El Salvador’s Two Pandemics: Maximum Insecurity

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By Jorge E. Cuéllar

President Nayib Bukele’s much-applauded Territorial Control Plan (PCT), the Salvadoran government gang-control plan, marches forward under the cover of the novel coronavirus. While details still remain unclear, PCT is focused on bolstering security presence in ungovernable zones, eliminate extortion networks, end the sale of illicit drugs, and sever the link between prisons and street-level cliques. The emergency has provided an opportunity for the Bukele administration to accelerate its anti-crime objectives, giving rise to a military-police apparatus throughout the country. Many groups characterize these measures as authoritarian, dictatorial and undemocratic.

COVID-19 has enabled the Salvadoran government to advance its strategy of total security and to field-test techniques of surveillance and social control. The recent increase in gang-related homicides has made it possible to convince the public about the indispensable urgency and necessity of these security measures, guaranteeing that stricter enforcement techniques are the vaccine to what is, in effect, a protracted structural crisis. Whether it expresses itself as repression against prisoners or in illegal arrests of citizens who violate quarantine, punitive control mechanisms are a dominant feature of Bukele’s narrow, short-sighted and naïve sense of law and order.

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Images on the National Civilian Police’s Twitter account provide a glimpse of the double work of enforcement in El Salvador: the aerial photography from surveillance drones, for example, functions as a way to document and display effective police work throughout the country while also revealing the rhythms of an altered social reality: the sanitary stations, quarantine patrols and vehicular checkpoints to check the spread of the coronavirus also demonstrate the increased footprint of security personnel throughout the country. Media reports focus almost exclusively on criminal arrests or the confiscation of arms and drugs; the armed forces’ Twitter feed exhibits more of the same.

Military-police presence is, in the first instance, considered necessary to stop virus transmission, flaunted as an exemplary way of using security forces to support municipal precautions against COVID-19. Indeed, the police and military have contributed to spraying vehicles, disinfecting people and ensure quarantine compliance—some have helped to distribute seeds and basic foodstuffs. However, as measures have tightened, with authorities given carte blanche, constitutional and human rights violations have, predictably, increased. Thus, a secondary effect is the normalizing of social conditions and surveillance habits to establish police and military presence as the exclusive and indispensable guarantors of order. During quarantine and its eventual after, state security presence is likely to continue at comparable intensity, to the detriment of Salvadorans’ constitutional rights.

The arbitrariness of security in El Salvador has proven painful to few, and uncomfortable for many. Salvadoran police and military—operating like medical corps of armed sanitarians—have made everyday activities quite tense. I, as the designated errands runner for my family must constantly assess and reassess my travel, ensuring I never forget my paperwork in case I’m stopped to prove that I am moving about for an expressly legitimate reason. With sanitary cordoning becoming frequent practice, many are rightly worried that they may inadvertently be barred from returning to their homes. The experience of Metapán, La Libertad and parts of San Salvador are key examples here, interrupting already minimal survival activities, paralyzing the work of fishing communities, and stranding many in places they likely do not call home.

These events, along with the continuation of practices that randomize daily routine, intimidate citizens who are afraid of being rounded up, placed in detention and criminalized as “quarantine breakers.” Flying in the face of the Constitutional Court and defying the Legislative Assembly, Bukele continues testing citizen endurance to constitutional violations, all rationalized as required to combat the virus, but which are in practice, exhausted strategies to manage disorder.


States of Emergency

The unrolling of the security apparatus has, if official statistics are to be believed, flattened two curves in El Salvador. First, the worst effects of coronavirus in the country have ostensibly been tempered —as of writing, there are 695 confirmed cases—yet questions persist regarding state claims of strategic mass testing, the circumstances of recent preventable deaths, quarantine conditions, and the accuracy of Bukele’s March 21 “mathematical projections,” which, panic notwithstanding, was in actuality a statistical ruse. The second curve, of course, is the social problem of the marero or pandillero, the criminal gang member that percolates, as constant threat and source of all evil, in the Salvadoran mind.

In the first year of Bukele’s rule, homicides had been, unexpectedly, down-trending. Late March saw two consecutive days with zero registered homicides throughout the country. This anomaly, a cause for celebration, suggested El Salvador might be on an improved trajectory from recent years of abysmal numbers, serving as self-evident proof of the PCT’s success. While such milestones are welcome in a country that had for years reached (and even surpassed) “wartime” levels of violence, this security benchmark has also aroused suspicion from policy analysts, journalists and criminologists, suggesting that Bukele’s government is perhaps privately negotiating with gangs. The implication is that decreases in homicides might not be the sole feat of the power of hardline tactics.

