Editor’s Note: This translation combines the original photo essay with related reporting from Carlos Martínez of El Faro.

 

Members of the Salvadoran armed forces placed parts of La Libertad and the intersecting national highway under a 48-hour military lockdown effective Friday evening, April 17, shutting off access to the local food market servicing the coastal town’s more than 65,000 residents and thousands more from three surrounding towns. Francisco Merino Monroy, minister of defense, deployed units from the navy, the army’s cavalry regiment, and the joint task force codenamed ‘Volcano’ to the port town following orders from President Nayib Bukele issued over Twitter earlier that day.

 

The blockade of Puerto de La Libertad—the town’s boardwalk district, a bastion of tourism in El Salvador—contradicts the COVID-19 response measures adopted by the Legislative Assembly that, in article 2, empower the ministry of health to take necessary action to preempt outbreaks in areas with documented cases of the virus. La Libertad, however, has not registered a single case to date. Bukele called for the “sanitary lockdown,” according to the press secretary, because of the large number of residents had been violating the domestic quarantine—an assertion based on a video he retweeted in the same thread in which he issued the order to the minister of defense.

 

The military lockdown caught residents by surprise, preventing them from leaving home over the weekend to stock up on essential goods. The president’s order also contradicts the rulings of the Constitutional Chamber upholding the right to leave home to trade and purchase essential goods, as well as prohibiting arbitrary detention. When Attorney General Raúl Melara traveled to the town on Saturday afternoon to investigate allegations of abuse of authority under the lockdown, a military leader refused to divulge information about the operation and a local policeman told him that the department had not received any legal documents backing the lockdown. According to the policeman, they received orders to prevent people from leaving home even to buy medicine, except in “absolute emergencies.”

 

As Carlos Martínez wrote about Attorney General Raúl Melara visit to the locked-down city:

The attorney general’s mere presence, even if he had stayed silent, was a statement in itself. He could have sent any of his attorneys to carry out the investigation, but decided to go in person and call a press conference about what, under other circumstances, might be considered a routine inspection. To the keen observer, his presence was a not-so-subtle reminder to government actors that he is still working during the pandemic, that he is asking and fielding questions. “Rulings from the [Constitutional] Chamber are not up for debate; they are to be obeyed,” he stated, in reference to recent court decisions upholding the right to break quarantine on certain grounds and condemning arbitrary detentions. 

 

The attorney general’s trip to La Libertad on Saturday, which comes just days after President Nayib Bukele announced his refusal to comply with the Chamber’s attempts to rein in his emergency response, was a reminder that no pandemic would dissuade him from his duty to investigate crimes, in whatever form and by whatever hand: that of soldiers, ministers, or even the president himself.

 

Stranded mere yards from shore as they return from overnight fishing expeditions, nine fishing boats wait for the navy’s signal to approach the dock as soldiers take down the names of those returning from sea to the military lockdown.
 
Stranded mere yards from shore as they return from overnight fishing expeditions, nine fishing boats wait for the navy’s signal to approach the dock as soldiers take down the names of those returning from sea to the military lockdown.

 

 

In the evening on Friday, April 17, the armed forces imposed a military blockade to curb traffic through Puerto de La Libertad and enforce the domestic quarantine, according to the office of the president. At the first checkpoint, a humvee and more than ten soldiers cut off access to the town.
 
In the evening on Friday, April 17, the armed forces imposed a military blockade to curb traffic through Puerto de La Libertad and enforce the domestic quarantine, according to the office of the president. At the first checkpoint, a humvee and more than ten soldiers cut off access to the town.

 

 

The blockade cut off access to markets of essential goods for residents across four towns. The national highway running along the coast, CA-2, cuts through all of La Libertad, connecting the most popular beaches in the department of the same name. The army and police mounted a joint operation along this artery, stretching to the towns of Talnique, Tamanique, and Jicalpa, which lie along the Balsam Mountains. Residents travel to the port market every weekend, but this Saturday, nobody left home in the neighborhood, despite assurances from the Constitutional Chamber.
 
