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Portraits from El Salvador's nearly 2-year, sprawling crackdown on gang suspects

A 16-year-old boy who was captured and claimed to have been beaten by members of El Salvador's naval force in November 2022 in Usulután, a small town in eastern El Salvador.
Carlos Barrera
A 16-year-old boy who was captured and claimed to have been beaten by members of El Salvador's naval force in November 2022 in Usulután, a small town in eastern El Salvador.

Since declaring a state of emergency in March 2022 following a surge in gang violence, El Salvador's government has instituted a state of exception — a policy that temporarily loosens arrest rules and suspends basic rights, including free speech and protest rights — in an effort to crack down on the country's violent gangs.

The policy has garnered popularity for Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, helping to guarantee him a win in Sunday's election. It has also made the country much safer for many residents, who can now move around freely in neighborhoods previously controlled by gangs. The murder rate has plummeted from 53 per 100,000 people in 2018, one of the highest in the world, to one of the lowest in the region, at 2.4 per 100,000 last year.

Salvadoran security forces captured dozens of young people in Las Margaritas, a neighborhood in Soyapango, and took them to jail. Las Margaritas is stigmatized by its being under the control of MS-13, a criminal gang.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
Salvadoran security forces captured dozens of young people in Las Margaritas, a neighborhood in Soyapango, and took them to jail. Las Margaritas is stigmatized by its being under the control of MS-13, a criminal gang.
Manuel, 40, who asked not to be identified by his full name for fear of retribution by the police, spent months inside an El Salvador prison where he said he was tortured and saw his fellow prisoners die during the country's state of exception. Now, he lives with his mother in San Salvador after losing his job while he was incarcerated.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
Manuel, 40, who asked not to be identified by his full name for fear of retribution by the police, spent months inside an El Salvador prison where he said he was tortured and saw his fellow prisoners die during the country's state of exception. Now, he lives with his mother in San Salvador after losing his job while he was incarcerated.
A man with tattoos waits to be interrogated by soldiers on Dec. 3, 2022. According to human rights organizations, having tattoos was the reason many were arrested during the first days of the country's state of emergency.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
A man with tattoos waits to be interrogated by soldiers on Dec. 3, 2022. According to human rights organizations, having tattoos was the reason many were arrested during the first days of the country's state of emergency.

Yet, El Salvador's incarceration rate is now the highest in the world. The government has arrested and detained more than 76,000 people for belonging to gangs or being accused of being affiliated with gangs. Thousands of relatives of gang members have been arrested, too, charged with collaborating with criminal groups. And among the thousands of arrests, human rights organizations say innocent people have been wrongly charged.

The arrests have also resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people human rights organizations say circumstances suggest the state was responsible for.

People line up to show their IDs to police at a checkpoint in Distrito Italia, a dangerous neighborhood in El Salvador, during the first days of the state of exception in April 2022.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
People line up to show their IDs to police at a checkpoint in Distrito Italia, a dangerous neighborhood in El Salvador, during the first days of the state of exception in April 2022.
Dozens of people search in the rain for information about their captured relatives around Izalco jail in Sonsonate, a city west of San Salvador, in April 2022. Some people traveled for hours and slept in the street because they lived up to five hours away from the jail.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
Dozens of people search in the rain for information about their captured relatives around Izalco jail in Sonsonate, a city west of San Salvador, in April 2022. Some people traveled for hours and slept in the street because they lived up to five hours away from the jail.

Those same organizations allege police carried out the arrests to meet quotas without first conducting investigations into the people they were detaining.

In March 2022, at the beginning of the state of exception, dozens of people slept outside the Mariona jail in San Salvador to find more information about their arrested family members.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
In March 2022, at the beginning of the state of exception, dozens of people slept outside the Mariona jail in San Salvador to find more information about their arrested family members.

Most of the arrests, if not all, were made in El Salvador's poorest and most marginalized neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods that once lived under the threat of violence by gangs began to instead live under the threat of police and soldiers who arrested people for looking suspicious, including acting nervous or having tattoos, according to Salvadoran human rights groups Cristosal and Socorro Jurídico.

Young people are arrested by security forces patrolling Soyapango during a crackdown against gangs on Dec. 3, 2022.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
Young people are arrested by security forces patrolling Soyapango during a crackdown against gangs on Dec. 3, 2022.
Relatives of people affected by the state of exception during a performance at a protest against arbitrary arrests. The demonstrators marched from Constitution Monument to the Presidential House in August 2022.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
Relatives of people affected by the state of exception during a performance at a protest against arbitrary arrests. The demonstrators marched from Constitution Monument to the Presidential House in August 2022.

Thousands of detainees were sent to the country's multiple prisons, which ultimately led to a collapse of the penitentiary system that previously held 37,000 detainees and was suddenly burdened with more than 70,000.

People arrested in September 2022 during the state of exception, moments before entering San Salvador's Ilopango jail. Many who claimed to be innocent would end up spending more than a year in prison.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
People arrested in September 2022 during the state of exception, moments before entering San Salvador's Ilopango jail. Many who claimed to be innocent would end up spending more than a year in prison.

The arrests led thousands of relatives of those who'd been detained to gather outside the prisons, hoping for any information about their loved ones. As they slept outside the prisons, many experienced hunger and endured rain without ever receiving any news about their relatives.

People under arrest say goodbye to their relatives outside San Salvador's Ilopango jail in September 2022.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
People under arrest say goodbye to their relatives outside San Salvador's Ilopango jail in September 2022.
A mother cries and asks for mercy as she pleads for her son to be released from jail outside San Salvador's El Penalito jail on Oct. 12, 2022.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
A mother cries and asks for mercy as she pleads for her son to be released from jail outside San Salvador's El Penalito jail on Oct. 12, 2022.

Meanwhile, inside the prisons, dozens of people say they were tortured by prison security members, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal and Socorro Jurídico. Some people who have been released from prison have recounted, anonymously, how they were tortured and beaten until they were unconscious, and how they were denied food or medical attention.

Government officials have repeatedly denied allegations of torture or other violations of freedom of expression.

Relatives of Rodrigo Vázquez Jr., who died in a Salvadoran prison during the state of exception, mourn during his funeral on March 13, 2023.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
Relatives of Rodrigo Vázquez Jr., who died in a Salvadoran prison during the state of exception, mourn during his funeral on March 13, 2023.
Rodrigo Vázquez Jr. was one of more than 200 people who died inside a prison under the custody of the Salvadoran government during the country's state of exception.
/ Carlos Barrera
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Carlos Barrera
Rodrigo Vázquez Jr. was one of more than 200 people who died inside a prison under the custody of the Salvadoran government during the country's state of exception.

As the months passed, prisoners died, many with signs of torture.

Their relatives continue to demand justice, but the process has been slow and the government continues to extend the law that has resulted in thousands of arrests, as well as the deaths of 224 incarcerated people, so far.

Carlos Barrera is a photographer based in the Northern Triangle of Central America. His work is based on the reality of hundreds of Central Americans: violence, culture, politics and society.

Follow him on Instagram at @carlesbarrerah.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carlos Barrera