Displacing all coronavirus news, the perpetual boogeyman—the maras—reemerged as front-page news in late April, after earlier videos had shown how gangs were also enforcing quarantine. Through a series of homicides—from the 24th to 28th—reports claimed the maras had unleashed a wave of violence against citizens, leading to more than 70 deaths in the span of four days, seemingly out of nowhere. Many were initially puzzled by the homicide spike. Analysts sought to explain the uptick as a message by gangs to reassert power, an exhibition of continued territorial control despite the state’s alleged monopoly on violence—through the use of slain Salvadorans as encrypted messages—contradicting the accomplishments of Bukele’s anti-gang efforts.

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The explanation for these acts—attributed specifically to MS-13, which did not disclaim authorship—are actually protests against the putrid state of prisons, a demand to end the ban on family visitations and a call for improvement of hygiene conditions given the coronavirus, according to several reports. From their overcrowded, humid, places of confinement, gang members are keenly aware that their lives are viewed as disposable, and that, as a recent WhatsApp audio posited, if a gang member were in a situation where a respirator was needed to save his life from the novel coronavirus, he would likely not be afforded the support necessary for survival. They would, for all intents and purposes, be left to die.

The decrepit reality of El Salvador’s prison system is well-known. The highly-spectacular “gang cages” that warehouse criminals have not improved since Bukele came to power. In fact, life in these prisons has become unbearable for those who previously had privileges earned through good behavior or by collaborating in criminal investigations. These zero-tolerance approaches, while callbacks to failed manodurismos past, are for Bukele’s supporters necessary to treat the scourge of the gangs. Gangs—made up of murderers, extortionists and abusers— are perceived as an unredeemable part of Salvadoran society. The administration’s punitive messaging repeats these views over and over again, fanning the flames of moral panic by reinscribing maras as folk devils and playing on popular desires for retributive justice. Thus, Bukele’s mandate to take back El Salvador from criminal gangs is an important discursive pivot—a guaranteed applause-line—that animates much of his political decisions as revealed in early February. The state’s self-styled moral superiority in its endless war against gangs is, much like in previous administrations, familiar costuming necessary for rule.

From the start of the homicide spike, the prison emerged as the central focus for deciphering the phenomenon. In the last 30 years the prison has transformed as the base of operations for gangs—mara schools—where now-consolidated street power is used to transmit orders, oftentimes from veteran shot-callers who direct the actions of gang cells on the outside. This phenomena, as researcher José Miguél Cruz reminds us, must be understood as a direct consequence of mass incarceration in Central America. In a system where rehabilitation, redemption and other forms of social integration are seen as purposeless, the penal system will continue to be used for political pandering that actively disqualify reinsertion efforts and much-needed restorative forms of justice.

On April 27, Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency in the prisons, an aggressive but not uncharacteristic response to gang authority. Reports later revealed that the violence was almost exclusively perpetrated not by all maras but MS-13 alone. Rival gang Barrio 18-S released a video communique denying any involvement, situating itself as supporters of 18-S controlled communities missed by emergency aid. Nevertheless, all gang-affiliated prisoners were lined up in only their underwear and made to kneel on the cold concrete of prison yards across El Salvador, facing forward as if submitting to Bukele’s authority. The photographic humiliation of the marero rapidly circulated. Bukele would then transform the prison ecosystem by mandating what was previously unthinkable—mixing rival factions in shared quarters, pitting them against one another in already-congested cells.

Gangs were ordered on lockdown for 24-hours, preventing communication across lockups. General Penitentiaries Director Osiris Luna declared that prisoners would be forbidden from receiving a single ray of sunlight. Cell windows, jail bars and other airways were welded up with steel laminate sheets, worsening already sweltering dungeon-like conditions. These undoubtedly alarming images have received due criticism, raising more red flags about Bukele’s approach to crisis management. Anticipating retaliation from gangs, Bukele would also authorize the use of lethal force to ensure police and military could respond if necessary, as a measure for security teams to protect themselves and others from gang attacks or ambushes.

Bukele’s government, like past administrations, has reiterated that it does not value the lives of criminals. It is clear now that the homicides are a gang message to the state regarding the wholesale banning of family visitation for prisoners, a call to change the medieval conditions lived inside the prison system and a protest against other community-level pressures such as overpolicing, harassment and extrajudicial violence. Police and military are using these measures in marginalized zones, relying on the PCT to justify their actions. Likewise, prolonged quarantine conditions in general have negatively affected gang revenue from extortions. Gang economies are now forced to raise rents on delivery and food services that are still operating during quarantine. On an existential level, the cramped living conditions inside Salvadoran prisons are the real issue. As at Rikers Island in New York or Cook County jail in Chicago and prisons elsewhere, overcrowding creates outbreak-prone environments. Coronavirus, at some level, is viewed by gangs as a vector that could offer the state a convenient excuse for gang extermination.

