SOYAPANGO, El Salvador (AP) — With semiautomatic weapons pressed to their chest, a pack of camouflage-clad police officers marches through rows of small brick homes winding up hills on the fringes of El Salvador’s capital.
They rap sharply on door after door, pushing into homes with dozing teenagers listening to music or toddlers eating breakfast and watching cartoons.
Stepping foot in La Campanera, once one of El Salvador’s bloodiest neighborhoods, would have been unthinkable before the government suspended constitutional rights and started an all-out offensive on the gangs one year ago.
Today, police march past skeletons of ransacked homes, abandoned by those fleeing the bloodshed that marked these streets for decades. Officers demand men strip off their shirts so they can examine their bodies for tattoos, and flip through deeds and energy bills, once unpaid under gang rule. Residents scrape together any evidence they can to prove they aren’t members of Barrio 18, the gang that once dominated here.
Neighbors look on not with surprise, but resigned acceptance.
“Now it’s normal,” Katherine Zaldivar said after her house was searched, her 4-year-old daughter peering up at the two officers as she sat on the floor finishing her cereal. “They’re always here.”
El Salvador has undergone a radical transformation since President Nayib Bukele – the self-described “world’s coolest dictator” – ordered a state of emergency in response to an alarming surge in gang violence. Bukele has imprisoned over 65,000 of the nation’s 6.3 million people, packing thousands inside a “ mega-prison ” that’s set to be one of the world’s largest. Bloodshed has faded away in places like La Campanera as the presence of the most fearsome gangs dwindles.
Police stops like the one at Zaldivar’s home are the new norm. The national homicide rate, the highest in the world as recently as 2015, has dipped to numbers more comparable to Maine or New Hampshire, though some analysts question the integrity of the government data.
Small freedoms mark the monumental shift for many Salvadorans. They enjoy traversing San Salvador by night, order pizza from delivery services newly entering former gang territories, and open businesses without gangs extorting them for money.
For others, the transformation comes at a steep price.
Tens of thousands of children are torn from their parents, who have been taken to prisons with conditions fueling a flood of reported human rights abuses. Observers raise alarms about the slipping of a delicate democracy, a decay threatening to ripple across the region. For many, fear of the gangs has been replaced by fear of the very government claiming to protect them.
“The long term question, and what I fear, is: Is this going to become a police state?” said Michael Paarlberg, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University researching El Salvador.
Bukele’s government declined various requests by The Associated Press for interviews, written comment or access to the prisons.
And despite the relative calm, the gangs still lurk.
Yet for the family of 44-year-old Maritza Pacheco, opening a corner shop outside their home four months ago was a small miracle.
On the dusty streets of the Primero de Diciembre neighborhood, they lived in a state of constant panic. Members of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13, would war with nearby Barrio 18 rivals, sending gunfire ringing out over flimsy tin-sheet homes.
The gangs were formed in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s by migrants fleeing war in Central America. After many members were deported, the groups took root in El Salvador and flourished. Before the crackdowns, the government said 118,000 gang members were on the streets nationwide.
They long terrorized and extorted poor communities. To scrape by, Pacheco and her daughter secretly sold fruits and vegetables in a market in another neighborhood, avoiding gang payments simply referred to as “rent.”
The family of 11 tried to isolate themselves, determined not to get sucked into the lawlessness around them. But the gangs began closing in on her teenage son. Early last year, Pacheco paid to have him and his sister smuggled to the U.S.
“As he got older, those guys would go looking for him, and that scared me,” Pacheco said. “Raising a child only to lose him to this? No way.”
Then, in May, two months after the state of emergency came into effect and police stormed the neighborhood, something unprecedented happened: Pacheco watched as the truck of a local soda provider, SalvaCola, rolled by their house.
Then came fruit vendors. Then banks, one of which gave them a loan to start her own business.
Today, Pacheco sells candies, sodas and pastries to neighborhood kids playing nearby. The family went from earning $15 a day, just enough to subsist, to $60, enough to save for the future.
“Things have changed a lot,” she said. “People come and stay sometimes until 12 or 1 in the morning. And it’s so safe that we can stay open.”
That change is painted across San Salvador. As the sun sets, families amble through the streets in a religious procession, instead of hiding away at the first hint of darkness. Cradling candles, they drift past packed pupuserías and bustling karate gyms. Police trucks on patrol roar past as dozens of elderly Salvadorans doing aerobics in a park; nearby, gangs were known to pile bodies in mass graves. Prisoners, under careful watch, slap brown paint over faded blue MS-13 graffiti on a brick wall.
Such graffiti, once speckling the city, has all but disappeared in Bukele’s efforts to erase any trace of the gangs. Less visible is the damage left by the crackdown.
Bukele’s administration has suppressed critics and journalists, wielding a robust disinformation machine and a tightly controlled communications strategy. Nowhere is that more evident than inside prisons, likened to torture chambers by two government officials and a former prisoner who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they fear retribution by the government and gangs.
They describe cells so packed that inmates can’t sit down, struggling to go to the bathroom. Prisoners rarely see the light of day, and cells reek of unwashed inmates. Many of them cough, including women and elderly prisoners. One former inmate described watching others carried away in body bags.
The government confirmed in November that at least 90 have died in custody, but since has been largely tight-lipped about death counts.
Little is known officially about the facilities outside of highly produced videos Bukele plasters on social media layered over dramatic, action-movie music. One video released last week shows police packing their new “mega-prison” with 2,000 more tattooed young men. Bukele’s government says it could fit up to 40,000 people.
