Sunday, February 25, 2024
More
    HomeWorldEl Salvador Decimated Gangs. But at What Cost?

    El Salvador Decimated Gangs. But at What Cost?

    This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email transcripts@nytimes.com with any questions.

    sabrina tavernise

    From “The New York Times,” I’m Sabrina Tavernise, and this is “The Daily.”

    El Salvador has experienced a remarkable transformation. What had been one of the most violent countries in the world has become incredibly safe.

    Today, my colleague, Natalie Kitroeff, on the cost of that transformation to the people of El Salvador, and the man at the center of it — President Nayib Bukele, who claimed victory in an election on Sunday.

    It’s Wednesday, February 7.

    Natalie, hi.

    natalie kitroeff

    Hi, Sabrina.

    sabrina tavernise

    It’s nice to have you back on the show as a guest and not a host.

    natalie kitroeff

    It’s great to be here.

    sabrina tavernise

    So Natalie, you’ve spent the past few months reporting on El Salvador. Tell us what you’ve been finding in your reporting.

    natalie kitroeff

    Yeah, so I’ve been really interested in El Salvador since I became the Bureau Chief in Mexico City. I mean, this is this tiny country, the smallest country in Central America, that now has this broad resonance across the region, because it has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last few years. Now, to really understand the magnitude of this change of what’s happened, you have to remember that El Salvador was long known as one of the world’s most violent countries.

    archived recording 1

    Government troops in El Salvador — nowhere in the world today is there a fiercer, bloodier battle for control of a nation.

    natalie kitroeff

    This is violence that traces itself back to this bloody civil war that the country fought that ended in 1992. It sent hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fleeing to the United States, where they developed these street gangs.

    archived recording 2

    In El Salvador, they fight against each other, but in Los Angeles, they stand side by side on street corners, hoping to find a day’s work.

    natalie kitroeff

    The MS 13 gang, the 18th Street gang —

    archived recording 3

    This government video shows some of the arrestees getting on a plane, being deported.

    natalie kitroeff

    And when the US started deporting Salvadorans back home —

    archived recording 3

    — in this case, back to El Salvador, and leaving the plane free of handcuffs and leg chains.

    natalie kitroeff

    — they brought the gangs with them, and they grew them. These gangs — they started to dominate vast swaths of the country, and they really divided the country up into their own fiefs. And they ruled over their turf with extreme violence. I mean, the level of brutality that people were subjected to was just remarkable.

    archived recording 4

    The Central American nation of El Salvador has seen a terrifying surge in violence this year.

    natalie kitroeff

    And they kind of created these invisible borders across the country. I mean, if you lived in a neighborhood controlled by one gang, you could not cross in to a neighborhood controlled by the rival gang, even if you had no gang affiliation. Because doing so could get you killed.

    sabrina tavernise

    Wow.

    natalie kitroeff

    And people I talked to in El Salvador said they couldn’t go to the police. The police were seen as untrustworthy, in some cases, corrupt. If you went to the police, people told me, the police would point you out to the gang, and that could get you killed. So for many Salvadorans, they really felt they had absolutely no recourse.

    But now, in the past two years, you’ve seen this total transformation of the country, and the gangs that used to dominate have been decimated.

    sabrina tavernise

    So it’s open warfare among the gangs, and this is misery for the population of El Salvador. And now, you’re seeing this remarkable transformation, as you just told me. How did we get here from there?

    natalie kitroeff

    Well, a lot of it comes down to this one guy.

    archived recording (nayib bukele)

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    [CROWD CHEERING]

    natalie kitroeff

    Nayib Bukele.

    He’s an unlikely kind of political phenomenon. He’s the descendant of a family of Palestinian migrants.

    sabrina tavernise

    Hmm.

    natalie kitroeff

    He grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. He was educated at an elite bilingual school. He started out as a publicist on political campaigns and really gets his start —

    archived recording (nayib bukele)

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — at the age of 30, when he becomes mayor of a small town. But his rise is meteoric.

    archived recording 5

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    He soon becomes mayor of the capital, San Salvador. He’s this backwards-hat-wearing, digital guy. I mean, he understands social media. He understands marketing. He is able to sell himself super effectively.

    And in 2018, he decides to run for president. And he really bills himself as this change candidate.

    archived recording (nayib bukele)

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    You know, he is going to break with the corrupt politics of the past.

    archived recording 6

    Bukele capitalized on disenchantment with the country’s two main parties, which have been in power for nearly three decades.

    natalie kitroeff

    And one of his key promises is, he’s going to address the crime problem.

    archived recording (nayib bukele)

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    And in 2019, he’s elected by a pretty significant margin.

    sabrina tavernise

    So what does he do once he gets into office?

    natalie kitroeff

    So one of the first things we hear about on buckells crime strategy is that Salvadoran media reports that his government is actually negotiating with gang leaders in prison. And this is later confirmed by US officials. They say that Bukele’s administration negotiated with gang leaders in prison for a reduction in homicides in exchange for prison benefits and other financial incentives.

