The “war” against the gangs of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele reduced murders to historic lows in what was one of the most violent countries without war in the world, but among 75,000 detainees, there are about 7,000 released… innocent.
Amnesty International and the Movement of Victims of the Regime (Movir) denounce “arbitrary arrests” under the accusation of belonging to “illegal groups” (gangs), “attacks”, “tortures” and “deaths” in prison, under an emergency regime in force since March 2022.
Sandra, Maricela, Josefina and Irma revealed to AFP that dark side of Bukele's offensive, who proclaimed himself re-elected in last Sunday's elections based on his popular but controversial security policy.
Along a dusty road you reach Sandra Hernández's wooden house, in El Rosario, 50 km from San Salvador. He has no electricity or water, and he lives there with his son and daughter, ages 17 and 13.
In the patio, under the shade of a tree, Hernández says that her husband, José Medrano, was detained by the police on May 26, 2022 and never returned.
“They accused him of illegal groups. He had no tattoos, he was a day laborer,” said this 36-year-old woman, who looked fragile but courageous.
While in prison he fell ill with kidney failure. The last time she saw him was on a video call someone made secretly when he was taken to the hospital for hemodialysis.
Among 75,000 detainees, there are about 7,000 released… innocent. AFP Photo
On March 26, 2023, they announced that he had died. “At the funeral home they told me that the body had bruises. “We suspect that he did not die of kidney failure.”said Hernandez.
His family lives with the help of a brother and what his son earns as a bricklayer.
“They are taking hard-working, humble people; “Innocent people are dying, not gang members.”lament.
Amnesty International and the Movement of Victims of the Regime (Movir) denounce “arbitrary detentions” under the accusation of belonging to “illegal groups.” AFP Photo
Maricela Méndez was asleep when the police took her from her home in Alta Vista, northeast of San Salvador, on July 19, 2022. Her children, then 11 and 7 years old, stayed with their grandmother.
“They accused me of being a criminal, “The police officer had a quota of making five arrests.”he claimed.
Her partner abandoned her when she was imprisoned. A month after being in prison, she confirmed that she had arrived pregnant. “I have to be strong (…), my children depend on me,” he says he thought.
He was in three prisons. “They punished us. She slept on the floor, ate tortillas and drank water with sugar to satisfy her hunger,” she said. After legal procedures, he was granted conditional release.
“It was five months but it was a trauma because of everything I had to experience while pregnant. I was threatened with an abortion,” she says while looking at her 11-month-old baby, whom she gave birth to two months after her release from prison.
Méndez, 35, supports her children by working in a beauty salon. “My children have trauma, when they see police they cry, afraid that they will take me away again. I feel that fear. “He lives in fear,” she confessed.
The arrival of gang members at the Tecoluca prison southeast of San Salvador. AFP Photo
With her eyes swollen from not sleeping well, next to the crib where her two- and three-and-a-half-year-old grandchildren sleep, Josefina Bonilla wipes away her tears: “I don't know anything about her.”
Her daughter Stefany Santos, 24, was arrested on June 2, 2022. Bonilla suspects that due to problems with relatives of her children's father, but they accused her of illegal grouping.
“He's innocent. They take people away and don't investigate,” said the 63-year-old woman, in her modest home in Soyapango (east of San Salvador), showing a photo where she is with Stefany smiling.
Without being able to work because she has to take care of the little ones, he helps himself with groceries that a neighbor gives him. “It's pretty hard. God only knows what I'm doing,” she said.
Stefany's life has been difficult. She was attacked by her partner, whom Bonilla said was killed over a debt.
“She is asthmatic and has psychological problems. I am worried that she does not have medication,” she said, lamenting that in a year and a half He has only been able to take three packages of food and clothing to prison.
With Bukele's policy “the just are paying for the sinners.” “We are left with mothers without children and children without fathers”summarized.
In the room where she lives in Mejicanos, north of San Salvador, Irma García, 42, speaks without fear so as not to feel helpless.
“They have him kidnapped. Since they took him I have not been able to see him or talk to him. “I don't know if he's alive.”he tells AFP while showing the photo of the young man with a blue helmet and orange t-shirt.
Isaías Galicia was going to turn 18 when he was arrested on June 7, 2022 in the mechanical workshop where he worked.
“My son is not a gang member, he does not have any tattoos, he did not hurt anyone”says this woman with a sad look, who says that the origin of the arrest was an anonymous call.
García was widowed years ago, works cleaning apartments and has three other children, ages 13, 15 and 21. After her arrest, her family, stigmatized, was kicked out of another boarding house where she lived.
“I live worried that they will tell me that they killed him inside. They should have arrested the gang members. But they have taken (innocent) young people, they took away their dreams, their future… like my son,” he lamented, in the darkness of his home.