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EP. 1 Alguien como Bukele

EP. 1 Alguien como Bukele
EP. 2 Muévete rápido, rompe cosas
EP. 3 La hora de la medicina amarga
EP. 4 El evangelio (del Bitcoin) según Bukele
EP. 5 ‘Batman’ descubre el viejo negocio de la violencia
EP. 6 La última elección
Tráiler – Bukele: el señor de Los sueños
EP. 7 Después de Bukele


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EP 5 . 08/02/2024

EPISODE 5. ‘Batman’ discovers the old business of violence

[Silvia Viñas]: At the end of 2021, Nayib Bukele was the president of Planet Bitcoin and sometimes came down to Earth in a spaceship to show the future. This is how he appeared in an animated video at the end of that year during a cryptocurrency event on the beach, where he announced the construction of the first Bitcoin city: a technological sanctuary by the sea where no one has to pay taxes on their wealth, and which was going to use geothermal energy from a volcano.

The government was trying to attract foreign investors and tourists with a utopian image of El Salvador, which until recently was known mostly for its brutal gangs. It was difficult to reconcile that image with the one Bukele offered in his speech in English: that of a promised land where the foundations were being laid for the oases of tomorrow.

Most Salvadorans didn’t seem too excited about the prospect of investing fortunes they didn’t have in Bitcoin. But the truth is the real country they inhabited had its own oases, its own corners of peace, even if they were far less glamorous than Bitcoin City. On the coast of El Salvador, for example, in a bay of the Pacific Ocean, there’s an island full of coconuts where people live off palm fruits and fishing and gather mollusks to survive; a place where children leave their bikes lying in the street and no one remembers the last time there was a murder. A community that, for decades, had been coping with deprivation without much trouble, apart from the feeling of fear pervading most of the country. Until something happened that changed everything: the government issued an announcement.

[Archive soundbite, announcement]: We need your help to continue winning the war against gangs. Call 123 to give any information that will help us capture terrorists. Your call is completely anonymous and the call center is open 24 hours a day. National Civil Police. Ministry of Justice and Public Security. National Civil Police…

[Sandra]: He wanted numbers, he wanted numbers, that’s why he gave the phone number… and everyone started calling. It was on TV: report it. Your call is confidential. In the long run it’s not confidential…

[Silvia]: This is El Señor de Los Sueños, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios. I’m Silvia Viñas.

[Eliezer Budasoff]: And I’m Eliezer Budasoff. Episode 5: Batman discovers the old business of violence.

[Sandra]: My childhood was very nice. Well, I was raised by my uncles and aunts, because my mom abandoned me when I was six months old, so my grandmother raised me, rest in peace, right?

[Eliezer]: The woman you are listening to, the one who spoke at the beginning, her name is Sandra. She is 42 years old and a driver: she drives a motorcycle cab through the dirt streets of El Espíritu Santo, a rural island on the coast of El Salvador, which is less than a three-hour drive from the country’s capital.

[Sandra]: Before the internet and phones arrived, every night, most of us would usually be watching cartoons at home, others playing ball in the street in the evening, others on bikes, others keeping an eye on their girlfriends.

[Eliezer]: Crickets can be heard in the background because it’s nighttime. Away from the coast, the island feels like being in the countryside. It’s a day in late November 2023 and Sandra is trying to explain how life here changed almost two years ago, when Nayib Bukele’s government imposed an emergency regime on the country.

In March 2022, when Bukele had been president for almost three years, El Salvador experienced the most violent weekend so far this century: 87 murders in three days. Amid this wave of homicides, Bukele requested the Legislative Assembly to decree an emergency regime, which includes the possibility of suspending some constitutional rights in extreme situations such as catastrophes, epidemics, or disturbance of public order. The constitution stipulates that these rights may only be suspended for 30 days, with the possibility of extension for the same period.

When I went to the island in November 2023, the regime had already been in place for almost two years without interruption. There, Sandra told me what it was like to grow up in a community where the children weren’t afraid of gangs, but of the “cadejo”: a ghostly dog dragging a chain that scares those up late, a Mesoamerican version of the boogeyman. 

[Sandra]: What time did I go home? At 10, 11 o’clock at night. My grandmother said: «Don’t come back at night, the cadejo will get you». And yes, before it was the cadejo and the so-called «duende» (goblin). That’s what we were afraid of. If there had been crime, do you think we would have stayed out playing in the streets until 10, 11, or 12 at night?

