El Salvador: A nation under hypnosis

After a year of President Bukele’s state of emergency, a ‘new reality’ is settling into the country.

Policemen stand outside a house during an anti-gang patrol at Las Margaritas neighborhood, following a year-long state of emergency against gangs, in Soyapango, El Salvador March 24, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Policemen stand outside a house during an anti-gang patrol at Las Margaritas neighborhood, following a year-long state of emergency against gangs, in Soyapango, El Salvador on March 24, 2023 [Reuters/Jose Cabezas]

In May, a 40-year-old woman – we’ll call her “Ana” – was arrested in downtown San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. She presided over a shabby bar and eatery in an area known as the Ex Biblioteca – or Ex-Library – a reference to the institution that had occupied the grounds prior to the devastating earthquake of October 1986.

Her family has not heard from her since.

Ana was detained for alleged gang ties, two months into the state of emergency that kicked off on March 27, 2022 in response to a spike in homicides occasioned by a collapse in negotiations between gangs and Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador and self-proclaimed “coolest dictator in the world”.

Over the past year, about 66,000 people have been imprisoned in accordance with the “emergency” – most of them condemned to indefinite detention and relieved of even the most basic rights. Many have nothing whatsoever to do with gangs aside from residing in a gang-saturated country.

As luck would have it, the Ex Biblioteca is now the ex-Ex Biblioteca, if you will, as much of the space has been cleared to make way for Bukele’s vision of a revamped downtown that is more aesthetically pleasing to the international bitcoin crowd he is fervently courting – and other important representatives of “development”, “investment” and similar euphemisms for capitalism’s war on poor people.

When I spoke recently in San Salvador with a former employee of Ana’s, he dismissed the possibility that she had any gang affiliations but speculated that her arrest had indeed served as a useful warning to other folks in the downtown area to comply with the sweeping “voluntary evictions” that were about to take place.

To be sure, mass incarceration is one way to temporarily disappear domestic problems, particularly if you also imprison lawyers who defend people accused of gang ties. A case in point is attorney Nubia Morales, who was arrested this month for representing “suspected gang members”.

And while there is no denying that El Salvador has long been terrorised by gangs, the current obliteration of rights is also definitively terrifying.

It bears reiterating that the gangs themselves are nothing more than a product of United States policy, Salvadoran state negligence and the good old capitalist war on the poor – all of which serve to underscore that Bukele’s much-celebrated “new reality” is not really anything new at all.

Over the past several decades, gangs have provided a convenient excuse for all manner of US-backed Salvadoran state repression, including extrajudicial killings by law enforcement personnel. Now, they continue to constitute a handy scapegoat for all societal ills – as well as the justification for a potentially eternal “state of emergency” and suspension of fundamental freedoms.

Just the other day in downtown San Salvador, I was accosted by a policeman and threatened with five years in prison for having taken a photograph of an apparently inebriated woman who had just been smacked by a private security guard.

After deleting the image from my phone and my phone’s trash bin and receiving a pompous lecture, I was eventually allowed to go, another manifestation of gringo privilege to which the average Salvadoran obviously cannot aspire.

A young man from the municipality of Apopa, previously one of the most gang-ridden zones in the San Salvador metropolitan area, recently commented to me that, while it was nice to be able to enter neighbourhoods where he would have once been killed, the “other side of the coin” of the Bukelian emergency was that he could now “be thrown in jail forever for no reason”.

Meanwhile, Bukele’s international acolytes are having near-orgasms over the option to buy ice cream on the beach using cryptocurrency.

Call it the other side of the bitcoin.

As of mid-March, the human rights organisation Cristosal had documented 126 in-custody deaths during the state of emergency although the presumed existence of clandestine graves within detention centres would boost that number even higher.

Abuse and torture of detainees is rampant, and Bukele himself delights in conspicuously mocking the very concept of human rights on Twitter, his preferred platform for governance.

One pride and joy of the world’s “coolest dictator” is El Salvador’s new Centre for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT), located about 75km (45 miles) southeast of San Salvador, where Bukele has sworn that suspected gang members will disappear for “decades”. With a maximum capacity of 40,000 people, CECOT is said to be the largest such facility in the Americas.

The jail was built in a record seven months, unhampered by any sort of financial transparency – such is the nature of business in the “new reality”. The week before the one-year anniversary of the state of emergency, I drove out to CECOT with a Salvadoran acquaintance of mine who, as we approached the looming white monstrosity and corresponding military checkpoint, entered into a visible state of panic and swung the car around.

Back in San Salvador later on, my acquaintance, a former Bukele devotee, confessed to having suddenly experienced a reckoning with the reality that nothing and no one could stop the Salvadoran authorities from locking him up for life if they wished to do so.

And yet the brand of politics hawked by Bukele, a former advertising executive, enjoys dangerously high approval ratings as many Salvadorans have enthusiastically embraced what amounts to a war on themselves. This seemingly blind rapture, an almost spiritual ecstasy, can perhaps be explained by El Salvador’s contemporary history of unceasing violence and Bukele’s marketing of himself as an instant saviour.

The day before I drove out to CECOT, I was downtown drinking beer with two Salvadoran friends who were lamenting the “voluntary eviction” of Ana’s spot in the Ex Biblioteca. At one point during our conversation, a young man sitting next to us felt the need to interject his own opinion, which was that we were wrong, Bukele was right, and “modernity and tourism” were all that mattered.

Judging from his appearance, this young man hailed from El Salvador’s lower socioeconomic echelons, meaning that, if someone were to spontaneously accuse him of gang ties, no amount of “modernity and tourism” was going to save him. Just as no amount of “modernity and tourism” will ultimately save El Salvador from crushing poverty.

Indeed, what is lost in the present national hypnosis is that poverty kills too.

On Monday, as Bukele’s crackdown celebrates its first anniversary – and a “new reality” that is neither new nor real continues to destroy a whole lot of lives – there is no end to the state of emergency in sight. And that is the real emergency.

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