Insider, December 2022. Photos by Fred Ramos. This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.
SISIGUAYO, EL SALVADOR — On the morning that Walber Rodriguez was arrested last May, he was just two minutes from his home in Sisiguayo, El Salvador.
Walber and his wife Estefany had worked the overnight shift at the shrimp cooperative, and then taken their six-year-old daughter Michelle to visit a relative. Walber was driving the family motorcycle, and Estefany and Michelle sat behind him. They were headed home.
Walber was pulled over at “El Ceibo,” a gathering place in Sisiguayo that’s marked by a sturdy tree with an abundant canopy. Soon, Walber’s sister, mother, and father had arrived, trying to reason with the officer, who knew them by name. They didn’t understand why Walber was being handcuffed.
Sisiguayo was a place that saw police and soldiers as allies. Back in 2015, when the MS-13 gang descended on the hamlet looking to recruit local teenagers, the cops had come down hard, even murdering some of the gang members, and Walber and his neighbors had raised money to build a new police station.
Now, backup was arriving for the officer. Two navy soldiers showed up, including one who had been with Walber just the night before, watching a soccer game, and informed the others that Walber was “a working man.” A patrol vehicle full of additional cops followed. No one named anything that Walber had done wrong. Yet the family’s pleas didn’t work. “Look,” said the officer who led Walber off, flipping his wrist to the sky, “this comes from above.”
Within days of Walber’s arrest, the Rodriguezes learned he was being accused of belonging to MS-13.
Scenes like this have been playing out across El Salvador since March, when President Nayib Bukele declared a “state of exception” and suspended certain constitutional rights, ostensibly to deal with MS-13 and two offshoots of the rival Barrio 18 gang, Barrio 18 Sureños and Barrio 18 Revolucionarios — all of which have terrorized El Salvador and made it one of the world’s most violent places not at war.
The declaration was meant to be temporary, lasting 30 days, but Bukele’s administration has renewed it nine times. More than 60,000 people, mostly working-age men, have been arrested, while signs along roadways feature cinematic images of heavily-armed police ridding the country of “terrorists.”
Just as commercial fishermen trawl their way through columns of water to maximize their catch, Salvadoran authorities have rounded people up indiscriminately and with flimsy explanations.
The ‘world’s coolest dictator’
Even before authorities crushed in tens of thousands in a span of mere weeks, El Salvador’s prisons were overcrowded and disease-ridden. It now tops the list of countries with the highest percentage of their populations behind bars, according to the World Prison Brief, a distinction that has been previously held by the United States.
The supposed targets, MS-13 and Barrio 18, began in Los Angeles in the late twentieth century and arrived in El Salvador by way of gang members deported from the US. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump referenced MS-13 to say the US had allowed “animals” to cross into the country, and to justify draconian immigration policies. In El Salvador, the gangs have become one of the country’s biggest employers, and they have cemented their power through backroom deals with elected leaders.
That appears to have continued under Bukele, a former executive at a family public relations firm who was elected president in 2019 and has fashioned himself, in his ever-changing Twitter bio, as the “world’s coolest dictator.” Outside El Salvador, Bukele is best known for adopting Bitcoin as a national currency.
Last year, the US Treasury sanctioned two senior officials from Bukele’s administration for cutting a deal with the gangs in exchange for support in the 2021 midterm elections — which saw Bukele’s New Ideas party win a supermajority — and committing fewer homicides.
What preceded the state of exception was a horrific weekend in which the gangs killed nearly 90 people. It, too, was allegedly a product of that deal: Salvadoran journalists at the investigative news outlet El Faro reported that the rampage was MS-13’s retribution for a break-down in the agreement.
The cooperation doesn’t end there. Earlier this year, when the U.S. federal court of the Eastern District of New York requested the extradition of MS-13’s leadership to stand trial on terrorism charges, Bukele-allied judges blocked some of the extraditions. The administration then released one of the wanted gang leaders from prison, and a senior official helped him flee to Guatemala.
The administration denies all this, and, so far, things appear to be going Bukele’s way. Tough-on-crime stances have historically been as popular in El Salvador as in the United States. And, as in the U.S., the public is primed to believe that anyone targeted by police is guilty until proven innocent. A Gallup poll released in October recorded Bukele’s public approval at 86%.
