At 3 a.m. on Saturday, December 3, President Nayib Bukele announced on Twitter that he had deployed 10,000 soldiers and police officers to the city of Soyapango, a former epicenter of gang-related homicides, to “remove every gang member there, one by one.” When the first troops arrived mid-morning at the colonias 22 de Abril and Las Margaritas, two historic bastions of the Mara Salvatrucha, the gang members had understandably fled.
Three Soyapango neighbors, who spoke to El Faro English on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation, say most of the area’s gang members saw Bukele’s early-bird announcement and state media campaign and left the area. In the ensuing days, residents say authorities in Las Margaritas made just five arrests out of the 150 reported in all of Soyapango during the week-long operation.
Footage of hundreds of soldiers piling into trucks —and Bukele’s claim that this is phase 5, “extraction,” of the state-secret Territorial Control Plan— snagged global headlines, and that appears to have been the point.
El Faro English was in Las Margaritas as the Army allowed in only state media before marching through the colonia with a row of tanks. They then moved on, leaving behind not a military lockdown, but rather the Army checkpoints and police presence that have typified the nine-month state of exception in the community.
As of Wednesday night, the same remained true throughout Soyapango: checkpoints in colonias, yes; a lockdown of the municipality, as the government claims, no.
Residents of Las Margaritas said that MS-13 presence has significantly waned there this year, but that they remain in the communities despite the suspension of rights, mass arrests, and deployments to the area like the one on Saturday.
They also shared divided feelings about the state of exception. Some expressed thanks for the patrols of soldiers, who they say have protected them. Others fear that they could be wrongfully captured and held for months, citing the dozens of confirmed in-custody deaths and reports of torture and other abuse.
It is consistent with public polling: In late October, three-quarters of Salvadorans told the Central American University that they feel “safe” under the emergency measures, but at least two-thirds of the population also disagreed with the suspension of constitutional guarantees that have contributed to sweeping human rights violations.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal released Wednesday —titled, “We can arrest anyone we want”— authorities have carried out “hundreds of indiscriminate raids, particularly in low-income neighborhoods,” drawing reports of enforced disappearances, torture, and due process violations “repeatedly and across the country.”
The organizations called for foreign governments and international financial institutions to cut funding to Salvadoran government institutions directly involved in the abuses, like prison, prosecution, and police authorities. They singled out the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), which —as we discussed in our July 1 newsletter— has continued to fund the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan governments while other institutions, like the IMF, are not bankrolling them.
Top officials under Honduran President Xiomara Castro have advocated for months in favor of implementing a spin-off of Bukele’s so-called “war against gangs.” It wasn’t entirely surprising when Castro signed an executive decree on Saturday ordering a state of exception in 89 marginalized colonias in the capital and 73 others in San Pedro Sula and announced a “war against extortion.”
Pending ratification from a divided Congress within 30 days, these communities have lost the right to free transit, protection from forced displacement; freedom of association; “personal freedom;” the right to post bail; the prohibition of detentions without a warrant; and the right to “not be arrested for obligations not stemming from a crime.”
By Tuesday night, the Police, Army, and Military Police —the latter a deeply controversial corps created by Juan Orlando Hernández and placed under control of the Armed Forces— had deployed to the communities.
It was lost on few that this contradicted Castro’s campaign promise to disentangle the military from civil policing activities and place human rights at the front of her agenda. COPINH, the Indigenous Lenca organization co-founded by Berta Cáceres and a key base of campaign support, condemned the state of exception the day it went into effect.
In an interview with El Faro English days before the measure, Honduran Security Secretary Ramón Sabillón tried to take distance from the Bukele model —asserting that the “catracha [Honduran] formula” would respect “dignity and human rights”— but affirms that “there are things to be learned” from El Salvador.
“A society must attack crime at the root, not only repress. What happens is that people don’t like preventative measures. They want a hard fist,” he asserted. “Technical analysis isn’t the highest level [of decision-making], but rather politics,” he claimed.
Decreeing a state of exception “is accepting that you’re otherwise incapable of [addressing extortion], and there’s a very thin line where you’re creating space for abuse,” top prosecutor Luis Santos, head of Honduras’ Special Prosecutor’s Unit against Corruption Networks (UFERCO), told El Faro English.
“One thing is your possible intention and another is those who will carry it out,” he added, in reference to the military and police forces’ well-documented brutality and due process violations in marginalized communities. Of their nexus with gangs and drug traffickers and the need for a purge, rejected by Secretary Sabillón, Santos added: “Inside the Police there are still members with ties to these groups.”
Amid the criticism of human rights violations in El Salvador, Bukele said on Thursday, “what they [the press and international NGOs] fear is that we’ll be successful, because other governments will want to imitate us. They fear the power of example.”
Next week Castro will travel to New York, purportedly to sign the agreement to create the heavily anticipated U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH), but there are still substantial doubts about the true reach of the new commission. Not to insist on the similarities with the Bukele administration, but if the CICIH is born toothless, a déjà vu of his CICIES will be inevitable.