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

Belén Fernández

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.

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