‘Trapped in this hell’: How one El Salvador town transformed under Bukele

 The day the military swept through Puerto el Triunfo is etched into Rosa’s memory like a painful scar.

Rosa, who asked to use pseudonyms for her and her family, was born and raised in the small fishing town, surrounded by the emerald green mangroves of El Salvador’s southern coast.

On a spring night in April 2022, she drifted off to sleep after texting into the early hours with her younger brother, Jorge Antonio, who lived a short walk away.

The two had always been close. As children, they would run around hand in hand, sinking their toes into the sandy beach not far from their family home. Now, as adults, they were dreaming up plans to move abroad.

A sudden phone call jolted Rosa awake that night, though. Her parents were on the other end of the line, frantic.

“At four in the morning, the soldiers were raiding each house in the area,” said Rosa. They had come pounding on the door of her family home, where Jorge Antonio, his son Santiago and their parents lived.

The soldiers were searching for gang members. But as Rosa’s parents would later tell her, they quickly focused their attention on Jorge Antonio, a single parent and a public-sector employee.

“They searched the house but didn’t find anything suspicious. They checked his body for tattoos — but my brother doesn’t have any,” Rosa said.

The soldiers decided to arrest him anyway. Jorge Antonio was dragged away with other local men accused of gang involvement.

The last time Rosa saw him, he was kneeling in handcuffs on the street outside the local police station. Ordinarily well-dressed, he was still wearing the pyjamas he had gone to bed in.

On Sunday, Bukele is seeking a second term, as Salvadorans head to the polls to vote in the country’s general election.

But while Bukele enjoys widespread support, residents like Rosa have seen their communities transformed by his crackdown on crime — and not always for the better.

For years, Puerto El Triunfo, a town of 16,000 people, was terrorised by gangs. They demanded extortion fees from businesses, recruited children as members, and made the people who disobeyed them disappear.

Rosa still remembers a time when screams and explosions of bullets pierced the stillness of the night.

“There were shootouts. They’d hit women. You couldn’t enter [other parts of town] if you were from a different neighbourhood. They’d kill you,” Rosa told Al Jazeera.

Under Bukele, the gangs have now gone, Rosa explained. But so too have cherished community members: fishermen, barbers, a former mayor and even the motorcycle-taxi driver who dressed up as the town’s Santa Claus, giving children presents each year.

The town is quieter than it once was. Gang members with tattooed faces and weapons have been replaced by men with uniforms and guns — and the authority to do as they please, Rosa said.

She described it as a new kind of nightmare, even more terrifying than before.

“Recently, the soldiers dragged away some old, sick people who could barely walk — good, humble people who had worked hard all their lives,” Rosa said.

Her uncle, cousin, and many friends have also been arrested in the military raids, not to mention Jorge Antonio.

“Those of us that are ‘free’ live with pain and anguish every day not knowing anything of those detained,” she explained despondently. “I’m trapped in this hell. All of us here are.”

The crackdown began in March 2022, following a spike in gang violence that left 87 people dead in a single weekend. In response, Bukele announced a nationwide state of emergency, suspending certain civil liberties in order to rapidly tamp down the violence.

The decision sent military troops cascading into every corner of the country.

Those with criminal records and bodies covered in tattoos, a common characteristic of gang members, were rounded up. But critics say many innocent people were also detained, with little recourse to appeal their arrests.

By the end of 2023, more than 75,000 people accused of gang affiliations had been absorbed into the prison system, around 1 percent of the total population.

But the Salvadoran group Socorro Jurídico Humanitario (SJH) — also known as Humanitarian Legal Aid — estimates that about 20,000 of those imprisoned are innocent.

Ingrid Escobar, the director of SJH, explained that judicial reforms introduced under Bukele’s state of emergency have eroded the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

“They don’t listen to the call from human rights groups to look at the cases of thousands of innocent people who don’t have tattoos or criminal records but are paying a sentence they do not owe,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bukele supporters defend the restrictions under the state of emergency as a necessary part of tackling deeply entrenched crime.

Once the most dangerous country in Latin America, El Salvador has seen its murder rate plunge from more than 106 murders per 100,000 people in 2015 to a rate of 2.4 in 2023, according to government figures.

Critics, however, point out that the numbers were already falling before Bukele came to power in 2019. They also question whether Bukele’s “mano dura” — or “iron fist” — policies are sustainable.

“Mass incarceration and the isolation of gang leaders in maximum security prisons never serve to debilitate gangs in the long term,” said Sonja Wolf, a researcher at Mexico’s National Council of Humanities, Science and Technology (CONAHCYT) and author of the book Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador.

“Such a precarious peace is notoriously unstable,” Wolf added.

In Puerto El Triunfo, for instance, the armed forces themselves have come under suspicion of illegal activity. The community has raised accusations that some military members gave false testimonies to make arrests.

One lieutenant captain in the navy, for instance, has been engulfed in claims that he threatened to arrest local women — or their partners — if they refused his sexual advances. He was arrested but has reportedly been released while his case is processed.

“The military has been given excessive power in Puerto El Triunfo,” said Escobar of Humanitarian Legal Aid. Her group helped free seven of the 25 people it believes were arrested arbitrarily on an island in the Puerto El Triunfo municipality.

“We are winning cases because there is no proof, only lies,” she added.

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