“My son is not a gang member and they arrested him unjustly, due to the exception regime”, says José Santana Guzmán, a strong 61-year-old man, about to cry.
He speaks to BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language service, along with María Hernández and Wendy Rivas, mother and partner, respectively, of Fredy Orlando Guzmán — one of the 76,757 people arrested by the Salvadoran state as of January 27, since President Nayib Bukele established, in March 2022, the exception regime.
The controversial measure accumulates numerous reports of human rights violations, arbitrary detentions, violations of due legal process and torture and death of hundreds of prisoners. However, it is also the most popular of the current government’s actions in its “war on gangs” and for which Bukele is the big favorite in Sunday’s elections (4/2).
“This misfortune happened to us, but the truth is that the country is better than ever,” says José, “and my whole family will vote for Bukele.”
Polls taken in the weeks before the elections guarantee the ruling party a landslide victory.
Measurements carried out by the Central American University (UCA), the Francisco Gavidia University and Fundaungo give 82%, 90% and 87% of valid voting intentions, respectively.
In 2019, Bukele won his first term with 53% of the vote.
“I’m going to vote for Bukele because now, when you leave, you feel free, peaceful”, adds Wendy, Fredy’s companion, about the peace recovered after years of control, violence and extortion by gangs.
“And those who are criminals have to pay for being criminals. What we don’t think is correct is that prosecutors, perhaps to get into the president’s good graces, create a scheme like saying that young people who are not from gangs are from gangs, like my son “, says José.
The “war on gangs” has made El Salvador a much safer country, according to residents, but also one with the highest rate of incarcerated population.
José, Fredy’s father, is 61 years old and has been an employee of the General Directorate of Penal Centers for 26 years.
He worked as a guard in many of the country’s prisons and lived on the front lines during the years when prison guards were targeted by the MS-13, Barrio 18-Sureños and Barrio 18-Revolucionarios gangs.
“Many of my companions died at the hands of bandits, but today, look, it’s possible to leave peacefully”, he says.
El Salvador ended 2023 with a rate of 3.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants (2.4, according to the government, which excludes from the count homicides caused by security forces and citizens who kill in supposed self-defense). Just eight years ago, in 2015, the rate was 106, the highest in the world.
Other crimes related to gang activity, such as extortion or disappearances of people, also have historic lows.
Trapped on a football field
Fredy has been in prison since January 14, 2024.
Like almost every Sunday, he was on a football field. He no longer plays due to a delicate state of health, but he represents the team from a small town called El Carmen (Cuscatlán), about 40 kilometers from the capital El Salvador.
A large group of police arrived with a warrant for his arrest and took him away. Nobody intervened: there is a lot of fear in El Salvador, precisely because of the exception regime.
The family already has a letter signed by the president of the municipal league that explains that Fredy is part of the board and praises him as one of the most active young people in “coordinating healthy recreation sporting events for young people and adults.”
The family received the news of the arrest like a cold shower. During the first 21 months of the regime, Fredy walked around completely freely.
“They even stopped him several times, asked for his documentation, checked that he didn’t owe anything and released him,” says Wendy. That is until January 14, 2024.
They don’t know why he was arrested. Now all they can do is speculate. They believe that perhaps they persecuted him because in 2021 he spent a few months in prison accused of having participated in a fight, a case from which he was acquitted by the Cojutepeque Sentence Court.
Another hypothesis they consider is that a neighbor with whom Wendy had problems took the opportunity to file an anonymous and false complaint, according to them, that Fredy is a member of a gang — a story that was repeated under the exception regime.
The irrefutable reality is that Fredy is in prison and that his family fears for his life. Due to his period of imprisonment in 2021, according to his family, the young man has been diagnosed with high blood pressure that requires treatment.
Fredy’s family is not the only case found by the report.
Thousands of family members of people detained under the emergency regime will vote this February 4th in Bukele.
“This unhealthy loyalty catches my attention,” says Roxana Cardoza, a lawyer at Social Justice and Citizen Control, a group of legal experts who deal with cases of arbitrary detention.
Cardoza estimates that no less than 30% of family members of people arbitrarily arrested will vote for Bukele.
During the 22 months that the regime was in force, the National Civil Police (PNC) detained almost 77 thousand people, of which around 23 thousand are innocent, according to estimates by human rights groups most involved in this issue.
In August last year, the government said that 7,000 detainees had been released.
The influence of gangs has been reduced to a minimum in numerous communities and neighborhoods, but Cardoza believes that Bukele’s “blind fanaticism” in families directly affected by the regime has a strong religious component at its base.
“I went to a humble house, where an innocent man had been unjustly taken and when I entered I saw the president’s calendar. ‘Why do you have this?’, I asked the mother. ‘Look, daughter’, the mother said to me, ‘ God sets up and takes away kings. My son is not a gang member and we have to trust God, He will determine when he will be released.”
The whole family was affected
On Sunday, the day of the presidential elections, Fredy will complete three weeks in prison.
The family members looked for a lawyer, who charged US$5,000 (around R$24,000) to take on the case, an impossible amount for the family’s financial situation, which lives in a very modest house with a coffee plantation, far from everything. . They are looking for ways to pay for his defense.
“Do you think if he were guilty we would have such an expense?” says Wendy.
She learned that Fredy had already been transferred twice from the PNC barracks in Cojutepeque to the Izalco penitentiary complex, but they did not receive him in prison and she believes that this is due to his delicate state of health.
“Look,” says José, a father hurt by being away from his only son, “the president is doing good things. It turns out that the authorities exaggerate their captures, and to make up numbers they grab those who fall.”
“Yes, we are very happy with Bukele”, murmurs María, the mother, who barely spoke during the entire conversation.