Saturday, December 03, 2022

Mass arrest of El Salvador president ‘punitive populism’

SANTA TECLA, El Salvador ( Associated Press) — A day after the bloodbath — killing 62 gangs dodging El Salvador — action begins.

Before dawn on Sunday, March 27, just hours after Congress approved a state of emergency, heavily armed police and soldiers entered the packed, gang-controlled neighborhood of San Jose El Pino.

Freed from explaining the arrest or providing access to a lawyer, they went from house to house, escorting the youths out. They set up a perimeter with barbed wire barricades, where they controlled who entered and who left, demanding identification and searching everyone.

President Nayib Bukele has responded to a rise in mass killings in impoverished areas such as San Jose El Pino with mass arrests, increasing arrest totals each day and posting photos of tattooed men. The highly publicized Roundup is not the result of a police investigation into the murders in late March, but advances a tough crime narrative that critics are calling “punitive populism.”

In just two weeks, more than 10,000 alleged gang members have been arrested – a sizable number for a small country of 6.5 million people. They can be kept for up to 15 days at no charge, one of the measures taken by international human rights groups and the US government.

“They brought everything,” said 36-year-old Hector Fernandez on his way to his factory job on a recent morning. “Whoever did not open the door, they knocked on him. They were looking for boys. I think they took almost everyone, but the others managed to get out.”

Critics say mass arrests are more pretense than substance. They note that between the chest-beating rhetoric and the cleverly crafted videos of the roughly handled prisoners, the authorities are not talking about the investigation or arrest of those suspected of actual involvement in the March 26 killings. But many Salvadorans are happy to see action against gangs that have long terrorized their communities.

“It’s for everyone’s safety,” Fernandez said, looking around nervously to see if anyone was watching. He said he concentrates on his own business and has no trouble with Mara Salvatrucha, the gang that controls his neighborhood. “I go away, (police and soldiers) search me. I go to work, come back in the evening, they find me. I pass and go home.”

Bukele, a highly popular social media master, has filled his platforms with photographs of gang members in handcuffs and bloodied, ordering Attaboys from his security cabinet and his supporters. At the same time, he has also targeted human rights organizations and international agencies criticizing some of the measures.

“If we don’t rid our country of this cancer now, when will we do it?” Bukele said in a video released last week to soldiers and parade grounds of the world. “We will go and find them wherever. Even if someone opposes. No matter how outraged the international community may be.”

Gangs control the area through brutality and fear. They have inspired thousands of people to flee, who are forcibly recruited, to save the lives of themselves or their children. Their power is strongest in the poorest areas of El Salvador where the state has long been absent. They are a drain on the economy, siphoning money off even the lowest earners and forcing businesses that can’t pay or won’t to close.

A wave of violence in late March – it spread across the country and its victims included a municipal maintenance worker, a taxi driver, a farmer – demanded a response from the government. Bukele chose a state of emergency provided for in the constitution.

But El Salvador’s security forces and justice system had the legal tools to investigate and prosecute those involved in the killings without suspension of fundamental rights, critics say. What they didn’t have was the carte blanche that sparked the media spectacle of the past two weeks, with Bukele starring as the main savior.

“There is a lot of doubt about whether the measures taken by Bukele’s government to counter the wave of killings are really aimed at investigating crimes and responding to victims,” ​​said Leonor Arteaga, a Salvadoran. who is the Program Director in due process. of the Law Foundation in Washington.

Instead, she said, it appears that Bukele is using the situation “to advance his authoritarian plans and with the intention of controlling all important voices and crushing any dissidents.”

Bukele’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Abraham Obrego, director of the strategic litigation program at Cristosal, a non-governmental organization in El Salvador, said his group was working to document arbitrary arrests and other abuses.

He said Bukele has shown himself to be adept at creating and controlling stories. “There’s a term we call ‘punitive populism,’ which is using the powers of the state criminal oppression to show brutality, to show power,” brego said.

On Tuesday, the head of a national police association said that some high-ranking police officers had been pressuring officers to justify some arrests to meet arrest quotas in a small remote town with no gangs present. was not.

Omar Serrano, vice rector of Central American University Jose Simeon Caas, said that like in previous administrations, the president has opted for a more military approach to dealing with gangs.

“It’s not going to solve the country’s serious problems,” Serrano said. The official line is that the problem of gangs is one of national security, “when deep down it is a social problem.”

After Congress approved a state of emergency, Bukele returned several times to lawmakers calling for changes to the country’s criminal code. Among other things, he lengthened the sentence, lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and established prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for journalists who spread gang messages that cause concern or concern to the public. can cause panic.

He had already ordered his prison chiefs to confine all gang members to their cells 24 hours a day and reduce their meals to twice a day. Bukele wrote on Twitter: “Message to the gangs: Because of your actions, your ‘homeboys’ will no longer be able to see the sun.”

Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy organization that Bukele mocked as a “homeboy’s rights watch”, said the government had gone too far.

Juan Papier, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Salvadoran government must adopt rights-respecting measures to protect people from heinous gang violence, eliminate these groups, and bring those responsible for crimes to justice.” ” “Instead, Bukele’s government has enacted broad, harsh punitive laws that undermine the fundamental rights of all Salvadorans.”

But the people of Salvador seem to be in a dilemma regarding this action. In a green park in front of Santa Tecla’s municipal market and a short walk from San Jose El Pino, Adela Marvilla Ceballos walked with her groceries on a recent morning.

“It’s good what they are doing, they took a long time,” said the 52-year-old housewife. “These people don’t understand anything else. Who will be up against security? Criminals only. ,

Still, some of the images had haunted him. Her two sons had emigrated to the United States years ago in search of better opportunities.

“I’m a mom and sometimes it hurts when they grab and hit them and I see how they cry,” she said.


Sherman reported from Mexico City. In Mexico City, Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.

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