    Now, murders go down, and that actually helps his popularity, which is sky-high at this point. And he starts to consolidate power. His party wins a supermajority in 2021 in the legislative assembly, and that allows them to make pretty radical changes.

    They dismiss top Supreme Court judges. They dismiss the attorney general, who was investigating his government for corruption. It gives Bukele a lot of control over the country.

    sabrina tavernise

    And is this because he was able to make this deal with the gangs? Like, kind of buying them off in a way?

    natalie kitroeff

    Well, that’s what the local media and the US government says. I mean, he denies the charge that he negotiated with the gangs, but it’s very clear that the security situation, which has calmed down at this point, is a big part of his appeal. But that calm is broken in March of 2022, when there is an explosion of gang violence over one weekend.

    archived recording 7

    62 homicides on Saturday — the most in one single day in more than 20 years.

    natalie kitroeff

    The gangs just went on a killing spree. Some theorized that maybe this pact that he allegedly came to with the gangs broke apart. But in any case, the result is that his administration responds with force.

    sabrina tavernise

    What do they do?

    natalie kitroeff

    They impose a state of emergency. And this is a really extreme situation.

    archived recording 7

    An increased army presence on the streets in El Salvador.

    natalie kitroeff

    The government sends soldiers onto the streets and launch a campaign of mass arrests.

    archived recording 7

    The president and Congress passing a temporary move to impose restrictions on assembly, extend police detentions, and allow the intercept of communications like phone calls.

    natalie kitroeff

    The government suspends key constitutional rights indefinitely.

    archived recording 8

    They say they’ve arrested over 6,000 suspected gang members, tracking them in neighborhoods, inside homes, and even hiding underground.

    natalie kitroeff

    Thousands and thousands of people who are put behind bars with no due process.

    archived recording 9

    Nayib Bukele and the national police touting the efforts on social media all week, using the hashtag, #WarAgainstGangs.

    natalie kitroeff

    And as you can imagine, this really quickly transforms El Salvador.

    sabrina tavernise

    It transforms El Salvador into what sounds like a police state. What did that feel like for people in El Salvador?

    natalie kitroeff

    So I’ve gone to El Salvador several times over the last two years to try to understand that question, Sabrina. And in my most recent trip in January, I met this family that really encapsulates the complexity baked into how people feel about this.

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    I met them at their home, this modest house — three rooms — just outside of San Salvador —

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — and sat down there with Irma, who’s 56 —

    mario

    Mario.

    natalie kitroeff

    — and her husband, Mario. And they have two sons.

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    Irma has lived in El Salvador her whole life. She makes and sells corn tortillas for a living, and she really lived through the worst of this country’s violence.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    She says the community where she lived, which was gang-controlled, was just a nightmare.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    She says gang members would enter her home without asking for permission when they were hiding.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    They would run on top of the roofs. She showed me her room, which is next to the window. She says she was afraid that bullets would come in.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    But even with all of that, what weighed on her the most is that she said it was too dangerous for her to go visit her mom, because her mom lived in a neighborhood controlled by a rival gang.

    sabrina tavernise

    Hmm.

    natalie kitroeff

    And so when Bukele enters the scene —

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    mario

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — she says she has a lot of hope. She voted for him.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    And when the state of emergency gets announced, she said she noticed her community just radically change.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    And things got better really quickly. But then a month later, this war on the gangs really comes to her doorstep.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    Her son, Mario, who’s 26, had come over to help her wash the corn and prepare the dough that she needs to sell her tortillas.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    And he tells her that he’s going to go get a haircut, because he’s looking kind of shaggy, and he has work the next day.

    mario

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    And a few hours later, her husband gets a call from Mario saying that he’s been arrested. And so her husband rushes to the scene.

    mario

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    He asks the police for answers. He begs for answers. Why is my son being taken away? What is going on? The police brush him off and brush him off, and then they directly tell him —

    mario

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    Look, stop asking questions, or else we’re going to detain you, too.

    sabrina tavernise

    And was there a chance he was, in fact, a gang member?

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    Well, Irma is adamant that, no, he’s not involved with the gangs.

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    She showed me documents showing that he worked at a call center, that he had no criminal record. But at the time, remember, these were mass arrests, and there was no due process. This is the other prong of Bukele’s security strategy, which is that there is a suspension of constitutional rights.