[Carlos Martínez]: Espíritu Santo Island is an extraordinary vantage point to understand the scope of the emergency regime and its consequences. Firstly, because it’s an island and therefore the population is limited. There are about 1,300 to 1,400 people. Everyone knows each other…

[Silvia]: This is Salvadoran journalist Carlos Martínez, a special investigations reporter at El Faro.

[Carlos]: So it’s very easy to have an overall idea of all the people who live there and the effects that the regime has on a micro-society like this.

[Silvia]: Carlos has researched and written about violence in El Salvador for many years. In mid-2022, he received information that dozens of people had been detained on that island under the emergency regime, which suspended basic rights such as the right to defense or the presumption of innocence. That wasn’t unusual, because people were being detained everywhere. But they told him something that caught his attention:

[Carlos]: They took people from an island where there were no gangs.

[Silvia]: That’s the second reason why Carlos says that this island is an ideal place to understand the scope of the emergency regime and its consequences: because there were never gangs here.

[Carlos]: It was surprising for me because after a decade of covering gangs, every time I thought a place didn’t have gangs, it did. And what I found on that island, after the many months I spent reporting there, has fully convinced me that there was never a criminal group operating on the island.

[Silvia]: Carlos recounts that what he found in El Espíritu Santo was something uncommon in the country. It was a community of poor farmers and fishermen who had managed to resist the two things that had shattered the collective life of Salvadorans in the last forty years: the civil war first, and then the presence of gangs.

[Carlos]: It was a place with such an intact social fabric, so difficult to find in a country as fractured as El Salvador, even the civil war hadn’t damaged it. A civil war, by definition, divides a country and the people who inhabit it. The presence of gangs meant people couldn’t trust even their neighbor’s child. And they managed to survive that. They managed to endure over time, considering that they inhabited a place where their neighbors were allies or at least known to each other.

[Eliezer]: All that began to break down with the emergency regime, when police and soldiers arrived on the island and, in different incursions, arrested more than 20 people in the name of the war against the gangs. Sandra was there, waiting for passengers with her motorcycle cab, when they took the first group: five boatmen who worked ferrying people between the island and Puerto El Triunfo, located opposite it. The locals got scared, Sandra says.

[Sandra]: If in the time of the war we didn’t experience this, why is it happening now? So people were afraid, asking: “Why? Why? What happened? Why did they take him away?” I mean, people started asking questions, well, because everyone who was taken away, we’d known them, as I said, since we were little. I’d grown up with some of them and watched others be born and grow up.

[Carlos]: The arrests that were made were unheard of. Everyone on the island knew exactly what everyone was up to, what each person did for a living, and everyone also realized the circumstances under which they were arrested.

[Eliezer]: The arrests in El Espíritu Santo began pretty much at the start of the regime. Soon, the inhabitants stopped going out at night. Other boogeymen appeared.

[Carlos]: The terror, for example, the fear of the night and the fear of the soldiers and the police, the awareness of their absolute power and, on top of everything, the abrupt rupture of the social fabric they had managed to maintain despite everything.

[Silvia]: Since it was decreed in March 2022, the emergency regime has become a form of government in El Salvador. It has already been extended to 22 months, accumulating thousands of reports of arbitrary arrests, abuse, and torture. It is possibly President Nayib Bukele’s most commended measure, one that ultimately made him one of the most popular politicians in the Americas. It was also a perfect excuse for the government, who had never been a big fan of transparency, to block access to key information such as state purchases or detailed statistics on homicides and disappearances. It placed the country in a state of war and left it in the dark, forced to believe.

[Carlos]: Right now, as we are talking, the number of people detained under the emergency regime has already exceeded 75,000. The emergency regime has also been characterized by absolute opacity. All the trials involving those detained under the emergency regime have been subject to absolute secrecy. No one can talk about what happens inside those courtrooms, and neither the press nor anyone else can attend those trials. We also lack, for example, information on how many individuals have been arrested and from which gang, nor do we have a breakdown of data on where they are from, their age, or their gender. We don’t even know when the trials are underway, or what these people are accused of.

[Eliezer]: The emergency regime and the images of the war against gangs have been so heavily publicized, and are so inseparable from Bukele’s image today, that it’s hard to remember this: during the first years of his presidency, he used a very different strategy to lower the number of homicides. One that previous governments had already used: negotiating with criminal groups. It’s difficult to know now if the idea of putting the country under a police and military state, of removing any limits on the use of state force, and conducting mass arrests was something that Bukele and his advisors came up with as they went along when the pact with the gangs backfired on them. Or, if they already had a file saved with a plan B, with the regime as an alternative plan.

