Over the last two years, authorities in El Salvador set to work rounding up tens of thousands of suspected members of the country’s most feared gangs.
The sweeping crackdown came after a state of emergency issued in April 2022 granted President Nayib Bukele special powers, suspending fundamental rights – like access to a lawyer or being given a reason for an arrest.
This enabled Bukele to launch a full-scale war on El Salvador’s street gangs, leading to the arrests of more than 76,000 people – 12,000 of which were thrown into the country’s the vast Centre for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT) – a vast mega prison in Tecoluca where inmates are packed in like sardines.
Bukele’s war on gangs is credited with slashing homicide rates while restoring security and dignity to citizens of what was once one of the world’s most dangerous countries. The price, say observers and victims, is paid in arbitrary arrests, inhumane detention, even torture – and fear of a whole new kind.
But there is no sign of Bukele’s crackdown coming to an end any time soon. The president, who describes himself as the ‘world’s coolest dictator’, appears to have swept to victory in last weekend’s election, so far winning 83 percent of the vote. His war on El Salvador’s gangs is cited as a major reason behind his popularity.
Over the last two years, authorities in El Salvador set to work rounding up tens of thousands of suspected members of the country’s most feared gangs. More than 12,000 people have been thrown into the country’s vast ‘Centre for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT)’
The sweeping crackdown came after a state of emergency issued in April 2022 granted President Nayib Bukele special powers, suspending fundamental rights – like access to a lawyer or being informed of why you were arrested. Pictured: Inmates are seen on Tuesday in the vast mega prison, which has the capacity for 40,000 prisoners
A full-scale war on El Salvador’s street gangs has led to the arrests of more than 76,000 people – 12,000 of which were thrown into the country’s the vast Centre for the Confinement of Terrorism (pictured)
The populist leader declared himself a harbinger of democracy, not the case study for 21st century autocracy that some fear, following the vote.
US officials have for months been protesting Bukele’s support for moves like dismissing judges and bucking constitutional term limits – measures they said endangered the country’s young democracy.
But Bukele told thousands of cheering supporters on Sunday night that El Salvador hasn’t known democracy until now, though he acknowledged that his vision of that ideal is distinct from the norm.
‘It will be the first time in a country that just one party exists in a completely democratic system,’ Bukele said, adding that ‘the entire opposition together was pulverized.’
Bukele will be El Salvador’s first reelected president, following Sunday’s election.
His party’s majority in congress and a friendly court they stacked allowed him to dodge a constitutional ban.
By Monday, Bukele had 83% of the vote against 7% from his nearest competitor with ballots from about 71% of polling stations tallied in a troubled process plagued by glitches, according to preliminary data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
But as the President savoured his landslide victory, the latest batch of photographs from inside the CECOT facility showed the dire conditions of its inmates.
In one photo, taken through the bars of a bare cell, several-dozen clean-shaven tattooed men are seen crammed onto bunk beds stacked three high.
Arms crossed, they stare intimidatingly back out through the bars.
The prison is packed with an astonishing 12,114 prisoners, although that is only slightly more than a quarter full, given its 40,000 inmate capacity.
Many are bitter rivals from two of the country’s most feared gangs MS-13 and Calle 18, with history showing how their foot soldiers will take any opportunity to kill their enemies.
In each 100 square-metre cell, there are around 75 inmates who sleep on metal cabins and are forced to share just two toilets and two sinks.
Pictures in the past have shown the inmates sitting on the floor in one of the mega prison’s main halls, stripped to their underwear and forced to sit back-to-front in a group of 2,000, watched over by armed prison guards.
While Bukele’s measures have been credited with reducing El Salvador’s crime rate, families say innocent people are being caught up in the crackdown.
About 7,000 inmates have been freed nationwide for a lack of evidence, but activists say many innocents – including minors – remain behind bars.
Human rights observers have accused the government of committing widespread human rights abuses and of torturing and causing the deaths of more than 150 inmates.
Bukele’s war on gangs is credited with restoring security and dignity to citizens of what was once one of the world’s most dangerous countries. The president (pictured on Sunday) is expected to be reelected in a landslide following an election on Sunday
An inmate displays his back tattoos at CECOT in Tecoluca on February 6, 2024
A CECOT inmate is seen being escorted past cells by a guard on February 6, 2024
Bukele’s war on gangs, which has involved throwing thousands of inmates in prisons across the country (pictured) is credited with restoring security and dignity to citizens of what was once one of the world’s most dangerous countries
Speaking to AFP news agency, Sandra Hernandez, 36, says her husband Jose Medrano, a day laborer, was taken by police in May 2022. He never returned.