The word on the street, according to family members gathered at prisons for news of loved ones, is that while local gang cliques have gone quiet, they’re still out there — hiding in full knowledge of the police, whose focus is elsewhere. According to the Passionist Social Services, nearly 40% of the murders in El Salvador since the beginning of the state of exception have been committed by police.
Meanwhile, the administration has steadily eroded public access to information about who they are taking and why. El Faro obtained documents involving 690 arrests between March and April, and found that, overwhelmingly, the police are using criteria like “looking suspicious” or “acting nervous” to justify the arrests. Bukele, for his part, has breezily mentioned a margin of “one percent error.”
“This time, they’re not coming out,” he tweeted about the state of exception detainees in mid-April. The administration is building a new prison that Bukele says will house 40,000 “terrorists” who “will be cut off from the outside world.”
But, by terrorists, the president seems to mean people like Walber.
‘Until we can embrace them’
Once it became clear that Walber had been caught up in the crackdown, the Rodriguez family’s hope for a quick release evaporated.
By this point, they had discovered that they were not alone. All around them in Sisiguayo and the surrounding Bajo Lempa valley, people were arrested with no satisfactory explanation. The sons of two cousins who lived in a nearby community, Mario and Pablo, were among the first to be taken; their boys were handcuffed while drinking beers after a soccer game. Another neighbor was arrested even though he’d obtained and was carrying around his spotless police record, believing, wrongly, that such a thing would matter to police. He was detained holding his one-year-old in his arms.
Residents of the Bajo Lempa who’d been touched by the arrests had begun meeting weekly at a nearby retreat center. There were only about a dozen attendees then, most of them trembling in fear and unable to tell their stories without crying.
Now, Estefany, along with Walber’s sister, Glenda, and Walber’s parents, Tomas and Margarita, became the group’s newest members.
The group had started in April, launched by Rossy Iraheta Marinero and José Salvador Ruiz, known as Chamba — two lay pastoral guides whose faith follows the tenets of Latin American liberation theology. They came from the same limited economic reality as their neighbors, and, in fact, they have full-time jobs and families. None of their own relatives had been detained. But they’d been stirred by the plight and compelled by their own theological solidarity practices to act.
In the early days, they found that even civil society organizations that were traditionally fearless in denouncing state violence seemed reluctant to aid the so-called “terrorists.” A handful of human rights organizations, principally one called Cristosal and a feminist collective in San Salvador, stepped up and, through them, the group has now filed 111 claims of habeas corpus — a legal demand that prosecutors present their evidence against a detained person, or forfeit custody.
“The families have hope that their loved ones are still alive, but they don’t have certainty of that,” Rossy told me.
Few groups elsewhere in the country have coalesced in this way to lobby.
Rossy evokes groups in Argentina and Mexico – and even in El Salvador itself – who never stopped agitating for justice on behalf of loved ones who had been disappeared by the state in earlier decades, leaving maps for others to follow.
“A long battle” lies ahead, Rossy cautioned them in one meeting. “You have to be prepared.”
Walber, and many of the others from the Bajo Lempa, had ended up at a prison informally known as Mariona, for the municipality where it’s located.
Under the state of exception, prisons were sealed off. Not even lawyers could get in. There was no protocol for finding out how Walber was doing, or if he was even alive.
In El Salvador, it falls to families to help feed and clothe incarcerated relatives. Although the State provides meals to those in prison, Bukele has limited the men to two meager plates per day, as punishment. To leave supplemental food and other essentials, or to elicit a nugget of information from a bureaucrat at the prison’s entrance, Estefany, Glenda, and others from Sisiguayo had no choice but to camp out outside Mariona.
It’s mostly men who have been arrested, and, in the first months of the crackdown, it was mostly women waiting outside prisons, by the thousands, for days at a time, sharing meals and makeshift cardboard mattresses. Everyone was taking on debt to afford the litany of expenses that follow an arrest, and some said they’d lost their jobs because they had spent so many days waiting. It was rumored that some police were offering to trade a man’s freedom for sex or money.
