TONACATEPEQUE, El Salvador – Four weeks have passed since the shoemaker disappeared from his hometown, dragged away in handcuffs by Salvadoran police.
The man’s family, Heber Peña, 29, has collected business receipts and signatures from customers to prove that he is making honest money. They fear that he is now locked up in an overcrowded prison, accused of being a member of a gang.
Even so, the shoemaker’s family still see the benefits of the police crackdown that led to his arrest and admire the leader behind it: President Nayib Bukele.
“Apart from that,” said Caleb Peña, Heber’s brother, “everything the president has done is magnificent.”
Mr. Peña is one of more than 18,000 Salvadorans imprisoned in recent weeks, after a spike in homicides in March led to the government declaring a state of emergency, suspending basic civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and allowing 12-year-old children to be tried by adults for gang affiliation.
Human rights groups denounced the actions as violations of fundamental freedoms. US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken urged the Salvadoran government to “uphold due process and protect civil liberties.
But most Salvadorans don’t complain. The country has grown weary of the endless bloodshed, of the gangs that terrorize them, of the lawlessness that has inspired so many to travel more than 1,000 miles to the American border.
Much of the Salvadoran public is simply relieved that Mr. Bukele is cracking down, even if he is also undermining the fragile democracy their country has struggled to build over the past three decades.
The end of a brutal civil war in 1992 ushered in a new force of lawlessness in El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America: gangs that took hold after the United States deported thousands of Salvadorans to the country, many of them they had built criminal networks in Los Angeles.
The gangs fueled a cycle of bloodshed that compounded frustration with a political system that could not provide lasting peace. Now many Salvadorans have embraced a young leader with an authoritarian bent that, at least temporarily, has given them the stability that has proved elusive.
Mr. Bukele, the 40-year-old Salvadoran president, has become one of the most popular leaders in the world. His supporters of him say this is largely due to the rapid decline in gang violence since taking office in 2019, as well as his handling of the pandemic, during which he has kept many afloat with food pantries.
US government analysts and officials believe the violence has only abated due to a secret truth between the gangs and the government, which Mr. Bukele denies.
And critics have been alarmed by the president’s systematic efforts to subvert the country’s fragile institutions and consolidate more and more power in his own hands.
His party summarily removed five Supreme Court justices and fired an attorney general who was investigating the administration while relentlessly attacking the media and advocacy groups.
Yet most Salvadorans don’t seem to feel repressed, or just don’t care. Satisfaction with democracy in El Salvador has been at the highest level for over a decade This was shown by the August poll from Vanderbilt University. It is a CID Gallup poll released last week showed that 91% of respondents approved government security measures.
“For many people in El Salvador, democracy is fundamentally the ability of the political system to respond to their situation,” said José Miguel Cruz, an El Salvador expert at Florida International University. “By that standard, they see this as the best option they have.”
Fear of arbitrary arrests has spread across the country, according to interviews with dozens of residents and police officers in cities now controlled by the security forces. But many remain convinced that it is perfectly legitimate for the government to go to great lengths to crush the gangs that torment them.
In fact, long before Mr. Bukele declared a state of emergency, fundamental freedoms were already severely restricted in much of the country. The only difference is that in the past it wasn’t the government that called the shots. It was the gangs.
In many of El Salvador’s poorer cities, gangs are the supreme authority. They decide who can enter and at what time, which entrepreneurs can open a business and how much backlash they owe, who lives and for how long.
“In these communities, people are already in a state of emergency,” said Edwin Segura, head of an investigation unit at La Prensa Gráfica, a leading Salvadoran newspaper. “People say, ‘well, if I go from being in the authoritarian, murderous hands of the gang to being in the authoritarian hands of the state, I’ll take it.’”
Mr. Peña grew up and lived in a city north of San Salvador, the capital, called “Distrito Italia”, or Italian District, which takes its name from the Italy that donated funds to build the community for displaced people. after the severe earthquake of 1986. It has become a stronghold of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which until the state of emergency ruled every aspect of life.
Residents and current and former police officers say the gang taxed many local businesses and anyone from outside to deliver the products. Lookouts reported who entered the city, warning gang leaders when strangers or the police approached.
Gangs have even stepped in to give rise to disputes between spouses or neighbors, imposing their own brand of law and order.
“If you argue with your neighbor, go to the people who take care of these places, not the police,” said a man named Rogelio, whose full name was hidden to protect him from potential reprisals.
Once, he said, a group of gang members beat him to death for uttering a word they didn’t like. A few years ago, while Rogelio was watching, they shot his best friend to death, because the man seemed “too quiet” to them.
“If I were the government, if I had the power, I would make them disappear,” Rogelio said, referring to the gang members. “They don’t deserve to live.”
Last year, the US Treasury Department sanctioned high-ranking officials in the Bukele administration for granting gang leaders “financial incentives” and prison privileges in exchange for fewer murders.
But any deal seemed to have failed in late March, when a weekend of murder pierced the patina of tranquility, and now Mr. Bukele appears to be facing the gangs head-on.
Since the El Salvador Parliament first passed the emergency decree, soldiers have been stationed at the entrance to the Italian District, inspecting every vehicle and checking the bodies of visitors for tattoos that could signal gang ties. .
Many residents say they feel safer now, including Rogelio, who said those who criticize Mr. Bukele’s treatment of gang members have no idea what it means to be subjugated by them every day.
“They’re just talking,” he said of the president’s detractors, “we’re here to experience this.”
Mr. Bukele decided to air his crackdown on social media, bragging about denying prisoners sunlight and rationing their food. On Twitter he posted videos of prison guards pushing tattooed men to the ground Other inmates served tiny meal portions.
Such public displays of cruelty seem designed to win political points. A 2017 poll found that more than a third of Salvadorans approved the use of torture and extrajudicial killings in fighting gangs.
“It must be a cathartic image,” Segura said, “to see gang members lying on the ground after seeing them encouraged, humiliated and terrified by others.”
Bukele himself admits that the government has thrown innocent bystanders into prison, although he claims they account for a small percentage of the detentions. Marvin Reyes, who heads a police union, says the officers were instructed by their superiors to meet “a daily quota of arrests”. A spokesperson for the president’s security cabinet declined to respond.
According to Mr. Reyes, many gang members have gone into hiding, fleeing to the mountains or hiding in safe havens, so the police have met the request for mass arrests by catching anyone who looks suspicious.
“They got an order and they don’t want problems with their boss,” said Mr. Reyes.
Like almost everyone in the Italian District, the family of Mr. Peña, the shoemaker, dreams of a more peaceful life.
But they and many other residents insist that the young man has nothing to do with gangs. When the police slammed his tin door in March, he was putting together a pair of black shoes.
“He worked right here,” said his father, Víctor Manuel Peña, pointing to a pile of unfinished sandals outside the two-room house he shares with Heber. “Which gang member lives in a tin-walled house?”
When his wife died of cancer a few years ago, Víctor Manuel, 70, took on the responsibility of cooking meals for the family. Now she has nightmares about her son who wants food in prison.
He voted for Mr. Bukele, along with the rest of the family. “We saw that he was interested in improving the country,” he said. “We never imagined that he would make such mistakes.”