Fans went to admire El Salvador’s gang crackdown


BOGOTÁ, Colombia — From his small town in rural Colombia, José Antonio Potes watched the videos with interest. A foreign leader claimed he had defeated the violent gangs that had terrorized a country considered one of the world’s most dangerous.

The 27-year-old welder saw photos of alleged gang members massed into crowded prisons. He heard the murder rate had dropped — cut by more than half, the government said. And he watched a smiling Nayib Bukele, the millennial president of El Salvador, announce in a video broadcast worldwide in January that his country would host next year’s Miss Universe pageant.

“El Salvador is a country full of beauty,” Bukele said, walking along a red carpet. “It has the best beaches in the world for surfing. Imposing volcanoes. Exquisite coffee.

“And now it has been converted into the safest country in Latin America.”

Potes was convinced. Within days, he joined a friend in El Salvador, hoping to find work, earn in dollars and build a life in Bukele’s crime-free paradise.

Then they got arrested. A day after his arrival, Potes and his friend, fellow Colombian Manuel Fernando Castrillon, were stepping out of a shopping mall when they were stopped by soldiers. They wanted to see their tattoos, the men recounted. The friends were accused of being members of a criminal gang and detained for months, they said, sudden victims of the iron fist they had so admired.

“We let ourselves fall for this propaganda,” Potes told The Washington Post. “And the reality is totally different.”

Bukele’s crackdown on violent, gang-driven crime, launched last year with a “state of exception” that suspends key civil rights, has resulted in the arrests of tens of thousands of mostly young men — many of them, their defenders say, for simply violating new curfews or having tattoos.

The approach has drawn condemnation from international rights advocates. It’s also made Bukele wildly popular in his country, even among some family members of people who have been detained, and one of the most admired leaders in Latin America.

The face of the 41-year-old president appears on magazine covers and in widely shared WhatsApp memes. His name has been invoked by political leaders from Guatemala to Colombia to Peru. Governments in Ecuador and Jamaica, watching his example, have declared states of emergency of their own.

El Salvador’s president is flaunting a new mega prison. Activists are worried.

In a country with just over 6 million people, human rights groups say, more than 66,000 have been stuffed into overcrowded prisons. El Salvador has become the country with the highest incarceration rate; to accommodate the surge, the government has opened a new mega-prison that could become the largest in the world.

The U.S. State Department has warned citizens to reconsider travel to El Salvador, due in part to the risk of arbitrary arrest.

The Bukele administration did not respond to requests for comment on Potes and Castrillon.

At a time when crime rates are surging throughout Latin America — including in ordinarily peaceful countries such as Costa Rica, Chile and Ecuador — Bukele is being heralded by the right as a sort of savior. Polls consistently show him the most popular leader in the region, by a wide margin.

He might also be benefiting from the wave of anti-establishment sentiment across the region that has seen a succession of incumbents voted out of office.

“There’s this match made in heaven between the image and the brand Bukele has been cultivating for a decade now and this particular moment in Latin American politics,” said Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, a Salvadoran political scientist and PhD candidate at Harvard.

That image has been carefully crafted by Bukele’s powerful public relations apparatus, an operation with wide reach on social media and growing control of state-owned news outlets.

In Colombia, it’s resonating with critics of Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist president, amid a lack of popular domestic leaders on the right. Petro and Bukele have fought publicly on Twitter. A candidate for mayor in Cali is running on promises to bring the Bukele model to Colombia’s third-largest city.

Bukele’s approach has also drawn admirers among U.S. Republicans. “For decades, the Central American nation was little more than a playground for ruthless gangs … until President Nayib Bukele cracked down hard against the criminal element,” Sen. Marco Rubio said last month. “In the words of local news media, the gangs now “do not exist.”

With rights suspended, police and military presence boosted and media coverage restricted, killings in El Salvador last year dropped to the lowest level since the country’s civil war ended in 1992, Bukele’s government says.

But human rights advocates report widespread violations of due process, severe prison overcrowding and deaths in custody.

“This is where his story of progress and security is threatened,” said Juan Pappier, acting deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “Any person, any working Salvadoran or foreigner can be arrested any day with little to no evidence.”

At least 29 Colombians have been detained in El Salvador since the start of the government’s emergency order, according to the Colombian embassy in El Salvador. At least 19 of them have been accused of links with illegal groups.

It took Potes one day in El Salvador to experience it firsthand.

He arrived months after his friend. Castrillon was in Guatemala when he heard Bukele describe neighboring El Salvador as the best country in the world, “one free of robberies, of theft, of murders.” With its dollarized economy, Castrillon saw an opportunity, and asked Potes to join him.

The pair were leaving a cosmetics store outside San Salvador, the capital, when the soldiers asked to see their documents — and any body art.

Potes showed them his chest, illustrated with a rosary, hands in prayer, and the name of his grandmother. The soldiers said the tattoo was similar to one associated with a local gang, according to Potes; they later told Potes and Castrillon to strip down to be searched and confiscated their phones, both men said.

The Colombians were in the country legally, they said, under the 180 days allowed for tourists. But they were detained in the Ilopango prison, their heads shaved and their communications with the outside world cut off.

The friends were held in a cell with more than 500 other people, they said, packed so densely they had to sleep on their sides on the floor. They were told they would be detained for at least six months while their case was investigated. They were not given a hearing, they said.

As El Salvador arrests thousands, families search for the missing

It wasn’t until mid-February that Potes and Castrillon were able to speak with someone outside the prison. The call came from the Colombian embassy in San Salvador. The men shared contact information for relatives in Colombia and abroad and asked that they be told “that they are all right” and “that they love you a lot and God bless you,” the embassy wrote in an email to at least one relative.

The men were accused of association with criminal groups under the state of exception, the embassy wrote.

After months went by, Potes’s wife pleaded for help on the Colombian news network Noticias Uno. The story quickly went viral in the friends’ home country. And soon, the men said, a group of three Salvadoran officials, including at least one from the presidential press office, was escorting them around San Salvador, taking them to a medical clinic and a barber, treating them to meals and hotel rooms, and directing them to record videos telling the world it was all a big misunderstanding.

The three officials did not respond to a request for comment. Bukele this month retweeted a video of Potes and Castrillon dancing to Colombian music at a Salvadoran restaurant with their minders after their release.

Potes said he was asked to refute reports that he had been detained for alleged links to criminal gangs. He was not told how the video would be used, he said, but only that it would help let his family know he was okay.

In the video, Potes says his detention had been “misunderstood”; he had been held for immigration issues because he had been working in the country without a proper permit. (Back in Colombia, Potes told The Post his statement was untrue; he said he felt obligated to record it.)

Once they were given cellphones, Potes and Castrillon saw the video had been published in Semana, a right-leaning news outlet in Colombia, which used it to deny claims that Potes had been ensnared by Bukele’s crackdown on gangs.

Potes and Castrillon grew suspicious of their hosts. They contacted the Colombian Embassy for help returning home.

They landed April 30, less enamored of Bukele’s paradise.

“They told us a thousand times over that we should stay in El Salvador, that it’s the safest country in the world … that they have the support of 90 percent of people,” Potes said. “But what if the people inside don’t have any way to speak?”

Sign up to receive the best Underground art & real estate news in your inbox everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

This post was originally published on this site be sure to check out more of their content.