‘Everyday is terrifying’: the lives swept away by the mass arrests in El Salvador | El Salvador

For Nelson Moz, an affable gangland preacher from the violence-ravaged capital of El Salvador, it should have been a happy day.

“It’s an honor to be a pastor here – it’s a privilege!” the church leader told the faithful as they filled Ebenezer Baptist Church on a Sunday morning last month to celebrate the denomination’s 35th anniversary.

But Moz’s mood was gloomy, despite the white streamers and balloons that adorned his temple and the cheering slogan behind his rusty lectern proclaiming “Jesus the King.”

The pastor’s congregation was also smaller than usual after security forces raided the church a few days earlier to capture the tattooed ex-gangsters to whom the sanctuary had offered hope.

“They took them all,” sighed the 60-year-old evangelist, who spent more than a decade fighting to save the lives and souls of some of El Salvador’s most violent men in an infamous gang stronghold called Colonia Dina.

Moz expressed his dismay that police had attacked his church’s rehabilitation center as part of a massive crackdown ordered by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele in late March after an explosion of bloodshed observers suspected it was the result of the collapse. of a secret pact between the government and the gangs.

“Our project wasn’t underground or anything,” the pastor said as he stood in front of a small bakery next to his church where god-embracing ex-cons were taught how to bake bread, not gang warfare.

“The condition of staying in a place like ours is that you have first… served your time,” Moz explained. “We don’t accept anyone who is still actively involved in the gangs… The requirement to be here is that we… have given up on violence.”

But that wasn’t enough to save Moz’s herd from an oppression that saw more than 43,000 Salvadorans detained in the past three months — a stunning security blitz with few parallels in Latin America’s recent history.

“I don’t know where they are taking so many people,” said Óscar Picardo, a prominent academic and political expert.

Bukele’s “state of exception” — declared in late March and recently extended to the end of July — has sparked outrage among human rights activists who say mass human rights violations are being committed.

“They have held tens of thousands of people, many of them because of their physical appearance or because they have tattoos… We have found case after case where the people [being arrested] have no ties to gangs,” said Tamara Taraciuk, acting director of Human Rights Watch in America. “The reality is that this can happen with… [anyone]†

Taraciuk said activists had documented cases of “short-term enforced disappearances” in which targets were herded by troops to undisclosed locations.

“That’s something we used to see in the military dictatorships in South America…but it’s not common these days and it’s really not common in a country where you have a democratically elected president,” Taraciuk said. “It shows how far they’ve gone.”

people wave and celebrate in small church
Members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in San Salvador gathered last month to celebrate its 35th birthday. Photo: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Exhausted from years of rampant gang violence, however, many Salvadorans see little extreme about Bukele’s crusade, which the president likens to chemotherapy. and insists on continuing until “the metastatic cancer” of crime is eradicated.

Picardo recalled how a poll for Bukele’s landslide in 2019 showed voters that voters “crave a truly ironclad government — one with a certain level of authoritarianism to end corruption and impunity”.

“Bukele fills this void, this longing … for a kind of social disciplining, for the punishment of society. [The idea is:] “If you don’t behave, I’ll do this” — and he did,” said Picardo, who estimates the president has the solid support of about half of voters.

“It’s almost a cult,” Picardo said of Bukele’s political movement, which many Salvadorans also attribute to lowering the murder rate and offering generous alms to the poor during the Covid pandemic.

“He doesn’t just say things with his mouth — he makes sure they get them done… He’s a man guided by the hand of God,” said Gilberto Orellana Mena, a 45-year-old preacher who recently attended a meeting in San Salvador where pro-Bukele activists urged him to seek a second term in 2024.

“Nothing happens to those who obey the law,” Orellana said of his leader’s actions, brushing off fears that innocent people would be entangled in Bukele’s dragnet.

Outside the prisons where thousands of mostly young, impoverished men disappear, their panicked relatives beg otherwise.

More than 50 inmates have reportedly died in mysterious circumstances after being arrested on the vague charge of “unlawful gathering”.

“Every day is a torment,” said Marina Lemus de Arce, 50, crying as she described how her son, Wilber Alexander, was seized on Easter Monday in the city of Metapán and taken to Mariona prison.

Since then, Lemus has been sleeping under a sea grape tree outside the gates while waiting for news. “We are all human. There’s no reason to treat us like that,” she sobbed, expressing her disappointment at Bukele’s actions.

“He has promised so many things – and he has not fulfilled them,” said Lemus.

Another woman became angry when she described how her brother, a street vendor from the city of Santa Ana, had been grabbed.

“He’s a chicken head”a bird’s brain… He doesn’t think,” she said of Bukele, before admitting she intended to vote for him herself—and not only because her official ID had been stolen. “I’m a bird brain too,” she admitted. “I thought he would be different.”

At Pastor Moz’s church, preachers respond to the historic crackdown with a message of comfort and hope.

“We’ve had it hard from all sides, but not crushed; stunned, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; crushed, but not destroyed,” he assured the faithful at the anniversary celebration, quoting Corinthians.

With his ex-prisoners reborn back in prison, Moz said he had opened a new front in his fight to help some of El Salvador’s most marginalized citizens. “My work has taken a new turn. Now we have to take care of the women, the mothers and the grandmothers [of the prisoners],” he said. “Here we help the people who need it most.”

As his one-story temple filled with a crescendo of guitar riffs and “Hallelujahs!”, Moz reflected on the turmoil unfolding outside.

“Like all people, there are times when we feel frustration, sadness and confusion… But then comes a moment of reflection when you realize that life also brings hard times and problems… and we learn from them , not true?”

“Our hearts may be restless,” the pastor concluded, “but we are trying to find the strength to carry on.”

Leave a Comment