Medrano was falsely accused of gang membership, Hernandez said at her rickety, wooden home on a dirt road in El Rosario, some 31 miles from the capital San Salvador.
The last she heard from her husband was thanks to a covert call nearly a year after his arrest to tell her he had been taken to hospital for dialysis.
She was later informed he had died of kidney failure.
‘But at the funeral home I was told the body had bruises,’ Hernandez told AFP.
‘Innocent people are dying,’ she said.
Hernandez lives with a son of 17 and a 13-year-old daughter in a shack with no water or electricity. The family depends on remittances sent by a relative in the United States and odd bricklaying jobs her son does.
‘People don’t know what life is really like,’ she told the French news agency.
Maricela Mendez, 35, was sleeping when police burst into her home in a suburb of the capital in July 2022. She was taken to prison and her children, 11 and seven, sent to stay with their grandmother.
Mendez was accused of being a known local criminal, but insists she is innocent.
‘The police officer had a quota of five arrests,’ she said.
A month after she arrived at prison, Mendez found out she was pregnant, and lived in fear of a miscarriage for all her five months of incarceration.
‘We were punished, we were beaten, we were not given water’ and made to sleep on the floor, the beautician said of her experience in three different penitentiaries.
She gave birth two months after her release.
The bigger children are still traumatized, she said.
As the President savoured his landslide victory, the latest batch of photographs from inside the CECOT facility showed the dire conditions of its inmates (pictured). Arms crossed, inmates stare intimidatingly back out through the bars at an armoured prison officer
An inmate is led into a cell by officers at CECOT in Tecoluca on February 6
Human rights observers have accused the government of committing widespread human rights abuses and of torturing and causing the deaths of more than 150 inmates
‘When they see a patrol car they cry, they are afraid they will take me away again… One lives in fear,’ she said of life in Bukele’s El Salvador.
Josefina Bonilla takes care of two toddler grandchildren. Their mother, Bonilla’s daughter Stefany Santos, 24, was arrested in June 2022.
‘I have no news of her,’ the 63-year-old told AFP tearfully, showing off a photo of her daughter at her home in Soyapango in the San Salvador department. She suspects Santos was falsely denounced by her in-laws, with whom relations are strained.
‘She is innocent. People are taken away and not investigated,’ said Bonilla, who is unable to work for having to take care of the little ones, and gets by on handouts.
‘My daughter is asthmatic and has psychological problems. I worry that she’s not getting her medicine,’ added Bonilla.
‘Good people are paying for the sins of others,’ she said in reference to the now-diminished gangs that had for so long imposed a reign of terror on the country.
‘Mothers are without their children, and children without their parents.’
Irma Garcia, 42, told AFP she had not been able to speak to her son Isaias Galicia, who was arrested aged only 17 in June 2022 and charged with gang association.
‘I haven’t seen him. I don’t know if he’s okay, if he’s alive,’ she said, clutching a photo of her son at her home in the north of San Salvador.
‘My son is not a gang member, he doesn’t have any tattoos, he didn’t hurt anyone,’ insisted Garcia, who works as a cleaner and has three other children aged 13 to 21.
After Isaias’s arrest, Garcia said the family was cast out by their community, and forced to find a new home.
She said she brings food, water and clothing to the prison, but has no idea if her son receives any of it.
‘I live in fear that they will inform me he was killed inside,’ Garcia told AFP, lamenting that innocent young people are collateral damage for the gang clampdown, necessary as it is. ‘They have taken away their dreams, their future.’
Officers stand on patrol outside cells at CECOT in Tecoluca on February 6
The entrance to CECOT and a view through the gates is seen on February 6
Bukele’s firm grip on power is now only expected to strengthen.
He predicted his New Ideas party would win an even larger congressional majority, but by Monday the ballots from only 5% of polling places had been tallied.
If true, analysts say the leader would be able to continue his controversial crackdown on the gangs and potentially reform the country’s constitution – a move already proposed by his government once before – to stay in power.
Bukele’s victory lap was met with a roar from the crowd donning t-shirts, scarves, hats, puppets, masks and life-sized cardboard cutouts emblazoned with his face.
But others say the Central American nation is headed down a dangerous path that could corrode democracy and trickle out to the rest of the region.
‘There’s no going back,’ said Eduardo Escobar, lawyer and director of the nongovernmental organization Citizen Action.
‘This election signifies the consolidation of an authoritarian model of government in El Salvador, ratified by the people.’