“This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, mixed together, unable to do any more harm to the population,” Bukele tweeted following the opening of the prison, referring to prisoners as “terrorists.”
Pressure to make detentions was so great that in December, extra Christmas vacation days were offered to those who could get the highest capture counts, said one of the officials who spoke to AP — an officer who has worked for decades in gang-controlled zones.
“We received specific orders that we in the streets had to arrest a certain number of people, whether they were gangsters or not,” the officer said. “Many innocents were detained and their rights were violated.
“We’ve committed crimes.”
Nearly one in six people who have been imprisoned are innocent, estimates the country’s police union tracking detentions.
Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,000 children as young as 12 have been detained. The organization accused Bukele’s government of due process violations, targeting marginalized communities with “indiscriminate” raids, torturing detainees and overpacking prisons.
Local rights group Cristosal documented 3,344 cases of human rights violations in the first 11 months of the state of emergency. Still, advocates say people are often too scared to report cases.
But most civilians who spoke to AP view human rights concerns as collateral damage for a greater good. And the president’s approval rating has soared to 91%, according to a March poll by LPG Data. So, too, has approval for the crackdown.
“The president is doing what no one has been able to. You know there are a lot of innocent people caught in the middle,” said Jorge Guzmán, a pastor of a church in a former red zone. “But you accept what’s happening as something that had to happen.”
Bukele has harnessed his approval to further consolidate power, according to the officials who spoke to AP, as well as watchdogs and analysts.
“It’s a very attractive model,” said Abraham Abrego, a leader of Cristosal. “It’s a model that sells a kind of punitive populism to gain popularity and stay in power.”
The government has extended Bukele’s state-of-exception measures a dozen times. In September, he announced he would run for reelection despite El Salvador’s constitution banning presidents from consecutive terms.
When asked what she thought of Bukele, Pacheco, the owner of the corner shop, responded: “I’ve never voted in my life. Now, I would vote for him.”
While Bukele has dealt a historic blow to the gangs, they still quietly linger in the areas they once controlled, according to locals, law enforcement and government personnel.
The police official told AP that in the push to stack arrest counts, many of those captured by the government were low-level foot soldiers, people collecting “rents,” or lookouts.
Many gang members remain free in parts of Mexico and Guatemala. It’s in part, critics say, due to Bukele’s reported negotiations with MS-13, though he denies making any deals with gangs. The officer said that in Bukele’s ranks, there is a widespread fear that the gangs are biding their time, and that they will then become targets.
And inside prisons, officials and former prisoners say, gang members simmer with a sort of vengeful rage. The second official who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, a social worker, called it “a time bomb.”
In many areas, locals are still being extorted and paying gangs. In others, small-scale drug operations are still active. Across San Salvador, people speak about the groups in hushed voices.
Many, like Jennifer Luna de Diaz, Pacheco’s 27-year-old daughter who helps run the corner shop, believe the gangs are still quietly monitoring their barrios. Family members and girlfriends of gang members have a strong presence in former gang territories.
“They’re still here. All day. Listening, overseeing things,” Luna de Diaz said. “I’m scared for my kids, my two boys.”
Most recently, watchdogs have raised alarms about the government’s anonymous tip line being weaponized to seek revenge and intimidate those no longer paying the gangs.
In late February, someone made such a call about Pacheco’s family, accusing them of being affiliated with gangs, they said.
Police arrived and forced them to strip to search for tattoos, and eventually let them go, the family said. It scared Luna de Diaz enough that she decided to use money she’s saved to send her 12-year-old son to the U.S. like her brothers.
Other families agonize over the unknown: Is my son alive? Why did my mother get detained? Will I ever see my brother again?
Gisel was 17 when the police came for her parents chasing an anonymous tip. She and her 8-year-old brother, Brayan, lived a quiet life in a coffee-growing town. Her construction-worker father was never involved with the gangs, she said. On weekends, they played soccer together in the park, said Gisel, who spoke to AP on condition that her family’s full name not be used, over fears of government retribution and to protect her minor brother.
Six months ago, she returned from class to find her small community teeming with dozens of soldiers. Her parents sat handcuffed on the side of the road. She rushed home and found Brayan sitting alone. It was the last they heard of their parents.
For more than 45,100 children nationally, at least one parent has been detained, according to internal data from the country’s social services entity shared with AP. At least 1,675 children have been left without any parents or extended relatives to care for them.
The social worker who spoke to AP described traumatized children. Confused kids as young as 3 sink into depression thinking their parents don’t love them, the social worker said. Teenagers get angry and lash out.
“Emotionally they feel totally abandoned, and economically they have no support. So what’s waiting for these kids down the line?” she said.
Gisel and Brayan’s aunt would bus four hours from San Salvador to care for them, giving up her job to do so. Their extended family pools money for their care.
Gisel started having nightmares. One night, she awoke to her brother sobbing next to her.
“The pain eats him from the inside,” Gisel, now 18, said. “Before he was a more caring person … Now, he doesn’t share his feelings; he isolates himself. He suffers, I know he suffers.”
While they await news of their parents, their family has asked courts to do a psychological examination to assess the trauma from the separation.
She clings to small pieces of their past life, flipping through a photo book in their home that now feels empty.
“I miss the love that we can’t get from them now. Hugs from my mom, hugs from my dad,” Gisel said.