[Carlos]: There’s no doubt about its effects in terms of popularity. And to understand this, it’s necessary to grasp, even though it’s complex, the level of damage and the level of humiliation that these criminal organizations caused to most Salvadorans. It’s very difficult for a person who isn’t from El Salvador to understand what it meant to live in the communities controlled by these gangs, which were the majority. The level of violence, the level of brazenness, the level of cruelty with which they subjected a huge number of people, is difficult to put into words. They committed unspeakable atrocities.

[Silvia]: Of all the promises and achievements that President Nayib Bukele claims credit for, there’s one that almost no one disputes, even with his opacity, his barrage of propaganda and his questionable accounts. It was in his plans from the beginning:

[Archive soundbite, EuroNews]: It has taken Nayib Bukele two months since the start of his term as President of El Salvador to achieve something that seemed impossible: to drastically reduce the number of murders in one of the most violent countries in the world.

[Archive soundbite, Telemundo]: The figures are backed by the Attorney General. 

[Archive soundbite, Raúl Melara]: There has been a drop in extortions, and homicides have decreased.

[Archive soundbite, Telemundo]: For Bukele, it is thanks to his security plan, about which not much is known because the government says it is classified.

[Eliezer]: El Salvador closed 2018 with a rate of 52 homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants, more than triple the average for the Americas. By the beginning of 2020, before Nayib Bukele completed one year in office, the homicide rate in El Salvador had halved. So, let’s start with a fact: Bukele’s government lowered El Salvador’s violence figures drastically. The problem lies in explaining how he did it.

[Carlos]: There’s the official version, which is that due to the extraordinary result of the plan known as the Territorial Control Plan, the gangs’ possibilities for action had been reduced. The president told us one thing about the plan: that it was classified, and that 90% of it couldn’t be disclosed for the sake of its success.

[Eliezer]: The name, the Territorial Control Plan, appears again and again as a wild card in his government, and is often mentioned as the key to the Salvadoran miracle. No one has any idea what it’s about. Bukele announced it shortly after becoming president, but never provided a document describing it. It was confidential. Officially, the government limited itself to saying that the plan consisted of seven phases, with names like Incursion or Extraction. Every now and then, the president appears and says that he has begun phase 3, 5, or 6.

[Silvia]: For some organizations, this plan is nothing more than a publicity strategy to push for high amounts of funding and to attack the division of powers. As we told you in previous episodes, when Bukele entered the Assembly with the military, he demanded that the legislators allow him to negotiate a loan of more than $100 million for the Territorial Control Plan. What they were asking for precisely was that he give details on how the money was going to be spent.

[Zaira Navas]: We can’t say that the Territorial Control Plan is a public policy, nor, strictly speaking, can it even be considered a security plan.

[Eliezer]: This is attorney Zaira Navas,  Head of the Rule of Law and Security department at the El Salvador Cristosal Foundation,  and former Police Inspector General. Zaira leads a group that has systematically investigated allegations of human rights violations, arbitrary detentions, and deaths under the emergency regime.

[Zaira]: What is certain, and what has already been proven by media investigations, is that Bukele had already planned to negotiate with the gangs.

[Silvia]: Zaira is referring to a series of official documents obtained and published by the newspaper El Faro in various reports. They revealed that the Bukele government had made a deal with the gangs to reduce homicides and for electoral support in exchange for improvements in prison conditions and other concessions.

[Eliezer]: Those documents, which were part of an investigation by the Attorney General of El Salvador and also support an accusation by the United States Attorney General, revealed that the government had a system:

[Carlos]: They had appointed an official intermediary with these criminal organizations, Carlos Marroquín, the director of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit, who functioned as a spokesperson, let’s say for the President or for the Government with these criminal organizations. They had invented a complex system so that the gangs could even give orders to their leaders on the outside, allowing the leaders from outside to enter the prisons without going through any security checks, and without any record being kept. However, a record was kept, which we later obtained, and that is how we made this information public.

