Religion themes in the recent news from El Salvador

Reading recent articles about current events in El Salvador, I was struck by how many include religion as a theme. 

Remarks by the Archbishop of San Salvador, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas, recently caught the attention of the Associated Press, generating the headline Salvadoran Archbishop praises government crackdown on gangs. The archbishop said in a press conference “People don't want the violence to return,.... They not only want these things maintained, they want them to advance, to end the violence" and the prelate urged the president to avoid "margins of error."     

In making those remarks, the archbishop may have turned a blind eye to just how gross those "margins of error" have been producing thousands of complaints of arbitrary detentions.  In a report today titled State of Exception Files: Hundreds Arrested for Prior Convictions or “Looking Nervous” reporters from El Faro described their conclusions after obtaining hundreds of files presented by the police and prosecutors to justify arrests and detentions during the State of Exception.  The reporting shows large numbers of arrests with flimsy grounds for arrest such as "appearing suspicious" or "looking nervous" or based on police lists of gang members with little or no evidentiary backing.   A flimsy file could be enough to send a youth on the street to years in prison. 

The archbishop's comments also stand in contrast to the country's Roman Catholic cardinal, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who has publicly stated that the State of Exception should be ended and that there are other legal tools which can be utilized to confront the problem of gangs without the damage currently being inflicted upon innocent youth in marginalized communities.  

To be sure, the political weight of comments by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in El Salvador has waned significantly from the time of martyred archbishop Oscar Romero.  In The Faith-Based Politics of El Salvador’s Millennial President, Amy Fallas at Religion and Politics takes a look at how Bukele has used religious rhetoric to advance his political career and policies as president.  That language has been used to justify the current State of Exception:

An integral aspect of Bukele’s rhetoric during this campaign has emphasized the spiritual danger of gangs. On May 3, Bukele posted a photo on Facebook of a satanic altar in an alleged gang member’s home, remarking: “the war against gangs is a war between good and evil.” The most popular comments under this and many other public posts come from supporters who consistently evoke God, God’s blessings upon Bukele, and religious reasons for their support of the president.

Many of the top comments to Bukele’s posts over the past months have not only extolled the president’s actions, but have also referenced Bible verses, interpreted his policies according to religious reasons, and framed his decisions as part of a divine purpose. One of the most popular comments to the satanic altar post affirmed the president’s justifications, calling the campaign “divine justice”; while another remarked that this was proof that God established Bukele as “a burning torch” in El Salvador, “like Moses who led Israel out of slavery.”

Some of the same themes appear in a column titled The El Salvador diaries: The cult of Nayib Bukele: Who is the self-proclaimed “coolest dictator in the world” really? by Belén Fernández at AlJazeera:

Of course, there is not much time for self-reflection in war – especially when you have tens of thousands of people to put in jail and a false narrative of good-versus-evil with which to forcibly supplant reality. Shortly after the launch of the state of emergency in March, I arrived in San Salvador for a one-month stay, and spoke via WhatsApp with Zaira Navas, a human rights lawyer for the organisation Cristosal and a former inspector general with the Salvadoran National Civilian Police.

Navas credited a heavily-funded “media campaign” with ably “selling the [government’s] message” and encouraging “fanaticism” among the population, such that “anyone opposed to or critical” of the Bukele administration “is considered to be an enemy”. To be sure, dissemination of the Bukelian narrative is significantly facilitated by the increasing criminalisation of non-obsequious media and the de facto expansion of the “terrorist” label to include critical journalists.
Beyond the State of Exception, the world's fascination with El Salvador's Bitcoin experiment continues.  Some also say that belief in Bitcoin can have the feel of a religious cult.  If so, El Salvador's finance minister is a staunch believer. He repeated recently told Bloomberg that El Salvador’s Bitcoin Bet Is Working, Finance Minister Says.

It is not clear whether discrimination against transgender persons in El Salvador is rooted in conservative religiosity, but such discrimination continues to be a troubling problem for the Salvadoran trans community, despite a February 2022 Supreme Judicial Court ruling which recognized a constitutional prohibition against gender identity discrimination and ruled that trans persons should be able to legally change their names to match their identities.  Despite that ruling the Legislative Asembly has not yet acted to pass implementing legislation.   This situation is discussed more fully in a new report form Human Rights Watch titled El Salvador: Transgender People Denied Equal Rights