September 30, 2022

Families Reel Outside El Salvador Prisons After Gang Violence Crackdowns

6 min read

San Salvador, El Salvador – A 19-year-old boy stumbled into a police car and fell into his girlfriend’s arms, stealing a disappointing kiss. Her older sister screamed at the sight. A few seconds later, the young man, Aaron Antonio Hernandez, walked away, dragged him across the street to the jail.

The two women fell on a nearby wooden bench next to strangers who knew better than anyone what had just happened. All their sons had disappeared behind those walls.

After a record-breaking gang-killing weekend in March, the Salvadoran government declared a state of emergency and suspended the civil liberties enshrined in the constitution. Massive arrests resulted in more than 25,000 arrests in about a month and a half.

Many of the detainees have been sent to the so-called “El Penalito” or “Little Prison”, a dilapidated building in the capital, San Salvador, which is probably the most aggressive police force in the Central American country. Cracked down to zero. History. This is the first stop that could be a long stay in the country’s overcrowded prison system.

Many prisoners spend anywhere from days to weeks inside El Penalito before being transferred to the maximum security facility. After the crackdown, relatives of the detainees began to gather outside on the street to find out what would happen next.

This past Thursday, dozens of mothers, grandmothers, sisters and girlfriends crowded around wooden tables in front of the jail, carrying handbags full of documents that they hoped would prove the innocence of their loved ones. – Official ID cards, school records, work badges. .

Maria Elena Landward spent the holidays and persuaded a friend to drive at dawn to catch a glimpse of a boy who had been picked up by his family for breakfast. Morena Guadeloupe de Sandoval arrived when her son called to say police officers had just kicked her out of the house from her job as a janitor in the city. Edith Amaya said she saw scars on her son’s face before being taken away by police.

“We want to see him again,” said Ms. de Sandoval, weeping for her mother, who helped raise her son Jonathan Gonzalez Lopez. “Here, we are all crying mothers.”

The question that Ms. De Sandowall keeps asking herself is, does anyone care? El Salvador’s president, Naib Bokel, has admitted that innocent people are being killed in the crackdown, but insists they are a small part of the arrests. And the majority of El Salvadorians – more than 80 percent, surveyed – support Mr. Buckell and approve of the government’s drastic measures.

The hatred of groups in El Salvador is so deep that many people want them to be subjugated in any way. Local and international media have broadcast pictures of family members begging the police for information about their sons and shouting for them to be taken away. So far, nothing has changed public opinion against the mass arrest campaign or the president’s leadership.

But while women seeking their sons in Salvador’s prisons are by no means an organized political group, their anger should not be underestimated, experts say.

There is a history of mourning mothers in Latin America, which has created more enduring challenges for authoritarian regimes.

Currently, women outside El Penalito are focused on feeding their sons. Mr Bokel has boasted about giving rations to inmates during the crackdown, so many families choose to buy their relatives’ food from a government-approved kitchen with a small checkpoint outside the jail. Is open

There used to be only one food supplier for each, but after so many arrests in recent weeks, another organization at the front door has been allowed to start serving food and other necessities such as toothpaste and boxers. ۔

“It’s because of the monopoly,” said one woman working in the original kitchen, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. Relatives of the detainees have in the past complained of giving a business the exclusive right to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner. Local media reported.

Outside the prison, women learn a great deal from the two food delivery staff, who often first know when inmates are transferred out of their holding cells and into another prison. Family members rarely get to the prison, which has staff at a small window to answer questions but offers some answers.

“We don’t know anything,” said Ms. D. Sandoval. She was holding a Burger King badge with a picture of her baby-faced son Jonathan. “He doesn’t belong to any gang,” he insisted. His mother said that before his arrest, the 21-year-old worked in a different restaurant in the capital, as a janitor.

Mr. Gonzalez’s girlfriend, sitting next to Ms. de Sandoval, is now caring for her young child without the help of her own income. “What is she going to do?” Mrs. D. Sandowall asked. “We are poor. Who will help us?”

It has become difficult to determine how Salvadoran police have identified their targets, as detentions are so rapid and extensive. The government will not allow interviews with the national police chief, but relatives of those arrested during the state of emergency said in interviews that many people would have been targeted if they had fled with the police in the past.

But relatives of those arrested during the state of emergency said in interviews that many were targeted if they had fled with police in the past.

Irwin Antonio Hernandez was arrested after he ran after his younger sister, who was the youngest behind the family dogs. Mr. Hernandez, without a shirt and without shoes, ended up in handcuffs.

Her only sister, Naomi Hernandez, said, “The only thing she said was, ‘Baby, come here.’

Mr Hernandez was arrested several years ago, his mother said, when she said two members of the gang broke into her home while fleeing from the police. The boy was also taken away, although he said his son had nothing to do with the group.

“He studied until the ninth grade, and now he works,” he said, shedding tears from his mask. “He sells fruits and vegetables and has his own house.”

Listening angrily, Liliana Aquino erupted.

“We poor people put it there!” He was referring to the President. “But we poor people are in trouble now.”

In 2019, Ms. Aquino, 30, was disillusioned with the political class in El Salvador and happily voted for the young Mr. Buckel. He called her “my president” and said that those who care about respecting the rights of gang members are ridiculous.

“A gangster doesn’t respect anything, he doesn’t think about me,” he said. Her mother sold sandwiches in the local market, ran to the ground in an attempt to make money, and also received extortion fees from a gang. At the end of the year, Ms. Aquino said, groups demanded that her mother give her a Christmas bonus.

“If you don’t pay, they’ll kill you,” Ms Aquino said. Even if you pay, he said, you are not safe in El Salvador. He said that innocent passers-by are killed by gang shootings all the time.

She said she was out of the facility that day because her brother had recently been arrested on suspicion of being a gang member. But he insists he repairs equipment, and goes to work every day.

Ms Aquino was still standing behind the president, believing he had made the country a better place to live. Even so, owning one is still beyond the reach of the average person.

“It has helped a lot,” said Ms. Aquino. “But this help has come at the cost of the tears of many mothers.”

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