State of Exception -- in the communities

September 2023 parade in Tonacatepeque

I do not often write in the first person in this space, but as I develop this series of posts at the start of the third year of the State of Exception, it feels important to describe how I have seen El Salvador change during that time.

I have spent more than twenty years visiting and getting to know well a small community in the municipality of Tonacatepeque, northeast of San Salvador.  This collection of small houses, with water which arrives some of the days, with chickens and dogs and small children roaming the streets, is dear to me. And for most of the time I have known it, the community has been under control of the MS-13 gang.

Two years into the State of Exception, the "muchachos" are no longer present, and the difference it makes in people's lives is real and observable. Residents now cross gang boundaries from one territory to another, no longer fearing deadly retribution as a consequence.  New little businesses have opened up out of people’s houses or along the roadside.  It is possible to walk the little streets of this community at night and see friends and neighbors.  And I am happy and relieved for my friends living there.      

I remember well when it wasn’t like this; when fear was deep and ever present. Young boys and men who were never involved in the gangs were gunned down for violating invisible borders or the dictates of the de facto rulers of the zone. I wrote in 2007 about Marvin, killed while working as a fare collector on a bus in El Salvador.  I personally knew several others, like Salvador and Marcelino, who would die as a result of the senseless gang conflicts in the country.        

The community is down the road from Distrito Italia, famous for being a stronghold of MS-13. From time to time I would have reason to go into Distrito, but never without a known person who could vouch for me to the gang lookouts who openly patrolled the streets. It was a place where I always felt nervous and on edge. The New York Times described Distrito as "a stronghold of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which until the state of emergency, ruled over every aspect of life."

Today I drive into Distrito without trepidation and without needing a guide. I have attended events, observed elections, or given a ride to friends as if this were not formerly one of the more notorious communities in El Salvador.

In Distrito Italia, Nayib Bukele won 84% of the votes in February's election for president.

These personal experiences are echoed in what friends and contacts in communities around El Salvador have also shared with me. They are echoed in reports from independent journalists at El Faro like this photo essay about the community La Campanera in Soyapango today, which opens:
The residents of La Campanera say they live a new life, they have recovered spaces, they order pizza at home, they play at night on the field.
But in 2010, El Faro reported a much different image there:
After the eighth grade, young people - gang members or non-gang members - stop studying or risk their lives to go outside, where death follows them like a shadow just because they live in La Campanera.
The Salvadoran government's primary barometer of these changes is the homicide rate. Independent journalist Roberto Valencia has tracked the homicide rate for years. He regularly updates statistics on the average number of homicides per day in the country:

Nayib Bukele declares El Salvador to be the safest in the Western Hemisphere, based on the homicide data:

There are strong reasons to believe that the homicide rate, while historically low, is not quite as low as the Bukele regime claims. During Holy Week this year, for example, the Salvadoran press pointed to the discovery of bodies which were not included in the homicide rate.  According to La Prensa Grafica, the police included only 2 of nine violent deaths in the official statistics for that week.

The homicide rate fails as well to include the deaths in El Salvador's prisons, many with signs of violence.  The count also excludes disappearances, where no body has been found and a family is still searching desperately for a loved one.

Even with the caveat that the homicide rate could be double what is claimed by the government, the number of Salvadorans dying violent deaths is historically low.

In public opinion polls, Salvadorans express their feelings of safety.  At the end of 2023, only 3.7% of those polled viewed crime, violence or a lack of security as the principal problem facing El Salvador according to a survey by the UCA.  In contrast,  60% of the public viewed gangs and violent crime as the principal problem at the end of 2018, shortly before the election of Bukele to his first term. Today, the Salvadoran public views inflation, unemployment and poverty as much greater challenges than public security.

There are still reports of some? many? significant numbers? of gang members who are still at liberty in El Salvador. For the Bukele regime, this represents something of a quandary. If there are significant numbers of gang members still roaming El Salvador, it undercuts the public message that this country is safer than anywhere else. But if the country has arrested all the dangerous gang members, then what is the ongoing justification for the State of Exception?

Undeniably, much has changed in El Salvador regarding the impact of gangs on everyday life.  My personal experience, the journalistic reports from communities where gangs once ruled, the very low reported homicide rates, and what people tell pollsters when asked if they feel safer, all point to a different El Salvador. 

And yet.

I have also had personal experiences of a different sort during these years of the State of Exception.  These are the conversations with people throughout the country who tell me of innocent sons or brothers or neighbors or employees who have been swept up in Bukele's war on gangs.  I think of the leaders in a rural community who tell me about the police and soldiers arriving and grabbing some of the best youth in their community.  The fear generated by that event prompted some of the remaining promising youth to flee the country, lest they also get picked up arbitrarily.  I think of the woman who describes for me the horrific conditions in the woman’s prison where she was held on trumped up charges.  I think of the desperate church pastor asking me if I knew a lawyer who could help free his son, and the other pastors who describe faithful youth from the church now being held in one of the country's nightmarish prisons.

These conversations are also in my mind.

The point is this. Both things can be true at the same time. Millions of Salvadorans can feel less at risk from gangs, while tens of thousands of families have lost someone innocent to the exception regime.  To highlight the abuses in the prisons and the criminal justice system is not to deny that gangs inflicted horrible damage on the country for two decades or more.  To demand justice for the victims of the regime does not mean I cannot feel relief for the members of a community no longer living under the shadow of MS-13.  

Third in a series.   Read the first two articles here:


Joyce Ellwanger said…
This reality leaves me both heartened as I know the old reality of the fears of the past in just walking through a community and risking your very life have been relieved, and the new reality of those swept up from their families and into the horrible conditions in El Salvador's prisons.

Again, they are risking death just by being where they are. And families struggle to get them food or to get them safely out of the country.

Prayers abound.

Joyce Ellwanger