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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. El Salvador has experienced a remarkable transformation. What had been one of the most violent countries in the world has become incredibly safe. Today, my colleague, Natalie Kytroweef, on the cost of that transformation to the people of El Salvador and the man at center of it, President Naib Bukele, who claimed victory in an election on Sunday. It's Wednesday, February seventh. Natalie, you've spent the past few months reporting on El Salvador. Tell us what you've been finding in your reporting.


I've been really interested in El Salvador since I became the bureau chief in Mexico City. I mean, this is this tiny country, the smallest country in Central America, that now has this broad resonance across the region because it has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last few years. Now, to really understand the magnitude of this change of what's happened, you have to remember that El Salvador was long known as one of the world's most violent countries.


Government troops troops in El Salvador.


Nowhere in the world today is there a fiercer, bloodier battle for control of a nation.


This is violence that traces itself back to this bloody civil war that the country fought, it ended in 1992. It sent hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fleeing to the United States, where they developed these street gangs. In El Salvador, they fight against each other.


But in Los Angeles, they stand side by side on street corners, hoping to find a day's work.


The MS-13 Gang, the 18th Street Gang.


This government video shows some of the arrestees getting on a plane, being deported.


When the US started deporting Salvadorans back home.


In this case, back to El Salvador and leaving the plane free of handcuffs and leg chain.


They brought the gangs with them, and they grew them. These gangs, they started to dominate vast swaths of the country, and they really divided the country up into their own fiefs. They ruled over their turf with extreme violence. I mean, the level of brutality that people were subjected to was just remarkable. The Central American Nation of El Salvador has seen a terrifying surge in violence this year. And they created these invisible borders across the country. I mean, if you lived in a neighborhood controlled by one gang, you could not cross into a neighborhood controlled by the rival gang, even if you had no gang affiliation, because doing so could get you killed. Wow. People I talked to in El Salvador said they couldn't go to the police. The police were seen as untrustworthy, in some cases, corrupt. If you went to the police, people told me, the police would point you out to the gang, and that could get you killed. For many Salvadorans, they really felt they had absolutely no recourse. But now, in the past two years, you've seen this total transformation of the country, and the gangs that used to dominate have been decimated.


It's open warfare among the gangs, and this is misery for the population of El Salvador. Now, Now, you're seeing this remarkable transformation, as you just told me. How did we get here from there?


Well, a lot of it comes down to this one guy.. Naib Bukele. He's an unlikely political phenomenon. He's the descendant of a family of Palestinian migrants. He grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood. He was educated at an elite bilingual school. He started out as a publicist on political campaigns and really gets his start.


At the age of 30, when he becomes mayor of a small town, but his rise is meteoric. He soon becomes mayor of the capital, San Salvador.


He's this backwards hat-wearing digital guy. I mean, he understands social media. He understands marketing. He is able to sell himself super effectively. And in 2018, he decides to run for President, and he really bills himself as this change candidate.




He is going to break with the corrupt politics of the past.


Bukele capitalized on disenchantment with the country's two main parties, which have been in power for nearly three decades.


One of his key promises is he's going to address the crime problem.




In 2019, he's elected by a pretty significant margin.


What does he do once he gets into office?


One of the first things we hear about on Bukele's crime strategy is that Salvador and media reports that his government is actually negotiating with gang leaders in prison. This is later confirmed by US officials. They say that Bukale's administration negotiated with gang leaders in prison for a reduction in homicides in exchange for prison benefits and other financial incentives. Now, murders go down, and that actually helps his popularity, which is sky high at this point. He starts to consolidate power. His party wins a super-majority in 2021 in the legislative assembly, and that allows them to make pretty radical changes. They dismiss top Supreme Court judges, They dismiss the attorney general who is investigating his government for corruption. It gives Bukele a lot of control over the country.


Is this because he was able to make this deal with the gangs, buying them off in a way?


Well, that's what the local media and the US government says. I mean, he denies the charge that he negotiated with the gangs. But it's very clear that the security situation, which has calmed down at this point, is a big part of his appeal. But That calm is broken in March of 2022, when there is an explosion of gang violence over one weekend.


62 homicides on Saturday, the most in one single day in more than 20 years.


The gangs just went on a killing spree. Some theorize that maybe this pact that he allegedly came to with the gangs broke apart. But in any case, the result is that his administration responds with force.


What do they do?


They impose a state of emergency, and this is a really extreme situation.


An increased army presence on the streets in El Salvador.


The government sends soldiers onto the streets and launch a campaign of mass arrests.


The President and Congress passing a temporary move to impose restrictions on assembly, extend police detentions, and allow the intercept communications like phone calls.


The government suspends key constitutional rights indefinitely.


They say they've arrested over 6,000 suspected gang members, tracking them in neighborhoods, inside homes, and even hiding underground.


Thousands and thousands of people who are put behind bars with no due process. Nayib Bukele and the National Police touting the efforts on social media all week using the hashtag war against gangs. As you can imagine, this really quickly transforms El Salvador.


