El Salvador: A state of emergency indeed

With a new state of emergency, any residual hint of civil liberties has been suspended in ‘the world’s coolest dictatorship’.

An armed soldier stands guard in El Salvador
A soldier stands guard at the San Salvador Historical Center. Amid a spike in gang violence, the Legislative Assembly approved a state of emergency request made by Bukele, granting the government special powers [File: Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images]

On Saturday, March 26, El Salvador registered 62 homicides, the most recorded on any single day since the end of the country’s bloody civil war in 1992. The killings were attributed to a spike in violence presided over by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs.

Late that night, President Nayib Bukele took to Twitter – his preferred platform for presidential communications – to pressure Salvadoran lawmakers to approve a “state of exception”, which they obediently did in the wee hours of the morning on Sunday, March 27.

Currently in place for 30 days but eligible for extension, the state of emergency basically entails a formal suspension of any residual hint of civil liberties in a nation where the president self-defines as the world’s “coolest dictator” and sports a backwards baseball cap accordingly. The emergency arrangement eliminates the right to association and legal defence while increasing the permissible period of detention without charge from 72 hours to 15 days and authorising the state to spy on private correspondence sans court order – not that the state ever seemed to require a court order for such activities in the first place.

In a downright terrifying turn of events on Tuesday, April 5, the Salvadoran parliament enacted a law to “punish anyone who shares information about gangs with up to 15 years in prison”, the New York Times writes. The new measure is “so vague, critics say, that virtually anyone can be arrested for speaking or writing about [gangs], putting journalists in the cross hairs”.

Bukele presents this latest wanton trampling of rights as a necessary and noble component of the “#GuerraContraPandillas”, the war on gangs, an ever-handy distraction from the other assorted emergencies Salvadorans face – like, you know, the wanton trampling of rights. In his ongoing Twitter crusade, Bukele has lambasted international human rights organisations for their critiques of Salvadoran shortcomings and has implied that the “international community” is effectively complicit in “terrorism” due to intermittently expressed concerns about the treatment of suspected gang members.

On Thursday, March 31, Bukele tweeted that, as of Sunday, food rations in Salvadoran prisons had been curtailed and that 16,000 prisoners had “not left their cells or seen the sun”. Three thousand additional alleged gang members had furthermore been arrested – “and we will continue”, boasted Bukele, which meant that “there will be less and less space and we will have to ration even more”. How’s that for cool?

Never mind that the Bukele administration itself has collaborated extensively with the, erm, “terrorists”, as has been revealed by entities ranging from the Salvadoran investigative news outlet El Faro to the US Department of the Treasury. The New York Times notes that, according to the Treasury, the Salvadoran government “provided financial incentives to the gangs and preferential treatment for gang leaders in prison, such as access to mobile phones and prostitutes”. In exchange, the government reportedly finagled a pledge from the gangs to keep the national murder rate down and to throw their electoral weight behind Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party, as if megalomaniacally hypocritical right-wing machinations were a remotely “new idea” in El Salvador or anywhere else.

To be sure, such a calling-out on the part of the US is no insignificant matter, coming as it does from the superpower that relentlessly backed right-wing slaughter during the 12-year Salvadoran civil war, in which more than 75,000 people were killed and countless Salvadorans fled north to Los Angeles – a hostile environment of a different sort, prompting the formation of Salvadoran gangs as a means of communal self-defence.

Once the war had officially ended, the US commenced mass deportations of prison-hardened gang members back to El Salvador, where a subsequent proliferation of gang membership reflected the reality of a devastated society now at the mercy of neoliberal pillage and a succession of governments more concerned with hyping the gang menace than with attending to the basic needs of the average impoverished citizen. In other words, it was a state of emergency from the get-go.

Fast forward three decades from the war’s end, and war is going strong in El Salvador, as Bukele continues to perpetrate vast socioeconomic injustice while endeavouring to convert the nation into a corrupt investor-friendly Bitcoin dystopia. As per the Bukelian narrative, the relatively low murder rate that had until now attended his reign – which began in 2019 – was thanks not to negotiations with MS-13 and Barrio 18 but rather to his unilaterally glorified “Territorial Control Plan”, the details of which are conveniently shrouded in secrecy but which has served as a militarised pillar of the #GuerraContraPandillas.

Lucid observers of the Salvadoran landscape reckon that the sudden surge in killings in late March has to do with some glitch in government-gang negotiations, causing the gangs to once again assert their power in a country that has long been a usual suspect on lists of global homicide capitals. Speaking of asserting power, it bears mentioning that Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan came about via such presidential antics as deploying heavily armed soldiers and police inside the Salvadoran parliament building and threatening to dissolve the legislative body if parliamentarians did not cooperate in approving the loan he required for said plan.

This was in February 2020, a month before the coronavirus pandemic provided Bukele with the opportunity to enact his first state of emergency: one of the most maniacal lockdowns on earth, which forced many already barely surviving Salvadorans to confront starvation face-to-face (the current prison “rations” come to mind). A spike in homicides in April then produced a presidential Twitter decree authorising the army and police to utilise lethal force against presumed gang members and “in defence of the lives of Salvadorans” more generally – no doubt odd instructions coming from a person involved in the forcible starvation and general punishment of Salvadorans.

Anyway, the pandemic response was a whopping success in El Salvador, as noted by a Bloomberg opinion article in May: “Police were given broad powers to enter homes without warrants and arrest those thought to be violating quarantine; security forces mistook a young woman who’d gone shopping for a Mother’s Day present for a criminal gang member and shot her dead.”

A year later, in May 2021, Bukele oversaw the spontaneous sacking of five Supreme Court judges and El Salvador’s attorney general. In short, he really isn’t joking about the whole “dictatorship” thing.

Now, judging from Bukele’s activity on Twitter, it seems that Salvadoran security forces have once again been given the “green light” to go after gang members as they see fit – as if they ever really needed it. Back in 2018, CNN reported on Salvadoran “elite paramilitary police officers” who stood accused of extrajudicial killings – all with the firm backing, surprise surprise, of the US.

On March 27, the day this year’s “state of exception” came into effect, Bukele tweeted that, while some aspects of daily life in certain Salvadoran neighbourhoods would undergo temporary shutdowns, in most areas activities involving religious services, sporting events, shopping, education, and other stuff would continue as normal – “unless you are a gang member or the authorities consider you suspicious”. Consider this a warning to all Mother’s Day shoppers.

And while Bukele has whined on Twitter that no other countries “have decided to help us in the war against gangs” – so much for US support for lethal operations – he has received solid endorsement from the likes of Mexican billionaire businessman Ricardo Salinas, Bitcoin fan and one the planet’s richest people, who tweeted his applause for the Bukelian state of emergency: “That’s what it means to have balls.”

The Salvadoran head of state meanwhile took it upon himself, in the aftermath of the Oscars, to tweet: “Salvadoran soldier > Will Smith”, an apparent reference to the superior qualifications of El Salvador’s finest when it comes to self-righteous displays of violence and the illusion of “having balls”.

In the end, such is life in the world’s coolest dictatorship – a state of emergency if there ever was one.

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