El Penalito, the little prison, is a squat concrete structure located on a busy shopping street in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. On the morning of April 7, a Thursday, fifty women lined its facade, wearing surgical masks and holding umbrellas against the sun. They had been gathering there all week. It was nine-thirty and about ninety degrees. Most of the women had been waiting for eight hours to reach a small window where a police officer was sharing information about the fate of their sons and husbands.
Towards the back of the line, wearing a long denim skirt and a red T-shirt, was a middle-aged woman with dark, wrinkled skin and deep-set eyes. Her name was Yanira and her son, she said, was a 20-year-old with autism. He had been arrested three days earlier at his home, where the two had worked throughout the pandemic, cleaning and reselling discarded plastic pouches containing bottles of hand sanitizer. Yanira rarely leaves him alone, but she had to run an errand. When she returned, thirty minutes later, the police had taken her away. “Sometimes he wanders down the street without his shoes on,” she told me. “All the neighbors know him. But someone who doesn’t might think he’s a criminal or a lunatic.
A week earlier, members of El Salvador’s largest gang, MS-13, had murdered eighty-seven people in three days. The country has long been ravaged by gang violence, but these killings were unusual in their cruelty. People unrelated to the crime were targeted: a fruit seller, a surf instructor, a housewife, a shoemaker. The gangsters attacked everyone, but their message was for one person only: the country’s president, Nayib Bukele, who promised to drastically reduce crime and change El Salvador’s image in the world. foreign. Gang members left a corpse on the road to Surf City, a stretch of beachfront real estate on the Pacific coast that Bukele had renovated and renamed to attract international tourists.
Over the past few decades, every Salvadoran president has faced gangs. One administration sent soldiers to poor neighborhoods and filled the nation’s jails, in a policy it called hard mano, or “strong hand”; another took it over as super hard mano. When Bukele was mayor of San Salvador, he called these responses “immoral” and “impractical”. But now he has declared war. Just after midnight on the second day of the spike in killings, the National Assembly, controlled by Bukele’s party, instituted a “state of emergency”, under which authorities could arrest anyone they considered suspicious. The detainees had no right to a legal defense. The right to gather in groups of more than two people has been suspended and all minors would be tried as adults. On his Twitter account, Bukele, who is forty-one years old and has an approval rating of over eighty percent, shared a tally of the arrests that followed, along with some scabrous comments, posting photos of tattooed men in handcuffs and underwear. (“little angels”), some of whom appeared to have been bullied (“He had to eat fries with ketchup”). Critics of the new policy – whether ordinary citizens, journalists or foreign governments – backed “the terrorists”, he wrote.
Yanira’s son was one of six thousand people arrested in the first week. By the time I met her, the total had grown to about nine thousand. A month and a half later, it would reach thirty thousand. Bukele conceded that one percent of roundups could result in wrongful arrests, but the public could only take that figure at its word. “As we continue to arrest more gangsters, more people will protest,” Bukele said. “Because there will always be a gangster mother, family member or friend who won’t like us cleaning up that cancer.”
Yanira was joined in line by her daughter, who had missed work at a clothing store to help locate her brother. The day before, the girl told me, they had spent six hours visiting courthouses, looking for him. “We’re not the kind of people who have experience in those kinds of places,” she said. She crossed the street while Yanira held their place in line. A bodega across from El Penalito offers food and hygiene packages to inmates, ranging from a single meal ($2.50) to basic toiletries ($7.00) or a change of sub. clothing ($15.50). (Prisoners without this help only eat intermittently.) Yanira’s daughter returned just in time to squeeze a receipt for three meals into her mother’s hand before they reached the window. Further down the block, a group of soldiers armed with rifles had stopped a public bus and ordered male passengers to get out and pull up their shirts. They were looking for tattoos that might indicate gang membership.
As the official at the window examined his son’s files, Yanira stood straight as a stick. Suddenly she recoiled; when she turned away from the window, her eyes were wide open. “Izalco” was all she could say, and she walked away sobbing. It was the name of a maximum security prison that houses hardened gangsters. Her son had been sent there earlier that morning.
While the women waited outside El Penalito, another crowd gathered at the Miami Beach Convention Center. It was made up of investors and tech entrepreneurs, who were there to see Bukele, a keynote speaker at an annual Bitcoin conference. Last summer, he announced that El Salvador would be the first country in the world to accept bitcoin as legal tender. Within months, some two hundred special ATMs were installed across the country and the government launched an application, called Chivo Wallet, on which every Salvadoran received thirty dollars worth of bitcoins. At the conference, Bitcoiners, techno-utopians and libertarians came together to hear about a series of ambitious projects that Bukele had since promised. They should wait a little longer. The conference, Bukele wrote in an apologetic note, was “one of the greatest celebrations of the power of freedom, decentralization and human ingenuity in its fight against ignorance, centralization and dogma”. But, because of the state of exception, he had to stay put. “Everything happens for a reason,” he continued. “Hopefully we can learn soon why it had to happen this way.”
When Bukele was elected president in 2019, he was Latin America’s youngest head of state and embodied a national new beginning. At his inauguration, his heavily pregnant wife stood by his side as he asked crowds of ecstatic voters to raise their hands with him after taking the oath. Three of his recent predecessors have been arrested or charged, and all come from El Salvador’s two main political parties, which have ruled continuously for more than two decades. It was a period of chronic poverty, violence and mass emigration. “If you go to live in the United States and come back twenty years later, you will find the same politicians,” Amparo Marroquín, a professor at the Central American University of San Salvador, told me. “They were dinosaurs.” Bukele, who had left one of the main parties, presented himself as an anti-corruption reformer. His campaign slogan – “There’s enough money for everyone as long as no one steals” – is a phrase he’s used for almost as long as he’s been in public life. He began his career at the age of thirty, as mayor of a town of less than ten thousand inhabitants. After just one term, he ran for mayor of San Salvador. Fresh out of this post, at the age of thirty-seven, he was elected president.
Bukele, who wears leather jackets and backwards baseball caps and sports a beard, invokes Alexander the Great and Steve Jobs, and his brand is meant to be a bit of both: a potentate with an anti-establishment streak. At the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, he took a selfie from the dais, halfway through, reminding world leaders in attendance that “a few pictures on Instagram can have a bigger impact than any speech. in this assembly. Social media, he once said, “showed us what people really are.” Before, “everyone was pretending”.
During the years of his rise, the public heard of him constantly – on Twitter and Facebook, and in a continuous procession of ribbon cuttings and other public appearances. As mayor of San Salvador, he cleaned up parts of the city’s dilapidated downtown; renovated a trio of historic squares; opened an upscale market, which features escalators and rooftop restaurants, in addition to a computer-equipped library and play areas for children. At one point, he unveiled a twenty-four million dollar public works project, called 100% Iluminado, to install lamps on every street corner. “You can call it public relations if you want to be a bit cynical. But I’m talking about inspiration,” he told the Virginia Quarterly Reviewin 2016. “I’m talking about something sublime.”
Usually, public adoration fades as the realities of governance set in, but Bukele’s support has grown. He is now the most popular leader in Latin America. This is partly the result of his war on gangs, his handling of the pandemic, public infrastructure projects, an increase in the minimum wage and low gas prices. It is also the product of a gigantic propaganda campaign. But, more profoundly, Bukele managed to generate a palpable feeling of expectation and collective pride: the country is finally pulling itself together.