Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for starting your week with us. We begin in El Salvador.
President Nayib Bukele: The fight against corruption, I think, is one of the pillars that made us won the election.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is President Nayib Bukele speaking with VICE News back in 2019. He'd just won the presidency by a landslide, at only 37 years old. The people of El Salvador hoped that this new, young leader would bring about meaningful change.
President Nayib Bukele: The previous president, he's accused of stealing $300 million.
Speaker 3: You have faith that if you change the image of what the government of El Salvador can do, how it operates, that people will start--
President Nayib Bukele: Not only the image. I think it's called momentum.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A small central American nation of just over six and a half million people, El Salvador suffers from one of the highest murder rates in the world, primarily because of unchecked brutality of gang violence. During the past three years, President Bukele has grown increasingly repressive as he's battled the gangs, and his approach has drawn both praise and criticism.
In March of last year, The New Yorker reported that Bukele was enjoying 80% approval ratings, and had earned the position of the most supported leader in Central America. The support seems to be a mix of genuine appreciation for his policies and the result of a massive public relations campaign. It's support that persists despite global concerns about increasingly authoritarian and repressive tactics of governing.
To help us understand the current situation at El Salvador, we talked with Jorge Cuéllar, assistant professor of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth University. Can you give us a brief history of the origins of gangs in El Salvador?
Jorge Cuéllar: Yes. That is a really deep question, but the brief greatest hits of it is that the gangs actually begin among migrant Salvadorian people in southern California, places like Los Angeles, and they emerge in the middle of, already, a gang-ridden city, with Black gangs and Mexican gangs. Salvadorian gangs emerge as a survival strategy in the city. Soon after, they grow quite rapidly.
This is late 1980s, early 1990s, when a lot of Salvadorians are coming to the United States, fleeing the Salvadorian Civil War that racked the country throughout the 1980s. At this point, you have tough-on-crime laws in the United States, especially in California.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Throughout the 1970s, Salvadorian people resisted repressive government regimes. These regimes were funded, supported, and weaponized by the US, which was typically more interested in halting the spread of socialism in Central America than in holding these leaders accountable for their human rights violations. Then in 1980, social justice advocate and Catholic priest Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass.
Speaker 5: After the shooting of Bishop Romero, for me was terrible, for so many persons was terrible. The people, the poor people [unintelligible 00:03:38], who is going to defend us now? The situation was getting worse and worse, until the Civil War started, one year later.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A video made by the UK-based charity organization, the Catholic Association of Overseas Development, tells the story.
Speaker 5: He feared for his life, his own life.
Speaker 7: On the evening of Monday, the 24th of March, in 1980, Archbishop Romero was celebrating mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence, where he lived. He must have noticed a car drawing up at the door of the church. A marksman came out of the car, took aim, and fired directly at the archbishop.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After decades of unrest and repression, this was the final brutal act of indignity that the people of El Salvador refused to accept.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Salvadorian Civil War began shortly after Romero's assassination, and persisted for 12 years. The war took more than 75,000 lives, and left economic devastation and political corruption in its wake. The length and brutality of the war was due in large part to the more than $1 billion in military backing from the US to help El Salvador's government battle its own people. Many of those who fled to the US seeking safety were instead deported.
Jorge Cuéllar: Many of these folks who are part of these organizations get deported back to Central America in the late 1990s, early 2000s, and they're forced to survive. What they end up doing is finding one another. These deportees find one another, and that's how gangs get reproduced in Central America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about the origins, it's such an interesting reversal of our typical public discourse, which is all about northward migration in order to escape gang violence. You're giving us this counterflow that it is a deportation machine pushing folks south that is actually producing that very violence.
Jorge Cuéllar: I think that's precisely it. One thing that migrants come here, based on Trumpian rhetoric, but in fact, what you have is that the problems of the United States, in places like LA, produce gangs as a social form for survival, and then the very system of deportation and incarceration worsens that and sends these folks back to Central America, and reproduces that same cycle of the state doesn't know what to do with.
They try to confine them, they try to police them, they try to do all these things, but that creates an inhospitable climate for Central American people, who then basically decide to leave based on that very reality that's produced by this cyclical deporting of people into countries that don't have the institutions, that don't have the resources, are emerging out of these conflicts, with all the trauma and fragmentation that that entails.
That creates the conditions for gangs to multiply, and also create a social environment that folks want to escape. It fuels that migration northward
Melissa Harris-Perry: That vision you've just given us, of trying to understand what to do in this case. We can see the ways in which El Salvador is then responding in an American-like confinement and incarceration response. These data showing us that in April of 2021, El Salvador had about 36,000 people incarcerated, but there's been this dramatic increase over the past two years, so that now you have a much more, almost American-level percentage of the adult population of El Salvador being incarcerated. Talk to me about mega-prisons.
Jorge Cuéllar: The mega-prison is the result of a punitive, disciplinary policy against gangs and criminality, that has been a long time coming. Just about every political administration since the early 2000s has often deployed this tough-on-crime, or iron-fist approach, to combating gang criminality, but it actually doesn't do what they purport that it should be doing, which is dissuading people and deterring folks from participating in gangs.