The jailings came so fast that Cristosal rushed to set up an online system where families could report arrests and sign up for support as they navigated the justice system. Families described traveling hours to a public defender’s office and finding a line so long they lost hope of being seen. There’s now about one public defender for every 200 arrests. Initial hearings include up to 500 defendants simultaneously, and Bukele has warned he’ll be monitoring judges for “favoring delinquents.”
If a name disappears from the register of detainees, it could mean they’d been moved to another prison, or to a hospital, or to a morgue. The country’s major newspapers run regular reports of families being unceremoniously delivered the lifeless bodies of loved ones. One of the few men who’d been held at Izalco prison and then released told the Salvadoran outlet La Prensa Grafica that prisoners had been made to run barefoot in circles for hours. When one man fell from exhaustion, the guards broke his ribs, and he died eight days later, the man said.
This is the kind of news the families of the Bajo Lempa live in terror of receiving.
‘We fear each other again’
Sisiguayo sits in the fertile valley where the Lempa river makes its final stretch through El Salvador before flowing out to the Pacific Ocean. Here, the air tastes salty and thick, a reminder of the mangrove forests and the ocean just beyond them. Homes are one-story cinderblock structures, painted in tropical greens and blues and surrounded by clotheslines, palm trees and outhouses. A communal speaker system broadcasts news and emergency alerts.
A sunbaked dirt road connects Sisiguayo to the nearest highway, and along it, residents commute by bicycle or motorbike, bending around the cows, horses and dogs that loll about. Every year around November, the rainy season leaves behind deep potholes, so each family gives the share of money they can spare to pay for gas to power the construction equipment loaned from the mayor’s office to fortify the road.
Most young people work in shrimp cooperatives, where many tasks are nocturnal. It’s a life of little sleep and hard manual labor. Night shifts start at around three in the morning. The workers return home for breakfast at about nine, and head off to a second job, like seasonal farming or bricklaying.
Here, as everywhere else, the state of exception has been a financial drain. More than a dozen men from one of the shrimp cooperatives were netted in the crackdown, and what normally takes the cooperative two weeks to accomplish now takes two or three months.
Roxana, another one of the Rodriguezes’ neighbors, was hit especially hard by the arrests. Her two sons, a daughter-in-law and a brother-in-law were rounded up, as well as her boyfriend Jeremias’ two nephews. Now, she spends much of her time running endless arrest-related errands. Her youngest daughter, who’s 12, had to leave school to help run the family’s corner store and care for Roxana’s 5-year-old grandchild. Within the first six weeks, the costs ballooned to around $1000 — a small fortune that’s twice the amount Roxana spent to open and fully stock her shop.
By the late summer, Jeremias is usually out in the fields alongside Roxana’s two boys and his two nephews, planting corn for the family to eat. With them in prison, he had to forgo the crop this year, because it’s too much to handle alone.
The state of exception “has a human cost that we still can’t fully see,” said Noah Bullock, Executive Director of Cristosal. “There is the torture, the inhumane treatment, the more than eighty deaths in prisons, and that’s only talking about the people who are detained. Life projects that people have built slowly over generations are suddenly paralyzed and collapsed. There’s the loss of income and the simultaneous expenses. The social cost of being stigmatized as ‘terrorists.'”
The administration seems unperturbed by the volume of blameless people it has locked up. “There will always be victims in war,” Vice President Felix Ulloa has said of the state of exception.
The last time state security forces were targeting the people of the Bajo Lempa en masse and without explanation, it was in the middle of a civil war.
From late 1979 until 1992, vicious US-backed government forces clashed with a leftist guerrilla movement. More than 75,000 Salvadorans died and thousands more were disappeared. A United Nations truth commission later found that 85% of the war kidnapping, torture and murder were committed by the government forces, including police and military.
Walber’s parents were among those fighting on the side of the guerrillas. In 1992, when they dropped their rifles after U.N.-brokered peace talks, they were given land as a way to return to civilian life. Margarita, Tomas and their neighbors came to inhabit Sisiguayo, with its rich coastal tracts, generous for fishing and farming.
