Before El Salvador experienced a single case of coronavirus, President Nayib Bukele placed the country in lockdown, shuttering schools, banning large gatherings and sealing borders.
He then sent the army to cordon off towns accused of being in noncompliance and dismissed a Supreme Court ruling challenging his detention of thousands accused of violating stay-at-home orders.
“Just as I would not abide by a resolution ordering me to kill Salvadorans,” Bukele declared, “I also cannot abide by a resolution that orders me to let them die.”
Bukele says his swift response has saved lives: El Salvador, a country of 6.5 million, reported 395 confirmed coronavirus cases and 10 deaths as of Thursday, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
But to his critics, Bukele’s moves represent the president’s latest efforts to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian rule, using the pandemic as a pretext to stifle dissent and rally support. Earlier this year, Bukele, who won the presidency under the banner of a minor center-right party, sent troops to the congressional chamber in what opponents from both major political parties denounced as a pressure tactic for passage of a security funding bill.
In recent days, Bukele, a 38-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, has moved to burnish his tough-guy credentials, targeting a long-time nemesis — El Salvador’s infamous street gangs, known as maras, which he blamed for a surge in homicides. The president explicitly linked his gang crackdown to the coronavirus emergency.
“The maras are taking advantage of the fact that almost all of our public forces are [occupied] controlling the pandemic,” the president said in announcing a state of emergency.
Bukele essentially declared war on the country’s powerful gangs, including the infamous MS-13, approving use of lethal force against domestic “terrorists” and imposing a 24-hour lockdown for thousands of imprisoned gang members.
In the midst of a global pandemic, El Salvador’s latest anti-gang crackdown might have hardly registered beyond the region if not for a cinematic touch — the president’s release of a series of stunning photos of hundreds of jailed, half-naked gang members, huddled together like live cargo.
The heavily tattooed prisoners, garbed in boxer shorts, their shorn heads bowed, are pictured pressed together in precise formation only inches apart, as shotgun-wielding guards in full riot gear eye them ominously. Many inmates lack masks, whereas all the guards are wearing masks and face shields.
Bukele labeled the spectacle a punishment for the recent outbreak of violence — 77 killings in a four-day period, the bloodiest stretch since he took office June 1.
Previously, gang members had boasted of helping to enforce stay-at-home orders during the pandemic and of having delivered supplies to needy communities.
Other photos released on social media showed workers soldering cells shut with metal plates — a response, Bukele said, to gang members’ practice of communicating via hand signals through the openings in cell bars, probably ordering killings and other crimes outside. The inmates, vowed Osiris Luna Meza, Bukele’s chief of prisons, wouldn’t see “a ray of sun.”
Furthermore, Bukele said, the government would discontinue a longtime practice of housing rival gang members in separate cells, a step imposed to keep a measure of peace in the volatile lockups.
“All of the cells of gang members in our country will remain sealed,” the social media-savvy Bukele declared on Twitter, where he has 1.9 million followers. “They will no longer be able to see outside of the cell.… They will be inside, in total darkness, with their friends from the other gang.”
The images quickly went viral, blared across news media and internet sites worldwide, sparking global condemnation about the dehumanization of inmates.
Adding to the international outrage about the images was the clear disdain for social-distancing measures — steps that Bukele previously championed as a means of thwarting the spread of the virus.
Throughout Latin America, long overcrowded lockups have erupted in violence in recent weeks as prisoners demand protective gear and other measures to shield them from the virus.
“Given the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons in El Salvador, as elsewhere, are a potential epicenter for an outbreak, and the Bukele administration’s lockdown has exacerbated an already heightened risk,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “President Bukele’s get-tough-on-crime discourse … is, ironically, putting more lives at risk of a potential contagion — inside and outside detention centers.”
A defiant Bukele appears to have relished the worldwide revulsion, accusing his critics of appeasing habitual lawbreakers.
“The international help that the maras get is incredible,” Bukele said Thursday on Twitter. “Organizations that don’t say anything when they tear apart Salvadorans shout to the sky because we take away their privileges.”
At home, Bukele has drawn high ratings, sometimes topping 80%, though experts say polling in El Salvador is of questionable accuracy. The many positive responses on social media bespeak considerable support for his take-no-prisoners public attitude toward gang members who exert de facto control of entire neighborhoods and towns.
While El Salvador has long had one of the world’s highest homicide rates, those numbers have generally been on the decline since 2015. During his almost 11 months in office, Bukele has credited his security plan — based on bolstered police and military deployments— with further reducing violence.
What sparked the recent four-day increase in gang violence remains unclear. Some speculate that gang members, cash-strapped during the pandemic, may have been sending out a message to extortion victims to pay up back dues. Others see darker motivations and possible behind-the-scenes maneuverings in a country still recuperating from a bloody, 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.
How the criminal groups will respond to Bukele’s actions remains a major question. The gangs have become deeply entrenched in Salvadoran society, and have relatives in the police, military and government.
In a widely circulated video reply to the prison crackdown, masked members of one gang, Barrio 18 Sureño, complained bitterly of “human rights” violations against their imprisoned brothers and warned of dire circumstances.
“This is not the correct way to attack violence in the country,” one of the masked Barrio 18 Sureño members declared in the video. “On the contrary, these actions will end up converting the entire country into chaos.”
Bukele posted the Barrio 18 Sureño video on his Twitter account and said he was awaiting responses from the country’s other two major gangs: Barrio 18 and MS-13. The three gangs originated in Southern California.
“Stop killing immediately or those who will pay the consequences will be you and your homeboys,” the president warned.
Bukele’s actions, some worry, could indeed spur a broader conflict and a possible reemergence of the country’s darkest days of gang carnage.
“Bukele, with his authoritarian and arrogant character, and without analysis, has opened up another battle front in ordering arbitrary measures against the gangs,” said retired Col. Carlos Rivas, a military analyst in San Salvador. “And if he doesn’t look for a solution to this problem, he could be igniting a gang insurrection.”
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Renderos from San Salvador. Cecilia Sánchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.