Then you arrive at the last two years, with the election of President Nayib Bukele, who presents himself as this outsider, as somebody with new ideas. That's the name of his political party, Nuevas Ideas, but in fact, he's really just rehearsing and redeploying these similar policies over the last 30 years, but just in an intensified form. That intensified form expresses itself as heightened militarization, equipping the police with new forms of surveillance.
All of this gets prototyped and pushed out there in El Salvador during the pandemic, where everybody is at home, where nobody should be outside. El Salvador was famous back then, too, two years ago, because of the military quarantine that Bukele implemented, where he was one of the first presidents in Latin America to [unintelligible 00:09:23] all borders. The Phase One of this territorial control plan, as he would later call it, which is his tough-on-crime, iron-fist approach, just under a different name. Alongside that, you have this approach of doing mega projects for the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of those mega projects is a mega-prison. In February, thousands of heavily tattooed Salvadorian men were herded into the new facility, while cameras captured the images and beamed them across the world for international press. This is a report from NBC News.
Speaker 8: The new complex is capable of holding 40,000 inmates, considered to be the largest of its kind in the Americas. The president touring the facility, fully equipped with armed guards and prison staff, workshops for inmates to manufacture goods, as well as dark isolation cells meant for solitary confinement and harsh punishment for ''anyone who tries to make any trouble."
Jorge Cuéllar: The mega-prison is supposed to house 40,000 people, the worst of the worst. This is also a response to those images that you and I see all the time, on the front page of The New York Times, with these dungeon-like conditions, of overcrowded Salvadorian prisons, with tattooed bodies. It's a response to that, but it's actually an intensification where, in that mega prison, he's trying to reproduce those conditions in a larger environment, and creating these cells where gang members, supposed gang members, will not see a ray of sunshine for the rest of their lives.
On March 27th will be a year since it was implemented, over 65,000 people have been arrested and detained arbitrarily, by this emboldened police and security apparatus. They need a place to put these folks, basically. The mega-prison also serves as a funnel to move some of these other prisoners into the mega-prison. The way that it's perceived in the median, the way we see it all the time, it's this tattooed gang member, a boogeyman. That's really not real anymore.
What I mean by that is that the gang members don't tattoo themselves so visibly any longer. That's a practice that was done away with about 10 years ago. The gang members that he's showcasing in the mega-prison announcements, in the YouTube videos, and things like this, are older gang members. They're not the people that he's been picking up of these 65,000 that I just mentioned, which have been regular people, who come from poor neighborhoods, from stigmatized communities.
It's been this one size fits all approach, to capturing people and to detaining people, in order to serve and populate these empty cells, basically, now. That's this model that Bukele has arrived at with the mega-prison, which has been applauded the world over.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Presumably, to live in the state of exception, to give up some of these core rights, to have this mega-prison, that is subsuming and pulling in so many folks. Presumably, the trade-off is some notion of public safety. Let me simply ask you, is El Salvador becoming safer?
Jorge Cuéllar: That's a really loaded question, as simple as it sounds, but I think from the point of view of regular people who live in some of these gang-ridden communities, that have been under gang control for a very long time, from that point of view, yes, it seems very safe that things have changed, that the country is going in a positive direction, and Bukele is delivering on those kinds of security objectives that he ran on. It's factually true. Gangs are in full retreat.
I think this onslaught of the state of exception has been successful in having them step back and not collect on extortion payments, not intimidate people, not visit [unintelligible 00:13:33], but it remains to be seen if this semblance of temporary security is sustainable into the future, because of what we already know. The state of exception cannot go on forever. It is supposed to be an exceptional moment of-- In order to address an emergency situation. It's not sustainable, politically and legally.
The background of all of this is that this momentary security and safety was achieved through the curbing of constitutional rights, due process, human rights. All of these fundamental tenets and values, that are at the core of democracy, democratic institutionality, and good governance. That is the other side of the coin, and right now, people are only reacting to that immediate feeling of feeling safe, of being able to walk the streets at night, of having kids play out in the field, and things like this.
They're not seeing the long-term effects that this will have, in terms of country institutionality, around constitutional rights, and the ways that in the future, when, for some reason, they come knocking at their door, all these legal safeties and securities that a citizen would have been afforded in a previous moment, are no longer around for them to utilize, to take advantage of, to seek redress, to seek justice, and all these kinds of things, because the only arbiter of justice is the state, the police, and the military.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there actually a way to achieve a type of level of safety and security in El Salvador that doesn't infringe on people's rights and autonomy?
Jorge Cuéllar: What Bukele is showing is that democracy is an obstacle, and in fact, it gets in the way of doing things the way they need to be done in order to get the results that we want. Which is why other leaders across the region and beyond want a Bukele-like model in their country, to address similar issues of criminality.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In certain ways, you've begun to respond to my next question, but I'm hoping you can tease this out for us. What do you see then, as the future of El Salvador, in this context?
