The El Salvador diaries: My days as a ‘terrorist’

Bukele’s forever-emergency is morphing into a perennial war on people, human rights, journalism, and reality itself, in which I suppose I too qualify as a ‘terrorist’.

An effigy depicting President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele is set on fire
An effigy depicting President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele is set on fire during a demonstration on May 1, 2022 in San Salvador, El Salvador. [Camilo Freedman/ APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images]

When I arrived in El Salvador on April 12 – a bit more than two weeks into the national state of emergency imposed by President Nayib Bukele, self-proclaimed “coolest dictator in the world” – I did not mention my profession to the San Salvador airport immigration official who inquired as to the purpose of my visit. Instead, I announced enthusiastically that I had come to take surfing lessons – which, had it been true, would almost certainly have meant the death of me.

And yet journalism itself is dangerous business these days in El Salvador, at least if you are a journalist concerned with reporting what is actually happening rather than obsequiously regurgitating whatever Bukele says is happening. Armed as I am with a US passport, I obviously have precious little to worry about compared with Salvadoran reporters. But one can never be too careful in the world’s coolest dictatorship.

The state of emergency came about following an abrupt spike in homicides at the end of March – the result of a breakdown in government negotiations with Salvadoran gangs, discussion of which topic is now conveniently criminalised. A supremely ambiguous law enacted on April 5 threatens anyone who shares gang symbols or information alluding to gangs with up to 15 years in prison  – bad news, to say the least, for the likes of El Faro, the acclaimed Salvadoran investigative news outlet that initially exposed the negotiations.

Never mind that Bukele himself spends a fair amount of time tweeting images of tattooed suspected gang members, as he did in a May 5 tweet boasting that “more than 25,000 terrorists” had thus far been “captured” in the 41 days that had elapsed since the inauguration of the state of emergency. International and local human rights organisations have already extensively documented that many of these captured “terrorists” have nothing to do with gangs, and are merely collateral or intentional damage of what frequently boils down to a megalomaniacal war on the poor.

And as only befits a dystopia of Orwellian proportions, the official “terrorist” category has also expanded to include journalists and others who undertake to, you know, talk about reality. On April 11, the day before I arrived, Bukele tweeted an excerpt from a televised interview with Salvadoran anthropologist and journalist Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson, author of various books on the gang phenomenon in El Salvador.

In response to Martínez d’Aubuisson’s assertion that gangs happen to “fulfil a social function” that is at present “unfortunately necessary” in a country long characterised by wilful government neglect and structural violence, Bukele denounced the anthropologist as “trash” – a vilification that was swiftly followed up in a tweeted response from Osiris Luna, Salvadoran deputy justice minister and director of prisons.

According to Luna – whose track record comprises embezzling more than $1m in pandemic food aid for needy families and being sanctioned by the US treasury department for negotiating with incarcerated gang bosses – Martínez d’Aubuisson is “a terrorist” and nothing more, while the staff of El Faro are “spokespeople for the gangs”.

As I was arriving in the country, then, Martínez d’Aubuisson had decided to temporarily flee in the interest of self-preservation and informed me by email that he was accumulating quite the collection of death threats.

Other Salvadoran journalists have also come under intense fire – such as Bryan Avelar, coauthor of the April 6 New York Times article titled: El Salvador’s New Law on Gangs Raises Censorship Fears. Almost immediately, Bukele’s henchmen set about propagating the notion that Avelar was the sibling of an imprisoned gang leader. On social media, a photograph was viciously circulated of the young Avelar juxtaposed with a photo of his alleged brother – and to hell with the fact that Avelar does not have any brothers. Enlightened Twitter accounts dutifully spread the word that “a terrorist is a terrorist, even if he dresses as a journalist”.

On April 19, president of the Salvadoran congress Ernesto Castro took domestic delirium to another level by calling out journalists who consider themselves to be “intellectuals”, inciting them to “leave” if they so desire because “we do not need them here”. As per Castro’s rant, a “new country” is being forged in El Salvador, whether these intellectual terrorists like it or not. Just how “new” the idea of fascism is might be material for another debate.

Curiously, even the US – which traditionally has enthusiastically backed the right-wing evisceration of human rights in El Salvador, not to mention the all-out slaughter during the civil war of 1980-1992 – has felt the need to rebuke Bukele’s “cool” dictatorship. And since Twitter is what “cool” people do, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken dispatched a tweet on April 10 urging the Salvadoran government to “uphold due process and protect civil liberties, including freedoms of press, peaceful assembly, and expression”.

That same day, Bukele tweeted back in English: “I have a journalist friend, he wants access to Gitmo to exercise his ‘freedom of the press’ rights, and check if the detainees have enjoyed their ‘civil liberties’ and a ‘due process’”. Bukele continued: “You have terrorists that threaten you, and we have terrorists that threaten us”.

To be sure, the US should never be pardoned for its egregious violations of human rights and dignity worldwide, which are epitomised by the aforementioned “Gitmo”, the infamous torture-friendly US military base on occupied Cuban soil in Guantánamo Bay. Nor should the country that literally spawned Salvadoran gangs in the first place – the United States – be permitted to reprimand anyone’s methods for dealing with the fallout, as sociopathic as those methods may be.

That said, I have a few basic points for Bukele to contemplate. One, at least there is no spontaneous law rendering it illegal to share information alluding to the existence of Guantánamo Bay. Two, invoking “Gitmo” – the global metaphor for the absolute evisceration of anything good in the world – does not really rack up points in favour of your administration.

My own country, of course, is to thank not only for guaranteeing the pervasiveness of gangs in El Salvador but also for producing the whole “war on terror” discourse that has inspired countless countries to violate rights as they see fit. And just as the US effectively regards a free press as a threat to imperial domination, Bukele evidently views any deviation from his authorised narrative as an enemy attack.

When I spoke recently via WhatsApp with Zaira Navas, formerly the inspector general of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police and now a lawyer for the human rights organisation Cristosal, she emphasised that there are “no precedents with respect to the direct attacks on journalists” committed by the Bukele regime. While previous administrations have certainly “disrespected journalists”, she said – even “kicking them out of press conferences” – the country has never seen the current “level of violence” against reporters at least since the civil war era. “Until now”, she remarked, “we have not had journalists who have had to flee the country on account of government persecution.”

Navas credited a heavily funded “massive media campaign” on the part of the Bukele team for persuading the majority of the Salvadoran population that it is all a question of black and white: “good” guys versus “bad” guys. Accordingly, she has been assailed in government media for “defending gangs” by affirming that they do indeed play an economic role in Salvadoran society – which is sort of the equivalent of criminalising someone for stating that insurance companies or supermarkets or buses are institutionalised features of the US financial landscape.

Now, as Bukele’s forever-emergency morphs into a perennial war on people, human rights, journalism, and reality itself, I suppose I too qualify as a “terrorist”.

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