    Human rights groups say that there were thousands of people who were not gang members who were still thrown behind bars, and that’s of more than 75,000 who’ve been arrested during the state of emergency. There have been reports that prisoners have been tortured and deprived of food inside prisons. And really, what happens is that you get arrested, you disappear into the prison system, and you’re never really heard from again. I mean, this is the case for Irma and her family.

    For almost two years, they have not heard from or seen Mario. They have no idea how he’s doing. And that includes his eight-year-old son, who asks about Mario all the time and misses him a lot.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    It’s been a huge wound for the family.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    Her son’s house is just, like, a few houses down from hers.

    And we went there and looked at it, and it’s like this time capsule. They’ve barely touched it since he was taken away.

    natalie kitroeff

    We’re here in Mario’s room, where he has drawings by his son of a coffee mug and a blue blob. And —

    natalie kitroeff

    It’s all dusty. I mean, she says she can’t even go there.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    And while we were there, she just broke down.

    sabrina tavernise

    And Natalie, what does she say about Bukele? I mean, she voted for him, right?

    natalie kitroeff

    Well, that’s the thing. This whole time, I’m wondering, what does she think about the president who, in many ways, is responsible for her son’s arrest? And the thing is —

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — she doesn’t blame him.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    In fact, she says she supports everything the president does.

    sabrina tavernise

    We’ll be right back.

    So Natalie, help me understand this here. She’s still supportive of Bukele, despite the fact that she has lost her son, whom she says is innocent.

    natalie kitroeff

    Yeah. I think Irma represents how a lot of Salvadorans feel. I’ve heard this sentiment a lot in my trips to the country. And the way she explains it is that first of all, she kind of takes it out of Bukele’s hands.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    She says, look, what Bukele said was to go after guilty people. He wasn’t the one actually making the arrests. There were other people on the ground doing this. And if mistakes were made by them, well, those were mistakes that they made, not Bukele. It’s not his fault.

    sabrina tavernise

    It kind of reminds me, Natalie, of Russia and the way Russians see Putin — that he’s floating above it all. He knows best. It’s just his kind of corrupt minions who are bungling the job when they carry it out.

    natalie kitroeff

    Yeah, she has absolute faith in Bukele’s intentions and in what he wanted to do.

    And that kind of explains the other piece of this for Irma.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    She’s a very religious person. She sees all of this as part of God’s plan for her. I mean, she sees herself as suffering the consequences of a broader direction for the country that is overall good.

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    I mean, she basically refers to herself as collateral damage to this bigger kind of change in the country. And that change is one she really supports. And so this thing that happened with her son is causing her a lot of pain, but it doesn’t make her question the bigger purpose of it all.

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    irma

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    sabrina tavernise

    Wow, that is extraordinary. I mean, she’s choosing her community above herself. And it’s probably also a measure of the sheer desperation that Salvadorans had to escape lawless violence, right? That state of being that was so painful for them for so many years.

    natalie kitroeff

    Absolutely. This is a population that was living under extreme violence for years and years and years. And to now have that removed from the picture — I mean, for many people, that’s worth the price of unjust arrests or of having the military on the streets. And when you look at what Bukele has done, it really goes way beyond the state of emergency.

    His party replaced supreme court judges, who then reinterpreted the country’s constitution to allow him to run for re-election. Legal scholars say this is explicitly banned in the constitution. But he did it anyway.

    And so people inside the country and outside are looking at what Bukele’s doing and saying, this is chipping away at the foundations of democracy. They’re wondering, how democratic is the country anymore?

    But when you ask people who lived in communities that were really kind of war zones in the past, they sound a lot like Irma.

    sabrina tavernise

    And what was Bukele’s response to the accusations that he might be tugging the country away from democracy, that the system of democracy in El Salvador was in danger under him?

    natalie kitroeff

    Well, right after I talked to Irma —

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — I went to the residence of the Vice President, Felix Ulloa. He’s a 72-year-old politician. He’s someone who’s been in this world for a long time. And I wanted to ask him about these criticisms. And we sat down, and the first thing we talked about were cases like Irma’s.

    natalie kitroeff

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    How the government justifies sweeping up so many people that are not gang members.

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    What he said was, we’re in a war, and in a war, there’s collateral damage.

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    There is a margin of error. So he’s acknowledging that mistakes have been made, essentially, but saying, this is the price of something that is changing the country.

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    And he’s saying, look, the innocent people will eventually be released. The government has released 7,000 people from jails, but human rights groups say thousands more remain behind bars and are not gang members. And when I asked him about the charge that his government was undermining democracy, he told me something pretty remarkable.

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    What he said was, what democracy?

    sabrina tavernise

    Huh.

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    What democracy did we have in this country that left us with tens of thousands of dead, that just served to benefit corrupt politicians? That’s the democracy you’re so concerned about?

