‘Trapped in this hell’: How one El Salvador town transformed under Bukele

In the port town of Puerto el Triunfo, violence has dwindled, but fear has not amid President Bukele’s gang crackdown.

Brightly colored boats sit on calm waters at a mangrove-lined dock.
Residents in the port town of Puerto el Triunfo say their community had changed dramatically since President Nayib Bukele took office [Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera]

Puerto el Triunfo, El Salvador – The day the military swept through Puerto el Triunfo is etched into Rosa’s memory like a painful scar.

Rosa, who asked to use pseudonyms for her and her family, was born and raised in the small fishing town, surrounded by the emerald green mangroves of El Salvador’s southern coast.

On a spring night in April 2022, she drifted off to sleep after texting into the early hours with her younger brother, Jorge Antonio, who lived a short walk away.

The two had always been close. As children, they would run around hand in hand, sinking their toes into the sandy beach not far from their family home. Now, as adults, they were dreaming up plans to move abroad.

A sudden phone call jolted Rosa awake that night, though. Her parents were on the other end of the line, frantic.

“At four in the morning, the soldiers were raiding each house in the area,” said Rosa. They had come pounding on the door of her family home, where Jorge Antonio, his son Santiago and their parents lived.

The soldiers were searching for gang members. But as Rosa’s parents would later tell her, they quickly focused their attention on Jorge Antonio, a single parent and a public-sector employee.

“They searched the house but didn’t find anything suspicious. They checked his body for tattoos — but my brother doesn’t have any,” Rosa said.

The soldiers decided to arrest him anyway. Jorge Antonio was dragged away with other local men accused of gang involvement.

The last time Rosa saw him, he was kneeling in handcuffs on the street outside the local police station. Ordinarily well-dressed, he was still wearing the pyjamas he had gone to bed in.

He would be one of the thousands of Salvadorans swept up in mass arrests since President Nayib Bukele took office.

Nayib Bukele, dressed in a black long-sleeve shirt, stands behind a podium and gives a speech with his arms outstretched in gesture. Behind him is a Salvadoran flag.
President Nayib Bukele has overseen a nationwide gang crackdown in El Salvador, raising human rights concerns [File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

On Sunday, Bukele is seeking a second term, as Salvadorans head to the polls to vote in the country’s general election.

But while Bukele enjoys widespread support, residents like Rosa have seen their communities transformed by his crackdown on crime — and not always for the better.

For years, Puerto El Triunfo, a town of 16,000 people, was terrorised by gangs. They demanded extortion fees from businesses, recruited children as members, and made the people who disobeyed them disappear.

Rosa still remembers a time when screams and explosions of bullets pierced the stillness of the night.

“There were shootouts. They’d hit women. You couldn’t enter [other parts of town] if you were from a different neighbourhood. They’d kill you,” Rosa told Al Jazeera.

Under Bukele, the gangs have now gone, Rosa explained. But so too have cherished community members: fishermen, barbers, a former mayor and even the motorcycle-taxi driver who dressed up as the town’s Santa Claus, giving children presents each year.

The town is quieter than it once was. Gang members with tattooed faces and weapons have been replaced by men with uniforms and guns — and the authority to do as they please, Rosa said.

She described it as a new kind of nightmare, even more terrifying than before.

“Recently, the soldiers dragged away some old, sick people who could barely walk — good, humble people who had worked hard all their lives,” Rosa said.

Her uncle, cousin, and many friends have also been arrested in the military raids, not to mention Jorge Antonio.

“Those of us that are ‘free’ live with pain and anguish every day not knowing anything of those detained,” she explained despondently. “I’m trapped in this hell. All of us here are.”

A line of young men — some shirtless with tattoos, another with a green shirt — stand with bowed heads outside in Puerto el Triunfo.
Police line up suspected members of the 18th Street Gang in Puerto el Triunfo, El Salvador, in 2017 [File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

The crackdown began in March 2022, following a spike in gang violence that left 87 people dead in a single weekend. In response, Bukele announced a nationwide state of emergency, suspending certain civil liberties in order to rapidly tamp down the violence.

The decision sent military troops cascading into every corner of the country.

Those with criminal records and bodies covered in tattoos, a common characteristic of gang members, were rounded up. But critics say many innocent people were also detained, with little recourse to appeal their arrests.

By the end of 2023, more than 75,000 people accused of gang affiliations had been absorbed into the prison system, around 1 percent of the total population.

