Up First Sunday El Salvador's Year of Exception Nayib Bukele crack down on gangs For the past year, the government of El Salvador has been in the midst of an extraordinary crackdown on gangs. The courts have waived human rights protections, allowing police to detain anyone they suspect of having gang affiliations—even without evidence. So far, they've arrested more than 60-thousand people. Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele has been the force behind the country's "state of exception." His "reforms" have included harsh new sentencing guidelines, which have lowered the point of criminal responsibility from 16 years of age to just 12. The government has also opened a new "mega prison" to house the exploding numbers of detainees, a place where, President Bukele said, "they would live for decades." El Salvador, once a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, is now safe. But critics of the policies say the human rights costs have been way too high. Today on Up First Sunday, NPR's Eyder Peralta tells us about what he heard and witnessed during his recent reporting trip to the country.

The Sunday Story: The price of peace in El Salvador

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

El Salvador was once the murder capital of the world - no longer, though. In the nearly four years since Nayib Bukele became El Salvador's president, homicides have plummeted. This past year has been especially noteworthy. In March of 2022, the president pushed for emergency rules that allowed the government to round up anyone suspected of being part of a gang. Since then, police have swept through the entire country from urban neighborhoods to farming communities, and they have jailed more than 60,000 people. I'm Rachel Martin, and this is UP FIRST Sunday.

In many respects, El Salvador, which was once a country almost synonymous with gangs and murder, is now safe. But at what cost? I'm joined now by NPR's Eyder Peralta, who recently returned from a reporting trip to El Salvador. Hey, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So for years, the stories that were coming out of El Salvador have really been difficult to absorb - I mean, murders, kidnappings, extortion. To get us started in this story, can you just describe what it was like when you were there?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, first of all, my producer and I - we walked through neighborhoods that were once impossible to get into. But it felt eerie. We went to a city called Soyapango, and this is where the documentary "La Vida Loca" was filmed. I don't know if you've watched it, but it...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PERALTA: ...You know, it portrays the epicenter of gang culture. You know, heavily tattooed guys - they're smoking pot. They're throwing gang signs. And to give you a visual, this city is really densely populated. There's apartment buildings that are built along these steep ravines. And in between these buildings, you have these long corridors. They call them pasajes. And when the gang violence was at its peak, Salvadorans joked that you could get into these corridors, but you would never leave. And they were only half joking because bodies always ended up strewn in these corridors. And now we're walking through these places. You know, this happened about a month ago. And what we found was this eerie calm.

Most of the houses here are empty. The buses coming in and out of the neighborhood are empty. Some of the neighbors told us that about 60% of people here have been taken - the suspected gang members, along with their mothers, and sometimes their close family members were also taken. So it's quiet here in what used to be a very bustling neighborhood.

And what was striking is that young men had basically disappeared from this neighborhood. I stopped to talk to Onofrito (ph). He's this old, tough guy. He fought during the Civil War. He's 68, and he was helping his daughter renovate her house. And like the other people in the story, he only wanted us to use his first name because he fears retribution by both the government or the gangs. But what he told us is that he's happy that the government has cleaned up, that it means that now his daughter has enough peace that she can build and that she can plan for a future.

ONOFRITO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: In the old days, if someone tried to deliver this cement, he says, he'd be taxed by the gangs. The gangs terrorize communities. They harass citizens. They turn neighborhoods into war zones. So on these streets, you hear little sympathy. Let them rot in jail. Kill them, people told me. But Onofrito says, innocent people have gotten picked up too.

ONOFRITO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He points to a house near a coconut tree. The old man there, he said, was innocent, but he was taken, and he wasn't released for more than a month. When he came back, he looked terrible. His mind was gone. He was weak. He looked yellow. And what he's saying is he's saying, but maybe that's the way it's got to be, that someone always pays the price.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. I mean, this is obviously really complicated. I remember at the peak of the gang problem in El Salvador, the country had a murder rate that was on par with what we had seen in, like Iraq, Afghanistan, countries that were in the middle of wars.

