Perusing a bowl of chips and salsa at a Salvadoran restaurant on Vermont Avenue, Kevin Rivas shared his memories of prison where he experienced pain, humiliation and impotent rage up close.
He remembered the pepper sprays. The multiple baton hits him in the ribs. The scrapes and nicks from having his head shaved. The dehumanizing mug shot.
“These photos are taken of us to make us look bad,” Rivas, 26, said as his father shared a harrowing mugshot of his bald son, who was arrested in April and jailed for three days in the notorious La Esperanza prison , better known as Mariona, on the northern outskirts of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.
“It hurt my heart,” said Rivas, who emigrated to Los Angeles in early September.
Rivas, an audiovisual producer by trade, is among hundreds of Salvadorans rounded up and beaten up by the government of Nayib Bukele, who became the Central American nation’s president in 2019 and vowed to crack down on murderous drug cartels and street crime.
Violent crime has fallen dramatically since Bukele ordered a “state of emergency” in March. “It seems unbelievable, but thank God [we have] another day without homicides across our country,” Bukele wrote on Twitter on July 21. “El Salvador, which a few years ago was the most dangerous country in the world, [is] on the way to becoming the safest country in Latin America.”
But his administration’s tactics have been criticized by the media, human rights groups and foreign governments for rounding up thousands of innocent citizens along with die-hard MS-13 members. More than 50,000 people have been jailed, many for nothing more than tattoos, fleeing police, or simply poverty. Some critics claim Bukele made deals with gangs to stem their killing spree in exchange for better treatment of jailed cartel leaders. Investigations into the country’s few remaining independent media outlets have been obstructed by the government.
Some of those, like Rivas, who have been driven to flee the country are sharing their stories, partly as a warning of what could happen if the president is successful in his bid for re-election in 2024. Opponents say the move, which Bukele announced in a televised address Sept. 15, violates El Salvador’s constitution and would allow the president to tighten his authoritarian grip and destroy what remains of the constitution, separation of powers and the rule of law .
Some fear El Salvador is repeating the oppressive conditions that sparked its brutal 12-year civil war (1980-92) between left-wing guerrillas and the US-backed right-wing military government. This conflict killed 75,000 people, burned the economy, and eventually drove hundreds of thousands of refugees to places like Los Angeles, Houston, the Bay Area, and metropolitan Washington, DC
“Re-election strikes me as totally crazy,” said Rivas.
But re-election is a very popular idea, not only in crime-weary El Salvador, where Bukele’s approval ratings have never fallen below 80%, but also among the estimated 2.3 million Salvadoran-Americans living in the United States, including 421,000 in Los Angeles County . Tensions at home spilled over into LA earlier this year when a large faction of Bukele supporters demonstrated at MacArthur Park. Police had to step in to keep them away from a much smaller anti-Bukele contingent. Bukele supporters and opponents also clashed in June when the Summit of the Americas was held in downtown LA
“It smells like Venezuela, like a bunch of dictatorships,” Rivas continued. “He’ll want to stay in power, he’ll change the laws to make him follow, until we have to repeat the same story with another uprising.”
Among the Salvadorans of Southern California, the Bukele fans appear to greatly outnumber the Bukele enemies. Organizations like Salvadorans Abroad (Salex), which has offices in the United States, Mexico, Central America, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia, have expressed support for Bukele’s so-called crackdown on crime mano dura approach and blaming the radical left and corrupt elites for resistance.
But other Salvadorans living in Southern California share Rivas’ fears that their homeland is poised for another violent upheaval.
Edith Anaya, 40, an activist and coroner, compares the current socio-political environment to the late 1970s, when political opposition was crushed and right-wing paramilitary “death squads” began carrying out assassinations and “enforced disappearances”.
“For me, the constitutional order was broken since May 2021, from that day his dictatorship was established when he took control of the three branches of state,” Anaya said of Bukele.
Before settling in San Francisco in November 2020, Anaya used her Twitter account to ask questions about the Bukele government. But her critical comments provoked backlash at the government facility where she worked, she said. Her anxiety skyrocketed when she noticed suspicious vehicles driving by in front of her home.
“It was psychological stress, I didn’t feel safe,” she said.
Those incidents brought back memories of her father, Herbert Anaya Sanabria, a human rights activist who was murdered by death squads in 1987, said Anaya, who was orphaned at the age of 5. “I don’t want my kids to suffer like we did when we were little.”
“He reminds me of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who was the last person to trample the constitution to immortalize himself in power, 12 years of absolute power,” Anaya said.
On the surface, Bukele bears little resemblance to the general, a staunch anti-Communist who ruled El Salvador a century ago and committed an infamous 1932 massacre of what may have been as many as 50,000 indigenous farmers. He also attempted to extend his influence by helping a loyalist succeed him.
Héctor Lindo, professor emeritus of history at Fordham University, said the general founded a newspaper which he used to issue propaganda and build his personal myth that authoritarian rule was more efficient than democracy. But actually the mano dura Approach “is counterproductive and delays the possibility of real change rooted in the country’s problems,” Lindo said.
Bukele’s communication platform of choice is Twitter, to which he has a Trump addiction. Bukele, a 41-year-old former businessman, cultivates the role of a fearless loner who wears backwards baseball caps, promotes Bitcoin and hits back at his critics, including the Biden administration. His New Ideas Party has reigned virtually unchallenged since taking control of El Salvador’s Congress on May 1, 2021. Last month he lashed out at critics, including 21 ex-presidents of Latin American countries and Spain, who denounced his re-election program and condemned them as “looters” and “murderers.”
As Bukele has consolidated power, emigration from his country has increased. In 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 98,690 Salvadorans were arrested at the southern border attempting to enter the United States, averaging 270 arrests per day. In the first 11 months of fiscal 2022, Customs and Border Protection reported 90,774 Salvadorans detained.
Elizabeth Kennedy, a Central America specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who has been studying migration from El Salvador and Honduras since 2014, said Bukele’s government has not focused on addressing structural problems at the root of mass migration. Instead, his policies have increased poverty, insecurity and social exclusion, prompting more people to leave the country.
“Poor people who are the majority would say they are equal or worse than before,” Kennedy said under Bukele.
These conditions prompted Bartolomé Pérez’s 25-year-old nephew, who lives in Los Angeles, to flee El Salvador with his wife and 5-year-old daughter after becoming victims of gang violence.
“They broke into his house, they stole the appliances that he had,” said Pérez, who came to California in 1990 to flee the civil war. “They were scared and didn’t want to go back to that place.”
After being held at the border for a week, the young man arrived in Houston with his family in June. “The only option left to him was to go out and risk his life,” said his uncle.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-21/el-salvador-president-bukele-re-election-bid-stokes-fears-in-los-angeles Salvador President Bukele’s reelection bid worries L.A.