The El Salvador diaries: A day in the life of a never-ending war

A short visit to the auspiciously named San Salvador neighbourhood, ’10 de Octubre’.

Night Sky over October 11 neighbourhood, El Salvador
'A thunderstorm was brewing, and lightning flashed through the Salvadoran sky. Alfredo and I ordered more beer.' [Belen Fernandez/Al Jazeera]

My Salvadoran friend “Alfredo” is 49 years old and resides in the nation’s capital of San Salvador in a neighbourhood called “10 de Octubre” (“10th of October”), the date of a deadly earthquake that rocked El Salvador in 1986 – if ever there was a more auspicious name for a neighbourhood.

I met Alfredo, who works at a barely remunerated job at a San Salvador school, when I spent three months in the country just prior to the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. We bonded over a shared affinity for excessively shabby venues to drink beer and an excessive dislike of the United States – my homeland, where Alfredo had travelled years earlier on someone’s else’s passport but had promptly determined that poverty in El Salvador was preferable to the “American dream”.

Despite my nagging requests for a tour of his intriguingly titled neighbourhood, I would not visit Alfredo at his own home until April of 2022. I returned to El Salvador for one month just in time to experience the newly inaugurated state of emergency – the response by exuberantly totalitarian president and Twitter aficionado Nayib Bukele to the spike in homicides in late March that had followed the breakdown in negotiations between his administration and the Salvadoran gangs.

When Alfredo picked me up from the airport in a borrowed car on April 12, he lamented that drinking at the shabby bars downtown was no longer the same now that stormtrooper-type security forces demanded your identity card every other second and made you lift your shirt to verify you had no gang tattoos.

Just the previous day, a massive security operation had gone down in 10 de Octubre itself, during which, the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica reported, 22 alleged gang members as well as “mothers of accused gang members” had been arrested. Salvadoran security minister Gustavo Villatoro was quoted as proclaiming the territory a “breeding ground” for gang leaders from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). A female TikToker had additionally been detained for allegedly diffusing gang propaganda.

The lead photograph in the Prensa Gráfica article features 17 men and five women surrounded by camouflaged figures in balaclavas and face masks. Most of the male detainees are shirtless; the three with conspicuous tattoos have had them conspicuously photoshopped out – an editorial undertaking that Alfredo suspected may have had something to do with Bukele’s new fantastically ambiguous law criminalising the sharing of information about gangs.

The 10 de Octubre operation boosted the number of detained “terrorists” to more than 10,000 in 15 days. By June, when the state of emergency was extended a third time, the number would reach well over 41,000 – with at least 40 detainees having died in state custody.

I resumed pestering Alfredo to let me visit him in 10 de Octubre, where, he said, the small house he shared with his teenage son, former suegra (mother-in-law), and other relatives was continuously on the receiving end of visits by police, who continuously wanted to view everyone’s identity cards – and to know if any gang members had taken up residence in the dwelling since their last visit.

As Alfredo later told me, his reluctance to welcome me to the neighbourhood had to do with his concern that, in the event of another massive security operation, he would then be tagged as a police informant. But welcome me he did one afternoon in late April.

The taxi driver who transported me at breakneck speed down the highway to 10 de Octubre – all the while blasting an inspirational religious tune about the blood of Jesus Christ – helpfully informed me, as he deposited me next to the local football field, that this was where “bad and dangerous” people lived. To be sure, it is always handy to have an appointed domestic bogeyman to detract public attention from the dangers of a government that has spontaneously done away with basic rights and civil liberties.

Alfredo rescued me from Christ’s blood and we walked the short distance to his house, passing bougainvillea bushes, a food stand, and some vans bearing the markings of the friendly neighbourhood US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). As per the INL website, the organisation’s local programmes “build the capacity of the Government of El Salvador to improve its ability to mitigate the influence of gangs, improve citizen security, and combat corruption” – a premise that might be more convincing were it not coming from the government of the country that spawned the entire gang phenomenon in the first place after backing right-wing terror during the Salvadoran civil war of 1980-92.

According to Alfredo, the INL’s manoeuvres in 10 de Octubre had included efforts to teach schoolchildren that the police were a force for good – which, he said, had not stopped all the kids from wanting to play the latter role in every game of “cops and robbers”.

Alfredo’s son was, as usual, at sports practice – although the son’s dedicated athleticism and aspiring football stardom did nothing to assuage the family’s fears that he, too, could be branded as a gang member at any minute and carted off to jail. Long before the state of emergency kicked off, Alfredo told me, a neighbour’s son – whom “we were all sure was going to be the Cristiano Ronaldo of 10 de Octubre” – had been expeditiously charged with a crime and interned for 15 years at the infamous prison known colloquially as Mariona but whose cruel official title is La Esperanza, meaning “hope”.