The 42-year-old Bukele has repeatedly raised democratic alarms throughout his presidency, accused of stacking courts with loyalists and tinkering with Salvadoran law to concentrate power in his own hands. That continues to be a concern for some as he is set to be sworn in to his second term on June 1.
But he’s also adored by many Salvadorans because of his controversial crackdown on the country’s gangs.
Highly popular, the ‘state of emergency’ was the highlight of campaign messaging, and something Bukele promised to continue despite originally only being a temporary measure when the firebrand began his crackdown nearly two years ago.
Under the emergency, officials have detained more than 76,000 people – more than 1% of El Salvador’s population.
Gabriel Gomez, 44, who was among the more than 1.6 million people who voted for Bukele, told the Associated Press gangs ‘used to kill 50 people a day’.
Walking out of a voting station on Sunday in the formerly gang controlled area of Mejicanos, he said that even with constitutional concerns, he’d rather live under Bukele’s emergency measures.
He accused El Salvador’s traditional parties – the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) – of having ‘walked all over the constitution’ before Bukele came to power.
Thoroughly discredited by their own corruption and ineffectiveness, those parties have scooped up just a miniscule percentage of the votes.
‘The constitution never gave me security, the constitution didn’t feed me,’ he said. The gangs ‘used to kill 50 people a day. Where was the constitution protecting us? They killed my sister-in-law’s 13-year-old daughter, where was the constitution then?’
Still, Bukele’s tactics have sparked fierce criticism by some across the region.
Inmates are seen at the top of one of the tall bunk-bed structures in the prison’s cells
An officer in riot gear stands guard outside a cell at the CECOT prison in El Salvador
Officers look back through a cell’s bars at inmates locked inside on February 6
The United States government has sanctioned members of his government for negotiating with the country’s gangs, something Bukele adamantly denies.
The Biden administration, however, has softened its tone with Bukele as his government has cooperated with the US on its agenda to slow historic levels of migration north.
On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Bukele on his victory, adding that ‘the United States will continue to prioritise good governance, inclusive economic prosperity, fair trial guarantees, and human rights in El Salvador.’
That came after Bukele dedicated more than half of his victory speech to attacking foreign critics and journalists. He blamed decades of bloodshed, civil war and gang violence on foreign meddling by governments like the US, which funded El Salvador’s military during the country’s civil conflict.
‘I ask these organisms, foreign governments, I ask these journalists: Why do they want us to kill each other?’ he said.
‘Why do they want to see the blood of Salvadorans? Why are they not happy that blood doesn’t flow in our country the way it once did? Why should we and our children die?’ he added.
The speech rippled concern across the press in El Salvador, which has faced harassment and legal attacks by the Bukele government.
The press were also the victims of the powerful Pegasus spy software, often used by governments to spy on adversaries.
‘It is clear to me after his speech: the next priority enemy to be destroyed by Bukele will be the independent press,’ Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez wrote in a post on the platform X.
Martínez is the news director of investigative news organization El Faro.
His team had to move their base from El Salvador to Costa Rica last year, citing ongoing harassment and concerns of future attacks.
Bukele also said the key to resolving El Salvador’s longtime problems was to ignore the concept of ‘false democracy’ imposed by external critics and use his party’s ‘super majority’ to make change in the country.
Escobar, of El Salvador-based Citizen Action, said Bukele’s ability to push through his agenda depends heavily on his control of congress.
Handout picture released by the Press Secretary of the Presidency of El Salvador in 2023 showing police officers in riot gear guarding the arrival of inmates, accused of belonging to the MS-13 and 18 gangs, to the ‘Terrorist Confinement Centre’ (CECOT), in Tecoluca
Inmates are seen in one of the cells at the vast prison, which has a 40,000 capacity
Alleged gang members are seen wedged together as they arrive at the vast prison
His ‘state of emergency’ security measures that have handed the leader soaring popularity are approved month-to-month by legislators that have controlled the body since 2021. He would also need that majority to fulfill campaign pledges to continue making big changes in the Central American country.
Echoing other critics, he said if Bukele wins enough congressional seats the government may be able to reform the constitution, opening up the possibility for Bukele to run for another term.
While Bukele has said running for a third term is not legal under the current constitution, his running mate left open the possibility of a third term if the law was changed in an interview with The Associated Press.
‘If the constitution is changed, (Bukele) wants to do it and the constitution enables that, I suppose he would be able to do so,’ Ulloa said. ‘A third (term) is not allowed under the current constitution. I’m not saying it is not possible if it changes.’