Self-Portrait with Gang Members — On Bukele’s Prison Crackdown
The photos possess a morbid aesthetic. They capture a sea of gang members, seemingly rowing in unison or rehearsing synchronized choreographies. The grouping strips away all individuality in favor of a geometrical organism of identical, mass-produced, tattooed, buzz-cut men. Stripped down to briefs and with hands tied behind the back, each man sits with his legs open, hunching into the back of the man in front and forced against the crotch of the man behind. The men are stacked one behind another to the visual horizon—stacked so closely, in fact, that if one end were connected to an electrical socket, the current would run uninterrupted from one to the other until the other end. So would a virus.
Without the photo shoot, the scene itself would be pointless. Prison officials forced the prisoners from their cells to the courtyard, and into perfect alignment before the lens of the government photographers. A staged portrait of a band of criminals, a thousand-head monster brought to heel by the state’s mano dura—iron fist. Mano dura. Yet again.
There is nothing random about the mise-en-scène. Released by the Presidential House, the photos have spread to front pages around the world, stunning editors not only with their visual impact, but with the message they send: one of propaganda, populism, premeditated brutality. A mass of human beings assembled by the Salvadoran government with the pandemic in full swing—accompanied, no less, by a tweet from president Nayib Bukele, authorizing the police to use “lethal force” in the fight against the gangs.
Meanwhile, in El Salvador, both the images and the presidential tweet received broad public approval. Why is it that Salvadorans applaud that which the outside world emphatically condemns?
The pictures were taken following the most deadly spike of murders under the Bukele administration, attributed to the Mara Salvatrucha—or MS-13—and Barrio 18. In three days, 60 people were killed, many of whom were small business owners, street vendors, and bakers who refused to pay into the gangs’ extortion rackets. A large portion of El Salvador has endured these conditions for three decades, bowing to the will of criminals who rape their daughters, kill their sons, and extort and control entire communities.
I confess: after years of hearing horror stories of gang violence, I no longer have the stomach to speak on their behalf. I understand that they are the searing image of what we have become as a society, that they, themselves, are victims of state abandonment. That they came of age in a world of few options, in which their gang seemed to give meaning to a life condemned to misery, and in which violence seemed their only act of agency and survival. I understand all that. Buch each time I remember mothers searching for their sons or mourning the killing of their daughters, my stomach churns. Each time I hear or read accounts of their cruelty, often from the perpetrators themselves, I feel disgust. These are abhorrent acts. Yet I wonder: if this is my reaction, the blood must boil within the victims’ families’ veins.
Few things seem as natural to me as these mothers’ and fathers’ ready approval of any action taken against these criminals, and their feelings of vindication with any suffering inflicted on those responsible for their own pain, and that of their families. Thus, I understand the public celebration of the prisoners crammed in rows, of the extrajudicial police killings of suspected gang members, and of Bukele’s invitation to the police and military to use “lethal force.”
The logic is straightforward: if the gangs are responsible for most homicides; if they cruelly subjugate hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans; if they rape daughters, kill sons, and extort businesses; if they are the cancer of our society; then why criticize those who are helping, regardless of their method, to excise the tumor? That is the logic at the heart of cycles of violence. But no moral lessons should be extracted from desperate citizens, or demanded from them.
The problem arises when our public officials are the ones violating the law. When the police and military become captor, judge, and executioner. When the president commits to wielding the entire state apparatus to shield the officers who have abused that lethal power. When grotesque pictures staging a crackdown emerge amid a pandemic to send a political message. The blatant disregard for human rights is scandalous, even immoral. But it is also illegal.
We should expect and demand that our public officials stay within the bounds of the law. Otherwise, they delegitimize the legal system and institutions of the Republic. They undermine the rule of law that they are bound to enforce, the very source of their legitimacy. They should follow the law, just as is expected even from wayward citizens—those who have broken the law and whose punishment for violating our social contract or our rights is written in law. As a society, our only justification for locking up human beings in our prisons is that our law prescribes it as punishment. A pillar of communal living is that all members have rights and that public officials must both respect and defend those rights.
Those who say that the gangs are the first to violate the rights of others are correct. We all feel rage with each new report of the atrocities many of them commit. Yet that does not exempt the state from fulfilling its legal obligations. Such is the burden of the rule of law. When the police or president break the law, they are not protecting the citizens, but rather betraying the mechanisms—laws and courts of justice—designed to do just that. Instead, they turn the country into a free-for-all in which laws no longer afford protection, and where dealing in violence is the only alternative.
“You cannot do wrong to achieve right,” warned Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero in one of his pastoral letters, and he repeated these words again and again in his sermons. Each act of wrongdoing compounds those preceding it.
Almost all of those gang members stacked together, in the Presidential House’s photos, were children in 2003. That year, president Francisco Flores launched the first gang crackdown. He sent police, rifles in hand, to kick in doors during mass moonlit raids of poor communities, in search of tattooed youth. In those same houses were the children, brothers, or neighbors of those captured. What did we expect to happen to them? What did we expect to happen within the police ranks, after allowing the first, second, and third extrajudicial killing to go unpunished?
