This is a long shot set in the middle of a park. We see some men with their backs to the camera and facing a wall with their hands on their hands as they are being searched by police.
A military patrol frisks Miguel Martir (in red) in downtown San Salvador in February 2024. Martir says he doesn't mind the intrusion as the security measures have helped to drastically reduce gang violence in El Salvador.

In El Salvador, peaceful streets carry hidden costs

‘It is safer now, but we have less support from the government than ever.’

“On average, I am searched four to five times a week, but sometimes it happens three times a day. I have gotten used to it, and consent to this situation if this stops the gangs from re-emerging.”

Speaking to photojournalist Fritz Pinnow minutes after being frisked by a military patrol in downtown San Salvador last month, Miguel Martir underscored the complex trade-offs many Salvadorans are facing amid President Nayib Bukele’s tough crackdown on gangs.

Bukele is riding a wave of popularity, even though rights groups have condemned his policies as regressive, pointing to a rise in systematic detentions, forced disappearances, and torture since he introduced an ongoing state of emergency in 2022.

On 4 February, he was re-elected president of El Salvador with more than 84% of the vote. The result was expected. In the past few years, the 42-year-old president has enjoyed a popularity rate ranging between 70% and 93% thanks to his so-called mano dura (iron fist) security policies. 

El Salvador faced soaring murder rates for decades, and was considered the most violent country in the world in 2015. For years, Salvadorans couldn't lead normal lives because of gang extortion and continuous turf wars. They were charged to run their businesses, couldn’t walk from one block to another without risking their lives, and children would get caught up in gang crossfire on their way to school or while playing in the streets.

Bukele tackled the crisis by launching a full-scale war on the gangs, declaring an ongoing state of exception only hours after the notorious MS-13 gang murdered 87 people over one weekend in March 2022, breaking a clandestine truce his government had established a year earlier. He also built a mega-prison, and had more than 70,000 alleged gang members arbitrarily arrested. The country now has the lowest murder rate in Latin America, and has become a model for other countries in the region. 

Amid fears of an authoritarian drift and widespread reports of human rights violations, critics say the crackdown on gangs has caused the government's attention on humanitarian issues to dwindle, and flag that it is the most vulnerable that are paying the highest cost for the country's security.

At the end of 2023, World Food Programme figures showed that 26% of the Central American country’s families lived in multi-dimensional poverty. More than one million Salvadorans out of a population of 6.3 million need humanitarian aid, the majority of them women. 

According to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, at least 611,000 women need assistance due to the combined effects of food insecurity, the lack of job opportunities, low purchasing power, and gender-based violence. In March 2023, the citizen observatory Salvador Cómo Vamos reported that 27% of women working or looking for work were paid under the minimum wage.

It is men who are more often arrested, or go missing, but women also pay a price.

“The police took [my partner] and now we barely make enough money to eat or buy diapers for the kids,” Katherine Hernández, whose partner was arrested in July 2022, told Pinnow as he traversed the country to report on the different faces of this new reality. “My mother has to work two jobs to provide for us.”

In rural El Salvador – part of the drought-prone Dry Corridor – farmers feel left behind. The effects of climate change have plagued the agricultural sector with both droughts and heavy rainfall, affecting crops and food security. But agriculture is one of many areas – along with education and health – where public funding has been cut as Bukele raised the budget for security. 

“We are abandoned here. Yes, it is safer now, but we have less support from the government than ever,” said Leonidas Díaz, a cattle farmer who lives in a remote area of San Miguel, about 140 kilometres from the capital.

Pinnow’s photos and reporting below give a sense of the tangled – often competing – narratives within Salvadoran society under Bukele.

‘The coolest dictator in the world’

A group of people are gathered. At the center we see a person pass a calendar to another person. The calendar has a photograph of El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele.
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

Four days before the 4 February elections, members of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, handed out merchandise to a long line of supporters in the central park in San Salvador. 

Bukele’s extreme popularity allowed him to bypass a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms and win re-election. His party also gathered 54 of the legislative assembly's 60 seats.

“We love Bukele!” exclaimed 22-year-old Dany Rodriguez, a vocal supporter of the president. “He did what nobody else could, bringing all those criminals to prison. As a young person, these gangs would constantly harass or threaten me.” 

For others, however, Bukele's consolidation of power has raised concerns that he aims to further weaken the country’s shaky democratic foundations.