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, and the way it came to be is that the Civil War exploded in El Salvador at the end of the '70s, and hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled. They settled in the U.S., and some of them - they joined street and prison gangs. And fast forward a few decades, and the U.S. deports many Salvadorans, and they establish the same gangs back home. And they managed to entrench themselves in every aspect of life. And that means that they were extorting small business owners. They came to own their own businesses, and they even got top government officials on their payroll. Over the decades, different presidents tried different approaches, from handshakes and truces to armed responses, but that never seemed to quell any of the violence here.

MARTIN: So enter this new president, Nayib Bukele. Tell me about him.

PERALTA: So he came to power in 2019, the youngest president in the Americas at the time, and he really came out of nowhere. He comes from Palestinian immigrants. His family made money in the textile industry. But Bukele is known as a rich kid trying his hand at different businesses, including nightclubs.

MARTIN: And how did he get into politics?

PERALTA: So his political rise begins in 2012, when he became the mayor of a suburb of San Salvador. And from there, he really takes advantage of the discontent in El Salvador. He runs as an outsider, as a can-do guy, and he makes big, huge, visible changes when he comes - when he becomes the mayor of San Salvador, he cleans up the streets. He gets rid of street sellers that had made the old town totally impassable. And he rails against corruption, and he runs on this platform of there is money to make progress in this country as long as it's not stolen.

MARTIN: Which is a message that I imagine went over pretty well with people.

PERALTA: People loved it. I mean, by 2018, he has started a new party, and he wins the presidency in a landslide. In a lot of ways, that was because Salvadorans saw him as a guy who could pummel the old guard, the two political parties that had not really done much to make the life of ordinary Salvadorans any better. So he comes to power with this huge mandate, and he takes advantage to make extraordinary changes. Of course, he launches this war on gangs, but he also consolidates the power of the presidency. His party takes over the legislature. He appoints friendly judges across the country. And those friendly judges reinterpret the Constitution, and suddenly Bukele announces that he will seek another term, which the Constitution pretty clearly prohibits.

So over the past four years, he's become this kind of mythical figure. He has been both derided as a millennial dictator and lauded as the kind of leader that Latin America needs to put an end to all this violence. And I should note, it is obvious that he has remained incredibly popular.

MARTIN: How does he feel about international press? I mean, have you gotten a chance to meet him?

PERALTA: I wish. He declined our interview request. But I still went to see him at the inauguration of a library in the capital, San Salvador. And let me tell you, the man travels with a spectacle.

MARTIN: Say more.

PERALTA: I mean, helicopters and drones and armored vehicles and sharpshooters, but also this choreographed show. I mean, I get to this place, and his people are instructing the light technicians on how to light a particular part of his face.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And, you know, right before he comes out, this comes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: And just to set the scene a little better, when you get to the airport in San Salvador, Bukele's portrait is on the wall. But what's odd is that right next to his picture is the picture of his wife wearing, like, a royal blue dress. So they're like Salvadoran royalty, and this orchestral music totally gives you that sense. And he rolls up in a sweater and a baseball cap and perfectly gelled hair, perfectly lined beard. He looks like the CEO of a startup, not one of the most controversial figures in Latin America.

MARTIN: It's hard to square that image of him with the reality of what we've seen in news stories, right? There have been all these very disturbing images that have come out of the mass incarceration of these alleged gang members, men in these long lines, shackled, with their heads shaved.

PERALTA: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: So that music that we're hearing is from a video produced by the government, and they're showing the transfer of 2,000 people to a new mega prison. You know, so in this video, we see prisoners who are barefoot and in these white shorts that look like underwear, and they're flinching as they run past police in riot gear. And they end up in these sparse concrete rooms, and they line up super close to each other. And so all you see is this mass of tattooed flesh. And I think part of what's jarring is that all of this is filmed, like, as if it was a dystopian Hollywood film, except that these are real human beings.

MARTIN: So, I mean, the fact that all of this is happening, all these arrests - we don't know who's guilty and who's innocent. Does this make sense to you based on what you know of the president?

