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Poor in El Salvador Face Brunt of Crackdown on Gang Violence as Gov’t Suspends Rights, Arrests 6,000+

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We go to El Salvador for an update on how the government under President Nayib Bukele has arrested over 6,000 people since a 30-day state of emergency was imposed following a wave of violence. The state of exception has suspended freedom of assembly and weakened due process rights for those arrested, including an extension of how long people can be held without charge. Nelson Rauda, a journalist at the newspaper El Faro who has been a target of harassment and surveillance by the Salvadoran government, says the impact of the state of exception has a class divide. “If you have resources … you might go about the state of exception as if nothing is happening,” he says. “For the majority of the country which comes from the lower-income population, it’s been difficult. It’s military checkpoints and police checkpoints and stop-and-frisk.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to El Salvador, where concerns about human rights violations are growing as the government enforces a brutal 30-day state of emergency that temporarily suspends several constitutional protections. The Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said Monday that in the first nine days of the state of emergency, police have arrested more than 6,000 people accused of being in gangs. Salvadorans have taken to the streets to protest police abuse.

MARIA MATILDE SORIANO: [translated] It is a great injustice. In the case of my family, it was my niece who was unjustly taken from her home, without an arrest warrant or anything, because supposedly she is the partner of a gang member.

AMY GOODMAN: El Salvador’s judicial assembly approved a 30-day state of emergency, or state of exception, following reports of 62 homicides attributed to gangs on one Saturday alone at the end of March, the most violent day in El Salvador in at least two decades. Salvadoran lawmakers passed the decree at 3 a.m. — that’s 3:00 in the morning — following demands from President Bukele, whose government has been accused of abuse of power and human rights violations. This is Salvadoran human rights activist Celia Medrano.

CELIA MEDRANO: [translated] This is a narrative typical of authoritarian governments, which tries to deceive us and convince us that violating human rights of others is the only thing that guarantees that some good Salvadorans can live in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Multiple constitutional rights have been suspended under the state of emergency, including the right to assembly. The decree also allows for extended administrative detention, increasing the period of detention without cause from 72 hours to 15 days. The president also ordered a 24/7 isolation and lockdown of accused gang members currently in prison.

For more, we go directly to San Salvador to speak with Nelson Rauda, reporter for the award-winning Central American independent online newspaper El Faro.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nelson. Can you describe the state of emergency and what’s happening in the streets right now?

NELSON RAUDA: Thank you so much for having me in the show, Amy.

It really depends on where you’re standing in El Salvador. It’s become a tale of two cities. For one, if you have resources, if you’re living in a private residential compound or apartment or you have your own vehicle, you might go about this state of exception as if nothing is happening. Restaurants are open, discotheques, clubs, concerts, this kind of stuff. The president has emphasized that.

On the other hand, for I think the majority of the country, which comes from the lower-income population, it’s been difficult. It’s military checkpoints and police checkpoints and stop-and-frisk. And 6,000 detainees still have cells, 6,000 detainees in the last nine days, which will soon create a huge bottleneck in the judiciary system. It’s not a judiciary system that’s large or has grand capabilities. I was just looking at some stats, but we have like some four public defenders for every 100,000 inhabitants, and some eight judges and eight prosecutors for the same ratios.

So this will eventually create that bottleneck, but it also will retain a lot of people, maybe unfairly in prison if they haven’t had anything. We have scores of people who are on the streets looking for their relatives, looking for them in the places where the police has taken them. And a lot of them are saying, “My relative, my family member, my niece, my son is not a member of criminal gangs or a member of organized crime.” How can you know, though? Well, that’s how democracy should work. You have a judge. You have an opportunity to present your cases. You have the right to a defender. So, these are the rights that are suspended right now in El Salvador. The defense right is suspended. So it means that the majority or nobody of the 6,000 persons has had an access to an attorney or to a lawyer. They haven’t been presented to a judge, which the Constitution demands.

But, as you said, the Legislative Assembly passed the law at 3 a.m. on Sunday. We actually had 87 homicides on the weekend, between Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So, it’s a reaction from the government to what has been probably the worst violence crisis under Nayib Bukele’s term since 2019, but it’s also a response that goes back to what mostly every Salvadoran government has done since the end of the civil war: massive detentions of people and the huge bottlenecks in the judiciary system and the increasing of the incarcerated population — which has so far never solved El Salvador’s problem of violence, and which, before 2019, President Bukele himself believed wasn’t the solution. But it’s exactly what he’s doing right now, and showing his tougher side so far.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nelson, I wanted to ask you — this is not the first wave of major violence in El Salvador. Back in 2011, around there, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world. And back then, former governments instituted the Mano Dura policy, the “strong hand,” again, cracking down on these gangs, many of which actually traced their roots to the United States, because for a long period of time the United States deported about 300,000 people to the Northern Triangle countries who had been convicted of crimes here in the United States. So, I’m wondering: What’s different about this particular situation and the way that Bukele is attacking the rise of violence?

