SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Sealing some Salvadoran prisoners’ cells with sheet metal is a draconian measure sure to draw accusations of human rights violations, but President Nayib Bukele circulated photos of the cell modifications himself, counting on the support of a population traumatized by gang violence.
Still, experts warn that the popular president’s harsh move could backfire, unite the country’s powerful gangs against his government and return El Salvador to the days when it was one of the world’s deadliest countries. That would be a dangerous distraction as his government battles the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bukele alleged that the gangs had taken advantage of the security forces’ focus on enforcing a quarantine to lash out, but he seemed unconcerned about the potential for the virus’ potential spread inside the packed prisons.
For years, each presidential administration has wrestled with the country’s gang problem. The hyper-violent gangs started in Southern California and then took hold when members were deported, inserting themselves into everyday life. Some administrations have favored one gang over another, others have reached backroom deals only to see the bodies pile up when those deals collapsed.
Bukele has won support during his first year in office as the murder rate continued to fall. When he took office in June, there were on average nine murders per day. In March, that average had dropped to two. But last Friday, the gangs started killing again and in four days more than 60 people have been slain.
In response, Bukele circulated photos of tattooed, nearly naked gang members marched into prison yards and made to sit so closely they were touching. He promised to make those responsible for ordering the killings regret it.
“They won’t be able to see outside the cell anymore,” Bukele wrote on Twitter. “This will keep them from communicating with signs in the hall. They will be inside, in the dark with their friends from the other gang.”
One of the country’s main gangs, the Barrio 18 Sureños, apparently answered with a masked member reading a statement. He called on human rights defenders to protect their incarcerated members and said they weren’t responsible for the surge in murders.
“If they want to stop violence in the country, it’s not the right way,” the gang said. “With these actions they’re going to convert the entire country into chaos.”
Bukele circulated the video and said he wanted to hear from the other two gangs.
“Stop killing immediately or you and your homeboys will be the ones who pay the consequences,’he said. “They are close to you, to your homes, to your hideouts, you have a few hours.”
Bukele’s measure is a 180-degree change from previous administrations that, in order to avoid more bloodshed, kept members of different gangs in separate wings or even different prisons. Outside the prisons, Bukele instructed his security forces to use lethal force to protect people from gangsters and promised to defend those accused of using excessive force.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern and urged the government to “guarantee the life and safety of the imprisoned.”
Justice and Security Minister Rogelio Rivas answered human rights critiques by noting that the Supreme Court had previously declared the gangs as terrorists. “They are a threat to state security and we’re going to fight them with all force to protect Salvadorans lives,” he said.
Juan Carlos Fernández Saca, dean of graduate studies at the José Matías Delgado University, said most Salvadorans support Bukele’s tough measures and it’s unlikely Bukele worried about international groups criticizing human rights violations.
“What he’s doing is taking cover behind the people’s weariness to take even more repressive measures,” Fernández said. “The people are going to applaud him.”
That attitude was voiced by several residents of the capital Wednesday, who all declined to give their names for fear of retaliation from the gangs.
“They’re villains, they’re murderers, they steal the little bit of money we have,” said one woman. “I’m religious, but I don’t care what they do to them, they deserve it.”
But there are risks. When a gang truce fell apart under the administration of President Mauricio Funes, El Salvador became one of the world’s deadliest countries with 6,657 murders in 2015 or 104 per 100,000 residents.
“They could ally themselves again like in 2015 when the truce broke and the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs joined forces against police and soldiers,” said Luis Contreras, an analyst and security consultant.
A key part of that truce had been moving gang leaders out of the infamous Zacatraz maximum security prison. But that also made it easier for the gang leaders to communicate with their people in the street and continue running operations.
Ricardo Sosa, a criminologist and gang expert, said Bukele’s measures against the gangs seemed “appropriate.” Now “the gangsters will have to adapt, learn to live packed together, get along with their enemies,” he said.
But he warned that the gangs learned from the failed truce.
“The politicians taught them that killing each other was not the best way, but rather attacking a central objective, which is the state,” Sosa said.