PERALTA: I mean, it does and it doesn't. It doesn't because Bukele presents himself as this modern progressive guy. This is the guy who took a selfie at the U.N. General Assembly and then ironically changed his name on Twitter to The World's Coolest Dictator. And it does make sense because when he spoke at that library, he made no apology for the things that his government was doing to these tens of thousands of people. And, look, the truth is that for decades, these gangs have terrorized the people in El Salvador. If you didn't do what they said, they would kill you. More people died during the gang wars than during the Civil War in El Salvador. And what's clear about President Bukele is that he has decided to treat the gang members with exactly the same inhumanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And he's saying, "I know that a lot of the jailed are families or neighbors, but they're also delinquents." And, I mean, what he did in that speech is he showed very little sympathy for the people in prison. And the things that are happening in Salvador are serious. Human rights groups say that the presumption of innocence has disappeared in the country. Human rights lawyers say that judges in closed hearings are listening to hundreds of cases at a time. Ex-prisoners told us that they were beaten, that they were given very little food or water. The government itself has admitted that they've arrested thousands of innocent people. But when Bukele spoke, he made no excuses for the way the prisoners were being treated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUKELE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He's saying, "unfortunately, they have to pay. It's the only way to achieve peace - that we follow the law, that we hand down justice."

MARTIN: What have you heard from the families of those who have been detained?

PERALTA: Look, I mean, I've heard that people are torn. They're safe, and they even tell me that they support what the president is doing. But there's a huge cost to this piece. One example is that there are these groups of mothers who have set up camps outside of prisons. They sleep on the sidewalks outside the prison, hoping, praying that one day their sons, who they say are innocent, will be released. I went to one prison called El Penalito, the little prison, and I found moms who had been camping out there for nearly a year. And all of them told me that they had heard nothing from their children. They're not allowed to talk to them.

And the thing is that the government never says when prisoners will be released. They just do it in the middle of the night. Sometimes buses pull up or sometimes the doors to these prisons swing open and out come these young men. Their moms told me that they come out disoriented and scared and some don't even recognize their mothers. I was there for one of these releases, and here's part of the story I did on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PERALTA: I return to the prison in the middle of the night. I meet Rosa, who says her son was a drunk but not a criminal. I meet Teresa, whose son ran a gas delivery company. A jealous neighbor called the police, she says, and now he's been gone for eight months. Elena says her son was running an errand and never came back. She's been here every day for nine months.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She's been to the prosecutor's office, to the police, to lawyers, to the prisons, and no one has told her anything about her son.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It's like he's been kidnapped."

As we talk, the door to the prison opens.

(APPLAUSE)

PERALTA: So right now they're releasing inmates. One by one, they come out, dressed in white T-shirts and white shorts. And as they come out, people clap.

The former inmates cry and hug. One of them doesn't want to hold his toddler son because he feels dirty. The men say they've been warned not to talk to reporters, so they stay quiet. And for a moment, the moms breathe easy. But today, the state only releases six inmates. Elena's son was not one of them. The worst part, she repeats, is not knowing anything.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "The uncertainty is killing us," she says. "It's killing us day by day."

MARTIN: It's so hard to hear, Eyder. It's hard to imagine your kid just disappearing and held by the state. They're releasing some people, but it just seems so arbitrary. I mean, did you talk with the government? What are they saying?

PERALTA: I did. I had a lengthy conversation with the country's justice minister, Gustavo Villatoro, and he echoed the president. He said that they had studied gangs, and that the gangs had become a parallel government in El Salvador. And he said the way they're dealing with gangs, which he calls the Black Brotherhood, is the only way to do it.

GUSTAVO VILLATORO: A big part of the Black Brotherhood - it's against society. For them, we have just one way - put all of them in prison forever.

MARTIN: OK, so 60,000 people arrested - sounds like only a few are being released. I mean, what are they going to do with the rest of all those people? They're just going to keep them in jail forever? Are there going to be trials?

PERALTA: The government has built what it says is the biggest prison in Central America, and they say that it's designed to keep about 40,000 prisoners completely detached from the outside world. And, look, I think we can all understand that countries sometimes do unpalatable things to keep their citizens safe. But there are actually huge question marks surrounding this government. And one of those questions, a huge one, emerges even before they come to power.