[Silvia]: The system worked for a while. Homicide numbers were decreasing and Bukele maintained a public narrative as the people’s avenger against the gangs. When there was a spike in murders, he would retaliate. I’m sure you remember the photos that went around the world in 2020, which we mentioned in other episodes, with hundreds of prisoners in their underwear on the floor, packed in rows. That was when he decided to put rival gang members together in the same cells. And he also announced on Twitter that he was authorizing the use of lethal force.

[Eliezer]: Bukele accused previous administrations or politicians from other parties of having illegally negotiated with the gangs, but Zaira Navas says that he had seen in practice how it worked for the government of Mauricio Funes, who was president for the FMLN when Bukele was mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán for the same party.

[Zaira]: He had a clear route: negotiating with these groups and that has been proven. Bukele’s security policy has been based on negotiating with these groups. When it got out of hand and these groups began to gain strength, to charge more money, to demand more, he turned to the emergency regime.

[Silvia]: That is, the measure we already mentioned: a suspension of rights that started in March 2022 and has been in place for almost two years. Carlos says that it was born as a reactive measure. It was a breaking point, where the parallel realities in which Bukele moved collided. The wave of homicides began on Friday, March 25, 2022, and lasted until Sunday, March 27.

[Carlos]: That weekend, I would say, everyone was in the dark, because we were all baffled by what was going on.

[Eliezer]: On Saturday, Carlos was reporting with two colleagues from El Faro in a community controlled by gangs, but they were ordered to leave and return to the newsroom until they knew what was going on. The death toll was rising steadily. There was no official data, and the only information they had was what was shared with them by the police union.

[Carlos]: The information that the police had, and had leaked through the union, made it clear to us that the people who were dying didn’t have a gang profile, nor were they soldiers or police officers; they weren’t registered or listed as gang members by the police. And in the initial inspections that look for tattoos or clues in their clothing, they also didn’t identify the presence of gangs…

[Silvia]: Because of the locations where the bodies appeared, they thought it was the Mara Salvatrucha, says Carlos, but the deaths didn’t match the gang’s usual violent activities, which generally focused on their rivals or state agents. They seemed to be killing people at random.

[Carlos]: So we were all in the dark; that is, we didn’t know exactly what the hell was going on there and nobody was giving us an explanation.

[Eliezer]: That Saturday night, Bukele asked the Assembly to decree the emergency regime. That day ended with 62 deaths, the largest death toll in 20 years. Among them was a body thrown at the side of the road leading to Surf City, the tourism and bitcoin paradise the president was trying to sell.

[Silvia]: It seemed clear that it was a message to the government, and a clear clue that homicides had been kept down by some kind of deal that, at that point, had been broken. There was no official explanation. Bukele shared a message on Twitter about an alleged US-led conspiracy to bring him down. A few months later, a journalist from France Press asked exactly that to El Salvador’s Vice President, Félix Ulloa.

[Sounbite archive, journalist]: And how then do you explain the fact that at the start of Nayib Bukele’s term homicides went down and then they suddenly went up again? Some say it was because those agreements with the gangs were broken and it was like a chain reaction.

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: The people who say that do not understand El Salvador, nor do they understand how this government is run…

[Eliezer]: The Vice President began with a classic response: he said that the drop in homicides had been achieved thanks to the Territorial Control Plan. But then he told the journalist something surprising: that the sudden wave of homicides had nothing to do with a broken pact, but with El Salvador’s global success.

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: The spike in gang activity was because in El Salvador we have been at the forefront of many economic measures that have established the country as a world leader, such as Bitcoin.

[Silvia]: Because major investors were coming in, Ulloa explained, the criminal groups saw an opportunity, and they also had support: 

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: …Supported by the de facto powers and politicians of the past, who were ousted in the last elections, they launched an attack to discredit the government’s image.

[Eliezer]: In other words, the Vice President is basically saying that the gangs, with the help of opposition politicians, saw that the country was attracting large investments due to its pioneering economic measures, and they went out to kill people to tarnish Bukele’s success. 

[Carlos]: To this day, the government of President Bukele vehemently denies, with increasingly diminishing credibility, its agreements with these criminal organizations. The problem is that reality has caught up with him.

[Eliezer]: Carlos says this because, some time later, the Mara Salvatrucha not only confirmed to El Faro that they had killed 87 people when they felt the government had betrayed them, but they also shared quite telling recordings about that weekend.

[Silvia]: In those audio files you can hear how the official who was acting as an interlocutor between the government and the criminal groups tries to keep the agreement going while on the street they are killing people.  There he recognizes, among other things, that the Bukele government released one of the gang’s founding leaders, known as Hollywood Crook, who was in a maximum security prison in El Salvador, where he was to serve 40 years. He also had a formal extradition request from the United States for terrorism.

