El Salvador uses Covid-19 as excuse for gang massacres

. Apr 28, 2020
el salvador Mara Salvatrucha-13 prison Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang member. Photo: ES James/Shutterstock

The poor Central American nation of El Salvador has earned praise for its swift clampdown on Covid-19. Even before the country recorded its first case, President Nayib Bukele imposed a lockdown, announced an economic relief plan, and restricted the entry of virtually all foreign citizens. The country has administered 3,300 tests for every 1 million citizens, which is nearly double the testing rate in Brazil. And while many nations have seen their infections and deaths rise, El Salvador has only 345 recorded coronavirus infections and a mere eight deaths.

However, while Mr. Bukele has capitalized on his successful Covid-19 strategy to earn stratospheric approval ratings of 91 percent, he has also used it as a cover for ramping up his government’s violent anti-gang policies and authoritarian politics.

</p> <p>Since arriving in power, the leader has championed a crackdown on <em>pandillas</em>, the organized criminal street gangs that are behind much of the violence in El Salvador. This tough-on-crime stance has taken on much darker undertones, with the president allowing the use of lethal force against gang members after <a href="">58 gang-related homicides</a> — supposedly ordered from within prisons — were recorded over the weekend.</p> <p>Meanwhile, gang members were placed under excruciating confinement situations, cramped in their cells and mixing members of rival groups in small spaces. “No contact with the outside world. Shops will remain closed and all activities are suspended until further notice,” President Bukele tweeted. “Not a single ray of sunlight is going to enter any cell,” prisons director Osiris Luna Meza <a href="">threatened</a> on Monday —&nbsp;also on Twitter.</p> <p>The new policies made for shocking photos of inmates lined up almost bare-naked, jammed together as their cells were searched for contraband. While some wore protective masks, most had nothing to prevent them from catching the coronavirus. For Brazilians, the pictures felt a little too close to home, serving as a reminder of the <a href="">Carandiru massacre</a> in 1992, when 111 inmates of a São Paulo penitentiary were executed by the police.</p> <p>The pictures, by the way, were not leaked —&nbsp;but rather willingly publicized by the president&#8217;s office.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="962" height="533" src="" alt="President Bukele tweeted gang leaders will be sent to solitary confinement after recent killings. Photo: SecPrensaSV" class="wp-image-37452" srcset=" 962w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 962px) 100vw, 962px" /><figcaption>President Bukele tweeted gang leaders will be sent to solitary confinement after recent killings. Photo: SecPrensaSV</figcaption></figure> <p>Mr. Bukele&#8217;s policies raised red flags at the United Nations. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet <a href="">requested an in-depth investigation</a> into the case, saying that while international law allows governments to restrict some rights when faced with a pandemic, the Salvadoran government is &#8220;undermining the country&#8217;s rule of law and constitutional order.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>Ms. Bachelet also condemned the arbitrary imprisonment of people who disrespected quarantine rules.</p> <h2>Bukele v. Congress v. Covid-19</h2> <p>Back in February, <a href="">President Bukele stormed Congress</a> in San Salvador, flanked by armed law enforcement agents and soldiers in what opponents called an &#8220;attempted coup.&#8221; He was trying to force lawmakers to approve a USD 109-million loan that would fund his anti-crime measures.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bukele has dismissed any criticism by stating that &#8220;if [he] was a dictator, [he] would have taken control of everything.&#8221; Since then, he has doubled down — refusing to obey a decision by the Constitutional Court against arbitrary Covid-19-related imprisonments. The president shields himself with the fact that most Salvadorans support a clampdown on gangs, with the lion&#8217;s share of criticism coming from the press and international organizations, not from the local population.</p> <p>According to political scientist and Harvard professor Steven Levitsky, who co-wrote the best-selling book “How Democracies Die,” the outbreak could cause a backslide in <a href="">already-not-so-solid Latin American democracies</a>. “So far, we see the crisis exacerbating already-existing regime crises. [President Nayib] Bukele, a populist, had already begun to circumvent and threaten Congress, and the crisis has clearly strengthened him and thus heightened the threat to democracy,” he told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>As it is, El Salvador is already one of the region&#8217;s <a href="">most unstable nations</a> and is a toxic environment for the free press. The country ranks <a href="">74th among 180 nations</a> in the 2020 Press Freedom Ranking. &#8220;Since his inauguration in June 2019, President Bukele amplified criticism of the press, going as far as publishing a list of journalists he believes want to destabilize the government,&#8221; says NGO <a href="">Reporters Without Borders</a>.</p> <h2>What Bolsonaro wanted to be — but couldn’t </h2> <p>Last year, 38-year-old Nayib Bukele made history as the youngest man ever elected to lead his country. A proud millennial, he uses his Twitter account to go after adversaries and even fire some of his cabinet members. His “new way” of doing politics, coupled with an anti-corruption rhetoric and strongman persona against gangs has earned him the support of citizens haunted by crime in Latin America&#8217;s most violent country.</p> <p>And rapidly, Mr. Bukele has used his popularity to bend democratic institutions.</p> <p>The parallels between him and Brazil&#8217;s Jair Bolsonaro are numerous, but with one important caveat: Mr. Bukele has so far been successful in his strategy, while Mr. Bolsonaro has led a nearly unopposed administration to the brink of implosion.</p> <p>That difference in success could be partially explained by their opposing approaches to the coronavirus. Mr. Bolsonaro has become the international <a href="">poster boy for Covid-19 denialism</a>, which has <a href="">prevented him from enjoying a bump in approval ratings</a> like many of his counterparts across the globe.</p> <p>Judging from the escalation in El Salvador, that is perhaps for the best.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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