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Home World News Washington Post World News As El Salvador arrests thousands, families search for the missing

As El Salvador arrests thousands, families search for the missing


A police officer takes a man to the temporary detention center on Tuesday
A police officer takes a man to the “El Penalito” temporary detention center in San Salvador on Tuesday. (Fred Ramos/FTWP)

SAN SALVADOR — Gregoria Monterosa braced herself and walked toward the entrance of the unmarked prison known as El Penalito. Next to the front gate, a visibly bored police officer sat in front of a desktop computer.

“Who’s next?” he drank. Monterosa, 70, stepped forward.

“My son was arrested eight days ago and we still have no idea where he is,” she said.

She spelled his name—Genaro Godoy Ramos—and tried to hold the officer’s attention. But he looked over her shoulder, distracted by what he saw there.

Behind Monterosa was a scene provoked by one of the most dramatic police actions in recent Latin American history: a mob of Salvadoran mothers and wives whose husbands and sons had been detained in a spate of at least 13,000 arrests.

The arrests are El Salvador’s response to a string of murders last month, including 62 in one day. The country’s president, Nayib Bukele, promised revenge: “A war on gangs.”

On March 27, he announced a 30-day “Regimén de Excepción” — a state of emergency that gave the government broad powers to make arrests and suspend a fair trial.

Many relatives, such as Monterosa, have no idea where their relatives have been taken. They come here on their own ad hoc quest, peeking through holes in the metal gate, checking incomplete lists of detainees placed by police officers.

Monterosa had tried those options without success. Other mothers had seen their sons flash through the windows of police buses as they were transported between prisons. She saw them burst into tears, jealous of their security.

“At least they saw their loved ones,” she said.

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Her son, 47, was detained on a deportation flight from the United States immediately after arriving in San Salvador. A family friend recorded a video of him and two other deportees being driven away from the country’s immigration office in the back of a police pickup.

A police officer told the family that his tattoos suggested possible gang ties – enough evidence to detain anyone under the current state of emergency in the country.

The other women in line at El Penalito told how their sons were arrested — raiding their homes, selling fruit in downtown San Salvador or working on construction sites, walking home from the bus.

In a country where thousands disappeared during the civil war of the 1980s and thousands more during a wave of gang violence that began in 2014, the arrests have led to the kind of frenetic search that feels familiar to some Salvadorans.

“We have no records of your son in the system,” the officer told Monterosa. He called the next woman in line.

Monterosa put his ID card back in her bag and walked away.

“How come my son can just be lost?” she asked. “How do you arrest someone and just have no record of it?”

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Bukele, a frequent social media user, has posted videos of inmates being handcuffed and herded to prisons, where hundreds were squeezed for a photo.

“We confiscated everything from them, even their mattresses,” he tweeted. “We have rationed their food and now they will not see the sun again. STOP KILLING NOW or they will pay for it too.”

long before the bloodshed last month, it was clear that in parts of El Salvador, gangs had more control than the state. In some neighborhoods, MS-13 and Mara extorted and threatened 18 people, and killed those who refused to submit. The police rarely intervened.

The United States has said Bukele’s government has signed a truce with the country’s major gangs, a controversial approach followed by previous Salvadoran presidents. The US Treasury Department said last year that Bukele’s administration has provided “financial incentives to the Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) to ensure that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed murders remain low.”

Bukele denies that there was ever a ceasefire.

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The 40-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, a self-proclaimed millennial populist, was elected president in 2019 on promises of a break with the past. He is the first president since the 1980s who was not from one of the two sides involved in the country’s civil war. His party later won a majority in Congress.

Bukele quickly became a vocal ally of then-President Donald Trump, whom he called “very nice and cool” before a bilateral meeting in 2019. His relationship with the Biden administration – especially during the current crackdown – has been much more combative.

The State Department, concerned about the state of emergency, last week urged El Salvador “to protect its citizens while respecting civil liberties, including freedom of the press”.

Bukele’s response was quick.

“Yes, we have received support from the US government to fight crime, but [that] was UNDER THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION,” he tweeted. “You’re just supporting the gangs and their ‘civil liberties’ now.”

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The state of emergency allows authorities to detain people dragged into police raids for up to 15 days without charge under ‘administrative detention’. Judges then hold virtual hearings for as many as 150 defendants at a time, most of whom have been sentenced to six months of “preventive prison”, which can be extended, before being formally tried.

The wave of arrests has been so sudden and chaotic that in some neighborhoods, residents say, police are arresting any young man they find outside their homes. In some cases, authorities have arrested minors and sent them to adult prisons.

“Usually there is no evidence at all, just suspicion,” said a judge, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid government reprisals. “People arrive in court and there is literally nothing to back up the claims that they have gang ties.”

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Judges who refuse to impose long sentences have been publicly threatened by Bukele, who called them “accomplices” of organized crime. This week, lawmakers from Bukele’s party passed legislation to build more prisons to accommodate the wave of arrests.

And yet, in at least some neighborhoods, gang control has declined during the crackdown. Some Salvadorans have pointed to the sudden disappearance of gang checkpoints, which in some cases have been replaced by police and military patrols.

“Sometimes it takes bitter medicine,” said Rev. Mario Carias, an evangelical pastor in the Distrito Italia neighborhood who has suffered for years from a large MS-13 presence.

But in many cases the fear of gang violence has been replaced by the fear of arbitrary arrest.

In the Panchimalco area, in the hills outside San Salvador, soldiers took over a local school and used it as a base for patrolling the scattered huts that dotted the slopes.

One day last week, relatives say, they held 19-year-old Johny Melara while he was in his uncle’s hammock and 30-year-old Juan Vázquez while playing with his 2-year-old son.

None of their families have been able to find them.

“I look at the bed where my son used to sleep and it’s so painful I don’t even know where he is,” said Sebastiana Melara, Johny’s mother.

She had written a letter to the director of the country’s prisons and delivered copies to detention centers across the city.

“Estimado senor,” it began. “Can you give me information about my son?”

“He was arrested on April 14. It is for this reason that I am seeking help to know where he is being held and when the hearing will be held and the procedures to follow to feed him and other things you ask.”

She said she had received no response.

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For El Penalito, Gregoria Monterosa decided she needed to be more assertive. She returned to the prison gate and showed the officers there a cell phone video of her son’s detention outside the migration processing office.

The officer turned back to his desktop computer.

“I see him in the system now,” he said.

He was in another prison. The official charge was “resistance,” which usually means: suspected gang involvement.

“Thank you,” Monterosa said, walking away from the prison, a look of relief washing over her.

“At least now we know where he is.”

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