[Carlos Martínez]: To continue to maintain dialogue with the Mara Salvatrucha, he reminds them:

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: And I took the old man out from inside, brother, in a way to help everyone and to show you my loyalty and that you can trust me.

[Carlos]: He took this person out of the country and drove him personally, he insists personally, to Guatemala.

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: I personally went to bring him there and I personally went to leave him in Guatemala.

[Silvia]: Marroquín is trying to show that the government has indeed fulfilled its part of the pact. And it was important to convince them because the Mara Salvatrucha had given the government a 72-hour ultimatum to meet their demands and resume negotiations. In this audio, Marroquín says that he told Bukele…

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: I already told Batman that he has 72 hours to give an answer.

[Silvia]: But in that conversation it’s understood that there is no going back…

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Marroquín]: He didn’t take it well, he took it badly, like “don’t go around threatening me” and so on.

[Eliezer]: Batman, as they called Bukele in those negotiations, apparently wanted nothing to do with it anymore. He had met with his security cabinet and was about to discover the benefits of another strategy used by previous governments: the iron fist. But in this case, with superpowers.

[Zaira]: Just as they extorted the Salvadoran population, the gangs also extorted Bukele and his government. And we’ve seen how Bukele complied with them, right? He took several gang members out of prison, he moved them to different places to receive medical care, like private hospitals. He moved them from maximum security prisons to lower security prisons, etc. But this pressure kept rising and rising, until it eventually reached breaking point, and the gang tried to pressure Bukele by showing their strength. What they hadn’t realized is that during this time Bukele had taken over the institutions of state control.

[Silvia]: Zaira explains that Bukele didn’t have any new ideas, but rather recycled what the traditional parties in her country had already done. Almost 20 years earlier, for example, President Francisco Flores, of the ARENA party, launched the «iron fist plan” to combat gangs. 

[Archive soundbite, Francisco Flores]: I want to tell our people clearly that I am not concerned about the welfare of criminals. I am concerned about the welfare of honest Salvadorans…

[Eliezer]: Then came President Antonio Saca, also from ARENA. This time, he announced the «super iron fist» plan to combat gangs. 

[Archive soundbite, Antonio Saca]: To the criminals and thugs, with great certainty and determination, I say that time is up. Tonight, fulfilling the presidential promise for a safe country, we are launching the super iron fist plan…

[Silvia]: Carlos tells us that, every time, it was pretty much the same: overdramatic advertising campaigns that had no real impact. Or, if anything, they made the situation worse. But Bukele had something they didn’t have.

[Carlos Martínez]: This iron fist was characterized by the absolute control of the State, including the Judiciary, the Attorney General, the Police, the Army, the Legislative Assembly, and the Supreme Court of Justice, which should have exercised constitutional control over the emergency regime.

[Eliezer]: But, in addition, he says that the government had managed to co-opt gang leaders, with whom he had made a deal.

[Carlos]: So, when the Mara Salvatrucha decided to carry out that horrible massacre of civilians in the street, and the government went after them, it found a gang without leaders, without leadership, and it had all the resources to act. Without rights, without guarantees, without press, without anything, it could do whatever it pleased. And indeed. I mean. That’s another characteristic of this iron fist approach that the previous ones didn’t have; they dismantled the gangs.

[Eliezer]: This is key because it substantially changed the lives of communities controlled by gangs. Carlos uses this phrase to describe the effect it had on the population: the majority of people, he says, felt like «a hand was taken off their throat.» At least momentarily, the government had achieved something that seemed impossible: dismantling the gangs, and that explains the enormous popularity this measure had. Many people experienced for the first time what it was like to live without fear, and the price to pay for that didn’t matter. When the scorched earth policy worked, the Bukele government understood that it had a weapon of enormous effectiveness, which justified everything.

[Carlos]: They quickly realized that this was an extremely powerful tool in terms of popularity, due to the real effects it had produced in relieving people’s suffering. There were also the infinite possibilities it had for propagandizing and marketing this measure, until it converted anyone who questioned the emergency regime for its human rights track record, legality, rule of law, or presumption of innocence among gang allies.

[Silvia]: To the government, anyone who asked uncomfortable questions about its war policy was a traitor. This is what the Vice President of El Salvador, Félix Ulloa, said when a journalist asked him what happened to the detainees of the regime who had died in prison without any charges being proved against them.