Jorge Cuéllar: Oh, that's the future. At least for the next five years, we already see that Bukele has made so many shifts and changes in the different institutions of government, that he's basically going to run again in the next election, which is next year, in 2024, even though that is not a constitutional right, so it's unconstitutional to run again. It's a single term, you get one shot, that cannot be consecutive terms. He's rewritten, basically, that part of electoral process and is going to run again, and he's incredibly popular.
I think one of the Salvador newspapers, La Prensa Gráfica, just put out results from a poll, that he has a 91% approval rating, which is incredible. This is due largely to the fact that the security policy has been effective, but it shows that the security policy, the-mega prison, all the development projects, all of that, his campaigning for 2024, which he's likely to win, because there exists no real, developed, and coherent opposition to Bukelel politically, in the country. That's part of that future.
What that means, if what Bukele has done has been to dismantle democratic process, to make the state of exception into a kind of permanent thing, it seems that this will continue on into the next administration, which is to be his. At that point, what will democratic institutions look like in El Salvador? What is governance going to look like? What does politics in general look like? Especially when he's centralizing every aspect of the state, and in many cases, disallowing for an opposition to exist.
Many of the critics of the Bukele administration are now in exile, in places like Mexico, the US, and Spain. People have been leaving because of this too. He's been going after NGOs and ridiculing human rights organizations, and things like this. This is the kind of culture of hostility, inhospitability, that this administration is cultivating, which makes it very difficult to do any kind of work to defend democracy institutionality, or even serve as a watchdog of the country, of the country's politics, and what he's doing.
Lastly, it's the human rights defenders who have been the most vocal. Cristosal is a really great organization, Human Rights Watch, of course, that have been a counterbalance to some of the things that he's been doing, with the Terrorism Containment Center, the mega-prison, and helping folks who have been unduly arrested and arbitrarily detained. There's these kinds of small movements that are emerging, but they don't compare to the monopoly of the political environment that Bukele has achieved.
I think that will continue into the future, and this will become an ordinary form of doing politics in the country, so that it makes other politicians that might emerge almost inadequate to continue the kinds of successes, with the popularity that Bukele has had. In fact, it creates a very centralized political culture, where Bukele is the only-- He's the Messiah. He's the only one who can get us out of this. We have to continue to support him. We have to reelect him.
We have to make sure that he gets what he needs, because he's my Lord and Savior. This is the philosophy by many people who support Bukele, and likely that 91% that is enamored by what he's doing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stay with us. We're taking a break, and then we'll return to our conversation about modern El Salvador. It's The Takeaway.
We're back and talking about the new mega-prison in El Salvador, with Jorge Cuéllar, assistant professor of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth University. Okay, Jorge, you've talked to us about the ways that US policy has contributed to this problem. Are there policy initiatives right now that the US could be engaged in, that would help to alleviate it?
Jorge Cuéllar: I think these have been happening for a long time, but the way that, for example, USAID gets sent to Central America and to El Salvador, specifically, sometimes that money and those resources don't get to where they need to go. They get siphoned off and into other places. This is where security, as a weird term, becomes a bit nebulous, where they send money for security to increase human security in El Salvador.
What does that mean? Does that mean investment in community development, in the creation of recreational extracurricular activities for young folks, or is it for more police and guns? It's very strange, the way that gets played out, after those resources are sent to Central America and to El Salvador. There needs to be more attention to the direction of where these funds end up, and what they're doing.
We don't hear about that anymore, because the mega-prison is so spectacular and takes all of our attention, but there's already documented evidence that many of the folks who are part of the governing structure of El Salvador are corrupt actors. I think using that as the starting point for policymaking is important for the United States, to really deliver on some of the documentation and evidence of corruption that they already have. That's one of them.
Then, the other thing being that the question that the United States cares about the most is migration. They want people to stop coming to the United States. That's fundamentally all they care about. They could really care very little about what's happening in El Salvador, fundamentally, if migration stops. At the end of the day, that's the thing that gives the United States anxiety. During Bukele's administration, migration hasn't stopped.
Then, what is happening? In fact, it's gone up. Clearly, the security approach by Bukele has had some successes, but it hasn't curbed migration, which, fundamentally, is what the United States cares about, in the end. From that point of view, if that's what they care about, they should look more closely as to why migration has not ceased. Is the fact that Bukele is creating a police state actually encouraging people to migrate?
What is happening? Is this attack that Bukele is leading to NGOs, and to groups that support communities, also part of creating a hostile environment that people are fleeing from? Is the focus of Bukele on foreign investment actually displacing people from the communities that they, live and that they've lived for a long time, in order to make room for all these new projects? Is that leading to migration?
I think that the United States, as a matter of foreign policy towards Central America, should be looking more closely at some of those statistics, and not just the very popularized and sensationalized successes around the mega-prison.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jorge Cuéllar is Assistant professor of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth College. Jorge, thank you so much for taking the time with us.
Jorge Cuéllar: Thank you so much, Melissa. This was wonderful.
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