On May 17, Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, the head of El Salvador’s National Civil Police, took to Twitter to broadcast the news that “more than 31,000 terrorists” had thus far been “captured” since the inception of the national state of emergency at the end of March.
The state of emergency was occasioned by a surge in homicides following a collapse in negotiations between Salvadoran gangs and members of the administration of President Nayib Bukele, including Carlos Marroquín, the director for the reconstruction of social fabric.
Before the latest “terrorist” roundup, El Salvador already boasted a prison population of about 39,000; as of October 2021, the diminutive country had the fourth-highest per capita imprisonment rate in the world (first place goes to – who else? – the United States). Now, under the ongoing state of emergency, the Bukele regime has spontaneously enacted a “special law” paving the way for the rampant construction of new jails. After all, locking up poor young men is clearly a better way to reconstruct El Salvador’s “social fabric” than, say, offering options for economic survival that would allow folks to refrain from joining gangs in the first place.
As with any good “war on terror”, there has been plenty of collateral damage. Among the 31,000-plus captured “terrorists”, for example, was 21-year-old musician Elvin Josué Sánchez Rivera, who was interned in early April at Izalco prison northwest of the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador. When he died a few weeks later, his family was first told that the cause of death had been coronavirus.
This was subsequently amended to “hypertension” and “sudden death”, and the family’s request for an autopsy was refused in spite of – or because of – bruises and other signs of abuse on Sánchez Rivera’s body. As of May 17, nine inmates had reportedly perished at Izalco prison alone since the state of emergency kicked off in March.
I arrived in El Salvador in mid-April for a one-month stay. Shortly after my arrival, I had the opportunity to speak with a Salvadoran psychologist in his mid-thirties – we’ll call him Julio – who had himself been swept up in Bukele’s mass detention frenzy and had spent six days in a jam-packed cell at San Salvador’s endearingly dubbed “El Penalito”, or “little prison”. …….