The El Salvador diaries: A day in the life of a never-ending war

Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez

My Salvadoran friend “Alfredo” is 49 years old and resides in the nation’s capital of San Salvador in a neighbourhood called “10 de Octubre” (“10th of October”), the date of a deadly earthquake that rocked El Salvador in 1986 – if ever there was a more auspicious name for a neighbourhood.

I met Alfredo, who works at a barely remunerated job at a San Salvador school, when I spent three months in the country just prior to the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. We bonded over a shared affinity for excessively shabby venues to drink beer and an excessive dislike of the United States – my homeland, where Alfredo had travelled years earlier on someone’s else’s passport but had promptly determined that poverty in El Salvador was preferable to the “American dream”.

Despite my nagging requests for a tour of his intriguingly titled neighbourhood, I would not visit Alfredo at his own home until April of 2022. I returned to El Salvador for one month just in time to experience the newly inaugurated state of emergency – the response by exuberantly totalitarian president and Twitter aficionado Nayib Bukele to the spike in homicides in late March that had followed the breakdown in negotiations between his administration and the Salvadoran gangs.

When Alfredo picked me up from the airport in a borrowed car on April 12, he lamented that drinking at the shabby bars downtown was no longer the same now that stormtrooper-type security forces demanded your identity card every other second and made you lift your shirt to verify you had no gang tattoos.

Just the previous day, a massive security operation had gone down in 10 de Octubre itself, during which, the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica reported, 22 alleged gang members as well as “mothers of accused gang members” had been arrested. Salvadoran security minister Gustavo Villatoro was quoted as proclaiming the territory a “breeding ground” for gang leaders from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). A female TikToker had additionally been detained for allegedly diffusing gang propaganda.

The lead photograph in the Prensa Gráfica article features 17 men and five women surrounded by camouflaged figures in balaclavas and face masks. Most of the male detainees are shirtless; the three with conspicuous tattoos have had them conspicuously photoshopped out – an editorial undertaking that Alfredo suspected may have had something to do with Bukele’s new fantastically ambiguous law criminalising the sharing of information about gangs.

The 10 de Octubre operation boosted the number of detained “terrorists” to more than 10,000 in 15 days. By June, when the state of emergency was extended a third time, the number would reach well over 41,000 – with at least 40 detainees having died in state custody.

I resumed pestering Alfredo to let me visit him in 10 de Octubre, where, he said, the small house he shared with his teenage son, former suegra (mother-in-law), and other relatives was continuously on the receiving end of visits by police, who continuously wanted to view everyone’s identity cards – and to know if any gang members had taken up residence in the dwelling since their last visit.

As Alfredo later told me, his reluctance to welcome me to the neighbourhood had to do with his concern that, in the event of another massive security operation, he would then be tagged as a police informant. But welcome me he did one afternoon in late April.

The taxi driver who transported me at breakneck speed down the highway to 10 de Octubre – all the while blasting an inspirational religious tune about the blood of Jesus Christ – helpfully informed me, as he deposited me next to the local football field, that this was where “bad and dangerous” people lived. To be sure, it is always handy to have an appointed domestic bogeyman to detract public attention from the dangers of a government that has spontaneously done away with basic rights and civil liberties.

Alfredo rescued me from Christ’s blood and we walked the short distance to his house, passing bougainvillea bushes, a food stand, and some vans bearing the markings of the friendly neighbourhood US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). As per the INL website, the organisation’s local programmes “build the capacity of the Government of El Salvador to improve its ability to mitigate the influence of gangs, improve citizen security, and combat corruption” – a premise that might be more convincing were it not coming from the government of the country that spawned the entire gang phenomenon in the first place after backing right-wing terror during the Salvadoran civil war of 1980-92.

According to Alfredo, the INL’s manoeuvres in 10 de Octubre had included efforts to teach schoolchildren that the police were a force for good – which, he said, had not stopped all the kids from wanting to play the latter role in every game of “cops and robbers”.

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