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What's behind the mass detentions in El Salvador?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Human rights activists are questioning El Salvador's crackdown on crime. Gang violence recently killed 87 people in three days, which is a lot in a small country. President Nayib Bukele responded by declaring a state of emergency and having thousands of people arrested. Human Rights Watch is looking at this, and we've called Tamara Taraciuk Broner from that organization. Welcome to the program.

TAMARA TARACIUK BRONER: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the 87 gang-related killings. How serious is the problem the president says he wants to address?

BRONER: It's a very serious problem. There's no doubt that gangs have committed heinous crimes and that the government needs to protect people from gang violence. They need to dismantle these groups, and they need to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice. But the problem is that instead of doing that, the Bukele government has enacted overly broad, very punitive laws that just undermine the fundamental rights of all Salvadorans.

INSKEEP: Can you be specific there? Which civil rights are being curtailed?

BRONER: Well, they adopted, first, a very vague state of emergency that suspends for 30 days the rights to freedom of association, the rights of assembly, privacy and communications, some due process protections. And just a few days later, the National Assembly adopted a series of criminal laws that, for example, allow for criminal charges against anyone who assists or creates any type of publication, including a graffiti. They allow for faceless judges. They've increased penalties for people allegedly involved in gangs of up to 45 years, and they have made pretrial detention mandatory in these cases.

INSKEEP: Can you help me understand something? You said the freedom of assembly is being curtailed, along with a lot of other things, and that publication has become a crime. That sounds like political repression rather than attacking gang violence. Am I wrong?

BRONER: No, that is correct. The problem is that these laws are so vague that they allow authorities to round up anyone - and they've been doing that - without any guarantees that the people that are being detained - and, you know, we're talking about more than 12,000 people in just a handful of weeks are, in fact, engaged in crimes. And when you're tried by a faceless judge, there's no guarantee that the person on the other side is actually independent and investigating a crime.

INSKEEP: I wouldn't want a faceless judge either, but is there some justification here because the judge might fear gang retaliation in an unsafe country?

BRONER: There is, of course, a reason to fear and that judges need to be protected. But the way to do that is not by undermining the rule of law but rather by strengthening it. And the problem in El Salvador is that the president has taken over the legislature. He controls the legislative assembly, and he controls the courts. So today, you don't have any institution in El Salvador that is independent and can put a check on his powers. So he wants to adopt a state of emergency, and he goes to Congress and he gets it passed. He wants these laws to pass, and they pass. And then you have his police implementing it. And when you look at his Twitter account, which is the way he governs, you have tweets from the president himself saying, you know, do you want to know why this person is a gang member? Look at their tattoos. That is not the way to investigate crimes.

INSKEEP: Can you follow up there? When you said his Twitter account, which is the way that he governs, Americans have a little bit of experience with presidents like that. What do you mean by that?

BRONER: I mean, he expresses what needs to happen in public policy through Twitter. But then it happens because he controls the judiciary, and he controls the legislature. And he's been attacking and undermining the free press and the work of civil society. And you do not have institutions that are strong enough to respond in El Salvador.

INSKEEP: Freedom House - I was looking at the rankings. Freedom House ranks countries according to how free they are or are not, and El Salvador wasn't doing very well to begin with. They're kind of a middling country at best, ranked only partly free. Has it grown significantly worse in the past few weeks?

BRONER: It has gone significantly worse, I would say, in the couple of years since Bukele took office. Look, when we talk about repression in Latin America, people usually think about the dictatorships in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Nicaragua. But what we're seeing in the region - and Bukele is an excellent example of that - is people who get to power through democratic elections, and once they are in power, they just turn their back on democratic guarantees. And Bukele has done that at an alarming speed.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at a poll here that shows his approval rating very high, in the 80% range. Do you believe that number? And why do you think it would be, given all that you've said?

BRONER: He is very popular, and that is one of the biggest challenges we have when these sorts of things happen in a country like El Salvador. And he is popular because he managed, in a way, to reduce homicides during the first couple of years of his mandate. It's - the problem here is that you have this spike of violence in three days, which is the consequence of probably his truce with the gangs breaking. So this is not a clear public security policy. This is just an arrangement that hasn't brought security to the people. And he won't get it through these repressive laws.

INSKEEP: Tamara Taraciuk Broner is acting America's director of Human Rights Watch. Thanks so much.

BRONER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.