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Salvadoran President Bukele’s re-election bid worries LA


Digging into a bowl of fries and salsa at a Salvadoran restaurant on Vermont Avenue, Kevin Rivas shared his memories of prison where he experienced pain, humiliation and helpless fury intimately.

He recalled the pepper sprays. The multiple baton blows to his ribs. The scratches and nicks as his head was shaved. The dehumanizing mug shot.

“These photos are taken of us to make us look bad,” Rivas, 26, said as his father shared a heartbreaking police photo of his bald son, who was arrested in April and locked up in the hospital for three days. infamous La Esperanza prison, better known as Mariona, on the northern outskirts of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.

“It hurt my soul,” said Rivas, who immigrated to Los Angeles in early September.

An audiovisual producer by trade, Rivas is among hundreds of Salvadorans arrested and manhandled by the government of Nayib Bukele, who became the Central American nation’s president in 2019 on a promise to crack down on deadly drug cartels and street crime. .

Kevin Rivas, 26, went to Los Ángeles as principios de septiembre luego de ser víctima del régimen de excepción in El Salvador.

(Soudi Jimenez/Los Angeles Times)

Violent crime has dropped dramatically since Bukele ordered a “state of exception” in March. “It would seem unbelievable, but thank God, [we have] another day without homicides in our entire country,” Bukele wrote on Twitter on July 21. “El Salvador, which a few years ago was the most dangerous country in the world, [is] on its way to becoming the safest country in Latin America.

But his administration’s tactics have been criticized by the media, human rights groups and foreign governments for wiping out thousands of innocent citizens as well as hardened MS-13 members. Over 50,000 people have been arrested, many for nothing more than having tattoos, running from the police or simply being poor. Some critics allege that Bukele cut deals with gangs to curb their murderous sprees in exchange for better treatment of incarcerated cartel leaders. Investigations by the country’s few remaining independent media have been blocked by the government.

A number of those who, like Rivas, have been forced to flee the country are sharing their stories, in part as a warning of what could happen if the president is successful in his bid to run for office in 2024. Opponents say the move, which Bukele announced in a September 15 televised address, violates El Salvador’s constitution and would allow the president to tighten his authoritarian grip and tear down what’s left of the constitution, separation of powers and rule of law .

Some fear El Salvador could replicate the oppressive conditions that sparked its brutal 12-year civil war (1980-92) between left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing US-backed military government. This conflict claimed the lives of 75,000 people, scorched the economy, and ultimately brought hundreds of thousands of refugees to places like Los Angeles, Houston, the Bay Area, and metropolitan Washington, DC.

“Re-election seems totally crazy to me,” Rivas said.

But re-election is a hugely popular idea not just in crime-weary El Salvador, where Bukele’s approval ratings have never fallen below 80%, but among the estimated 2.3 million Salvadoran Americans living in the United States, including 421,000 in Los Angeles County. Homeland tensions boiled over in Los Angeles earlier this year when a large faction of Bukele supporters demonstrated in MacArthur Park. The police had to intervene to keep them apart from a much smaller anti-Bukele contingent. Supporters and opponents of Bukele also clashed in June when the Summit of the Americas was held in downtown LA

“It smacks of Venezuela, like a bunch of dictatorships,” Rivas continued. “He’s going to want to stay in power, he’s going to change the laws for him to follow, until we have to repeat the same story with another insurrection.”

Among Southern California Salvadorans, Bukele fans seem to far outnumber Bukele haters. Organizations like Salvadorans Abroad (Salex), which has branches in the United States, Mexico, Central America, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia, have expressed support for the policy of struggle against the crime of Bukele, supposedly hard mano approach, and blame the resistance on radical leftists and corrupt elites.

But other Salvadorans living in Southern California share Rivas’ fear that their country is sliding into another violent upheaval.

Edith Anaya, 40, an activist and medical examiner, compares the current socio-political environment to the late 1970s, when political opposition was crushed and right-wing paramilitary ‘death squads’ began carrying out assassinations and “disappearances”.

“For me, since May 2021, the constitutional order was broken, from that day when his dictatorship was established, when he took control of the three powers of the state,” Anaya said of Bukele.

Before moving to San Francisco in November 2020, Anaya used his Twitter account to raise questions about the Bukele government. But her critical comments caused a backlash at the state institution where she worked, she said. Her fear skyrocketed when she noticed suspicious vehicles driving past her home.

“It was mental stress, I didn’t feel safe,” she said.

These incidents have rekindled memories of her father, Herbert Anaya Sanabria, a human rights defender who was murdered by death squads in 1987, said Anaya, who was orphaned at the age of 5. “I don’t want my children to suffer the same way we did when we were little.

“He reminds me of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who was the last to trample on the Constitution to perpetuate himself in power, 12 years of absolute power,” Anaya said.

Superficially, Bukele bears little resemblance to the general, a staunch anti-Communist who dominated El Salvador a century ago and, in 1932, carried out an infamous massacre of perhaps as many as 50,000 indigenous peasants. He also seeks to prolong his influence by helping a loyalist succeed him.

Héctor Lindo, professor emeritus of history at Fordham University, said the general set up a newspaper which he used to spread propaganda and build his personal myth that authoritarian rule is more effective than democracy. But in fact the hard mano This approach “is counterproductive and delays the possibility of real change rooted in the country’s problems,” Lindo said.

Bukele’s communication platform of choice is Twitter, to which he has a Trumpian addiction. A 41-year-old former businessman, Bukele cultivates the persona of a fearless maverick who wears backwards baseball caps, promotes bitcoin and hits back at his critics, including the Biden administration. His New Ideas party has reigned virtually unchallenged since seizing control of El Salvador’s congress on May 1, 2021. Last month he lashed out at his critics, including 21 former presidents of countries in Latin America and Spain who denounced his re-election plan, condemning them as “looters” and “murderers”.

As Bukele consolidated his power, emigration from his country increased. In 2021, US Customs and Border Protection reported that 98,690 Salvadorans were detained at the southern border as they attempted to enter the United States, an average of 270 arrests per day. In the first 11 months of fiscal year 2022, Customs and Border Protection reported 90,774 detained Salvadorans.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a Central America specialist with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) who has studied migration from El Salvador and Honduras since 2014, said the Bukele government has not focused on tackling the structural problems driving mass migration. Instead, his policies have increased poverty, insecurity and social marginalization, prompting more people to leave.

“The poor, who are the majority, would say they are the same or worse than before” under Bukele, Kennedy said.

These conditions prompted Bartolomé Pérez’s 25-year-old nephew, who lives in Los Angeles, to flee El Salvador with his wife and 5-year-old daughter after becoming victims of gang crime.

“They broke into his house, they stole the devices he had,” said Pérez, who came to California in 1990 to escape the Civil War. “They were scared and didn’t want to go back to that place.”

After being held at the border for a week, the young man and his family arrived in Houston in June. “The only option left to him was to go out and risk his life,” his uncle said.

California Daily Newspapers

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