MARTIN: OK, stay with us. You're listening to UP FIRST Sunday. When we come back, a look at President Bukele's possible ties to the very gangs he's targeting. Stay with us.

This is UP FIRST Sunday. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's Eyder Peralta, and we're talking about the mass incarceration of alleged gang members in El Salvador.

OK, so, Eyder, obviously the president, Nayib Bukele, is on this campaign against the gangs, and it's working. The government says there hasn't been a gang killing in almost a year. I mean, is there any way to determine if this peace is going to stick?

PERALTA: I mean, I think that's the big question, and there are plenty of criticisms of this approach. You know, some of the big questions is, is it actually possible to keep that many people in jail for the rest of their lives? Or can you actually suspend constitutional guarantees forever? But there's another big criticism that gets to the very heart of this government and its intent.

Remember that we talked about how Bukele came to power out of nowhere, politically. Well, El Faro, which is a big investigative news organization in Salvador, has reported that when Bukele was running for president, he actually negotiated with gang leaders. They allege that in return for cash, Bukele's brand-new political party was the only one allowed to campaign in gang-controlled areas. El Faro also alleges that at the beginning of his presidential term, Bukele negotiated a truce with gang leaders. The paper has published pictures and audio of one of Bukele's closest advisers meeting with leaders of the maras, and that's what gangs are called here in El Salvador. And they were negotiating with them in prison. The U.S. has actually sanctioned Carlos Marroquin, the Bukele adviser, accusing him of essentially buying favors from gangs.

So I took this question directly to the Minister of Justice, Gustavo Villatoro, and I asked the minister, what should Salvadorans make that this government puts thousands of innocent people in jail for even tiny ties to gangs, but this presidential adviser who was negotiating with gangs gets a pass? Let's listen.

VILLATORO: No, I mean, you have to understand that here in El Salvador, we have a lot of people who are trying to create some type of tales about different people who work for the president. So we are fighting against terrorists. We are running holistic plan. So what those terrorists try to create, what is the truth about their stories?

PERALTA: But, look, it's not just the journalists here in Salvador. It's the U.S. government that has said it in black and white. And they have...

VILLATORO: By whom? Who pay those journalists?

PERALTA: So you're saying those allegations are not true.

VILLATORO: They are trying to destroy...

PERALTA: But there's audio. There's images of this man with the maras.

VILLATORO: Look - yeah, yeah. I know. OK, you're right. But nowadays, I can create audio with your voice.

PERALTA: But why do you give him the benefit of the doubt, but other people who don't have his power, who don't have his money, don't?

VILLATORO: No. We have a plan, maybe for the first time in El Salvador history. Now we have full control about our territory for the first time in our history. And we have more than 6 million people supporting this plan - control territorial, supporting the whole strategy we implement in this more than three years. So we don't have time to lose in this type of stories or tales.

MARTIN: What a fascinating back and forth. So he's basically arguing, hey, listen, you know, we've got control of the country for the first time. People love us. They totally support us. So, you know, buzz off, basically. Is that true? I mean, do the majority of Salvadorans want this? I mean, maybe they feel safe now, and I don't want to diminish that at all. But are they prepared to live in a safe but authoritarian country?

PERALTA: I think the answer to that is yes. If you look at the polls - and these are independent polls - most Salvadorans approve of the job that President Bukele is doing. A recent poll put his approval rating at just over 90%. I mean, that's astronomical. Any president would be jealous of that.

MARTIN: Just to interrupt, you have faith in that poll?

PERALTA: Yeah, it's a real poll and it's what you hear on the streets. And maybe we shouldn't be surprised because Latin America is one of the most violent regions in the world. And I think maybe outside of Latin America, we're worried about the future of democracy and the geopolitical shifts that are happening in Europe, but here in Latin America, the most pressing concern is safety. And when someone comes around and solves that problem, it immediately changes lives. You know, and his influence goes far outside El Salvador because I've heard, you know, people here in Mexico, in Honduras, in Haiti say that they need their own Nayib Bukele to come, to clean up, to make us feel safe. And they don't care how he does it.