Inside Alfredo’s cramped and damp house, children were dashing about among decrepit sofas and hammocks, and the ex-suegra was presiding over an assortment of pots on the stove. Alfredo’s ex-wife, the daughter of the ex-suegra and mother of his son, lived as an undocumented worker in the US, and occasionally sent money for whatever technological apparatus or footwear her offspring currently desired.

The ex-suegra’s husband, who had fought in the civil war with the leftist guerrillas against crushing socioeconomic injustice, had been disappeared by the right wing during the conflict. The ex-suegra had survived the 1982 El Calabozo massacre of some 200 people, including children and the elderly, perpetrated by the elite Atlacatl Battalion, which was trained and funded by the US and which also perpetrated the notorious 1981 El Mozote massacre of an estimated 1,000 civilians.

As misfortune would have it, one of Alfredo’s own cousins had gone on to join this very battalion at the age of 17, near the end of the war, only to die some eight years later in a traffic accident. Even after the signing of the peace accords, Alfredo once told me, his cousin never went anywhere without a hand grenade, and he “saw ‘terrorists’ everywhere – even in his soup”.

Now, one “terrorist” enemy has been replaced with another, and socioeconomic injustice in El Salvador is as brutal as ever – which is perhaps one reason Bukele so fervently promotes historical amnesia. After all, if folks were to think about it too much, they might notice a pattern of right-wing terrorisation by the state under the guise of fighting terrorism.

The ex-suegra had little time to chat, as she was about to commence her daily intake of Turkish soap operas dubbed into Spanish – which had apparently become so all-consuming that, Alfredo said, he would often return home to find her engaged in shouting matches with neighbours over the latest transgression of one or another soap opera character. At any rate, he reckoned, it was a useful escape from the drama of existence under the world’s “coolest dictator”, as Bukele has described himself.

Alfredo had no desire to remain at the house that afternoon, anyway, as he had already spent more than enough time there during the pandemic on account of the “coolest” dictatorial lockdown – which had entailed things like Salvadoran security forces shooting people for going outside. Having promised to give me the grand tour of 10 de Octubre, Alfredo led me outdoors and a few hundred metres up the road in the direction of misty, shack-covered hills. We reached a roundabout, where upon Alfredo announced that the tour had ended and that it was time to turn back.

Of course, there was much more to 10 de Octubre than those few hundred metres. But El Salvador is saturated with invisible gang-related boundaries, and, for Salvadorans, crossing a given street can be a matter of life and death. If Alfredo hadn’t gone beyond that roundabout in more than 10 years, he was obviously not going to do it with some white gringa in tow.

To one side of the roundabout was a rather lackadaisical evangelical gathering accompanied by incongruously deafening music from a loudspeaker; to another side was a properly shabby establishment with a large refrigerator that appeared to contain beer. Alfredo consented to an end-of-tour drink, and we made our way over to the middle-aged woman on duty, who hastily declared that the beer truck had not made its scheduled delivery and that we could be on our way – even as various beer bottles adorned the counter.

On our return trip down the road, we found a stand selling beer, flip-flops, hair clips and other necessities. The proprietor of this stall allowed us to sit on the curb and consume our drinks, and remarked that he had not gone beyond the roundabout in more than 10 years, either, despite the presence of a lookout point with a spectacular view on the nearby hill. A thunderstorm was brewing, and lightning flashed through the Salvadoran sky. Alfredo and I ordered more beer.

Following my departure from El Salvador, Alfredo learned that the woman from the roundabout beer establishment was in fact the mother of the proprietor – who had herself been arrested under the state of emergency, Alfredo said, for being the girlfriend of a presumed gang member. Her mother was thus rightly terrified of being deemed guilty of “terrorism” by association at any moment – particularly given that Salvadoran police are being forced to fulfil daily arrest quotas.

Now, three months after my visit to the neighbourhood, the Bukele government is still refusing to provide pertinent information to families of detained persons in 10 de Octubre and across El Salvador – and by pertinent information I mean even details like the location of their detention. The nation’s president incessantly takes to Twitter to scorn the very concept of “human rights”, and Salvadorans continue to die accordingly – such as 21-year-old musician Josué Sánchez Rivera, who was jailed in El Salvador’s Izalco prison in April and emerged a few weeks later as a battered corpse.

In the microcosm of Salvadoran dystopia in 10 de Octubre, then, it seems maybe the earthquake was the least of the problems.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.