It is a throughline in our history: when the state violates the law, it only feeds the cycle of violence. We know this because politicians across parties have invoked the image of the gangs for their electoral benefit. Their intention is not to eradicate violence, but rather to capitalize on victims’ desperate calls for urgent solutions to their urgent problems. To expose the face of the criminals for the public to spit at, to scream its contempt, to wish death by the virus, by other criminals, or by the police. Or they have negotiated reductions in homicides with them, turning the gangs into political agents.
Only by addressing the root causes of violence, Romero would insist, will violence be eradicated. Authorities who run afoul of the law, he warned, should respond for their crimes.
I invoke his words because three presidents, including Nayib Bukele, have now signed off on human rights abuses and have lashed out at the organizations dedicated to these fundamental principles, even as they stage their conferences next to Óscar Romero’s portrait in the Presidential House. That is not to say that past presidents did not enter into the territory of brutality; they just did not do so with the portrait of Romero, commissioned by Mauricio Funes, hanging nearby.
Bukele has been no different. In the last few weeks, he accused human rights organizations of being “front organizations” for shadowy interest groups. Sadly, we have heard this talking point all too often in El Salvador, since even before the civil war—each time from the lips of those seeking to violate human rights under the guise of fighting the enemy of the people.
The portraits of the gangs are, in fact, self-portraits of the state. Conceived as propaganda—imagery, violence, politics—they lower the state to the moral plane of the gangs, as a criminal organization. Allow me to explain: the gangs murder, rape, extort, oppress, and threaten; they have a long track record of committing barbaric, inhumane acts. The state, on the other hand, is of a humanistic conception. The first article of the constitution says that the human being is the beginning and end of state action. The state is civilized. That is a fundamental difference. It possesses a monopoly on use of force that is only legitimate to the extent that the state observes the law.
In devising a response to gangs, kidnapping rings, or drug traffickers, what is really at stake is the triumph of the institutions, constitution, and rule of law that define the state over those who threaten those values. In effect, it is a contest between civilization and barbarity. Paradoxically, rather than reforming or civilizing criminals, the state has brutalized itself. If this is indeed a war between the gangs and the state, as the government has declared, then it is clear who is winning it.
On April 28, following the release of the pictures and the subsequent tide of criticism from legal groups and international and national human rights organizations, Bukele tweeted: “We all know that their international agenda has nothing to do with human rights. Their mission is to defend those who rape, kidnap, kill, and dismember.” On May 2, he continued: “We know that the agenda of these NGOs is a façade, that they’re financed by shadowy players, that they want to see Latin America mired in chaos. Thank God that their statements and letters carry no weight in El Salvador.” It’s a quite popular accusation in Latin America: human rights advocates stay silent when the violators of those rights are the criminals, protesting only when those affected are the criminals themselves. Therefore, they defend criminals. This, of course, is a fallacy.
Those accused of violating human rights almost invariably fail to acknowledge that citizens affected by the actions of others (e.g., victims of robberies, violence, murder, extorsion) can turn to the state and its institutions—prosecutors, the courts—for redress. But who protects the citizens when it is the very state, or its officials, who violate the rights of citizens?
Advocates and defenders of human rights, then, have a mandate to defend citizens—both exemplary and unsavory—when authorities infringe upon their rights. It is their raison d’être. In El Salvador, the Human Rights Ombudsman was born of the peace accords so that we would never again be defenseless in the face of abuse of power, and so that citizens would have recourse from state aggression. For all other cases, including those of gang violence and abuse, the state carries the mantle of protecting and upholding these rights. If public institutions fail to do so, whether due to negligence, contempt, or corruption, then victims can turn to the Ombudsman, as they have then also been victims of a state that has failed to procure justice to them. Non-governmental human rights organizations’ primary functions are to report abuses and accompany victims.
Laws and human rights are a nuisance to Bukele. Heeding and defending them are a thorn in the side of a president who does not believe in sharing power with other branches of government, and who views any intervening organization—be it the Assembly, Supreme Court, Attorney General, Human Rights Ombudsman, news media, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, trade unions, the Jesuit-run Central American University (UCA.), the Medical College, and anyone else criticizing his exercise of power—as an obstacle to overcome. They will have to face down his troops.
Simone Weil, the early-twentieth-century French philosopher who embraced radical political Catholicism in the interwar period, concluded that “Brutality, violence, and inhumanity have an immense prestige that schoolbooks hide from children, that grown men do not admit, but that everyone bows before. For the opposite virtues to have as much prestige, they must be actively and constantly put into practice.”
Each time brutality is met with brutality, and barbarity with barbarity, the result is unequivocally the same: the cycle of violence perpetuates itself.
This administration’s disregard for human rights and for the warnings of human rights advocates, just as most of its maneuverings, is designed to distract from true, structural problems. To break the cycle of violence, we must take the opposite tack: tending to root causes while respecting the law, in a civilized fashion. Even with gang members.
*Translated by Roman Gressier
FI name: May 2020