Outside the walls of a Salvadoran prison, ‘we are all crying mothers’

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A 19-year-old man stumbled out of a patrol car and fell into the arms of his girlfriend, who stole a desperate kiss from him. His older sister, watching, cried out. Seconds later, the young man, Irvin Antonio Hernández, was gone, dragged to the prison across the street.

The two women collapsed on a nearby wooden bench alongside strangers who understood better than anyone what had just happened. All her children had disappeared behind those same walls.

Following a record weekend of gang killings in March, the Salvadoran government declared a state of emergency and suspended constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. The mass arrest campaign that followed led to the imprisonment of more than 25,000 people in about a month and a half.

Many of those detained have been sent to a prison known as “El Penalito,” a dilapidated building in the capital San Salvador that has become ground zero of perhaps the most aggressive police crackdown in the Central American country. history. It’s a first stop in what could be a long stay inside the country’s overcrowded prison system.

Many inmates spend days to weeks inside El Penalito before being transferred to a maximum security facility. After the crackdown, relatives of the detainees began to gather outside on the street, waiting to find out what would happen next.

On a recent Thursday, dozens of mothers, grandmothers, sisters and girlfriends huddled around rickety wooden tables outside the prison, hunched over bags filled with the documents they hoped would prove their loved ones’ innocence: government ID cards, records school, work credentials. .

María Elena Landaverde took vacation days and convinced a friend to take her at dawn to try to see a child who was picked up while bringing breakfast to his family. Morena Guadalupe de Sandoval hurried when her son called to say that cops had taken him off a bus home from her janitor job in the city. Edith Amaya said she saw bruises on her son’s face before police took him away.

“We want to see him one more time,” said de Sandoval, sobbing alongside his own mother, who helped raise his son, Jonathan González López. “Here, we are all crying mothers.”

The question De Sandoval keeps asking himself is does anyone care? El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has admitted that the innocent are being caught up in the crackdown, but insists they are a small part of the arrests. And the vast majority of Salvadorans — more than 80%, according to polls — support Bukele and approve of the government’s extreme measures.

The hatred of the gangs runs so deep in El Salvador that many want to subdue them by any means necessary. Local and international media have broadcast images of family members asking the police for information about their children and screaming as they are taken away. So far, nothing has turned public opinion against the mass arrest campaign or the president who leads it.

But while the women searching for their children in Salvadoran prisons are by no means an organized political group, their anger should not be underestimated, experts say.

Bereaved mothers have a history of banding together in Latin America, provoking more enduring challenges for autocratic governments.

For now, the women outside El Penalito are concentrating on keeping their children fed. Bukele has boasted of rationing food to prisoners during the crackdown, so many families choose to buy food from relatives at a government-sanctioned kitchen with a small outpost open outside the prison.

There used to be just one caterer for everyone, but after so many arrests in recent weeks, another team next door was allowed to start serving food and supplying other necessities like toothpaste and underpants.

“It’s because of the whole monopoly thing,” said one of the women who worked in the original kitchen, who declined to give her name for fear of retaliation. Relatives of inmates had complained in the past about giving a company the exclusive right to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner, local media reported.

Women outside the prison learn much from the employees of the two caterers, who are often among the first to know when inmates are transferred from their holding cells to another prison. Family members get much less out of the prison itself, which has a small window to answer questions but offers few answers.

“We don’t know anything,” de Sandoval said. She held up a Burger King badge with a picture of his baby-faced son, Jonathan. “He doesn’t belong to any gang,” she insisted. Before his arrest, the 21-year-old worked at another restaurant in the capital, his mother said, as a janitor.

González’s girlfriend, sitting next to de Sandoval, now cares for their young son without the help of her income. “What will she do?” Sandoval asked. “We are poor. Who is going to help us?”

It has been difficult to determine how the Salvadoran police have identified their targets, because arrests have been so rapid and widespread. The government did not grant an interview with the national police chief, but relatives of those arrested during the state of emergency said many were targeted if they had run-ins with police in the past.

Irvin Antonio Hernandez was arrested when he ran after his little sister, who had staggered behind the family’s dogs. Hernandez, shirtless and shoeless, ended up in handcuffs.

“The only thing they said was ‘boy, come here,’” said Noemí Hernández, his older sister. “’Put on shoes and a shirt and we’ll go.’”

Hernandez was arrested several years ago, his mother said, when she says two gang members fleeing police broke into his home. The boy was also taken away, although Noemí Hernández said that her brother had nothing to do with the gang.

“He studied until the ninth grade and now he works,” he said, as tears seeped through his mask. “He sells fruit and vegetables and has his own house.”

Listening from the sidewalk, Liliana Aquino burst out.

“We poor people put it there!” he said, referring to the president. “But we poor people are suffering now.”

In 2019, Aquino, 30, was disgusted with the Salvadoran political class and happily voted for the young Bukele. He called him “my president” and said that people who care about respecting the rights of gang members are absurd.

“A mobster doesn’t respect anything, he doesn’t think about me,” he said. Her mother used to sell sandwiches at a local market and she ran away trying to make money and also cover extortion fees charged by a gang. At the end of the year, Aquino said, the gangs demanded that her mother give them a bonus.

“If you don’t pay, they kill you,” Aquino said. Even if he pays, he said, he is not safe in El Salvador. Innocent bystanders are killed in the crossfire of gang shootouts all the time, he said.

She was off the premises that day because her brother was recently arrested on suspicion of being a gang member, she said. But she insisted that he fixes the appliances and goes to work every day.

Aquino still supported the president and believed he had made the country a better place to live. Still, the arbitrariness of his brand of justice was beginning to wear on her.

“He’s been very helpful,” Aquino said. “But that help has come at the cost of many mothers’ tears.”

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