“If at some point the people of El Salvador want to remove him, they will not be able to,” said Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, a civil rights group. “He is effectively dismantling the separation of powers on which democratic institutions rely.”

Bukele has consistently dismissed accusations of authoritarianism.

In September 2021, he changed his X (formerly known as Twitter) account’s profile description to “the coolest dictator in the world” as an ironic response to criticism over his growing hold on the country. And in his February victory speech, he accused the international media of leading “an orchestrated attack” against him and Salvadoran democracy.

‘We had to borrow a lot of money’

Twenty-year-old Jennifer Hernández is pictured holding her son Alexander as they look at photos on a wall of Alexander's father.
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

Twenty-year-old Jennifer Hernández was five months pregnant with her son Alexander when his father, Wilian Martínez, was arrested in July 2022. The detention happened after an anonymous caller claimed he had ties to the gangs in the neighbourhood, which Hernández strongly denies.

Alexander has never met his father, so Hernández shows him pictures of him on the wall. Wilian was a handyman and provided for them. Since his detention, Hernández has been left with no income. The partner of her sister, Katherine, was arrested 10 months later. They now both live with their mother in the Mejicanos neighbourhood on the outskirts of San Salvador.

To begin with, Hernández said, their mother worked as a babysitter during the day and in a food stand at night, providing them with a $200 monthly income. Of that, $50 went on “jail packages” for their partners, so they could eat and have some money in prison. “Until my sister was able to get a job, we had to borrow a lot of money, which we can barely pay back now,” she added.

Hernández takes care of her son and her niece while her sister and mother work. They mostly eat rice and beans, and can afford meat or chicken only once or twice a month. 

The toll on children's mental health

Jennifer Hernandez (22) and her daughter Elizabeth (2) looking at images on the wall of Elizabeth's father who was arrested due to an anonymous call.
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

Katherine Hernández said her two-year-old daughter witnessed the military take her father when he was arrested due to an anonymous call last May. She said her daughter has had several panic attacks since, particularly when she sees the security forces patrol the neighbourhood. She also suffers from insomnia and anxiety, and can spend the whole night crying.

“I was recommended to take her to a psychologist because her behaviour has only worsened with time, but I can’t afford it,” Katherine said.

The overloaded public health system is not an option for her. Vilma Larínez, a reporter from the feminist media outlet Alharaca, said hers is not an isolated case.

“Young mothers are confronted with traumatised children and lack the resources to combat the issue,” Larínez said. ”The toll the security crackdown has had on mental health is completely underestimated, and there are no services these families can rely on.”

The Associated Press recently reported that 40,000 children have seen one or both parents detained since the beginning of the state of exception in March 2022.

‘I lost it all’

Daisy López, 67, is inside her small shop in San Salvador’s central market. She is surrounded by various scrap metals. There she repaints scrap metal and sells it as replacement parts.
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

Daisy López, 67, has a small shop in San Salvador’s central market where she repaints scrap metal and sells it as replacement parts. Like most business owners in the capital, she used to have to pay extortion money to the gangs as a street vendor.

Elmer Joaquim, 45, another shop owner, said gang members used to demand at least $100 weekly to allow them to run businesses in the area. “If you missed two payments, someone died. That's how it was before Bukele’s crackdown,” he said.

But now, other issues have surfaced: Street vendors like López say the government is pushing them off the streets into cubicles in a pre-constructed market for which they have to pay a $75 rent.

“[Last year], they came in the early morning with a bulldozer and ran over the [informal] wooden stands we had,” López said. “I had just paid $1,000 a week earlier to renovate my stand. I lost it all, in addition to everything I was selling at the time.”

Increasing inflation has also reduced her margins as Salvadorans’ purchasing power has diminished. Many of her peers have been forced to move to rural parts of El Salvador where they are still able to do street vending without paying rent.

The burden of care

Angela Bautista (66) is pictured in a room with turquoise walls. Behind her is a drawer with some folded laundry on it. Angela wears a red-checkered apron over a red blouse.
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

At 66, Angela Bautista was forced to take care of her two grandchildren after both her daughter and her son were arrested only days apart for allegedly being involved in a neighbourhood gang. She insists both her children, who have no prior convictions, are innocent. She had to ask one of the children's aunts to take care of one of them because she wasn’t able to tend to two children at the same time.

