el salvador decimated its ruthless gangs but at what cost

When the MS-13 gang ran the neighborhood of Las Margaritas, one of its strongholds in El Salvador, there were rules you had to follow to stay alive.

You couldn’t wear the number eight because it was associated with the rival 18th Street gang. You couldn’t wear the brand of sneakers the gangsters wore. And you could not, under any circumstances, call the police.

“People couldn’t complain to the police because of what the boys would say,” said Sandra Elizabeth Inglés, a longtime resident, referring to the gang members. “They became the authority in this system.”

El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, was once known as the hemisphere’s murder capital — with one of the highest homicide rates anywhere in the world outside of a war zone.

But in the year since the government declared a state of emergency to quell gang violence, deploying the military onto the streets in force, the nation has undergone a remarkable transformation.

Sandra Elizabeth Inglés at her juice stand, not far from her home in Las Margaritas. She said gang members were once the authority in the town.

Now, children play soccer late into the evening on fields that were gang turf. Ms. Inglés gathers soil for her plants next to an abandoned building that residents say was used for gang killings.

Homicides plunged. Extortion payments imposed by gangs on businesses and residents, once an economy unto itself, also declined, analysts said.

“You can walk freely,” Ms. Inglés said. “So much has changed.”

El Faro, El Salvador’s leading news outlet, surveyed the country earlier this year and delivered a stunning assessment: The gangs largely “do not exist.”

But that achievement, critics say, has come at an incalculable price: mass arrests that swept up thousands of innocent people, the erosion of civil liberties and the country’s descent into an increasingly autocratic police state.

Most Salvadorans appear willing to accept that deal. Fed up with the gangs that terrorized them and forced so many to flee to the United States, the vast majority of people here support the measures and the president behind them, surveys suggest.

With approval ratings around 90 percent, El Salvador’s president, the 41-year-old Nayib Bukele, has become one of the world’s most popular leaders and has earned fans across the Western Hemisphere.

Hondurans chanted Mr. Bukele’s name and cheered him at the inauguration last year of their president. One survey showed that people in Ecuador, where violence is rising, think more highly of Mr. Bukele than of their own leaders.

As politicians from Mexico to Guatemala vow to emulate Mr. Bukele’s iron-fisted approach, critics have grown concerned that the country could become a model for a dangerous bargain: sacrificing civil liberties for safety.

“I remain incredibly pessimistic about what this means for the future of democracy in the region,” said Christine Wade, an El Salvador expert at Washington College in Maryland. “The risk is that this becomes a popular model for other politicians to say, ‘Well, we could be providing you more security in exchange for you giving up some of your rights.’”

The Salvadoran government has arrested more than 65,000 people over the last year, including children as young as 12, more than doubling the total prison population. By the government’s own count, more than 5,000 people with no connection to gangs were put behind bars and eventually released. At least 90 people died in custody, the government has said.

Human rights groups have documented mass arbitrary arrests, as well as extreme overcrowding in prisons and reports of torture by guards.

Vice President Felix Ulloa of El Salvador in his office in San Salvador. “We’ve given people back their liberty,” he said.

El Salvador’s vice president, Felix Ulloa, said in an interview that reports of abuse by the authorities were being investigated and that the innocent people who had been arrested were being released.

“There’s a margin of error,” he said, defending what he called an “almost surgically impeccable” strategy.

“People can go out, they buy things, go to the movies, to the beach, they see soccer games,” he said. “We’ve given people back their liberty.”

In what were once some of the most dangerous parts of the country, abandoned houses that belonged to gang members are being renovated and reoccupied by new tenants.

On the streets of Las Margaritas, a neighborhood in the once horrifically violent municipality of Soyapango, in the center of the country, cars now park without the owners’ paying $10 a month to the gang extortionists.

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Abandoned homes previously occupied by gang members before they were arrested during the past year. Some of the original owners, who left because of gang threats, are starting to return.

Before the crackdown, no one visited the municipality’s major outdoor market without permission from gang henchmen, vendors said. Now it overflows with whoever wants to be there.

When Ms. Inglés used to tell people where she lived — on a dead-end street in Las Margaritas — they would gasp.

“They would say, ‘Ay, no, you live in Vietnam!’” recalls Ms. Inglés, ladling mango juice into a bag for a young boy at the stand she runs outside her home.

She used to stare across the street at graffiti that said “See, hear and shut up,” Ms. Inglés said, a phrase used by the gang to intimidate residents into keeping quiet about its crimes.

Before the crackdown, no one visited the area’s major outdoor market without permission from the gang that controlled it. Now whoever wants to be there shows up.

Ms. Inglés says she learned to keep her head down: “The fewer things you saw, the fewer problems you had.” An image of a bird was recently painted over the graffiti.

Juan Hernández, 41, had not set foot on a soccer field blocks from his house in 10 years.

“It was turf,” he said, meaning gang territory. “You’d get hit by the bullets left and right.”

Now he’s using the field to teach his 12-year-old son to play. “He tells me, I want to learn how; I tell him, let’s go,” Mr. Hernández said.

Children can now play on soccer fields once controlled by gangs.

The catalyst for the new reality emerging in El Salvador was a weekend rampage by criminals in March of last year that left more than 80 dead.

U.S. officials have said that long before the crackdown, Mr. Bukele’s administration negotiated a deal with gang leaders to lower homicides in exchange for benefits including better prison conditions.

Many analysts believed the spike in violence was a sign of a breakdown in the purported pact; Mr. Bukele has denied making any such agreement.

After the March killings, El Salvador’s ruling party-controlled legislature declared a state of emergency. The military flooded gang areas across the country, rounding up 13,000 people within a few weeks.

One of them was Morena Guadalupe de Sandoval’s son, whom she says she has not seen or spoken to since he was arrested on his way home from work in the capital about a year ago. She says the authorities have accused him of being part of a criminal group, something she denies.

Every three months she visits the Izalco prison where she says her son, Jonathan González López, is being held, a facility in the west of the country where torture has been reported. She begs for information about him. Sometimes she takes his wife, and their 2-year-old son.

The most she ever hears is that he’s still locked up.

“Depression sets in,” Ms. de Sandoval said. “I get in a bad state when I think about how I can’t see him and I can’t talk to him.”

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During the government crackdown, gang graffiti was covered with white paint.

In a report released in December, Human Rights Watch and a Salvadoran organization called Cristosal interviewed people detained during the crackdown who were later released who described the horrors they witnessed inside the country’s prison system: beatings, deaths, starvation rations.

One said guards held his head underwater “so he could not breathe,” the report said. Another said he was given two tortillas to eat per day, which he had to share with another detainee.

Ms. de Sandoval says the crackdown has made things better in her neighborhood, an area called the Italian District that was once dominated by MS-13. She doesn’t see young men smoking marijuana on the corners anymore, she said.

“It’s safer,” she said. “In that way, it’s a good thing.”

But she can’t separate the upside from her daily pain. Her son will turn 22 “inside” this month, she said. She dreams of catching a single glimpse of him.

“I just want to see him,” Ms. de Sandoval said, “even if it’s from far away.”

A soldier on patrol at the edge of Las Margaritas, previously controlled by the MS-13 gang.

Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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