This story originally appeared in NACLA on March 27, 2023. It is reprinted here with permission.
On July 13, 2022, Juan Carlos Hernández, a gay activist with Cultura Trans, was arrested in El Salvador under charges of illicit association. Cultura Trans organizers attest that Juan Carlos was detained because of mobilizing for the release of his transgender teenage sister, Alessandra, who was imprisoned in May for not having an identification card during a police raid of her neighborhood. A Cultura Trans activist, who requested anonymity for their safety, says arresting police officers told Alessandra, “We’re going to take you so that you learn not to dress like a woman.” Limited communication from authorities revealed that Alessandra was being detained in a men’s facility. Juan Carlos and Alessandra are among tens of thousands of individuals that have been captured and arbitrarily thrown into a rapidly growing carceral system in El Salvador.
Today marks one year since the start of a state of exception in El Salvador. President Nayib Bukele introduced the state of exception as a means to combat gang violence following 62 gang-perpetrated homicides on March 26, 2022, the sharpest spike in the country’s recent history. Following the adoption of the state of emergency, it was revealed that the killings were authorized by gang leaders as a result of their dissatisfaction with long-standing secret negotiations with the Bukele administration. Salvadorans are repeatedly told that the state of exception, its accompanying suspension of civil liberties, and Bukele’s authoritarian maneuvers are the only means to end the violence that has persisted since the early 1990s. Yet, reflecting on the year since its commencement, the state of exception is a weapon, used to justify infringements on human rights and support the interests of the Bukele administration. Simply put: Bukele’s state of exception never had the capacity to deliver the safety and justice Salvadoran communities have long been searching for.
Claims of human rights violations emerged quickly following the March 2022 declaration and have been consistent since. With more than 65,000 people incarcerated within the last year, arbitrary arrests are named as the most frequent violation, carried out under false accusations of gang affiliation. These unfounded claims mask instances of politically charged incarcerations, such as the arrests of several prominent environmental activists in Santa Marta in February. These penal tactics have also expanded to include sentences for journalists accused of increasing fear of gangs among the general population through their coverage. As of November, 90 deaths while in custody have been reported, showing that detainees continue to receive inhumane treatment under detention. Those imprisoned say they have suffered deprivation of food and fresh air along with beatings and torture that bear a resemblance to tactics used by the state against guerillas during El Salvador’s 1979-1992 civil war.
Despite all of this, the state of exception has been continuously extended, most recently for the 12th time on March 15. Police Director Mauricio Arriaza reiterated the broken record justification that authorities need to “keep fighting criminal groups” to “give assurance to Salvadoran families, for their lives and their property.” Can the state of exception deliver that assurance? The last year shows us it cannot.
These Are Not Random Arrests
While thousands of arrests are made without explanation or due process, that does not mean there is no ulterior motive or strategy behind them. This government has explicitly targeted already marginalized groups in the country. People with tattoos or certain forms of dress are profiled by authorities, at times through checkpoints or sudden stops on the street where individuals are made to remove their clothing. Police officers are expected to meet daily quotas, an example of the misplaced commitment to carceral expansion over transformative solutions. This was clearly seen in the initial dispatch of police and military forces to poor municipalities often characterized as hubs for gang activity. These tactics reveal a failure to recognize the conditions that render these residents more susceptible to joining gangs, serving to further criminalize impoverished Salvadorans, particularly young men and boys. As a result, thousands of children have been imprisoned over the last year. El Salvador’s gang were first formed in the Los Angeles by refugees fleeing the country’s bloody civil war. In the 1990s these groups were deported back to El Salvador, arriving in a precarious post-war landscape where they rapidly proliferated. In recent years, gang violence was so widespread that it made daily life increasingly difficult for Salvadoran communities. Instead of changing the conditions that drive this violence, the Bukele administration naturalizes poverty and reinforces the motivations that drive people to join gangs.
The state’s calculated prosecution of vulnerable communities led to the arrests of Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Saúl Agustín, Teodoro Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega in the town of Santa Marta, Cabañas on January 11, 2023. A joint statement by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities condemning the arrests historicizes Santa Marta as an epicenter of environmental organizing. Among those incarcerated were activists from the Association for Social Economic Development (ADES), who organized against environmental degradation and state suppression in the area. The charges of illicit association and responsibility for a 1989 civil war-era murder leveled against them are widely criticized as baseless attempts to intimidate locals from further organizing. They also display a cruel irony by disregarding the tens of thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of the Salvadoran state throughout the war. The mobilization of Santa Marta residents was a driving force behind El Salvador passing the world’s first metal mining ban in 2017. The arrests fuel growing speculation over a possible reversal of the historic ban, as Bukele searches desperately for revenue streams to make up for his other failed ventures to generate capital, including the adoption in 2021of Bitcoin as legal tender.
