El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele is a millennial social media sensation, who has ruled with an iron fist over the last year, instituting a state of exception and locking up 65,000 suspected gang members. For much of the country, his policies have been an overwhelming success, slashing crime rates like never seen. But, thousands of family members of the detained say their loved ones are innocent. On May 1, they led a huge International Workers Day march against the government. Their stories, and the signs they carry, are eerily reminiscent. In the 1970s and ’80s, 30,000 innocent civilians were detained, disappeared, and murdered during El Salvador’s armed internal conflict and under brutal US-backed authoritarian regimes. Today, many fear the return of dictatorship.
Production/Post-Production: Michael Fox
El Salvador is facing complicated times.
President Nayib Bukele is a millennial social media sensation, and the first candidate outside of the two major national parties to be elected in El Salvador in 40 years … He rose to power on the heels of Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and caused an international stir by making El Salvador the first nation to make Bitcoin legal tender.
He also promised to fight corruption and crime.
And he has, but he has done so by ruling with an iron fist, cracking down on the country’s gangs.
Last year, he instituted a state of exception — suspending many constitutional rights in the name of fighting high crime rates and gang violence throughout the country.
In just the last year alone, under these emergency powers, Bukele’s government has jailed over 65,000 alleged gang members.
And, at least in terms of Bukele’s stated goal, this crackdown has been a success. The country is safer than it’s ever been.
Anael Saleman, Street Vendor
“Yea. Before, we were afraid to come to work. Often, you’d see really terrible things And you’d have to stay quiet. Now, we’ve seen tremendous change. Now, you can leave late or come
early and there’s no problem. You can walk on the street with no problem.”
From 2021 to 2022, murders in El Salvador were cut in half, falling from 1,147 to 496. Bukele recently announced that April 2023 was the safest month in El Salvador’s history — with no murders.
Nayib Bukele, President, El Salvador
“We’ve been fighting this war against the gangs for 8 months. And thank God, we are winning.”
Bukele’s approval rating has skyrocketed to over 90%.
“Bukele is amazing. Really great. He’s come here to make big change. So much change. We’ve never seen anything like this.”
But that is not the whole story.
Thousands of family members of the detained say their loved ones are innocent.
On May 1, they led a huge International Workers Day march against the government.
Marta de Colorado, Mother of detained
“I’m here to support this march, because I have a son in a prison in this country. He was detained on January 20, by this unjust regime. He’s a hard working boy. And he’s never had any trouble with the law.”
Like all family members here, she hasn’t spoken with him since he was detained. He is being held indefinitely without trial.
Ivania Cruz, Committee of Family Members of Political Prisoners
“Currently, the government is not respecting the human rights, and the judicial and constitutional rights of the people who are in jail, and which all citizens should have… We have asked for a special international human rights investigation to come to El Salvador. Because the Attorney General’s office is not doing its job. It’s just another employee at the service of the government.”
CHANTING: “Down with the dictatorship.”
Evelyn Garcia, Movement of Victims of the Regime
“I’m here to support my brother. He was detained illegally on August 5 by the government president of Nayib Bukele. We are here to support all of the detained who aren’t connected to the gangs. Hard working people who supported their families.”
According to Garcia’s group, over 200 people have died in prison over the last year. In some cases, family members only learned the news months later.
CHANTING: “They took them from us alive. We want them back alive. Freedom for the innocent.”
Misael Argueta, teacher
“We are here to fight against the illegal capture of my brother. Because most of this government’s detentions are illegal and practically kidnappings. Because none of these people have been convicted by the courts. They were just picked up under suspicion, or because of the so-called government quota that there has to be two or more detentions per day.”
CHANTING: “The people united will never be defeated.”
Elba Esmeralda, mother
“They took my son at the factory where he worked. He’s been detained for over a year and I haven’t heard any news since. We haven’t been able to communicate with him. His little girl asks for him. She asks me about him. I have to tell her that he’s working far away.”
Their stories, and the signs they carry, are eerily reminiscent.
In the 1970s and 80s, thirty thousands innocent civilians were detained, disappeared and murdered here in El Salvador during the armed internal conflict and under brutal US-backed authoritarian regimes.
Today, many fear the return of dictatorship. Something that decades ago, thousands gave their lives to end.
Reelection is prohibited under the Salvadorian constitution. But the Bukele-backed Supreme Court is expected to clear the road for the Bukele’s return presidential bid next year.
For The Real News, this is Mike Fox. Before you go, be sure to head over to therealnews.com/support and support the work we do so we can keep bringing you important on-the-ground coverage of people and struggles around the world…. just like this. Thanks for listening.