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    He said, to the people that say that we are dismantling democracy —

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — I say, yes —

    felix ulloa

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — we’re not dismantling it, he said. We are eliminating it. He said the system that existed before was rotten, corrupt, and bloody.

    archived recording 10

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    archived recording (nayib bukele)

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    archived recording 10

    “New York Times.”

    natalie kitroeff

    And Bukele was asked about these comments in a news conference on Sunday, shortly before he claimed a resounding victory in the election. The votes are still being counted, but his win looked decisive. And he said —

    archived recording (nayib bukele)

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    — we’re not eliminating democracy, because El Salvador has never had democracy.

    archived recording (nayib bukele)

    [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

    natalie kitroeff

    He said this is the first time the country has ever had democracy.

    sabrina tavernise

    OK, which is not actually true, because obviously, they’ve had elections. So what’s he talking about? What does he mean there?

    natalie kitroeff

    I think it really comes down to how this government defines democracy. You know, critics point out that there are really no checks on his power, nothing stopping him from doing whatever he wants in the country. But he says, look, this is the will of the people.

    We have popular support. We won re-election. And when you ask people on the streets, people will say, look, these are the results we have been craving. This security situation for us is priceless.

    And it’s not just in El Salvador that he has this appeal. Bukele has become a model across the region, a reference point. You have politicians in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia — folks promising to emulate his model and, in some cases, putting pieces of it to work in their own countries.

    sabrina tavernise

    Which makes me wonder, Natalie, how is El Salvador being seen by the US right now? I mean, I imagine one fewer democracy in its backyard is probably not a great thing. Is the Biden administration talking about this?

    natalie kitroeff

    I mean, in the beginning of Bukele’s term, the Biden administration was very vocal pushing back on some of what we’re seeing as attacks on democracy. But over the last year or so, not so much. Part of the issue here is that the security situation, analysts say, has contributed to a real drop in illegal migration from El Salvador, which is something that the Biden administration cares about a lot, right?

    You have fewer Salvadorans going to the US border. That’s a factor. And I think there’s a broader understanding that, look, people are voting for this. So what is it going to look like if we start criticizing it from the outside? I mean, at the same time, there are people, former officials, who are telling me, we are enabling a one-man authoritarian state to develop in this region.

    sabrina tavernise

    And this leads to the broader point, right? Which is, it’s true that people did vote for him. He is popularly elected. People are choosing him, because they’re so glad to feel safe, even if they’re living in a police state. But I guess the question is, what happens when they have a different thing they want to solve for at the ballot box?

    natalie kitroeff

    Well, yeah, I mean, that’s a really big question, Sabrina, and I don’t think anybody knows the answer. But the fear, especially among critics of Bukele, is that by the time that people become satisfied with safety, and then maybe have some dissatisfactions with other things, what happens when people start to get frustrated with the lack of job opportunities?

    Or maybe they grow tired of a situation in which all these people are being arrested. Or maybe they grow tired of the military being on the streets. The fear is, by that point, there won’t be any avenues for real dissent. How will people really be able to exercise their opposition to a government that maybe they’re not so happy with?

    sabrina tavernise

    Right, it’ll be too late.

    natalie kitroeff

    That’s the fear.

    sabrina tavernise

    Natalie, thank you.

    natalie kitroeff

    Thanks, Sabrina.

    sabrina tavernise

    We’ll be right back.

    Here’s what else you should know today. On Tuesday —

    archived recording (mike johnson)

    On this vote, the yeas are 214, and the nays are 216. The resolution is not adopted.

    sabrina tavernise

    In a stunning defeat for House Republicans and their leader, Speaker Mike Johnson, the chamber rejected impeachment charges against Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security Secretary. The vote failed after a small group of Republicans broke with third party and refused to support what amounted to a partisan indictment of President Biden’s immigration policies. The rejection was especially embarrassing for Johnson, who had expressed confidence that it would pass, and because Republicans had been promising the impeachment for more than a year.

    And a federal appeals court rejected Donald Trump’s claim of immunity in the case of his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. A three-judge panel in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled unanimously that Trump must go on trial, marking an important moment in American jurisprudence as the first time an appeals court had ever answered the question of whether former presidents can escape being held criminally accountable for things they did in office.

    Today’s episode was produced by Carlos Prieto, Clare Toeniskoetter, and Will Reid. It was edited by Lexie Diao and Michael Benoist, with research help from Susan Lee, contains original music by Rowan Niemisto, Marion Lozano, Dan Powell, and Diane Wang, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

    That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.

    RELATED ARTICLES

    LEAVE A REPLY

    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here

    - Advertisment -
    Google search engine

    Most Popular

    Recent Comments