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Until further notice,  prisons are now in enhanced lockdown, while the rest of the country is also living its own situation of maximum security on the outside, backed by an emboldened military-police apparatus. As part of Bukele’s #PlanControlTerritorial, police and military are now free to exert discretionary pressure on the public to ensure quarantine obedience. The two lockdowns reveal that state security is heavily invested in the political capital generated by crisis management. In El Salvador, where the dream of social order is never realized but merely performed, the gangs, the state, and its media are the technologies of punitive spectacle—the country’s most popular drama.


A Tale of Two Pandemics

Security issues in El Salvador are complex. They are necessarily embroiled in a web of institutional, social, and economic realities in which the theater of politics provides an ongoing crude spectacle of discipline, in which punishment is its moral consequence. The recent images of shirtless, tattooed gang members, a familiar image that surfaces at least once every administration, reveals as much. The way in which these images have circulated feeds the voyeurism of the marero as an animalistic, bloodthirsty savage deserving of harsh correction, a display of the state’s punitive measures and moral discourse as proportional to arrogant criminality. Thus, Bukele’s scapegoating of gangs must be understood as a pandemic not of public health but of public safety, which in El Salvador are qualitatively equivalent. With readymade punitive responses, coronavirus shows us that the state’s steadfast commitment to militarization during the pandemic serves the dual purpose of indeed, containing the virus, all the while never losing focus of ridding the country of its preexisting infection: the maras.

Explanations of the marero as a chaotic subhuman creature are inhumane, irresponsible and needlessly antagonistic. Yet, these explanations remain politically advantageous and register as “good governance” in the Salvadoran imaginary, an example of what Sonja Wolf, the author of Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador calls the repression-retaliation cycle. Framing gangs as political actors or as individuals deserving of “human rights” slips into the inadvertent acknowledging of the humanity of the gang member. This perspective is unconscionable for a population whose experience of gang violence is everyday pain, and where justice routinely fails the victim.

Thus, the state’s unproductive interpretation of gang activity as a meaningless barbarism is itself part of a political ecology, shaped through generations of punitive policies, to placate populations as a form of restitution. While previous administrations have tried engaging with gangs to find other pro-social forms of rehabilitation, these political projects have spectacularly failed. Those political parties that have supported these measures were forever marred for “negotiating with terrorists.” These failures are also linked to political unpopularity and elections, that in turn, generate policies ruined by short-termism, always to be reinvented by each incoming administration. What is constant, however, is that maras cannot be afforded dignity, lest the government run the risk of being exposed as ineffective, corrupted and weak.

The semblance of order achieved since March 10, was in fact, total fiction. The machinery of state repression, while working overtime for Bukele’s increasingly strict and extended pandemic measures, remains inadequate for mitigating the inherent vulnerabilities in a system that willfully misunderstands the nature of the threat (pandemic or otherwise). The state dismisses alternative approaches to resolving the enduring contradictions arising from social abandonment and economic damnation. Unfortunately, there is no perceptible end in sight to this incurable pandemic. For as long as it remains politically useful for garnering support, for securing power, for distracting the public from their misery, this pandemic (and its tightening measures) will persist.

Only time will tell if maximum security protocols hold inside the prisons. It is highly possible, however, if these strict measures hold, gangs will respond with maximum insecurity on the streets and in rural hamlets across the country sooner rather than later. This will, once again, push El Salvador into another round of violence, with homicides acting as a lever for gangs to bring the state to the table. Some speculate the arbitrary mixing of gang factions might also, like a virus, prompt further mutations of gang structures—though early reports claim otherwise. This gang panic in the middle of emergency quarantine might preview what social life will be like in the Salvadoran post-pandemic, which unsurprisingly, feels eerily similar to how it did before coronavirus.

The horizon of decarceration is not yet visible in El Salvador. The state and the people are ill-equipped to rethink the state of prisons, even temporarily, like in Iran or even parts of the United States. For the two pandemics in El Salvador: one will wane and will surely run its course through the body politic in due time, while the other, whose political utility appears boundless, appears poised for a new outbreak.


Jorge E. Cuéllar is Mellon Faculty Fellow (2019-2021) and Assistant Professor (2021-) of Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. He discusses Central American politics and culture via @infrapolitics on Twitter.