For Margarita, her son’s senseless arrest reminded her of the state-sponsored kidnappings that had led her to take up arms. “That’s what most hurts,” she told me. “Now we fear each other again.”
The Bajo Lempa is also a flood plain, a condition that was exacerbated by poor government management of the hydroelectric dams that line the river. During repeated devastating floods in the past three decades, the people of the region, the Rodriguez family among them, lobbied and protested, even marching about sixty miles on foot to the capital to demand better dam administration. For Walber and his older sister Glenda, who were children at the time, this was an early education in democracy.
The Bajo Lempa won. San Salvador committed to building the levies needed to ameliorate the annual floods, and to communicating its plans to discharge water from the dams, so the communities in harms’ way could evacuate in time.
Now, they are again under siege.
Abroad, Bukele is best known for two things. First, his announcement, at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, that his government would “push humanity at least a tiny bit in the right direction” by adopting Bitcoin as a national currency. Second, his “Surf City” initiative along El Salvador’s 190-mile Pacific coastline, where consistent eight-to-ten-foot waves in prime spots makes it one of the best surfing destinations in the Americas.
Bukele’s target audience for Surf City is Bitcoin enthusiasts and international surfers. And everyone knows that Surf City is his. After the apparent breakdown in negotiations between the administration and MS-13, the gangs left a message for Bukele in the form of a mangled cadaver on the highway that connects the beaches to the capital.
By June 2022, Bloomberg estimated that Bukele’s crypto gamble had cost El Salvador nearly $56 million. That same month, as thousands of Salvadorans were being locked up, Surf City was playing host to the World Surf League’s Championship Tour at a beach called Punta Roca. “Eighty-two degree water, no wetsuits!” a voice thundered from the loudspeaker.
Nearby, cameramen grumbled to a Salvadoran surfer that they couldn’t pan without a uniformed man with a rifle coming into the image.
Locals, who in theory stand to benefit from all of this, were remarking that whitewashing the entrance wall to one beach, El Tunco, and stamping it with an English name left it looking like a drive-through bank. “It was good that he saw the potential in our waves,” Enzo, who runs a couple of cafes in the area, told me one evening.
Promised infrastructural improvements, like finally completing a waste-water treatment plant so that businesses aren’t reliant on bottled water, haven’t arrived. Meanwhile, new luxury apartments with a base price of $400,000 are being marketed to crypto enthusiasts, prompting worry that excessive development will smother the area’s natural beauty and put everyone out of business.
It’s almost as if Surf City is Bukele’s Potemkin Village, thrown up to boost his standing in a handful of elite circles as he loses legitimacy elsewhere.
Bukele “wants to promote the country as a place that other people can buy,” said Bullock of Cristosal. “But what is his plan for the middle-aged man who has sold coconuts in Punta Roca his whole life? El Tunco already has local commerce and its own identity. Why not honor that identity?”
‘Dad’s not working, is he?’
When Walber was jailed, Estefany told their six-year-old, Michelle, that Walber had gone out of town for a job. When Estefany and Glenda left for days camped outside the prison, she said they were studying.
Michelle’s questions became harder to escape. When he was away working, Walber usually sent a flood of adoring messages to his daughter on Estefany’s phone, but this time, there were none to show. Before ten days had passed, Michelle cornered her mom: “Dad’s not working, is he?”
At six, Michelle is absorbing that her life is built on shifting sands — a father in prison, a mother who might withhold the truth. Estefany tried to explain, saying, “The authorities make mistakes.” But it’s just another tectonic lesson for a child.
Walber and Estefany have known each other since they were kids and they’ve been partners for years, but it was only last year that they finally got married. They were the first in the family to have a real wedding, and Glenda remembers how they both giggled when they asked her to save the date — Dec. 17.
Estefany’s dress, which Glenda and Margarita helped her choose, was the color of red wine and had a sparkling brooch at the bosom. Walber had splurged on a new oxford shirt, jeans, and white tennis shoes. He also surprised Estefany with a wedding ring, which he had secretly saved for months to buy. It was a luxury she had never imagined. The cake, a single-tier white sphere adorned with fruit, held the children rapt until it was time to dig in.