The blockade cut off access to markets of essential goods for residents across four towns. The national highway running along the coast, CA-2, cuts through all of La Libertad, connecting the most popular beaches in the department of the same name. The army and police mounted a joint operation along this artery, stretching to the towns of Talnique, Tamanique, and Jicalpa, which lie along the Balsam Mountains. Residents travel to the port market every weekend, but this Saturday, nobody left home in the neighborhood, despite assurances from the Constitutional Chamber.

 

 

The armed forces took to the streets of La Libertad, home to over 35 thousand people, stationing at least two soldiers on every corner. In this image, a team patrols the town marketplace in the early hours of Saturday, April 18.
 
The armed forces took to the streets of La Libertad, home to over 35 thousand people, stationing at least two soldiers on every corner. In this image, a team patrols the town marketplace in the early hours of Saturday, April 18.

 

 

A group of soldiers stopped this man from continuing down 1 Avenue North. After a brief conversation, he returned to his home near the town marketplace.
 
A group of soldiers stopped this man from continuing down 1 Avenue North. After a brief conversation, he returned to his home near the town marketplace.

 

 

Some residents peered out their doorways onto empty streets, asking if stores or supermarkets were open. Taken aback by the government’s decision, nobody expected to wake up to a city under siege.
 
Some residents peered out their doorways onto empty streets, asking if stores or supermarkets were open. Taken aback by the government’s decision, nobody expected to wake up to a city under siege.

 

 

With his documentation in hand, the local resident in neon yellow tried to leave his neighborhood to purchase goods at the pier. The emergency measures approved by the Legislative Assembly permit free circulation for families to stock up on goods. In La Libertad, though, armed forces ignored the law on Saturday, refusing to let people out of their homes. One woman reported that she left her truck full of bananas, which she had planned to take to market in San Salvador, parked at her house. Soldiers had refused to let her leave, despite provisions allowing vendors of essential goods to travel to market. In another instance, the soldiers changed their mind when a man yelled out: “Hey, baker! Hurry up with that bread!” The baker, who had stumbled upon this same checkpoint, was then allowed to move along to the marketplace.
 
With his documentation in hand, the local resident in neon yellow tried to leave his neighborhood to purchase goods at the pier. The emergency measures approved by the Legislative Assembly permit free circulation for families to stock up on goods. In La Libertad, though, armed forces ignored the law on Saturday, refusing to let people out of their homes. One woman reported that she left her truck full of bananas, which she had planned to take to market in San Salvador, parked at her house. Soldiers had refused to let her leave, despite provisions allowing vendors of essential goods to travel to market. In another instance, the soldiers changed their mind when a man yelled out: “Hey, baker! Hurry up with that bread!” The baker, who had stumbled upon this same checkpoint, was then allowed to move along to the marketplace.

 

 

While waterfront businesses have remained closed since the start of the national emergency, the government’s actions over the weekend also brought the work of small-time fishermen to a grinding halt.
 
While waterfront businesses have remained closed since the start of the national emergency, the government’s actions over the weekend also brought the work of small-time fishermen to a grinding halt.

 

 

“Nobody should be out working right now. I don’t want to find you back in the street,” a military official told two bakers and two fishermen caught near a checkpoint on 1 Avenue North. Soldiers detained them for 15 minutes before letting them go. When asked about these detentions, which were condemned Constitutional Chamber and the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman, the official said: “We won’t detain anyone. Nobody has authorized us to do that; we’re just making our presence felt a little.” He added that the patrols were meant to “guarantee” that all of the town’s residents stayed home.
 
“Nobody should be out working right now. I don’t want to find you back in the street,” a military official told two bakers and two fishermen caught near a checkpoint on 1 Avenue North. Soldiers detained them for 15 minutes before letting them go. When asked about these detentions, which were condemned Constitutional Chamber and the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman, the official said: “We won’t detain anyone. Nobody has authorized us to do that; we’re just making our presence felt a little.” He added that the patrols were meant to “guarantee” that all of the town’s residents stayed home.

 

 

Germán Chávez, 32, has been out of work and without income for 40 days. A former beachside restaurant employee, he says he didn’t make the list for the government’s $300 USD pandemic relief checks.
 
Germán Chávez, 32, has been out of work and without income for 40 days. A former beachside restaurant employee, he says he didn’t make the list for the government’s $300 USD pandemic relief checks.

 

 

 

*Translated by Roman Gressier