VALLE DEL SOL, El Salvador — Red zones, they’re called. Swaths of countryside controlled by gangs. For years, as El Salvador became known as the world’s murder capital, Victor Barahona lived in a red zone — a town where gunfire crackled in the night, and taxi drivers were too terrified to pick up fares.
But now, as an afternoon breeze stirred the mango and cashew trees, Barahona strolled through a town transformed.
The gangs had vanished.
“How’s it going?” called Delmy Velázquez, who no longer worries about her teenage daughters being molested.
“Thank God, everything’s changed,” remarked Marielos Reyes, who can visit friends in towns once cut off by rival gangs.
Over the past year, the Salvadoran government has dismantled some of the hemisphere’s most violent criminal groups. That has turned President Nayib Bukele into an icon in Latin America, with approval ratings of 90 percent.
Barahona, a 56-year-old community journalist, can see the rebirth of this Central American country in every block of his town: In the once-abandoned homes, where fans are now whirring. In the snack shop opened by a widow who was once exiled by the gangs. But as he walked past the wall daubed “Transform your life in Christ,” past the kids’ soccer field he’d helped build, past old friends and fellow evangelicals, no one mentioned one awkward fact.
Until recently, he’d been Prisoner 209683.
Barahona was swept up in a “war on gangs” that has cleared much of the country of pistol-wielding hoodlums — including this town north of San Salvador — and made Bukele a household name from Honduras to Argentina. But the crackdown has also raised alarms about the rights of thousands of people like Barahona, who are arrested without explanation and held for months.
Barahona returned to the Valle del Sol neighborhood after 11 months in detention following accusations that he had ties to a gang. (Fred Ramos for The Washington Post)
Bukele’s government has used emergency powers to jail more than 72,000 suspects — giving El Salvador the world’s highest lockup rate. They face mass trials of up to 900 defendants. Human rights groups say many were arrested arbitrarily. The government has acknowledged some errors, freeing around 7,000.
But Bukele, who took office in 2019, makes no apologies for the offensive. In videos set to thumping music, he has showed prisoners herded into a “mega-prison” for 40,000, their backs emblazoned with the telltale tattoos of the gangs: MS-13, Barrio 18.
“This will be their new house,” the 42-year-old president said in one tweet, “where they will live for decades.”
Bukele fans went to admire El Salvador's gang crackdown -- and got arrested
Bukele’s appeal goes far beyond this nation of 6 million people — and it’s easy to see why. Drug cartels and other crime groups have entrenched themselves throughout Latin America.
In many democracies — Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador — more than half of residents feel unsafe walking alone at night, according to a Gallup poll released last year. (The rate in the United States is 26 percent; in Canada, it’s 20 percent.)
“Insecurity and crime have become, in a way, the animating force of our time,” said Juan Pappier, the acting deputy Americas director of Human Rights Watch.
Even in this violent landscape, El Salvador stood out. Its gangs, which were founded by men deported from the United States, grew to an army of at least 60,000, with branches as far away as the suburbs of Washington, D.C. They killed tens of thousands of Salvadorans and extorted everyone from major bus lines to tortilla vendors.
One president after another imposed “iron fist” policies, but the gangs persisted.
“The Bukele Miracle,” the Colombian newsmagazine Semana calls it.
Sandra Torres, a presidential candidate this year in Guatemala, vowed to replicate that miracle by importing the “Bukele Model.” So did the mayor of Lima, who’s invited Salvadoran officials to the Peruvian capital to offer advice. Jan Topić, a law-and-order presidential candidate, has been dubbed “the Ecuadorian Bukele.”
Can the Bukele Model be exported? Many analysts are dubious. El Salvador is small, the size of New Jersey.
And Bukele doesn’t face the same legislative or legal hurdles that other leaders do. His New Ideas party controls Congress. Its legislators have given him control over the legal system too — replacing key members of the Supreme Court and scores of prosecutors and judges. When Bukele sought a one-month state of emergency in March 2022, the request sailed through Congress. It has been extended 18 times.
“The Bukele Model is this,” said Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist who has studied El Salvador’s gangs. “Concentrating all the power in one man.”
Bukele did not respond to an interview request. His security minister declined to comment.
Under emergency rule, the national police and military have detained suspects inside homes, in backyard hammocks, at construction sites. Human rights groups say many have been arrested on specious evidence: They had a tattoo, or a criminal record, or a feud with someone who called the police tip line with a false accusation.
When Barahona heard the knock on his door in June 2022, he had no idea what was coming.
Did he have a tattoo? He rolled up his sleeve to show the faded black outlines of a rose. He had gotten it when he was 20, a weightlifter working at a gym. Now he was a grandfather, his hair a graying bristle, his teeth yellowed like old piano keys.
The officers handcuffed him. Three days later, Barahona was charged with supporting a gang. The police report said he had been “acting suspiciously,” he was told. The national police did not respond to a request for comment.
