, 30, was arrested in April and charged with terrorism. “It was a shock when the police came and said they had to take him away,” she said, adding that her brother had done nothing wrong.

Adrián was eventually taken to a notorious prison commonly known as Mariona, near the capital, according to his sister, before being remanded in custody for six months.

Then, on July 5, representatives of a funeral home came to the family home and brought them the news: Adrián was dead, having been strangled while in custody. It was unclear how he was killed or by whom.

Ms Solórzano, who identified her brother’s body, said the government had not provided an explanation and rejected the family’s request for an official autopsy report.

“At night I go to bed and close my eyes and see the pictures when I was about to pick him up,” she said.

Now Ms. Solórzano fears that for speaking out about the case, she too could be targeted.

“When I leave the house to go to work, I’m scared,” she said. “I’m afraid one day they’ll say, ‘You’re under arrest too.'”

Bryan Avelar reported from Soyapango, El Salvador and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.