Earlier this month, hundreds took to the streets in the capital of San Salvador to participate in annual marches for International Women’s Day, the first manifestation to take place under the state of exception. Central feminist demands—such as the right to legal abortion in a country where all abortive healthcare is severely criminalized—were accompanied by sharp criticisms of the Bukele administration. Explicit calls were made to end the state of exception, citing continued physical and emotional violence and the forced disappearances of girls, women, and trans people, particularly trans women. With one of the highest rates of femicide in Latin America, feminist activists are right to point out that the state of exception has done little to eliminate patriarchal violence. Rather, the hyper-militarization of Salvadoran communities has only strengthened the state’s suppressive hold on women and their livelihoods.
The state of exception also exacerbates preexisting state-sponsored attacks on LGBTIQ communities, as seen in the Cultura Trans campaign for the release of Juan Carlos and Alessandra. In the first months of the policy, the human rights organization Cristosal reported 53 arbitrary arrests of LGBTIQ people. This number is surely underreported given the disregard for trans identities when placing detainees in facilities along with the lack of collected data on gender identity and sexuality for those imprisoned. Gender-affirming legal identification is a specific challenge for transgender Salvadorans. For years, trans activists have been spearheading the fight for the Ley de Identidad, a gender identity law that would allow trans Salvadorans to receive legal documentation that aligns with their names and gender identity. In February 2022, El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that the constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and gave the legislature one year to create a process through which trans people can change their names in identity documents. The legislative assembly, packed with a supermajority from Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party, failed to meet last month’s deadline. This disregard for trans rights is representative of the state of LGBTIQ politics in Bukele’s El Salvador, which also denies the right to same-sex marriage. The carceral repercussions of discriminatory identification policies, along with the criminalization of sex work and profiling experienced by LGBTIQ communities, are exacerbated by the ongoing state of exception.
With the 12th extension now in effect, it’s hard to see an end in sight. Many think Bukele will use an ongoing state of emergency to legitimize the unconstitutional re-election bid he announced in September of last year. Critiques of Bukele’s authoritarianism have centered most recently on the newly inaugurated Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT) in Tecoluca, San Vicente. The president proudly boasts that the facility is the largest prison in the Americas, but has failed to be transparent about the financing behind the massive project. The new prison was unveiled early last month in a press video of Bukele’s walkthrough of the cement-covered confine. The sprawling 45-mile campus includes eight detention buildings with 32 cells each; the cells hold 80 metal bunks without mattresses, two sinks, and two toilets for every 100 prisoners.
Intended to accommodate 40,000 people, the new complex is celebrated as the perfect solution to a rapidly growing prison population that currently places El Salvador three times over its prison capacity and with the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. The sensationalized videos and photos released of the arrival of the first 2,000 transfers are jarring in their graphic displays of masses of prisoners with their heads shaved and stripped of clothing grouped into inhumane living conditions. Regarding the prison Bukele tweeted, “This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, all mixed, unable to do any further harm to the population.” These visuals center attention on a penal spectacle that assumes guilt and distracts from the further entrenchment of carceral logics into Salvadoran society. The consistently high approval ratings for Bukele across the country and diaspora highlight the stronghold these proposed solutions have on the popular imagination despite assaults on human life and dignity. In a worrying development, Honduran leftist President Xiomara Castro announced in December a similar state of exception to crack down on gang violence in Honduras.
The state of exception is the latest in a decades-long string of short-term approaches to gang violence that do not address the underlying conditions shaping the Salvadoran sociopolitical landscape in which gangs are born and thrive. Beginning long before Bukele entered office, El Salvador has undergone successive band-aid attempts to curb gang violence via increasingly punitive measures introduced by political leaders across the right-left spectrum. While it is crucial to acknowledge the fact that the state of exception has categorically improved the lives of many Salvadorans—with significantly lower rates of homicide and extortion, along with weapon seizures contributing to feelings of safety across the country—we must ask: at what cost?
If we pull the veil, we see this safety is limited and exclusive. The future of El Salvador remains unclear if these carceral approaches and authoritarian leadership continue. While it is unknown how long the state of exeception will last, we can be sure the government will continue to pursue an established pattern that does not prevent the exploitation of Salvadoran lives but actually fuels it. The threats posed by gang violence remain a central concern and ongoing risk. However, the state of exception and its antecedents do not address the everyday needs of Salvadorans nor the root causes of gang violence. They instead serve to consolidate Bukele’s authoritarian project and delay the construction of sustainable futures.