But the Salvadoran group Socorro Jurídico Humanitario (SJH) — also known as Humanitarian Legal Aid — estimates that about 20,000 of those imprisoned are innocent.

Ingrid Escobar, the director of SJH, explained that judicial reforms introduced under Bukele’s state of emergency have eroded the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

“They don’t listen to the call from human rights groups to look at the cases of thousands of innocent people who don’t have tattoos or criminal records but are paying a sentence they do not owe,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bukele supporters defend the restrictions under the state of emergency as a necessary part of tackling deeply entrenched crime.

Ingrid Escobar, her long hair in a plait and wearing a yellow T-shirt, sits at table in front of her laptop, as a second woman speaks to her.
Ingrid Escobar, the director of Socorro Jurídico Humanitario, meets with families who say their loved ones have been unjustly arrested [Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera]

Once the most dangerous country in Latin America, El Salvador has seen its murder rate plunge from more than 106 murders per 100,000 people in 2015 to a rate of 2.4 in 2023, according to government figures.

Critics, however, point out that the numbers were already falling before Bukele came to power in 2019. They also question whether Bukele’s “mano dura” — or “iron fist” — policies are sustainable.

“Mass incarceration and the isolation of gang leaders in maximum security prisons never serve to debilitate gangs in the long term,” said Sonja Wolf, a researcher at Mexico’s National Council of Humanities, Science and Technology (CONAHCYT) and author of the book Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador.

“Such a precarious peace is notoriously unstable,” Wolf added.

In Puerto El Triunfo, for instance, the armed forces themselves have come under suspicion of illegal activity. The community has raised accusations that some military members gave false testimonies to make arrests.

One lieutenant captain in the navy, for instance, has been engulfed in claims that he threatened to arrest local women — or their partners — if they refused his sexual advances. He was arrested but has reportedly been released while his case is processed.

“The military has been given excessive power in Puerto El Triunfo,” said Escobar of Humanitarian Legal Aid. Her group helped free seven of the 25 people it believes were arrested arbitrarily on an island in the Puerto El Triunfo municipality.

“We are winning cases because there is no proof, only lies,” she added.

A man in a red shirt stands at the back of a small boat as it crosses the water. In front of him are two older women, a child, and a woman with a baby on her lap.
Residents in Puerto el Triunfo have claimed innocent family members have been swept up in military raids [Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera]

Yet with sky-high approval ratings, Bukele looks set to score another landslide win at the polls on Sunday, something Wolf believed will embolden him further.

“We can expect not only the repression but also the institutional erosion to continue,” she said.

Bukele has nevertheless faced intense international pressure to curb his government’s abuses and avoid further democratic backsliding.

Last year, for instance, the United Nations called on Bukele to comply with international human rights law, amid reports of “serious violations of prisoners’ rights”, arbitrary detention and the overall “ill-treatment” of suspects.

But Wolf warned that Bukele is unlikely to pay much attention to the criticism, particularly as his country expands relations with China.

“If El Salvador can get economic support from a country that is a rival of the United States and that cares little about human rights, Bukele has no reason to embrace the democratic part of the international community,” Wolf said.

Colorful wooden boats are parked at a dock in Puerto el Triunfo, El Salvador.
Located in the shadow of a volcano, Puerto el Triunfo is a fishing town of approximately 16,000 residents [Catherine Ellis/Al Jazeera]

Santiago, Rosa’s nephew and Jorge Antonio’s son, is among those grappling with the changes under Bukele.

As a result of the gang crackdown, the teenager has been left without a father. Rosa looks after him instead. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Santiago mourned the life he once had.

“My dad used to take me out to eat. He’d take me to the shopping centre, one of my favourite places,” he said.

“Now we don’t go out. After all this time not hearing from my dad, my family has become sad and desperate. The joy and happiness that I had, it’s gone.”

He also finds himself stricken with anxiety when he sees the heightened military presence on the town streets.

“I’m terrified when I see soldiers because I think that they’ll take me too. I can’t even go to the river to swim because of the regime,” Santiago said through quiet tears.

He has been unable to speak to his father since his arrest in 2022, due to the stiff restrictions prisoners face.

Life has changed dramatically in Puerto El Triunfo. Some of the colourful fishing boats around the pink-brick pier lie abandoned. Where laughter once filled houses, there is now a void, according to Santiago and others.

But the fear and uncertainty has remained.

“If I could speak to my dad, I’d tell him that I miss him,” Santiago said. “I’d say that he needs to keep going and stay strong, because one day, hopefully, we’ll see each other again.”

Source: Al Jazeera