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: In a time of war, and I am going to quote the words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who says that in a besieged city any dissent is treason. Those who are currently questioning, whether from the journalistic field, from the so-called institutions that supposedly defend human rights, or political analysts, who are attacking the government’s policies, be careful because they are playing into the hands of organized crime, of gangs, and it is an act of betrayal to the people.

[Eliezer]: We’ll be right back.

[Daniel Alarcón]: The production company behind «Bukele, el señor de los sueños» is Radio Ambulante Studios. And we have two other podcasts you should listen to. Every Tuesday, we release Radio Ambulante. Stories of families, migration, adventure, and love. And every Friday, we release El hilo, where we cover and thoroughly explain an impactful news story from Latin America. Look for Radio Ambulante and El hilo on your preferred podcast app.

[Carlos Martínez]: We are right now traveling along the Litoral highway, which is the one that runs along, let’s say, the whole of El Salvador’s Pacific Coast by the sea, and we are going to Puerto El Triunfo, from where we are going to embark on the trip to Espíritu Island.

[Eliezer]: It’s a Thursday in late November, and it’s only a few minutes to Puerto El Triunfo, where we have to be before noon. The crossing to Espíritu Santo is quick, 15 or 20 minutes by boat, but if it’s low tide when we get to the port, we have to wait for it to rise again before we can leave. Carlos is telling me how he first came to the island without gangs, as he described it in a text he published more than a year ago.

[Carlos]: When the emergency regime began, especially in the first few months, the number of arrests increased exponentially every day, every week. And we as a newspaper started paying attention to what was happening, I received a call from a lady who works for a charity that offered scholarships to people who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity and they had a scholarship program on the island. So, this lady calls me in shock to tell me that they had already arrested 22 people on the island at that time, and it’s a very, very, very… it’s the definition of rural. But also, as in the story I just told you, there were no gangs on the island, which made the aggression and injustice very, very obvious.

[Silvia]: Because of this, in El Espíritu Santo you could see how the different methods of arrest under the emergency regime operated openly, and the reason for the opacity of the judicial process.

[Zaira]: At the beginning they started entering houses under the excuse that they were implementing Operation Safe House. That’s how the regime started knocking on people’s doors. Yes, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. Accompanied by a big publicity campaign that stated terrorists would go to jail. And if you are innocent, don’t worry, nothing will happen to you. At the beginning it was one policeman with three soldiers, and later just soldiers.

[Eliezer]: The people of the island say that this is how they captured a group of six people in El Espíritu Santo in early July 2022, about three months after the beginning of the emergency regime. Among them was a minor, Samuel, 17 years old, the only one convicted so far of those detained on the island. The boy’s mother, Mrs. Virginia, says that on the evening of July 3, soldiers arrived and asked all the men to leave the house with their IDs. She was with her husband and children. Samuel was eating. 

[Mrs. Virginia]: When he came out, they told him to show his ID and he said “No, I’m a minor.” “So give me your, your, your minor’s card…”

[Silvia]: Virginia says that they took his ID, compared his photo with one that the soldiers had on their phone, and took him away.

[Eliezer]: That’s how they went looking for people that whole night, in the same way, house by house, according to the accounts of their families. This is Mrs. Betty, mother of one of the men taken away that night.

[Betty]: It was a Sunday and they came to take them away starting at six in the evening until about eight, nine, ten o’clock at night. When they came, when they took my son from here, they took him at 7:30 at night. They made everyone go outside the house.

[Silvia]: They all say the same thing, where they were, what day it was, what time the soldiers arrived to look for them, because the official version of how they were arrested is very, very different.

[Carlos Martínez]: An Army sergeant, Sergeant Ángel Montesinos, claims that on the morning of July 4, he found a group of six individuals on the basketball court located a block and a half away from the military post on the island. They had gathered to take food and supplies to gang members who were hiding, according to him, in the mangroves…

[Silvia]: El Espíritu Santo Island is surrounded by mangroves, a forest of trees that grow where the land and marine environments meet.

[Carlos]: …and that when he intercepted them, they tried to escape, but through a flanking manoeuvre he was able to capture them and among them he recognized the only one in the group who was a minor. He claims that he had seen that boy on a previous occasion, although he can’t remember which day or month, entering the mangroves with supplies and leaving without supplies.

