The people of El Salvador are afraid to come out of their homes because gangs are now policing the streets during the country’s mandatory lock down. El Salvador President Nayib Bukele ordered a 30-day mandatory lock down starting on March 22. Many people are too afraid to leave their home – not so much for the fear of disease or the fear of arrest – but for the fear that gangs are lurking, waiting to club them to death or extort them for what little they have left.
For years, El Salvador recorded the most per capita killings in the world. According to the government of El Salvador, over a half million people in the country are connected to gangs, which is about one twelfth of the population. The gangs thrive by extorting small businesses, while selling and smuggling drugs in and out of the country.
Now it seems the gangs are working with the government to enforce lock downs. The gangs are now enforcing social distancing restrictions, threatening people with baseball bats if they leave their homes. The gangs are ordering people to wear masks and only leave home to get food.
“The gangs have retained their territorial control, and in many areas surpass the power of the state,” said Celia Medrano, the director of programs at human rights group Cristosal. As the gangs appear to be enforcing the quarantine, it “just confirms that they are in control,” she said.
In recent years, the government has taken an “iron fist” approach to controlling gang activity. The government has effectively enlisted soldiers with automatic weapons to infiltrate gang-controlled areas. Many believe that the gangs are cooperating with the government to enforce the stay-at-home orders. The gangs have been intervening on video platforms and messaging applications, threatening anyone who breaks the rules. The gangs will put out violent videos showing exactly what they will do to people if they don’t adhere to the lock down orders.
With the gangs doing their bidding, the government of El Salvador has temporarily gained a new sense of power. If the government can utilize gang members to enforce the newfound police state, then they have effectively become part of the gang itself. By commanding the gangs, and forcing people to stay home, the government of El Salvador can reduce the amount of homicides on the streets and facilitate the flow of drugs, giving people a false sense of security, as their liberties are quashed and their minds are forced to live in fear.
A 25-year-old delivery driver from San Salvador, the nation’s capital, said the gangs are warning residents to obey the lock down and abide by all the rules put forth by the government. “People are not afraid of the police, but of the gang,” he said. As a result, the streets are empty. Business owners and taxi drivers report that the gangs are not making them pay extortion fees during the lock down, indicating that the gangs are willing to accept some losses as they ascertain full control over the streets.
Some business owners think that the gangs will want their money anyway when the lock down orders finally end. “Once the quarantine ends, they’ll have to pay what they owe,” said a barber who asked to be identified only by his first name, Rafael. “I think that homicides are going to increase after the quarantine because the gang is not going to forgive the debt, and they are going to kill whoever does not pay.”
As people lose their family businesses and any remaining savings they had, it is only a short matter of time before thousands of people turn to social unrest, violence and theft just to eat and survive.
“El Salvador’s fragile economy could collapse,” said Jeannette Aguilar, a security analyst in San Salvador. “Half of the nation’s population works in the informal economy, and few have savings,” she said.
El Salvador has promised $130 per family subsidy to counter the fallout. With people holed up in their homes, gangs see this as an opportunity for further extortion, and reports of at-home extortion are already cropping up.
When the first wave of infections pass and the lock downs are slowly lifted, most people will have no choice but to mingle again and try to put their lives back together. More sickness will inevitably come, and even greater problems of homelessness, abuse, extortion, gang control, drug trade and starvation will set in.
Countries like El Salvador will ultimately have to look to Sweden’s precision response to controlling coronavirus and admit that Sweden employed a more effective, sustainable approach for the long term. Perhaps many nations will wish they would never have taken such draconian police state measures that delayed the inevitable and caused more harm.
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