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El Salvador's fight against gang violence came at the cost of civil rights

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For almost a year, El Salvador has lived under what the government calls a state of exception, like an exception to the rules. Authorities suspended some basic civil rights. The government jailed more than 60,000 people, saying it was fighting gang violence. A violent country did become peaceful. Although, there was a cost. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: A few years ago, you wouldn't dream of walking through this part of Soyapango.

VILMA: (Through interpreter) My daughters grew up with panic. They asked, what are we doing here? We're waiting to be killed?

PERALTA: Vilma (ph) and her friend, Orbelina (ph), were outside in a field watching their grandkids play. Like everyone in this story, they've asked us to use only their first names because they're afraid of government reprisals. Orbelina says she once got caught in the crossfire. Bodies used to be left in the alleys of this neighborhood. Now this whole city is surrounded by troops. And this place is now peaceful. I asked Orbelina if the change is real.

ORBELINA: (Through interpreter) It's real. It's a huge, huge change.

PERALTA: Indeed, the military has swept through neighborhoods like these. By some estimates, they have thrown about 2% of El Salvador's population in jail. And you feel it here. Buses run empty. Businesses are shuttered. And most of the people you see on the streets are children, women or older men.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEMENT RUSTLING)

PERALTA: Onofrito is 68 years old. And he's helping his daughter renovate her house. The new peace gave her enough confidence to build, he says.

ONOFRITO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "In the old days, if someone tried to deliver this cement," he says, "he'd be taxed by the gangs." The gangs terrorize communities. They harass citizens. They turn neighborhoods into war zones. So on these streets, you hear little sympathy. Let them rot in jail. Kill them, people told me. But Onofrito says innocent people have gotten picked up, too.

ONOFRITO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He points to a house near a coconut tree. The old man there, he said, was innocent. But he was taken. And he wasn't released for more than a month. When he came back, he looked terrible. His mind was gone. He was weak. He looked yellow.

ONOFRITO: (Through interpreter) But maybe that's the way it's got to be. Someone always pays the price.

PERALTA: We keep walking. And we get a reminder that things are more complicated than they appear.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

PERALTA: This new El Salvador is the work of President Nayib Bukele. In 2019, he inherited a country with one of the worst homicide rates in the world. And now he's touting more than 300 days without a killing. Ruth Lopez of the human rights group Cristosal says this comes along with runaway authoritarianism.

RUTH LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) What we have is a rupture of democracy, a rupture of the constitution.

PERALTA: Bukele, she says, has taken ahold of all three branches of government. He has installed loyal judges and loyal lawmakers. He has defied the constitution and says he will run for a third term. And this war on gangs, she says, has been undertaken with reckless disregard for human life. The suspension of constitutional guarantees means Salvadorans can be held for months, years even, without charges. Human Rights Watch says the government has been arbitrary, picking up more than 1,000 children.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) In medical terms, it's like having a brain tumor and treating it by cutting off the head.

PERALTA: Lopez says this is not sustainable. What happens when gang members are let out of prison? What happens to the families who lost parents, who lost children? Plus, she says, all the social problems that led so many Salvadorans to join gangs are not being addressed.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) That means this is a temporary solution.

PERALTA: In an interview with NPR, Gustavo Villatoro, El Salvador's justice minister, says they studied the gangs. And this is a measured approach for a huge problem.

GUSTAVO VILLATORO: You only have one way, to use all your tools that you have in your constitution to fight against another unconstitutional government.

PERALTA: Villatoro says they've built the biggest prison in Central America, and all of those gang members won't leave, quote, "walking." He shrugs off the concerns of human rights groups.

VILLATORO: We have more than 6 million supporting the whole strategy.

PERALTA: And he's mostly right. Salvadorans, by and large, support President Bukele. In a recent independent poll, Bukele had an 84% approval rating.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

PERALTA: Back in Soyapango, we tracked down Jose (ph) at the house near the coconut tree. He's in his 60s. Decades ago, he moved to San Salvador from a rural region.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) I didn't see a TV until I was 25 years old.

PERALTA: To make ends meet, he sells vegetables and bread. And he has no idea why police barged into his house in the middle of the night. He has no tattoos. The gangs would steal from him, so he has no idea why he was taken to jail and thrown in a tiny cell with more than 20 others. They slept on the floor. And it was so crowded, they had to sleep on their sides.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) They gave us a spoonful of beans and two bags of water.

PERALTA: He spent more than a month in jail. Like most of those arrested, he was charged with unlawful association. They let him out because he was near death.

JOSE: (Through interpreter) I never imagined that I would end up behind bars, that they would take all of my clothes, that I would have to use the bathroom in front of everyone.

PERALTA: His wife told me that they are Christian, so they forgive the government. I ask Jose if he feels the same. He nods, but his eyes grow teary.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: This pain, he says, he'll never get over it. He hits his knees with his fists to stop himself from crying and turns to Scripture.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The parable of weeds, he says. In it, Jesus warns that one should be careful that if you're in a hurry to pull the weeds, you could also root out the wheat.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, San Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa. He started his journalism career as a pop music critic and after a few newspaper stints, he joined NPR in 2008.