FEATURE-El Salvador’s war on gangs leaves poor families in shock

* Gang crackdown takes a heavy toll on the poor * Relatives say innocent people are being arrested

* Families take out loans to pay lawyers By Nelson Renteria and Anastasia Moloney

One morning in early May, armed police showed up at Elizabeth’s modest home in the Salvadoran countryside and arrested her son. “They told him they were taking him to be investigated, said Elizabeth, 65, who runs a small store in a gang-controlled area outside Santa Ana, a town located about 65 km from the capital.

Over the next three months, seven other members of her family were arrested, her sister, brother and five nephews – innocent victims, she said, of a crackdown on gang violence by the President Nayib Bukele which led to tens of thousands of arrests. On the day her sister was arrested, Elizabeth said she arrived at her sister’s home to find her lying on the ground surrounded by police.

“I asked a policeman why they were taking my sister away and he said, ‘She’s a talker,'” said Elizabeth, whose last name has been withheld to protect her identity. Law enforcement did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since March, security forces have arrested nearly 51,000 people, mostly young men from poor neighborhoods, for allegedly belonging to or collaborating with the Central American nation’s notorious gangs. Most are in prison on remand. For Elizabeth and other low-income Salvadorans, the war on gangs has taken a heavy emotional and financial toll, leaving families without breadwinners and children without parents.

Elizabeth’s imprisoned 32-year-old son Pablo has been making fireworks for a living and has a teenage daughter, whom Elizabeth has cared for since her arrest. She has also welcomed six nephews, who sleep on mats on the floor, joining her two grandchildren and her 80-year-old mother who already lives with her.

It’s a struggle to make ends meet. Elizabeth’s son used to give her $50 a week to pay for her daughter’s utility bills and school expenses, and the family fears losing her sister’s house since her arrest because the mortgage hasn’t been paid .

MASS ARRESTS In El Salvador, authorities estimate that more than 70,000 people make up the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, its rival Barrio 18 and smaller street gangs, which wage turf wars to control drug trafficking. drugs and extortion rackets.

Bukele declared war on gangs after the murder rate hit a record high in March, when 62 killings were recorded in a single day across the country of 6.4 million people. His government in March announced a 30-day state of emergency suspending certain constitutional rights, a measure that has since been extended five times. Critics say it allows for too wide a net that denies detainees a fair judicial process.

Bukele, who has a high approval rating, says the crackdown is working and the main gang leaders have been arrested. In July, no homicides were recorded in the country for six consecutive days, he said. Multiple local surveys show that 70% of Salvadorans support her government’s tough measures to reduce gang crime, as did Elizabeth before arrests began in her family.

“We were happy when they (the government) said everything was going to change. But we thought gang members and not innocent people would be arrested,” said Elizabeth, who like many small business owners has paid extortion money to gang members. Local human rights groups and London-based Amnesty International have accused Salvadoran authorities of committing “massive human rights violations” during the crackdown, including arbitrary arrests of suspected gang members – sometimes simply on the grounds that they had tattoos.

Bukele said on Twitter in April that “1%” of those captured may be innocent, but added that “in such a large operation there will always be mistakes to correct”. A month later, five government officials told Reuters dozens of innocent people had been arrested after superiors forced officers to meet daily arrest quotas – a charge denied by a police spokesman.

LEGAL EXPENSES In addition to their financial difficulties, some families of imprisoned parents took out loans to hire lawyers.

Elizabeth and other parents borrowed money from colleagues, the church and moneylenders, with 10% monthly interest, to pay a lawyer charging $4,000 in legal fees. “So far, I have paid $500 to a lawyer, which gives us a freedom that is not guaranteed for my relatives,” she said.

In another neighborhood near San Salvador, Diana, 30, an unemployed mother of a young girl, said her partner, Ernesto, was arrested while playing soccer with friends. Of the 12 people on the football pitch, police arrested five, she said. She was told that Ernesto, 29, had been arrested for alleged terrorism offenses – a charge she denied.

“In the seven years I’ve been with him, I’ve never seen him do anything wrong. He’s not a gang member…many innocent people fall,” she said. Diana relied on the $70 a week he earned from his mechanic’s salary to buy food and look after their daughter.

“I depend on my life partner,” said Diana, who now lives with Ernesto’s family and earns about $5 a week working part-time washing clothes. Unable to afford a lawyer, she hopes that the volunteer organizations she found on Facebook – the Union of Judicial Workers (SEJES) and the National Alliance El Salvador in Peace – which provide legal advice to poor families with no ties to gangs, can help him.

Over the past month, Diana and Elizabeth, along with around 1,000 others, have sought legal advice from these organizations to free their imprisoned relatives. “I cry and cry,” Diana said, sitting in SEJES’ office. “I feel bad because I can’t do anything for him.”

Sitting next to her, Milagro, 53, a single mother, said she also hoped lawyers could help free her imprisoned son. Milagro and his 31-year-old son, Alexander, and his wife were leaving a fast food restaurant in early May when police stopped him in the parking lot.

Police told him he was under arrest for illicit association, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Her son and daughter-in-law sold coffee and snacks on the streets of Zacatecoluca, a municipality about an hour’s drive from the capital, contributing about $200 a month to the bills for the rented house they lived in together.

Since her son’s arrest, Milagro – a school secretary – has fallen behind on existing loan repayments and bills, and had to undertake clean-up work to make up for lost income. Her daughter-in-law quit her job, fearing she would also be arrested. Families of imprisoned parents also have to pay for prison food and hygiene kits which cost around $250, an additional burden as well as travel expenses for prison visits.

“I ask the president to consider the pain of mothers…many tears have been shed,” Milagro said. Originally posted at: https://news.trust.org/item/20220902142631-uj9eh/

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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