Salvadorans Have Traded Their Rights for Uncertain Security

Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele will extend the state of exception that has earned the country the world’s highest incarceration rate. Gang violence has been traded for arbitrary arrest and detention — with working-class people bearing the brunt.

A police officer questions a young man during an operation against gang violence in Soyapango, just east of the capital San Salvador, on August 16, 2022. (Sthanly Estrada / AFP via Getty Images)

El Salvador’s presidential election results were predictable given its current political landscape. On February 4, 2024, incumbent Nayib Bukele was reelected with nearly 83 percent of the vote, despite numerous irregularities. The biggest irregularity of all is the fact that, under El Salvador’s constitution, incumbents are not eligible to run for a consecutive term. Yet through a range of smoke and mirrors tactics to quell any potential protest, Bukele did so anyway, flouting democratic norms in favor of strong-arm approaches. The independent Salvadoran outlet El Faro went as far as to proclaim the end of the country’s democracy following Bukele’s dismantling of the judiciary, clearing the way for his candidacy, in 2021.

Bukele’s latest victory has been analyzed by many to be a signal of Salvadorans’ exhaustion with the previous status quo. As I have written elsewhere, after decades of gang domination, voters were willing to accept gross human rights violations and indefinite imprisonment for some Salvadorans in exchange for increased security for the masses. Votes for Bukele confirmed Salvadorans’ willingness to maintain Bukele’s state of exception, a form of emergency rule that has been in place since March 27, 2022. The suspension of many rights under the state of exception has been part of El Salvador’s significant democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism.

Other antidemocratic moves include fraud in the legislative election and gerrymandering to drastically reduce the number of municipalities in order to consolidate Bukele’s New Ideas party’s power. The biggest concern, however, has been the practice of arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, which Bukele has heralded as evidence of a strong state breaking the control of El Salvador’s notorious gangs. But the story is more complicated than his government would like people to think.

State of Exception

As of February 2024, more than 75,000 people are detained in El Salvador under the state of exception. When combined with the approximately 30,000 people officially incarcerated there, the total number amounts to close to 2 percent of the entire Salvadoran population behind bars. This makes El Salvador the biggest incarcerator globally per capita.

The dangers faced by people in Salvadoran prisons are enormous. Detainees face risks from malnutrition, lack of basic hygiene materials, no access to critical medicine or medical care, and torture. Under the state of exception, there is a total communication blackout of those inside the prisons, meaning no family visits, phone calls, or mail. A small number of human rights workers and news agencies have shared stories documenting atrocious conditions in the prisons, yet little has been done to address the abuses.

In early 2024, I carried out research in El Salvador addressing various aspects of democratic backsliding and the state of exception. One interviewee, a community organizer near San Salvador who asked to not be identified for security reasons, described a case in which the mother of a gang member who had already been arrested was herself arrested and tortured by the police. The police showed pictures of the mother being tortured to the detained son, in one instance taking a video and sending it to another correctional staff person who was guarding the son, trying to force him to name more gang members in exchange for releasing the mother. The mother was ultimately killed in prison, and her body was not delivered to her family for several days. The family held an open-casket funeral to protest torture by state actors — one of the mother’s eyes was missing, bashed in as if by a baton.

Female family members of boys and men involved in gangs have become collateral damage under the state of exception. An interviewee near Apopa commented that she has seen grandmothers, mothers, and girlfriends of former gang members arrested and incarcerated. When people do get out, they often lose whatever job they had because of the risks of employing someone with a criminal record. Not only can these people be reincarcerated at any time under the state of exception, employers can also be arrested for employing them, as police argue they are also involved in gang activity.

Another interviewee, who runs a mechanic shop in San Salvador, testified to this. He employs youth formerly active in gangs, providing much-needed income as they chart a new life away from illicit revenue streams. Staring down at the earthen floor surrounded by car parts, he recounted his arrest and weeklong jailing when the state of exception began. “I was only let out by the grace of god and my children, who went to beg for my release. Now I basically avoid going outside of the shop or house anymore, for fear of being arrested.” He tells me that his most loyal employee, a man whose brother was killed by the police years earlier, was also arrested when the state of exception began, and no one has heard from him since.

For any person who might want to leave gang life behind, there is now a new obstacle: finding a second chance without the constitutional rights suspended under the state of exception. A community organizer I spoke with commented that “there are all these little kids being raised by some random, problematic uncle or an alcoholic cousin, because both parents are in prison. So many of the people locked up are parents, and there is no safety net for the kids.”

The economic damage to working-class communities is difficult to overstate. An older daughter in one family had to get herself an older boyfriend to survive. Acompañamiento — accompaniment — is a survival strategy for girls and women, and it is becoming more and more common in El Salvador alongside more blatant forms of sex work.

When I spoke with activists from the Movement of Victims of the State of Exception (MOVIR in Spanish), one woman whose partner is incarcerated related that a man kept trying to force her to sleep with him, saying, “I know you don’t have money now, or anyone to protect you.” Meanwhile, her teenage daughter has twice fought off attempted kidnappings by uniformed police officers, who in some instances have been ransoming people back to their families after abducting them or detaining them to fill arrest quotas. In both scenarios, police and soldiers have expanded their use of violence among civilians. Women and girls, in particular, are extremely vulnerable to these forms of state violence.

Security Without Rights

So are Salvadorans safer under the state of exception? It depends who you ask. Transportation workers generally report reduced fear of extortion from crossing rival gang territories in the course of their day. The middle and upper classes also report feeling safer, as they are more insulated from predatory police and military violence than their working-class counterparts.

Working-class Salvadorans may also delight in newfound security — until they themselves become impacted. One NGO worker in San Salvador related how the woman who has sold tortillas in her neighborhood for years was elated for the first month of the state of exception. “I don’t have to pay a quarter to the gangs every time I want to cross a street! I get to take that money home,” she crowed after the first few weeks of mass arrests in 2022. But several weeks later, she whispered to her customer, “Do you know which human rights organization I can contact for help? My grandson was arrested and I don’t know what to do. He is innocent!”

Bukele’s safety plan for El Salvador may have won over popular opinion through a near total monopoly on the media. But for people already just scraping by, the tangible benefits are far less clear. One aggressor has been traded for another.

Safety at What Price?

In Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 short work of fiction, “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas,” the price for wider societal well-being is paid by one miserable person — a child locked away out of sight, barely surviving, and deprived of all rights. The child is tortured privately, but the inhabitants of Omelas know that it is happening on their behalf. Regular Omelans, basking in the music and festivities of their charmed life, are complicit in the child’s torture by accepting it as the price someone must pay in order to maintain happiness for the majority.

Safety for some in El Salvador is paid by those who have been detained under the state of exception and their families and communities. Only a handful of detractors are willing, in Le Guin’s language, to walk away from Omelas and signal their dissent. Many human rights workers and community members I spoke with said they were staying quiet, either out of appreciation for Bukele’s policies or out of fear of being denounced themselves for voicing opposition.

What price is too high to pay for one’s personal security? In Omelas, one person’s torture was worth the well-being of many. In El Salvador, voters have consigned 2 percent of the population to prison — and traded away their shared human and constitutional rights — for an uncertain future.