Miami Herald

The president jailed 1% of El Salvador’s population. Detainees’ children are paying the consequenc­es

- BY MEGAN JANETSKY Associated Press


Tears welled in Alex’s eyes and he pressed his head into his hands as he thought about more than a year of birthdays and holidays without his mother, who was swept up by El Salvador’s police as she walked to work in a clothing factory.

“I feel very alone,” the 10-year-old said last month as he sat next to his 8-year-old brother and their grandmothe­r. “I’m scared, feeling like they could come and they could take away someone else in my family.”

Forty thousand children have seen one parent or both detained in President Nayib Bukele’s nearly two-year war on El Salvador’s gangs, according to the national social services agency.

The records were shared with The Associated Press by an official with the National Council on Children and Adolescent­s, who insisted on anonymity because of fear of official reprisal against those violating the government’s tight control of informatio­n.

The official said many more children have jailed parents but are not in the records.

By arresting more than 1% of his country’s population, Bukele, who recently won reelection to a second five-year term, is trying to break the chain of violence that has ravaged El Salvador for decades. But many worry that debilitati­ng poverty, long-term trauma and government failure to protect detainees’ children could instead fuel a future wave of gang warfare.

“Kids aren’t spared when their dad, brother or mom is detained; they carry this trauma with them,” said Nancy Fajardo, a lawyer and aid provider working with 150 such families. “They feel as if the president has robbed them of their family. … It could push the kids to later join a gang as a form of vengeance for everything they’re suffering.”

Single mother Juana Guadalupe Recinos Ventura raised her boys in a small concrete house in an area coated by Barrio 18 gang graffiti.

The family was never rich but was able to scrape by.

When she was detained outside their home in June 2022 on vague charges of “illegal gathering”, the boy’s grandmothe­r, María Concepción Ventura, was left struggling to feed Alex and his brother and pay the bills without her daughter’s salary. The $75 packages of food and clothes the family sends once a month dealt the family another financial blow at a time that poverty has soared in El Salvador.

And that has made the children even more vulnerable in the long term.

“They would cry and cry, and still cry when they remember her,” Ventura said. “They’d just ask me, ‘When is mom coming back? When is my mom coming back?’ And you just have to tell them you don’t know when the government will let her go.”

The AP spoke to Alex after being told he wanted to speak about his mother, and with the consent of his grandmothe­r Ventura.

The concerns were echoed by social workers, relatives, religious leaders and even Salvadoran Vice President Félix Ulloa, who said in an interview that

“if the state doesn’t do something, these kids will become the criminals of the future.”

Alex’s home in the western city of Santa Ana is like much of the Central American nation: Two gangs once divided its territory.

El Salvador’s Mara Salvatruch­a and Barrio 18 gangs originated from marginaliz­ed migrant communitie­s in Los Angeles in the 1980s, made up in part of vulnerable unaccompan­ied minors fleeing Central America’s military conflicts. Once deported from the United States, gang members began to prey on youths in precarious situations in their own communitie­s in El Salvador, eventually driving new waves of emigration as families fled the gang terror.

In his effort to eradicate the gangs, Bukele has detained over 76,000 Salvadoran­s, many with little evidence or access to due process. Families pass months without any news of their imprisoned loved ones. Human rights groups have documented widespread human rights abuses.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said Friday night that with 100% of the votes counted, Nayib Bukele had won 84.6% of the vote in the presidenti­al election on Feb. 4.

The crackdown has broad support among Salvadoran­s, who have been able to retake control of their neighborho­ods, but children left without parents have been among the anti-gang campaign’s heaviest costs.

While younger children may feel abandoned or confused about why their parents have left, older teenagers are left with festering resentment or a fear of authoritie­s.

In one San Salvador community, neighbors are rotating children as young as 3 years old, sharing the economic burden so the children don’t end up in the government system. If they do, the neighbors worry they could suffer sexual or physical abuse. Children who slip through the cracks often end up on the street, said a local leader who asked not to share his name because he feared government retaliatio­n.

“They are children. They’re not guilty even if their parents did wrong,” he said. But “they are forced to suffer.”

In Santa Ana, a 61-yearold woman had to take in eight grandchild­ren, feeding them with only the $30 a week she makes picking leaves to wrap tamales, and with aid from the local church.

The children say that despite being innocent, they’re treated like criminals by neighbors.

“Now they look at us as if we were scum,” said 14-year-old Nicole, who still wants to be a police officer.

For Alex, the pain is in the small moments.

He misses his mother helping him with schoolwork and has nightmares about police coming to take the rest of his family. When he was bullied at school, his mother would go to his teachers to defend him. Until last year, the family would set off fireworks together on Christmas in the alley outside their home.

Yet before police swept the neighborho­od, the family would often hear gang shootouts ring out over their tin roof, and neighbors would disappear. The family never let the children play outside.

Now Alex and his 8year-old brother run next to walls where the government has painted over the gang graffiti, so María Concepción Ventura sees benefits to the crackdown.

“They just need to free the innocents. Those that are guilty should pay the price, but let the innocents go,” she said, adding that her daughter’s detention prompted her to not vote in El Salvador’s elections.

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