Families in shock outside prisons in El Salvador after gang violence crackdown

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A 19-year-old got out of a police car and fell into the arms of his girlfriend, who stole a desperate kiss f...

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A 19-year-old got out of a police car and fell into the arms of his girlfriend, who stole a desperate kiss from him. Her older sister, watching, cried out. A few seconds later, the young man, Irvin Antonio Hernández, was gone, dragged into the prison opposite.

The two women collapsed on a nearby wooden bench next to strangers who understood better than anyone what had just happened. Their sons had all disappeared behind those same walls.

After a record weekend of gang killings in March, the Salvadorian government declared a state of emergency and suspended constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. The ensuing campaign of mass arrests led to the imprisonment of more than 25,000 people in about a month and a half.

Many of those detained were sent to a prison known as “El Penalito”, or “little prison”, a dilapidated building in the capital, San Salvador, which has become ground zero for police repression perhaps the most aggressive of this Central American country. the story. It’s a first step in what could be a long stay inside the country’s overcrowded prison system.

Many inmates spend anywhere from days to weeks inside El Penalito before being transferred to a maximum security facility. After the crackdown, relatives of those detained began gathering in the streets, waiting to hear what would happen next.

On a recent Thursday, dozens of mothers, grandmothers, sisters and girlfriends gathered around rickety wooden tables facing the prison, hunched over purses filled with the documents they hoped would prove the innocence of loved ones – government IDs, school records, work badges.

Maria Elena Landaverde took days off and persuaded a friend to drive her around at dawn to try to spot a boy who was picked up delivering breakfast to his family. Morena Guadalupe of Sandoval rushed when her son called to say officers had removed him from a bus to return home from his job as a janitor in the city. Edith Amaya said she saw bruises on her son’s face before the cops took him away.

“We want to see him one more time,” Ms de Sandoval said sobbing next to her own mother, who helped raise her son, Jonathan González López. “Here, we are all crying mothers.”

The question Madame de Sandoval keeps asking herself is whether anyone cares. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has admitted innocent people are dragged into the crackdown, but insists they make up only a small portion of arrests. And the vast majority of Salvadorans – more than 80%, according to surveys – support Mr. Bukele and approve of the government’s extreme measures.

Hatred of gangs runs so deep in El Salvador that many want to bring them under control by any means necessary. Local and international media carried footage of family members pleading with police for information about their sons and screaming as they were taken away. So far, nothing has turned public opinion against the mass arrest campaign or the president leading it.

But while the women searching for their sons in Salvadoran prisons are by no means an organized political group, their anger should not be underestimated, experts say.

Grieving mothers have a habit of banding together in Latin America, sparking longer-lasting challenges for autocratic governments.

For now, women outside El Penalito are focused on feeding their sons. Mr Bukele has bragged about rationing food to prisoners during the crackdown, so many families choose to buy their loved ones’ meals from a government-sanctioned kitchen with a small open outpost outside from jail.

Previously, there was only one meal provider for everyone, but after so many arrests in recent weeks, another business next door has been allowed to start serving food and providing other basic necessities like toothpaste and boxers.

“It’s because of this whole monopoly thing,” said one of the women working in the original kitchen, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal. Relatives of detainees have complained in the past that a company was granted the exclusive right to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner, local media reported.

The women outside the prison learn a lot from the employees of the two meal providers, who are often among the first to know when inmates are moved out of their holding cells and into another prison. Family members get much less from the prison itself, which has a small window to answer questions but offers few answers.

“We don’t know anything,” Ms de Sandoval said. She held up a Burger King badge with a photo of her baby-faced son, Jonathan. “He doesn’t belong to any gang,” she insisted. Before his arrest, the 21-year-old worked at another restaurant in the capital, his mother said, as a concierge.

Mr González’s girlfriend, sitting next to Mrs de Sandoval, is now caring for their toddler without the help of her earnings. “What will she do?” Madame de Sandoval asked. “We are poor. Who will help us?

It has been difficult to determine how the Salvadoran police identified their targets, so rapid and widespread have the arrests been. The government did not grant an interview with the national police chief, but relatives of those arrested during the state of emergency said in interviews that many were targeted if they had previously had clashes with them. the police.

Irvin Antonio Hernández was arrested while running outside after his little sister, who had trotted after the family dogs. Mr. Hernández, shirtless and barefoot, found himself handcuffed.

“The only thing they said was ‘kid, come here’,” said Noemí Hernández, his older sister. “‘Put on shoes and a shirt and we’re going’.”

Mr. Hernández was arrested several years ago, his mother said, when she said two gang members fleeing cops broke into their home. The boy was also taken away, although Ms. Hernández said his brother had nothing to do with the gang.

“He studied until ninth grade, and now he’s working,” she said, tears seeping through her mask. “He sells fruits and vegetables and has his own house.”

Listening from the sidewalk, Liliana Aquino erupted.

“We poor people put it there!” she said, referring to the president. “But we poor people are suffering now.”

In 2019, Ms. Aquino, 30, grew disgusted with the political class in El Salvador and happily voted for young Mr. Bukele. She called him “my president” and said people who worry about the rights of gang members are absurd.

“A gangster doesn’t respect anything, he doesn’t think of me,” she says. His mother used to sell sandwiches at a local market and ran into the ground trying to make money and cover extortion fees charged by a gang. At the end of the year, Ms Aquino said, the gangs demanded that her mother give them a Christmas bonus.

“If you don’t pay, they kill you,” Ms Aquino said. Even if you pay, she says, you are not safe in El Salvador. Innocent bystanders are being killed in gang crossfire all the time, she said.

She was outside the facility that day because her brother was recently arrested on suspicion of being a gang member, she said. But she insisted that he fix the appliances and come to work every day.

Ms Aquino always stood behind the president and believed he had made the country a better place to live. However, the arbitrariness of his brand of justice was beginning to weigh on her.

“He helped a lot,” Ms Aquino said. “But this help has come at the cost of the tears of many mothers.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Families in shock outside prisons in El Salvador after gang violence crackdown
Families in shock outside prisons in El Salvador after gang violence crackdown
Newsrust - US Top News
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