And, Rachel, I think it's worth noting that he's having an effect in the United States, too. Recently, Tucker Carlson of Fox News had Bukele on for a whole hour on his show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: And we are honored to have him join us in studio. President Bukele, thank you very much for coming.

BUKELE: Thank you, Tucker, for having me.

MARTIN: So as I'm listening to and thinking about the trade-offs, the moral compromises that people are willing to make to stay safe, it is hard not to be reminded of the detainees that the U.S. took from Iraq, from Afghanistan and put into Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many of those who were detained in Guantanamo Bay did have some links to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. But there were so many people who were held there who did not, who were just innocents who were taken and kept for years. I mean, just some of the images that you're describing of people being stripped down and being held in such close quarters - and Americans sort of made their peace with it, the majority of them, because the government said it's what we need to do to keep everybody safe.

PERALTA: You hear that parallel, Rachel. I mean, it's not a parallel that's lost on anyone. The government itself makes that comparison. They say, why do other countries get to treat terrorists like this? And they tell us, stick to human rights. They say these are our terrorists, and we're doing what we need to do to keep our people safe.

And I think, you know, when I answered that question about whether people are willing to make that trade-off, and I said I think the answer is yes, it's because people tell you that. I mean, mothers who are mourning for their children tell you that. They tell you if he were a gang member, I wouldn't be here. I'm here because he's innocent. But those gang members - kill them, let them rot in jail. Right?

So I think it is a society that has, for now, made peace with this cruel treatment of the people who have terrorized them for many, many years.

MARTIN: So at the top of our conversation, Eyder, you introduced us to that elderly man who was building a house. And he told you about his neighbor who had been arrested and disappeared. But the old man said that the guy was innocent. Did you ever find out what happened to that neighbor?

PERALTA: We found him, and he had been released. And he gave us an interview. He was in his 60s, and he told us that he had moved to the capital, San Salvador, from a rural region decades ago. Let's listen to a bit of our conversation with him.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) I didn't see a TV until I was 25 years old.

PERALTA: To make ends meet, he sells vegetables and bread. And he has no idea why police barged into his house in the middle of the night. He has no tattoos. The gangs would steal from him. So he has no idea why he was taken to jail and thrown in a tiny cell with more than 20 others. They slept on the floor, and it was so crowded, they had to sleep on their sides.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) They gave us a spoonful of beans and two bags of water.

PERALTA: He spent more than a month in jail. Like most of those arrested, he was charged with unlawful association. They let him out because he was near death.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) I never imagined that I would end up behind bars, that they would take all of my clothes, that I would have to use the bathroom in front of everyone.

PERALTA: His wife told me that they are Christian, so they forgive the government. I asked Jose if he feels the same. He nods, but his eyes grow teary.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: This pain, he says - he'll never get over it. He hits his knees with his fists to stop himself from crying and turns to scripture.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The parable of weeds, he says. In it, Jesus warns that one should be careful that if you're in a hurry to pull the weeds, you could also root out the wheat.

MARTIN: Sounds like he knows that this won't leave him, that the trauma he experienced is going to haunt him for a long time.

PERALTA: Yeah, he knows that this is a long-term thing. And, you know, one lawyer I spoke to said that her office is mobbed with people just like this. She says one grandmother came in with three grandkids. Two of her daughters had been arrested, and all she could do to keep the babies from crying was try to put them to her breasts.

You know, this lawyer told me that in the coming years, all of these tens of thousands of Salvadorans are going to have to find a way to process all of this pain, all of this frustration, all of this hate, she says, with the system. And she says that that could be a time bomb. And at the same time, the Salvadoran Congress keeps voting to extend this suspension of basic rights. And the government says that this is working. So why should they stop?

MARTIN: Eyder, thank you so much for bringing us this reporting and these voices. We appreciate it.

PERALTA: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Eyder Peralta, our international correspondent who covers Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen and edited by Jenny Schmidt and Tara Neill. UP FIRST Sunday is also produced by Justine Yan. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom, and Irene Noguchi is our executive producer. I'm Rachel Martin. UP FIRST will be back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.

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