Barahona landed in a cell with around 100 men at the Izalco prison, west of San Salvador. They slept packed together “like slices of sandwich bread,” he said. Meals were small portions of plain spaghetti, tortillas, and rice and beans. They got two hard-boiled eggs a week.
Fungal infections sprouted on Barahona’s hands and feet. By March, he hadn’t been out in the sun for eight months. When the men were given Bibles, he squinted. “I couldn’t read the Scriptures.”
Barahona’s account, provided in July, couldn’t be independently confirmed. But it matches reports compiled by the human rights organization Cristosal. Salvadoran jails have reached “overcrowding levels never seen in this country,” the group said.
Prison authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
At least 181 detainees have died since the start of emergency rule, Cristosal’s executive director, Noah Bullock, told The Washington Post. Some were beaten so badly, he said, that their stomachs and intestines were destroyed.
They “couldn’t eat anymore,” he said, “and ended up dying of hunger.”
Salvadoran officials deny torturing detainees. And they say the death rate in prisons was higher under Bukele’s predecessor, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
Indeed, human rights groups have accused the ex-president of turning prisons into torture centers. “That ruined the structure of the maras,” or gangs, said Martinez, the anthropologist.
By the time Sánchez Cerén left office, he had cut the homicide rate in half.
He paved the way for Bukele.
But curiously, even as Bukele dramatically escalated arrests, the gangs didn’t fight back.
That has raised speculation the gang bosses were bought off. There’s a tradition in El Salvador of politicians secretly negotiating with the gangs, and it continued at least into the early years of Bukele’s government, investigations by the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments show.
Bukele has objected strenuously to such claims.
The president’s critics at home and abroad accuse him of violating human rights and strangling democracy. Bukele says they’re missing the point.
“Nobody says criminals don’t have rights,” he said in a speech last year. “But why is the focus always on the rights of criminals, while for the vast majority — the honorable people — no one cares about their rights?”
In Villa del Sol, residents shrug off the allegations of human rights abuses. They’re nothing new.
Barahona’s old friend Cesar Acevedo was imprisoned and tortured in 2017, he said, after the local gang ordered him to use his pickup truck to carry a bag of human remains to a burial site. So many people like him had become accomplices, willing or not, in gang-ridden towns: paying extortion, handing over food, providing a ride.
When Bukele declared his state of emergency, Acevedo said, “I didn’t sleep or eat for the first two or three months.”
But this time, he wasn’t arrested.
Now, his adult children can visit this town without fear. Acevedo gives the president a near-perfect rating: “I’m very happy.”
Salvadorans have the highest rate of support for democracy of any country in Latin America, at 64 percent, according to a study issued recently by Latinobarómetro. One reason Bukele looks good to many Salvadorans: Each of his three predecessors has been charged with crimes, including corruption and money laundering.
The Salvadoran constitution limits presidents to a single term, but Bukele has announced he will seek reelection in February.
Other signs of democratic decline are more subtle. Salvadorans are euphoric over the sharp decrease in crime following the anti-gang roundups. But few have noticed the government has stopped issuing detailed homicide data.
Celia Medrano, a human rights activist and opposition politician, said it’s clear murders have dropped. But how much?
She noted that Bukele has been accused in the past of manipulating numbers to enhance his image. The newspaper La Prensa Gráfica recently reported his government acknowledged only one-third of the suspected covid-19 deaths that occurred during the pandemic.
“Who’s to say they’re not doing the same thing with homicide figures?” she asked.
After 11 months in prison, Barahona was released in May. His family barely recognized him. He had lost more than 70 pounds. He was “like a piece of paper,” his daughter Andrea said. “So, so white.”
Barahona says he doesn’t know why he was imprisoned, why he was released, or why he’s still listed as under investigation. He suspects local officials were annoyed by his interview shows on radio and TV.
Angélica Cárcamo heads the Journalists Association of El Salvador, which has hired lawyers to defend Barahona. She thinks his arrest might have been retaliation for his work. Or perhaps he had unwittingly crossed paths with someone who didn’t appear to be in a gang.
It was a long-standing issue, she said. “Who’s a gang member? The guy with the tattoos? Or someone you don’t know is involved?”
Andrés Guzmán, El Salvador’s commissioner for human rights and freedom of expression, said in a WhatsApp message that “No journalists are, or have been, detained for exercising their profession.” He declined to elaborate on Barahona’s case.
Martínez, the anthropologist, said he understood the jubilation over the defeat of the gangs — but “people don’t care that this happiness comes via the tragedy of thousands of families” of detainees. “This is a society with very little empathy.”
Others call it survival.
Verónica Reyna, a security analyst, said people in impoverished neighborhoods had suffered so much from both gang violence and police abuse that “the only thing you seek is not to be on the receiving end.”
It was a fate that Barahona had been unable to avoid, a fate that others before him couldn’t escape either, back when El Salvador wasn’t a regional celebrity.
On the night Barahona returned home, his old neighbor Acevedo got a call.
When he heard the news, Acevedo burst into tears.