When Glenda thinks about the politicians and the police who get to return home to their families at night, so easy in their freedom, it fills her with rage. They can’t even begin to comprehend what they have stolen from their people.
‘No one else will defend him but us’
The retreat center where the families met every week was a thirty-minute crawling drive down the potholed dirt road from where Walber was arrested. In late June, 54 days after Walber’s arrest, three-dozen of them sat as they usually did, in a circle of plastic chairs in an open-air pavilion, roofed in ceramic tile and ringed in a garden of carefully-manicured green.
Rossy stood in the middle of the circle, wearing flip-flops and a white tunic embroidered with flowers, calling on people to speak. Chamba kept a notebook propped between his thigh and the arm of his wheelchair.
The families were debating: Should they stay the course, and pursue their habeas corpus claims in court? Or was it time to take to the streets?
The habeas corpus route had been Rossy’s idea. Back in 2020, right when COVID-19 upended global travel, Rossy was in Ecuador at a theological conference. Bukele was about to close the borders and implement some of the most restrictive pandemic measures in the world. She managed to get onto the last flight into the Salvadoran airport and ended up at a quarantine center for six weeks. Desperate for a way out, a lawyer friend advised her to file a habeas corpus claim. It worked – she was released.
Now, it’s a tactic that more than 1,800 other Salvadorans across the country have also used since March, but to little effect since the administration has wrenched the legal system into its orbit, forcing many judges to retire and intimidating the rest, along with flooding the system with many times more defendants than it can handle.
Members of the group have been harassed by the police, and there was always concern that cops might show up in the middle of the meeting to arrest everyone. One woman who had started attending after her husband was arrested was then herself arrested.
Now, the neighbors couldn’t agree on what was best. The state of exception allowed the police to detain anyone for any reason. If they protested and ended up incarcerated alongside their loved ones, who would defend them then?
People clamored to speak.
Rossy called on a gray-haired man in a cowboy hat. He was one of the many who had spent consecutive days and nights on the street outside Mariona, where his son was being held, and while there, he heard rumor that the guards take vengeance on prisoners whose families caused trouble out front. He rose slowly, and then stated his firm opposition to any public action. He reminded the group that it wasn’t only themselves who would pay the price for protesting. When he took up arms in the civil war, he said, it was his own life he was putting at risk. But now, any action might put his son’s life at risk.
When he finished speaking, Glenda – who, at 28 years old, was among the youngest group members – raised her hand.
“I may not have as much life experience as many of you. And I didn’t live the war fighting in the mountains like many of you did,” she began. But, she continued, she did know that all of El Salvador’s civil rights victories, including democracy itself, were the product of struggles on the street. She too had camped outside Mariona, and she had learned that viral malicious rumors appeared on social media as part of an attempt to silence families.
“If the state is going to kill my brother, it will do so whether or not I speak out. If it will incarcerate me – the same is true,” she reasoned. “No one else will defend him but us.”
Finally, there was simply the value of the truth: “The president wants to make this country look like a wonderland, like everything is Surf City,” she said – but the world needed to know what was really happening in El Salvador.
The group ultimately decided that Glenda was right: it was time to take the streets. And just as each Bajo Lempa family had discovered that they were not alone when they found the group, now they saw there were hundreds of families around the country who, like them, were ready to march in San Salvador. They began regularly joining the others in the capital to protest and speak to the media, while continuing their habeas corpus petitions.
Just before Christmas, the families of the Bajo Lempa packed a bridge on a main thoroughfare and demanded their loved ones be freed. For now, the Bukele administration remains unmoved. The group is now planning to sue their government in an international human rights court.
One day last summer, before anyone comprehended how long this would last, Roxana told me something that multiple women in the Bajo Lempa echoed: Since her children were detained, she has been dreaming of them.
In one dream, she was sitting at home in the dark, and one of her three sons walked through the front door. He paused in the threshold. She thought it was Cristian, the only one who has not yet been taken. But when he stepped out of the shadow, she saw that it was Javier, her youngest. He was dressed just as he had been on April 27, the night the police hauled him away.
She called to him – and then the dream ended. “As a mother,” she said, “you wake up to a nightmare.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.