“I am sick and old. Sometimes I cannot lift things or use my left arm due to the pain, but now I have to start making tortillas again and sell them on the street to feed my granddaughter,” she said.

Bautista, one of many Salvadoran grandmothers struggling through a precarious situation, finds it difficult to look after the seven-year-old child, who suffers from a chronic gastrointestinal illness and requires special care. “She needs a lot of attention I cannot give her,” she said.

Bukele’s government announced a significant increase in health spending, but media reports suggest not all funds have been disbursed, and the public health sector budget has actually diminished. Salvadorans generally complain about having to wait months, if not years, to receive medical treatment.

‘Farmers are pushed into extreme poverty’

Ernesto Vladimir (27) is pictured on a farm from afar. Behind him in the landscape is a volcano. He wears red pants, a beige, loose, button up shirt and a hat.
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

Rural areas of El Salvador face higher poverty rates than cities – 29.6% versus 24.9% in 2022.

Twenty-seven-year old Ernesto Vladimir works in a farming settlement called Hacienda Casa Mota in the east of El Salvador. He lives with his son, raises cattle, and grows corn and sorgo (sorghum), which he then sells in markets or to the distributors who supply the cities.

Climate change, and particularly the recent effects of the El Niño phenomenon, mean he is losing his source of livelihood. Extreme weather patterns are the main driver of food insecurity in the region.

“We are smacked right in the middle of the Dry Corridor. The summers dry out our fields and we have to artificially maintain them; and then in the winters we are completely drowned by heavy rainfalls,” Vladimir said.

He currently uses an improvised watering system connected to a well. The crisis, he said, could be addressed with some government investment in infrastructure to catch and store water during the winter to mitigate summer droughts, but there is no funding to set it up.

“There is no way we can do this by ourselves,” he added.

Mauricio Roberto Linares Ramírez, who holds the only opposition seat on the country's Commission for Agriculture and Environment, confirmed that the agricultural sector is being left behind. 

“The military gets $900 million, while the agricultural sector only receives $85 million, a figure that decreases by about $5 million each year due to the upscaling of the security measures,” he said. “This sector is completely forgotten, and the farmers are pushed into extreme poverty.”

‘We are abandoned’

This is a close up of Díaz’s (63) hands. In them is shredded sorgo (sorghum).
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

Leonidas Díaz, 63, uses shredded sorgo (sorghum) to feed his cattle on his family farm in eastern Hacienda Casa Mota. He has lived here for 30 years but now struggles to make ends meet due to the increasingly extreme weather conditions.

“The dry periods have caused a lot of cattle to die, so we have to harvest food for them during the springtime for the entire summer,” he said. “We shred it and keep it underground – something we never had to do before.”

The fields used to be productive for subsistence farming, but now farmers can only use them for sorgo.

Díaz said he currently has 65 animals but has lost over 50 in the past five years: The sorgo he harvests isn't enough to keep them all alive, and many are drowning in the increasingly common floods. “It is impossible for me to prevent it,” he said.

Many farmers are now leaving to look for better opportunities elsewhere. Last year alone, at least 10 of the 52 cattle farmers in Hacienda Casa Mota moved away.

"Some abandon their homes, go stay with relatives in the cities, and try to make a living there, or start their journey up north to the US," Díaz said. “I have thought many times about leaving. But all my life is here. I was born a cattle farmer and can't just leave this behind… The agricultural production in this country is failing because we are abandoned.”

‘I am worried about the future’

Hamilton Franco, 45, smiles as he stands in front of a mural of El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele.
Fritz Pinnow/TNH

Hamilton Franco, 45, used to own a shop selling second-hand clothes in San Salvador’s main square, the Plaza Cívica. 

“The situation in the centre used to be horrible. We would see murdered people and couldn't cross some streets [dividing gang territories] because it meant certain death,” he said. 

Franco welcomes the relative calm, but because Bukele’s administration is cleaning up downtown San Salvador and seeking to boost tourism, he had to close his store last year and rebuild it as a restaurant. 

“I am extremely happy with the situation here now. But I am worried about the future,” he said. 

Franco said he trusts Bukele, but not the rest of the political class. 

“I support Bukele, but not his diputados (congressmen),” he said. “They are ‘button pushers’ as we say here: They don’t think for themselves. One day we won’t have Bukele anymore and, when he steps down, who is supposed to take over? Without him, the whole government would collapse.” 

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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