It transforms El Salvador into what sounds like a police state. What did that feel like for people in El Salvador?


I've gone to El Salvador several times over the last two years to try to understand that question, Sabrina. In my most recent trip in January, I met this family that really encapsulates the complexity baked into how people feel about this.. I met them at their home, this modern house, three rooms, just outside of San Salvador.




And sat down there with Irma, who's 56, and her husband, Mario, and they have two sons.. Irma has lived in El Salvador her whole life. She makes and sells corn tortillas for a living, and she really lived through the worst of this country's violence.


She says the community where she lived, which was gang control, was just a nightmare. She says gang members would enter her home without asking for permission when they were hiding.


They would run on top of the roofs. She showed me her room, which is next to the window. She said she was afraid that bullets would come in. But even with all of that, what weighed on her the most is that she said it was too dangerous for her to go visit her mom because her mom lived in a neighborhood controlled by a rival gang. When Bukela enters the scene.. She says she has a lot of hope. She voted for him.




When the state of emergency gets announced, she said she noticed her community just radically changed.




Things got better really quickly. But then a month later, this war on the gangs really comes to her doorstep.




Her son, Mario, who's 26, had come over to help her wash the corn and prepare the dough that she needs to sell her tortillas. And he tells her that he's going to go get a haircut because he's looking shaggy and he has work the next day. And a few hours later, her husband gets a call from Mario saying that he's been arrested. So her husband rushes to the scene. He asks the police for answers. He begs for answers. Why is my son being taken away? What is going on? The police brush him off and to rush him off, and then they directly tell him, Look, stop asking questions or else we're going to detain you, too.


Was there a chance he was, in fact, a gang member?


She showed me documents showing that he worked at a call center, that he had no criminal record. But at the time, and remember, these were mass arrests and there was no due process. This is the other prong of Bukele's security strategy, which is that there is a suspension of constitutional rights. Human rights groups say that there were thousands of people who were not gang members who were still thrown behind bars. That's of more than 75,000 who've been arrested during the state of emergency. There have been reports that prisoners have been tortured and deprived of food inside prisons. Really, what happens is that you get arrested, you disappear into the prison system, and you're never really heard from again. I mean, this is the case for Irma and her family. For almost two years, they have not heard from or seen Mario. They have no idea how he's doing. And that includes his eight-year-old son, who asks about Mario all the time and misses him a lot.




It's been a huge wound for the family.


Her son's house is just a few houses down from hers. And we went there and looked at it, and it's like this time capsule.


They've barely touched it since he was taken away. We're here in Mario's room where he has drawings by his son of a coffee mug and a blue blob and. It's all dusty. I mean, she says she can't even go there.




While we were there, she just broke down.


Natalie, what does she say about Bukele? I mean, she voted for him, right?


Well, that's the thing this whole time. I'm wondering, what does she think about the president who, in many ways, is responsible for her son's arrest?


The thing is-.


She doesn't blame him.




In fact, she said she supports everything the President does.


We'll be right back. So, Natalie, help me understand this here. She's still supportive of Bukele despite the fact that she has lost her son, whom she says is innocent.


Yeah, I think Irma represents how a lot of Salvadorans feel. I've heard this sentiment a lot in my trips to the country. The way she explains it is that, first of all, she takes it out of Bukele's hands.




She says, Look, what Bukele said was to go after guilty people. He wasn't the one actually making the arrests. There were other people on the ground doing this. If mistakes were made by them, well, those were mistakes that they made, not Bukele. It's not his fault.


It reminds me, Natalie, of Russia and the way Russians see Putin, that he's floating above it all. He knows best. It's just his corrupt companions who are bumbling the job when they carry it out.


Yeah, she has absolute faith in Bukele's intentions and in what he wanted to do. And that explains the other piece of this for Irma. She's a very religious person, and she sees all of this as part of God's plan for her. I mean, she sees herself as suffering the consequences of a broader direction for the country that is overall good.




She basically refers to herself as collateral damage to this bigger change in the country. That change is one she really supports. This thing that happened with her son is causing her a lot of pain, but it That doesn't make her question the bigger purpose of it all...


Wow, that is extraordinary. She's choosing her community above herself. It's probably also a measure of the sheer desperation Salvadorans had to escape lawless violence, right? That state of being that was so painful for them for so many years.


Absolutely. This is a population that was living under extreme violence for years and years and years. To now have that removed from the picture, I mean, for many people, that's worth the price of unjust arrests or of having the military on the streets. When you look at what Bukele has done, it really goes way beyond the state of emergency. His party replaced Supreme Court judges, who then reinterpreted the country's Constitution to allow him to run for re-election. Legal scholars say this is explicitly banned in the Constitution, but he did it anyway. And so people inside the country and outside, are looking at what Bukele is doing and saying this is chipping away at the foundations of democracy. They're wondering how democratic is the country anymore. But when you ask people who lived in communities that were really war zones in the past, they sound a lot like Irma.


