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Salvadoran people paralyzed by fear: how a man regained his freedom

By Peter Schurmann. Ethnic Media Services. 

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The arrest of a well-known community activist in El Salvador highlights the growing risk of arbitrary detention in the Central American nation.

Santos arrest
Above: José Santos' wife holds a photograph of her husband with Monsignor Oscar Romero (above right), who was assassinated in 1980 during El Salvador's civil war. (Credit: Manuel Ortiz)

In January of this year, community activist José Santos Alfaro Ayala was arrested by El Salvador authorities on charges of gang affiliation. Santos is co-founder and co-director of the Tamarindo Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to address the issues driving forced migration out of the Central American nation by providing faith-based educational, economic, and leadership opportunities.

Santos' arrest is part of a broad repression justified under the law of ?Exception status? approved by President Nayib Bukele in 2022, initially intended as a tool to combat gang violence. Human rights activists say it is now being used against civic leaders like Santos. More than 2 percent of El Salvador's adult population is now behind bars due to the law.

The journalist and photographer Manuel Ortiz, in collaboration with the human rights organization Global Exchange, traveled to the town of Guarjila, in the rural north of the country, to learn more about the Santos case. What he found was a region "paralyzed by fear."

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Who is José Santos Alfaro Ayala?

José Santos is a community leader who works for the Tamarindo Foundation, which began in 1992 in Guarjila, a community of just over two thousand people in the Department of Chalatenango. He is an athlete and serves as the organization's recreation director, training youth in sports. He is passionate about sports and until recently worked for the local government as director of the National Sports Institute in Chalatenango. When I first arrived in Guarjila, I went around asking people about José Santos. I was immediately impressed because everyone seemed to know him or know about him. Many described him as strict but caring. He is an important leader in the community and a role model for young people in a place where that is very important. This is a poor rural region with few opportunities.

Guarjila, in northern El Salvador, is a small community of less than 2,500 residents where José Santos lived and worked. After a recent assassination, the government deployed about five thousand soldiers to the region. (Credit: Manuel Ortiz)

Santos was arrested on January 12. What were the charges?

The Salvadoran government accused him of being linked to the MS13 Hollywood Clique, a group that no one in the area had heard of. They offered no proof, none. The soldiers arrived, handed a paper to their lawyers and that was it. He remained in almost total isolation, unable to speak to his lawyers, his wife or his children. No one knew where he was or if he was still alive. It is important to note that, although Santos worked in the local government, he was not involved in politics, but the region where he comes from did not vote for Bukele and everyone knows that. Many there believe that Bukele has deployed the military to the region as a message and warning.

Can you say more about the military presence there?

There was a murder shortly before my arrival. Two young men were involved in a shooting that killed one person and injured another. In response, the Bukele government deployed five thousand additional soldiers and a thousand police officers to the region. Residents insist the shooting was not gang-related and that the youths involved were known thieves, nothing more. They also say that the MS13 has never had much of a presence in the region.

Now, with the presence of so many armed soldiers, the fear is palpable. I attended a community meeting in Tamarindo where people spoke of the terror of arbitrary detentions. Under the current state of emergency, now in its second year, the military can arrest anyone without cause and there are no legal remedies available to secure their release. This is fueling a new wave of youth migration out of the country. Many ask if they can do it to Santos, whose name literally means "saint", what could happen to them?

Soldiers have been deployed in Guarjila and the surrounding department of Chalatenango, raising fear among residents over the growing number of arbitrary detentions. (Credit: Manuel Ortiz)

You recently described the region as a "lawless land." What do you mean by that?

According to El Salvador's Constitution, the government can invoke a "state of exception," temporarily suspending basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. That's exactly what he did on March 27, 2022, after a series of brutal gang-related murders. The law was supposed to be temporary and would last only one month. However, it has been renewed 24 times since its first approval. The State and, by extension, the army and the police, can now do whatever they want. Freedom of association, the right to a defense lawyer and a speedy trial, and even freedom of communication have been restricted. They can arrest anyone. People talked about relatives who were being attacked, children or nephews of well-known activists. That's why people are afraid.

Samuel Ramírez, coordinator of the Movement of Victims of the Regime, which advocates for those arrested under El Salvador's draconian state of emergency law. (Credit: Manuel Ortiz)

Were you able to confirm this?

Yes, numerous human rights groups confirmed what I had heard, including the nonprofit Cristosal, which just published its second annual report on human rights violations under the state of emergency in El Salvador. One of its main conclusions is that the state of emergency is now being used as a tool to repress civic groups, in part by targeting family members. I asked about this during the Tamarindo town hall, and several mothers who are active in the community immediately approached me with stories about their own children's arrests. They all held papers, the same one handed over to Santos' lawyers.

A mother and community activist shows the paper she received informing her of her son's arrest. Many say authorities are using the state of emergency to target community activists and their families. (Credit: Manuel Ortiz)

In one of your photos we see an older woman in front of an altar. Who is she?

She is Santos' mother, María Carmen Ayala. I visited her and we had a brief conversation. He can barely walk. He said he prays every day. I asked him to show me his altar. He began to pray, lit a candle. It was very sad. She started to cry. In addition to his work in the community, Santos is also the family's main source of financial support. So, his arrest meant that they were not only heartbroken but also financially devastated.

María Carmen Ayala, mother of José Santos, prays before the altar of her house. His son was both a community leader and the main source of financial support for the family. (Credit: Manuel Ortiz)

Bukele remains very popular, both in El Salvador and throughout Latin America. What do you say to the people who support him?

Well, they have their reasons. First, due to the failure of previous governments, whether from the right or the left. And yes, El Salvador was dangerous. I had a good friend who was murdered by gangs there. So I understand the support for Bukele. El Salvador has been waiting for a change for a long time, and what Bukele did was take what had been among the most violent countries on the planet and turn it into one of the safest in the region.

But Bukele is a marketing expert. He is selling the idea that El Salvador is becoming more modern, but that is only true for a small portion of the country. There is a neighborhood in the capital, San Salvador, where he has installed a series of neon-lit banners, like Times Square. People see this as proof of what they are achieving. But it is a spectacle. People don't understand that while they do this, they are defunding public clinics, public schools, and other vital institutions in rural areas across the country. Meanwhile, the economy is struggling, foreign investment is lagging and more people are falling into poverty.

In your last days there you delivered a letter to the attorney general. What did the letter say?

I needed to get a response from the authorities for the report I was doing, so on the advice of some lawyers I decided to approach the attorney general, Rodolfo Antonio Delgado Montes. And what I realized was that, despite all the testimonies, despite all the stories and reports issued, nothing moved. So I drafted a letter detailing Santos' case. I included in the letter the organizations and media outlets on whose behalf I was in El Salvador and I personally delivered it to the Prosecutor's Office. That was April 5. On April 7, Santos' lawyers received a letter informing him that he was being released. On April 10 he was released from prison.


Peter Schurmann is an editor and reporter at Ethnic Media Services in San Francisco. Manuel Ortiz is founder and publisher of Peninsula 360 Press in Redwood City.

You may be interested in: El Salvador: exception regime, instrument to criminalize community leaders


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