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El Salvador's war on gangs leaves poor families reeling

Police officer talks with a woman during a "Casa Segura" (Safe House) operation as part of the state of emergency to fight gangs

Police officer talks with a woman during a "Casa Segura" (Safe House) operation as part of the state of emergency to fight gangs, at the Altavista neighborhood in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador August 17, 2022. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

What’s the context?

President Bukele's crackdown has led to mass arrests, mainly young men from poor areas, and relatives say many are innocent.

  • Gang crackdown takes heavy toll on poor
  • Relatives say innocent people being rounded up
  • Families take out loans to pay lawyers

SAN SALVADOR - One morning in early May, armed policemen turned up at Elizabeth's modest home in rural El Salvador and arrested her son.

"They told him they were taking him away to be investigated," said Elizabeth, 65, who runs a small shop in a gang-controlled area outside Santa Ana, a city about 40 miles (65 km) from the capital.

In the three months that followed, seven more family members were arrested, her sister, brother and five nephews - innocent victims, she said, of a crackdown on gang violence by President Nayib Bukele that has led to tens of thousands of arrests.

The day her sister was arrested, Elizabeth said she had arrived at her sister's home to find her lying on the ground surrounded by police.

"I asked a policeman why they were taking away my sister and he replied, 'She's mouthy'," said Elizabeth, whose surname has been withheld to protect her identity.

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Police authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since March, security forces have arrested nearly 51,000 people, mostly young men from poor neighborhoods, for allegedly belonging to or collaborating with the Central American nation's notorious gangs. Most are in jail on pre-trial detention.

For Elizabeth and other low-income Salvadorans, the war on gangs has taken a hefty emotional and financial toll, leaving families without breadwinners and children without parents.

Elizabeth's imprisoned 32-year-old son, Pablo, made fireworks for a living and has a teenage daughter, who Elizabeth has been looking after since his arrest.

She has also taken in six nephews, who sleep on mats on the floor, joining her two grandchildren and her 80-year-old mother who already lived with her. It is a struggle to make ends meet.

Elizabeth's son used to give her $50 a week to pay for utility bills and his daughter's school expenses, and the family fears losing her sister's house since her arrest because the mortgage has not been paid.

Suspected members of the MS-13 gang Geovany Alexander Aldana Lopez and Roberto Carlos Aldana Lopez are presented to the news media

Suspected members of the MS-13 gang Geovany Alexander Aldana Lopez and Roberto Carlos Aldana Lopez are presented to the news media after being detained in possession of weapons and ammunition, in Nuevo Cuscatlan, El Salvador July 29, 2022. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Suspected members of the MS-13 gang Geovany Alexander Aldana Lopez and Roberto Carlos Aldana Lopez are presented to the news media after being detained in possession of weapons and ammunition, in Nuevo Cuscatlan, El Salvador July 29, 2022. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Mass arrests

In El Salvador, authorities estimate that more than 70,000 people make up the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, its rival Barrio 18, and smaller street gangs, which compete in turf wars to control drug trafficking and extortion rackets.

Bukele declared his war on gangs after the murder rate hit a record high in March, when 62 murders were recorded in a single day across the nation of 6.4 million people.

His government announced a 30-day state of emergency in March suspending some constitutional rights, a measure which has since been extended five times. Critics say it allows an overly broad dragnet that denies detainees a fair legal process.

Bukele, who has high popularity ratings, says the crackdown is working and that major gang leaders have been arrested. During July, no homicides were registered in the country for six consecutive days, he said.

Multiple local surveys show that 70% of Salvadorans support his government's tough measures to reduce gang crime, as did Elizabeth before the arrests began in her family.

"We were happy when they (the government) said everything was going to change. But we thought gang members and not innocent people would be arrested," said Elizabeth, who like many small business owners paid extortion money to gang members.

Local human rights groups and London-based Amnesty International have accused Salvadoran authorities of committing "massive human rights violations" in the crackdown, including arbitrary arrests of suspected gang members - sometimes simply on the grounds that they have tattoos.

Bukele said on Twitter in April that "1%" of people captured could be innocent, but added that "in such a big operation, there will always be mistakes to correct".

A month later, five government officials told Reuters dozens of innocent people had been arrested after superiors forced police officers to meet daily arrest quotas - an accusation denied by a police spokesperson.

Legal fees

Adding to their financial difficulties, some families of jailed relatives have taken out loans to hire lawyers.

Elizabeth and other relatives borrowed money from co-workers, the church and money lenders, with 10% monthly interest, to afford a lawyer charging $4,000 in legal fees.

"So far I've paid $500 to a lawyer, who's offering us freedom for my relatives that isn't guaranteed," she said.

In another district near San Salvador, Diana, 30, an unemployed mother of a young daughter, said her partner, Ernesto, had been arrested while out playing football with friends.

Of the 12 people on the football pitch, the police arrested five, she said. She was told Ernesto, 29, had been arrested for alleged terrorism offences - a charge she rejected.

"In the seven years I've been with him, I haven't seen him do anything bad. He's not a gang member ... many innocent people are falling," she said.

Diana relied on the $70 a week he provided from his wages as a mechanic to buy food and take care of their daughter.

"I depend on my life partner," said Diana, who now lives with Ernesto's family and earns about $5 per week from part-time work washing clothes.

Unable to afford a lawyer, she hopes pro-bono organizations she found on Facebook - the Judicial Workers Union (SEJES) and the National Alliance El Salvador in Peace - which provide legal advice to poor families without gang ties, can help.

In the past month, both Diana and Elizabeth, along with about 1,000 other people, have sought legal advice at these organizations to get their jailed relatives released.

Pro-bono lawyers from the Judicial Workers Union (SEJES) work on cases presented by families whose relatives have been arrested during the crackdown on gang violence

Pro-bono lawyers from the Judicial Workers Union (SEJES) work on cases presented by families whose relatives have been arrested during the crackdown on gang violence, San Salvador, El Salvador. August 23, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Nelson Renteria

Pro-bono lawyers from the Judicial Workers Union (SEJES) work on cases presented by families whose relatives have been arrested during the crackdown on gang violence, San Salvador, El Salvador. August 23, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Nelson Renteria

"I just cry and cry," said Diana, sitting in the SEJES office. "I feel bad because I can't do anything for him."

Sitting next to her, Milagro, 53, a single mother, said she also hoped lawyers could help free her imprisoned son.

Milagro and her 31-year-old son Alexander and his wife were leaving a fast food restaurant in early May when police arrested him in the parking lot.

Police told her he was under arrest for illicit association, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Her son and daughter-in-law used to sell coffee and snacks in the streets of Zacatecoluca, a municipality about an hour's drive from the capital, contributing about $200 a month to bills in the rented home in which they lived in together.

Since her son's arrest, Milagro - a school secretary - has fallen behind on existing loan repayments and bills, and has had to take on cleaning work to make up for the lost income. Her daughter-in-law quit work, fearing she would be arrested too.

Families of jailed relatives also have to pay for prison food and hygiene kits costing about $250, an added burden along with travel costs for prison visits.

"I ask the president to take into account the pain of mothers .. many tears have been shed," said Milagro.


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Wealth inequality
Poverty
Economic inclusion
Underground economies


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