What was Bukele's response to the accusations that he might be tugging the country away from democracy, that the system of democracy in El Salvador was in danger under him?


Well, right after I talked to Irma-. I went to the residence of the vice president, Felix Oyoa, vice president. Felix Oyoa. He's a 72-year-old politician. He's someone who's been in this world for a long time, and I wanted to ask him about these criticisms. We sat down The first thing we talked about were cases like Irma's. How the government justifies sweeping up so many people that are not gang members.




What he said was, We're in a war, and in a war, there's collateral damage.




There's a margin of error. So he's acknowledging that mistakes have been made, essentially, but saying this is the price of something that is changing the country.


No, lo veo como una posibilidad He's saying, Look, the innocent people will eventually be released.


The government has released 7,000 people from jails, but human rights groups say thousands more remain behind bars or not gang members. When I asked him about the charge that his government was undermining democracy, he told me something pretty remarkable.


What he said was, What democracy.


When he said,. What democracy did we have in this country that left us with tens of thousands of dead? That just serve to benefit corrupt politicians. That's the democracy you're so concerned about? He said, To the people that say that we are dismantling democracy.




We're not dismantling it, he said. We are eliminating it. He said the system that existed before was rotten, corrupt, and bloody.


Félix Ulloa ha dicho que están sustituyendo la democracia por algo nuevo..


And Bukele was asked about these comments in a news conference on Sunday, shortly before he claimed a resounding victory in the election. The votes are still being counted, but his win looked decisive.


And he said,. We're not eliminating democracy because El Salvador has never had democracy..


He said this is the first time the country has ever had democracy.


Okay, which is not actually true because obviously they've had elections. So what's he talking about? What does he mean there?


I think it really comes down to how this government defines democracy. Critics point out that there are really no checks on his power, nothing stopping him from doing whatever he wants in the country. But he says, Look, this is the will of the people. We have popular support. We won re-election. When you ask people on the streets, people will say, Look, these are the results we have been craving. This security situation for us is priceless. It's not just in El Salvador that he has this appeal. Bukele has become a model across the region, a reference point. You have politicians in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, folks promising to emulate his model, and in some case, putting pieces of it to work in their own countries.


Which makes me wonder, Natalie, how is El Salvador being seen by the US right now? I mean, I imagine one fewer democracy in its backyard is probably not a great thing. Is the Biden administration talking about this?


I mean, in the beginning of Bukele's term, the Biden administration was very vocal, pushing back on some of what was seen as attacks on democracy. But over the last year or so, not so much. Part of the issue here is that the security situation, analysts say, has contributed to a real drop in illegal migration from El Salvador, which is something that the Biden administration cares about a lot You have fewer Salvadorans going to the US border. That's a factor. I think there's a broader understanding that, look, people are voting for this. So what is it going to look like if we start criticizing it from the outside? At the same time, there are people, former officials, who are telling me, We are enabling a one-man, authoritarian state to develop in this region.


This It relates to the broader point, which is it's true that people did vote for him. He is popularly elected. People are choosing him because they're so glad to feel safe, even if they're living in a police state. But I guess the question is, what happens when they have a different thing they want to solve for at the ballot box?


Well, yeah. I mean, that's a really big question, Sabrina, and I don't think anybody knows the answer. But the fear, especially among critics of Bukele, is that by the time that people people become satisfied with safety and then maybe have some dissatisfactions with other things, what happens when people start to get frustrated with the lack of job opportunities, or maybe they grow tired of a situation in which all these people are being arrested, or maybe they grow tired of the military being on the streets. The fear is, by that point, there won't be any avenues for real dissent. How will people really be able to exercise their opposition transition to a government that maybe they're not so happy with?


Right. It'll be too late.


That's the fear.


Natalie, thank you.


Thanks, Sabrina.


We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today. On Tuesday.


On this vote, the yays are 214 and the nays are 216.


The resolution is not adopted.


In a stunning defeat for House Republicans and their leader, Speaker Mike Johnson, the chamber rejected impeachment charges against Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security Secretary. The vote failed after a small group of Republicans broke with their party and refused to support Court what amounted to a partisan indictment of President Biden's immigration policies. The rejection was especially embarrassing for Johnson, who had expressed confidence that it would pass, and because Republicans had been promising the impeachment for more than a year. And a federal appeals court rejected Donald Trump's claim of immunity in the case of his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. A three-judge panel in the US Court of Appeals for the district of Columbia Circuit ruled unanimously that Trump must go on trial, marking an important moment in American jurisprudence as the first time an appeals court had ever answered the question of whether former presidents can escape being held criminally accountable for things they did in office. Today's episode was produced by Carlos Prieto, Claire Tennis-Sketter, and Will Reid. It was edited by Lexie Diao and Michael Benoît, with research from Susan Lee. Contains original music by Ron Niemistow, Marion Lozano, Dan Powell, and Diane Wong, and was engineered by Chris Wood.


Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of WNDY. That's it for The Daily. I'm Sabrina Tavernisi. See you tomorrow.