NELSON RAUDA: The difference mainly is that — there is no difference in the ideas. It’s ironic, to say the least, because Bukele’s party is called New Ideas, and there’s nothing new about these ideas. This is exactly the same policies that have been implemented since the end of ’92.

There’s a little history lesson there, because El Salvador ended its civil war, which raged during the ’80s — it ended in 1992. And when that happened, the Clinton administration in the United States started deporting, as you said, a lot of gang members, gang members from L.A., from California. And so, they were sent to a country which had their institutions restructured, and it was barely entering the age of democracy. So, those gang members that came from the United States, they started to create this problem. But then it all worsened because all of the governments in El Salvador were unable to see what this would become.

The gangs are not only a crime problem, they’re a social problem. There’s only — the official number was 60,000 gang members a while ago. President Bukele said yesterday it was close to 84,000. But then you have to think about the social bases of the gangs — their families, their relatives, the people who depend on their economy — and their criminal economy, but depend on them nonetheless. So this is a social problem in El Salvador.

And there’s nothing new about this idea. Every country — every government in the country has implemented some sort of Mano Dura, from Calderón Sol, who implemented during the '90s some sort of death squad, parapolice forces, and then Mano Dura with Francisco Flores at the end of the ’90s and the turn of the century, then Super Mano Dura, which was the same advertising policy, which didn't really solve any of the problems during Tony Saca’s problem. And then we came to Mauricio Funes, and he did a truce with the gangs, which violently exploded in 2015, where we again were the world champion of homicides, and then, under President — under the former President Sánchez Cerén, which the judiciary — or, extralegal executions became systemic.

So, it’s almost a thing with trying to solve a fire with gasoline, and it’s always worked as you would imagine that it would work. It’s always worked increasing violence. And we have documented the negotiations between Mr. Bukele’s government and the gangs, but this is again what is happening. When those negotiations go sideways, we don’t know why and explain what went wrong. But definitely something went wrong. And —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nelson, I wanted to ask you —

NELSON RAUDA: — we had that weekend. Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — in terms of Bukele himself, he’s been portrayed as a maverick, as a populist, as a right-wing populist, similar to Duterte in the Philippines. How popular is he in the population with these policies?

NELSON RAUDA: Extremely popular. El Salvador, like 40% of Salvadorans — according to a study from the Florida International University in 2017, 40% of Salvadorans support torture as a way of obtaining information from criminals, allegedly. So, these are not unpopular measures. And you have to understand that while the gangs are a social problem, they have caused a lot of pain to a lot of families. So, people, in a way, they like to see the police, you know, manhandling criminals. Or, recently, a video has gone viral about some policemen or soldiers stomping in their boots on the neck of a criminal. And this is not something that’s going to cause an outrage in the population, at least not in the majority. People think that it’s OK, because this is, I think, engraved in their culture, like the violence and maybe the impunity. So, this is popular.

But with the arbitrary detentions and these kind of things, I think he is doing some kind of damage to his bases. He has always been very popular with the lower-income neighborhoods. And I think some of that will change, at least individually or at least with some people, because they are seeing that these are the same crackdowns that we saw in previous governments, and they didn’t really do something to solve the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Nelson, as we wrap up, Bukele is expected to be in Miami this weekend, attending a bitcoin conference. Bitcoin is a form of currency, of the legal currency in El Salvador. Can you talk about the president’s commitment to prioritizing bitcoin and investing in it, as opposed to other social issues, what this has meant for El Salvador and how it relates to the state of emergency?

NELSON RAUDA: It will be definitely interesting to see how President Bukele spins the state of exemption and the regime and the crackdown, while he promotes himself as a champion of freedom for bitcoin. It’s really strange for the bitcoin community, which, you know, posits itself to be freedom and separating money from the state, to be so encouraged and so enthusiastic about a government, a state.

But yeah, I think Bukele’s — and my take, having covered the bitcoin implementation since last year, is that there’s an endgame greater than bitcoin for Bukele — and he has shown and hinted at it — which is he’s really at odds with the Biden administration. He doesn’t get a loan from the IMF, which his government has searched for — or, has sought for since March 2021. So, there’s an interest of attracting foreign investment, promoting the country as a tourist destination, and also trying to find a way to finance the country without the IMF, without the Biden administration, without making compromises to things like democracy or human rights, which other organizations, such as, like, you know, the World Bank with us — for some billionaires in crypto, this is not as important, and so he’s trying to appeal to that crowd. And I think will be interesting. And I think what you will see from Bukele — I think he’s scheduled to speak on Thursday — is a sales pitch to appeal to this particular demographic.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Nelson Rauda is a reporter for El Faro, the Central American independent online newspaper, speaking to us from El Salvador, the capital San Salvador.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, a new report from the Poor People’s Campaign called the “Poor People’s Pandemic Report” shows poor people died from COVID at twice the rate of wealthy Americans. Stay with us.

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