TONACATEPEQUE, El Salvador — It’s been four weeks since the shoemaker disappeared from his hometown, taken away in handcuffs by Salvadoran police.
The family of the man, Heber Peña, 29, collected business receipts and client signatures to prove he earns his money honestly. They fear he is now stuck in an overcrowded prison accused of being a gang member.
Even so, the cobbler’s family sees the benefits of the police crackdown that led to his arrest – and admires the leader behind it: President Nayib Bukele.
“Apart from that,” said Caleb Peña, Heber’s brother, “everything the president has done is magnificent.”
Heber Peña is one of more than 18,000 Salvadorans imprisoned in recent weeks, after a spike in killings in March led the government to declare a state of emergency, suspending essential civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and allowing children as young as 12 to be tried as adults for gang affiliation.
Human rights groups have denounced these actions as violations of fundamental freedoms. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the Salvadoran government to “respect the rule of law and protect civil liberties.”
But most Salvadorans don’t complain. The country has grown tired of the endless bloodshed, the gangs that terrorize it, the lawlessness that inspired so many to walk over 1,000 miles to the US border.
Much of the Salvadoran public is simply relieved that Bukele is suppressing, even as he also undermines 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 anarchy in El Salvador, Central America’s smallest country: gangs that moved in after the United States deported thousands of Salvadorans to the countries, many of which had built criminal networks. networks in Los Angeles.
The gangs fueled a cycle of bloodshed that deepened frustration with a political system unable to secure lasting peace. Today, many Salvadorans have embraced a young leader with an authoritarian bent who, at least temporarily, gave them the stability that has proven elusive.
Bukele, the 40-year-old Salvadoran president, has become one of the world’s most popular leaders. His supporters say it’s largely down to the rapid decline in gang violence since he took office in 2019, as well as his handling of the pandemic, during which he has maintained many people afloat with food distributions.
Analysts and US government officials believe the violence has only decreased due to a secret truce between the gangs and the government, which Bukele denies.
And critics have expressed alarm at the president’s systematic efforts to topple the country’s fragile institutions and consolidate ever more power in his hands.
His party summarily removed five Supreme Court justices and fired an attorney general investigating the administration, while relentlessly attacking the media and advocacy groups.
Yet most Salvadorans don’t seem to feel repressed – or simply don’t care. Satisfaction with democracy in El Salvador is at its highest level in more than a decade, according to an August survey by Vanderbilt University. And a CID-Gallup poll released last week showed 91% of respondents approved of government security measures.
“For many people in El Salvador, democracy is essentially the ability of the political system to respond to their plight,” said José Miguel Cruz, an expert on El Salvador at Florida International University. “By that standard, they see it as the best option they have.”
Fear of arbitrary arrests has spread across the country, according to interviews with dozens of residents and police in towns now controlled by security forces. But many remain convinced that it is perfectly legitimate for the government to go to any lengths to crush the gangs that torment them.
Indeed, long before Bukele declared a state of emergency, fundamental freedoms were already severely restricted in much of the country. The only difference is that previously it was not the government that was running the show. It was the gangs.
In many of El Salvador’s poorest towns, gangs are the ultimate authority. They decide who can come in and at what time, which entrepreneurs can open a business and how much bribes they owe, who lives and for how long.
“In these communities, people have already been put under a state of emergency,” said Edwin Segura, head of an investigation unit at La Prensa Gráfica, a major 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’m going to take it.'”
Peña grew up and lived in a town north of San Salvador, the capital, called “Distrito Italia”, or the Italian District, which received its name after Italy donated the funds to build the community for the people displaced after a major earthquake in 1986. It became a stronghold of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which until the state of emergency ruled over all aspects of life.
Current and former residents and police say the gang taxed many local businesses and anyone from outside who came to deliver goods. Lookouts would report who had entered the city, alerting gang superiors when strangers or police approached.
The gangs have even stepped in to settle disputes between spouses or neighbors, imposing their own brand of law and order.
“If you fight with your neighbor, you go to the people who take care of these places, not to the police,” said a man named Rogelio, whose full name is withheld to protect him from possible reprisals. ..
Once, he says, a group of gang members beat him to death because he said a word they didn’t like. A few years ago, as Rogelio watched, they shot his best friend dead because the man seemed “too calm” to them.
“If I was the government, if I had the power, I would wipe them out,” Rogelio said, referring to gang members. “They don’t deserve to live.”
Last year, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on senior Bukele administration officials for giving gang leaders “financial incentives” and prison privileges in exchange for fewer killings.
But any deal seemed to fall apart in late March, when a weekend of killings pierced the veneer of tranquility, and now Bukele appears to be facing the gangs head-on.
Since the Salvadoran parliament first approved the emergency decree, soldiers have been posted at the entrance to the Italian district, inspecting every vehicle and checking visitors’ bodies for tattoos that could signal links with gangs.
Many locals say they feel safer now, including Rogelio, who said those who criticize Bukele’s treatment of gang members have no idea what it’s like to be subjugated by them every day.
“They’re just talking,” he said of the president’s critics. “We are here experiencing that.”
Bukele was keen to broadcast his crackdown on social media, bragging about depriving prisoners of sunlight and rationing their food. On Twitter, he posted videos of prison guards pushing tattooed men to the ground and inmates being given tiny portions of meals.
Such public displays of cruelty seem designed to win political points. A 2017 poll found that more than a third of Salvadorans approved of the use of torture and extrajudicial executions in the fight against gangs.
“It must be a cathartic image,” Segura said, “to see gang members lying on the ground after seeing them emboldened, humiliating and terrorizing others.”
Bukele himself admits that the government has thrown innocent bystanders in jail, although he maintains that they represent a tiny percentage of detentions. Marvin Reyes, who heads a police union, said officers had been ordered by their superiors to meet “a daily quota of arrests”. A spokesman for the president’s security cabinet declined to respond.
Many gang members have gone underground — fleeing to the mountains or hiding in safe houses — so police have responded to the demand for mass arrests by arresting anyone who appears suspicious, according to Reyes.
“They got an order and don’t want any issues with their boss,” Reyes said.
Like almost everyone in the Italian quarter, the family of Heber Peña, the shoemaker, dreams of a more peaceful life.
But they and many other locals insist the young man has nothing to do with the gangs. When police kicked down his sheet metal door in March, he was assembling a pair of black shoes.
“He used to work here,” said his father, Víctor Manuel Peña, pointing to a pile of unfinished sandals outside the two-room house he shares with Heber. “What gang member lives in a house with sheet metal walls?”
When his wife died of cancer a few years ago, Víctor Manuel Peña, 70, took on the responsibility of preparing meals for the family. Now he has nightmares of his son running out of food in prison.
He voted for Bukele, along with the rest of the family. “We saw that he was interested in making the country better,” he said. “We never imagined he would make mistakes like this.”