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Salvadorans Find Renewed Sense of Security on Streets After Years of Gang Violence

“This way you can walk […], for me that’s good, what the president has done,” Norma Gómez, 58, said while selling skin ointments on a street in San Salvador.

Before President Nayib Bukele launched a “war” against gangs in El Salvador, it was risky for anyone to cross from the “territory” dominated by one criminal gang to that of another.

A year later, people walk without fear from one neighborhood to another and thousands of merchants stopped paying extortion to gangs, but human rights organizations and the Catholic Church criticize Bukele’s methods.

“Today I have the confidence that my daughter and son can leave school and go home alone using public transport, without fear that gang members will intercept them,” says Mauricio Reyes, a 51-year-old employee.

120,000 dead

The Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18, with its two factions, had established “borders” in the areas they controlled, where everyone had to submit to their rules at the risk of losing their lives.

They controlled 80 percent of the country’s territory, according to Bukele, and financed themselves with extortion and drug dealing, and transport businesses, stores and motels, now dismantled by the authorities.

They took control of the territory after the end of the civil war (1980-1992) and 120,000 deaths are attributed to them, more than those during the armed conflict (75,000).

Megacárcel

Everything began to change on March 27, 2022. At Bukele’s request, Congress approved an exceptional regime that empowers the police and army to make mass arrests without warrants, in response to an escalation of violence that left 87 dead.

The president launched massive raids in cities and built the “largest prison in America” for 40,000 inmates. In images released by Bukele, hundreds of tattooed, barefoot, chained and bare-chested inmates can be seen wearing only white shorts as they are transferred to this prison.

More than 66,000 suspected gang members have been arrested and Bukele seems close to putting an end to these feared gangs.

Insecurity used to overwhelm Salvadorans, but now 92% admit that security has improved, according to a survey by La Prensa Grafica newspaper. “Security is good, not before. Today we move freely,” says street vendor Carlos Dueñas, 57, to AFP.

The positive

Researcher Carlos Carcach, of the Escuela Superior de Economía y Negocios, said that “what is evident is practically the neutralization (…) and it seems to be the dismantling of gang structures, and that is positive”.

Now “there are real possibilities of entering multiple neighborhoods where previously it was extremely difficult or risky,” acknowledges the head of the Institute of Public Opinion of the Central American University, Laura Andrade.

The negative

Carcach admits that there is also a “negative” effect, since “the process of dismantling the entire institutional framework in terms of public security and human rights has been completed.

There has been a “cession of rights by the population in exchange for an apparent or real improvement in security,” he says. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized Bukele’s methods, as has the Catholic hierarchy.

At a mass in memory of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (assassinated in 1980), Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez said Friday that he feels “sadness, frustration, impotence, shame and a sense of guilt.”

“We feel guilt because many of us have become cowed, we have become mute, we have sunk into indifference. We seem to be an anesthetized people, comfortable in their own little world, enjoying a peace very similar to the peace of the cemeteries”, added the cardinal.

On his side, Judge Juan Antonio Durán affirms that “it has been a disastrous year” for justice “because of the human rights violations” of innocent people detained without “due process”.

Bukele aims to secure a second term in 2024

“I still think that the regime of exception is a strategy fundamentally of a political nature, of an electoral nature, and in that sense it will most likely be maintained until after the elections”, says to AFP the academic José Miguel Cruz, from Florida International University (USA).

In the past, young people were the most affected by gang violence, according to the government, but many of them are still afraid.

“Before our young people were besieged by the gangs […], now young people go out in fear because the regime of exception will also take them away if the soldier or the policeman dislikes them”, said the plumber Jose Sanchez, 55 years old.

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