[Eliezer]: The grounds that the sergeant used to justify the capture of those men was absurd in any situation, but on that island, it was also obscene because the community wasn’t broken by indifference. When they held the court hearing for her son Samuel’s case, the youngest of those taken that night, Mrs. Virginia said that she couldn’t contain herself when she heard the soldier lying like that.

[Mrs. Virginia]: I began to feel distressed when Montesinos was saying that he had caught them on the court and that they were putting food there. I thought, what can I do deep down? I grabbed my husband’s hand and squeezed it, telling him that what they were saying was a lie.

[Silvia]: And so, after her son was convicted, Mrs. Virginia decided to do something unusual in light of the imbalance of power that the inhabitants of the island were experiencing: report the sergeant for false testimony. 

[Carlos Martínez]: That is, to go to a trial, to go to a judge, and to ask the Attorney General to accuse an Army sergeant on their behalf for lying in court. And because those lies led to this boy’s ten-year sentence. The boy’s mother sought solidarity from others who also had their sons in prison. And, far from fearing reprisal from the State for speaking out, for speaking to the media, for going to the Attorney General’s Office and for telling their truth, they supported her, knowing that all the possibilities I have just mentioned are more than real at this moment in El Salvador.

[Eliezer]: When we went to the island, in November 2023, Mrs. Virginia had had to sell two of the four pigs she owned in order to pay for the journey and to feed the people who accompanied her, those who hadn’t left her alone. I asked her what the soldiers had told her when they went to look for Samuel, what their excuse was for taking him away.

[Mrs. Virginia]: They just came with what was supposedly a photograph of him and they told him: “They call you ‘blade’.» “No”, he told them, “They call me ‘leftie’”, because my son’s dream was to go abroad and play to help me out. He told me, “Mom, with this left foot” — and he’d touch me with his little foot — “with this left foot you are going to eat”.

[Eliezer]: Mrs. Virginia told me that she didn’t care about the money, that she just wanted her son back. Now, even the money she had received from the government during the pandemic seemed to hurt her. 

[Mrs. Virginia]: Money can’t buy happiness. As I say to Mr. President, I thank him because he gave us $300 and those $300 have tripled what we have given. I don’t blame the President because he’s not guilty. The guilty ones are those who are out there doing things they shouldn’t be doing. I’m just telling him to examine what’s going on inside, the people who are working there. Because if he’s saying that he wants to clean up the Salvadoran people, then he should start examining those who are working on the inside.

[Silvia]: A fortnight after the start of the emergency regime, in April 2022, the police union began to report that the authorities were demanding «daily arrest quotas,» and that this was leading to misconduct. On the island, the relatives of some of those arrested told Carlos and Eliezer that the police and military were receiving money for each person captured. This was their explanation for what was happening in their community.  Because, on that island where everyone knew each other and knew what everyone was up to, they began to ask where the names of the detainees had come from, why they had gone to look for them.

[Eliezer]: Below the surface, the arrests on the island began to unravel the fabric that had held the community together for decades. Carlos says that what neither the civil war nor the gangs had been able to break became possible with a tool that the government made available to the population in the first months of the regime: the telephone number to make anonymous accusations.

[Zaira Navas]: All the countries that have lived through dictatorships or authoritarian regimes have suffered from anonymous accusations, informants, or whatever they are called in each country. Anyone, because of debts, because of bad blood, even because of inheritance disputes, or because of personal reasons, can call a telephone number that has been published and placed in any corner of the country to accuse another person and say this house or this person with this name who sells in this place is a gang member.

[Silvia]: In El Espíritu Santo, people began to suspect that those arrested had been accused by their neighbors. Out of envy, because they wanted someone else’s partner, because of a dispute, because they were competing for the same clients…

[Carlos Martínez]: Since the accusations are anonymous, people make assumptions that are in some cases more or less informed. But yes, the idea of the boogeyman of the island has been created, that is to say, that there are neighbors who are willing to stab their neighbors in the back. And I don’t know how to undo that.

[Sandra]: Now there is immense pain in families, in the families of those arrested. And the families of those arrested already know who the people are who grabbed that dagger and stabbed them mercilessly. It’s a lie to say that this community will be united again, that this community will become bearable like it was before. Before, we shared each other’s pain. Before, if someone died, everyone was there at the vigil, sharing the family’s pain. And now?

