El Salvador’s war on itself: The siege of Soyapango

The world’s ‘coolest dictator’ seems delighted about blockading his own people. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Soldiers arrive in Soyapango, El Salvador, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. The government of El Salvador sent 10,000 soldiers and police to seal off Soyapango, on the outskirts of the nation's capital Saturday to search for gang members. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
Soldiers arrive in Soyapango, El Salvador, Saturday, December 3, 2022, at the start of a siege against the country's most populous municipality, ostensibly to fight criminal gangs [AP Photo/Salvador Melendez]

On December 3, Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador who is also a Bitcoin influencer and the self-dubbed “coolest dictator in the world”, took to his favourite platform for governance, Twitter, to announce that 10,000 soldiers had surrounded the Salvadoran municipality of Soyapango.

According to the tweet, which came accompanied by a video set to dramatic music, “extraction teams” from the police and army had been tasked with removing gang members from the area “one by one”.

The following day, Bukele tweeted another annoying video to accompany the news that “more than 140 gang members” had already been arrested in Soyapango, El Salvador’s most populous municipality and a satellite city of San Salvador, the country’s capital.

And the day after that, he reported that the Soyapango operation had entailed the largest concentration of troops in Salvadoran history — no small feat in a nation whose 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, killed upwards of 75,000 people. The vast majority of wartime atrocities were perpetrated by the United States-backed right-wing military and affiliated death squads.

Of course, in his euphoria over the unprecedented mobilisation of an entire army division, Bukele failed to explain why a president should derive such delight in effectively waging war against his own country.

The current war is being conducted under the guise of a “state of emergency” implemented in March following a spike in homicides by Salvadoran gangs. These are the same made-in-USA gangs whose members were shipped to El Salvador at the end of the Central American nation’s civil war. The same gangs that exist because of willful, neoliberal state neglect. The same gangs with which Bukele’s own administration has extensively negotiated.

But the more than 58,000 people arrested since late March under Bukele’s campaign include plenty of folks with no gang ties whatsoever, whom the state simply feels like arresting — or whose arrest can be used to fulfill detention quotas. As of June, two percent of Salvadoran adults were behind bars. More than 1,600 children have been locked up.

I travelled to San Salvador shortly after the kickoff of this manic incarceration wave and spoke with a young Salvadoran psychologist who had been swept up in it, spending six days in a horrifically overcrowded cell and living through a real-time experiment in psychological torture. Neither, to be sure, is physical torture in short supply. As of October, at least 80 Salvadorans had died in state custody since the start of the campaign.

The official line is that this is all being done in the interest of “security”. But there is not much “security” to be found in being indefinitely imprisoned for no reason, or in living in fear of being indefinitely imprisoned for no reason. All while a self-proclaimed dictator besieges his own cities and squanders hundreds of millions of dollars in public money on Bitcoin and a veterinary hospital even as much of the country’s human population goes hungry.

And while the Soyapango stunt may have been an “unprecedented logistical accomplishment”, as per Bukele’s tweet, it was not the first time the president has undertaken to blockade an entire municipality. In April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was raging, Bukele tweeted orders to the Salvadoran defence minister to shut down the municipality of La Libertad — which ironically means “freedom” — after seeing a Twitter video of what he determined to be too many people outside.

In the case of the pandemic, too, the whole “security” alibi hardly justified the state’s heavy-handedness — since shooting people for violating the quarantine doesn’t really do much in terms of, you know, saving lives.

As for the siege of Soyapango, it could scarcely have been choreographed at a more inappropriate time. December 11 marks the 41st anniversary of the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, when the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran military slaughtered some 1,000 civilians, primarily women and children. In Bukele’s view, though, the Salvadoran armed forces are still awesome — so much so that he used the military to block the ongoing investigation into that massacre.

A Salvadoran friend of mine in her early 30s — we’ll call her “Fernanda” — lives in the country’s capital. She is seven months pregnant. Her grandmother lives in Soyapango. A few days after the launch of the siege, I chatted via WhatsApp with Fernanda, who employed the sort of fatalistic humour that is often necessary to survive in El Salvador. “I’ll be 50 years old,” she typed, “we’ll be in our hundredth phase of Bukele’s ‘Territorial Control’ plan, and my kid will be in jail under the state of emergency hahahahahaha.”

In the end, if you can’t force yourself to laugh about the ludicrousness of it all — including the very real possibility that Bukele might extend his “cool dictatorship” for life — it might just kill you.

Or it might kill you anyway, as the 80-plus in-custody cadavers since March and an untold quantity of disappearances can attest to.

On December 4, the day after Bukele declared war on Soyapango, US television producer-turned-professional Bitcoiner Stacy Herbert, a close ally of Bukele, tweeted from El Salvador: “There is no better place to be than right here, right now in #Bitcoin country.”

For many Salvadorans, of course, Bukele’s official adoption of the cryptocurrency has spelt unmitigated disaster.  For them, “right here” is currently the worst of all possible places to be. And with Bukele commanding the troops against his own people, it’s only going downhill.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.