[Eliezer]: Once in San Salvador, after returning from the island, I asked Carlos what it meant to him, after so many years of covering and investigating gangs and criminal power dynamics in his country, to be covering the emergency regime today:

[Carlos Martínez]: Trying to understand, for example, a community that has been attacked in a way that seems cruel to me, well, it’s tough. Right now, this is the situation that this country is in. Somehow, reporting politics in a way that I never expected to cover, well, because we’re focusing on a word that only appeared in the sepia-toned images of my parents and their generation that led to a civil war: dictatorship. So, when I discover the horror of the testimonies of people who have been through the regime’s prisons and the unspeakable torture and horrors they have seen in those prisons. Or, when I go to a community of farmers who never had gangs, I understand that I’m covering the future of my country and that I’m covering the essence of what the power is made up of in the country and therefore I see it as political coverage.

[Eliezer]: By the end of 2023, seven civil organizations reported that reports of human rights violations they had received under the emergency rule totaled more than 5,700 cases. The grounds for the reports range from arbitrary detentions to inhumane treatment and torture, limited access to healthcare, internal displacement and enforced disappearance, among others. The organizations also recorded 189 cases of death, most of them in state custody.

[Silvia]: Zaira Navas explained to us that, according to Cristosal’s investigation, only 10% of the people who had died in the penal centers under the state of exception had ties to gangs. In the report they published one year after this measure, they provided a staggering statistic: less than 1% of the detainees up to that point had been charged with specific crimes associated with gangs, such as homicides and extortion. The vast majority of arrests, the report says, were made under ambiguous charges like Criminal Association, which allowed for discretionary and arbitrary arrests.

Shortly after the beginning of the emergency regime, a journalist asked the country’s Vice President, Félix Ulloa, what happened to those detainees who had died in the penal centers without having been formally charged. He defined it simply:

[Archive soundbite, Félix Ulloa]: Always, in a war, there will be innocent victims, there will be collateral damage, which must be corrected…

[Eliezer]: In December 2023, a court ordered the immediate release of Samuel, the son of Mrs. Virginia, who had been sentenced to ten years in prison. This court, a higher chamber than the one that convicted Samuel, considered that there was not enough evidence to sentence him and that there were inconsistencies in the sergeant’s version. With the release order in hand, Virginia has gone to the juvenile detention center where her son is three times, but the authorities refused to release him, without any explanation. When he was arrested on the island of El Espíritu Santo on June 3, 2022, Samuel was 17 years old. He is now 19 and still in prison.

[Eliezer]: In the next episode…

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The Constitution does not allow the same person to be president twice in a row.

[Héctor Lindo]: Salvadoran constitutions have rejected reelection in a very strict manner.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: After talking it over with my wife Gabriela, and with my family, I am announcing to the Salvadoran people that I have decided to run as a candidate for the President of the Republic…

[Amparo Marroquín]: The result of an election like this one confirms that Bukele’s political communication strategy is the most successful in the region, isn’t it? That is to say, that the narrative he promotes allows for the dismantling of democracy, and everyone seems to agree.

[Gabriel]: Basically, it’s going to be the ticket that the President needs to launch a more intolerant and repressive agenda, I believe.

[Eliezer]: This series was made possible thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Free Press Unlimited, Article 19 Mexico and Central America, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), and Dejusticia. Additionally, we thank FLIP for their advice and legal review, and Riesgo Cruzado for their valuable support in protection and security matters.

The producers and reporters of «Bukele: el señor de Los sueños» are Silvia Viñas and me. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé Yépez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are our editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The fact-checkers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yépez. Selene Mazón is the production assistant. The music, mixing, and sound design are by Elías González. The graphic design and art direction are by Diego Corzo. The web development is by Paola Ponce. Thanks to Jonathan Blitzer for his support.

«Bukele, el señor de Los sueños» is a podcast from Central, the series channel of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

From Radio Ambulante Studios, the production co-directors are Natalia Ramírez and Laura Rojas Aponte, with the assistance of Paola Alean. The audience and digital production team is formed by Samantha Proaño, Ana Pais, Analía Llorente and Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is the director of alliances and financing. Carolina Guerrero is the executive producer of Central and the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

You can follow us on social media as centralpodcast RA and subscribe to our newsletter at

I am Eliezer Budasoff. Thank you for listening.


Produced and reported by: Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff

Produced and reported on site by: Carlos Martínez and Gabriel Labrador

Digital Production: Desireé Yepez

Edited by: Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza and Desirée Yépez

Production Assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo