Army and Gangs Enforce Virus Curfew in El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — Security forces were dispatched across El Salvador Tuesday to enforce the most stringent coronavirus restrictions in Latin America. Hundreds of people were detained after failing to produce documentation justifying their presence on the streets, and even the country’s feared gangs have been reported enforcing the curfew with baseball bats. 

Detention requires one to remain 30 days in one of 100 isolation centers scattered across the country. Everyone arriving from abroad is required to remain in detention for 30 days, as well as those encountered on the streets without justification, according to orders from President Nayib Bukele.

In a televised announcement broadcast on all channels Monday evening, Bukele said that only the search for food or medicine would justify one outside of one’s home. The only exceptions are for those with jobs designated as essential and who carry a police permit to travel.

A locked-down street in rural El Salvador, overseen by the Virgin Mary. (Miguel Patricio/Courthouse News.)

Four thousand Salvadorans are trying to return from foreign countries but are blocked by closure of the land, air and sea borders. Some have attorneys who are fighting the detention mandate, so far with no success.

Since Guatemala and Honduras have closed their borders, those trying to return to El Salvador are flying to Nicaragua, which has not yet recognized the threat of the coronavirus and whose borders are still open. The only way to get to El Salvador from Nicaragua is by private boat. 

The complaint from Salvadorans abroad is that they are not sick and should be flown back at government expense and not be detained. This despite that detention facilities are mostly four- and five-star hotels, with comfortable conditions, internet and cable TV.

The detention centers are hotels that have been left vacant by the absence of tourists. Some are high-rise hotels on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.  

In a rural province, Gabriela wants to visit her mother in a hamlet on a sugar plantation 5 miles outside of the main town. She has no police letter but says she must care for a 90-year-old mother; police let her through the checkpoint. She said the hamlets have no sick people and that all are hunkered down.

There are few molinas operating, the mills that grind corn into masa for tortillas, the food of the poor. The alternative is masa made from corn flour, a significant step down for those who value authenticity, flavor and nutritional value.

El Salvador has reported fewer than 100 cases of Covid-19 and only four deaths. The strict measures demanded by Bukele seem to be working. His threat to confiscate and nationalize the 40,000 buses in the country if they do not run their daily routes has been heeded, according to local television news reports, which are watched all day by nearly everyone: news, reruns of soccer matches and horror films

Bukele has said he wants El Salvador to be the Singapore of Latin America, with help from Chinese investment, even as he cracks down against the Covid-19 pandemic, but Bukele has enemies who want to blunt his successes. The right-wing business community is calling already for a quick return to normal.

The gangs, the authority in the ghettos, demand compliance with the radical detention policies of the government. According to the daily Diario de Hoy, gang members in some densely populated urban areas have been beating curfew violators with baseball bats.

El Salvador has suffered repeated crises for more than a century. When coffee prices collapsed in 1930, the massive poverty produced a rebellion whose aftermath included the murder of thousands of Indians, some of whose leaders had supported the insurrection, complicated by a volcanic eruption in coffee country.

Then came the civil war of 1979 through the early 1990s, which hardened the lines between the country’s hard right and left. Today’s crisis involves not just the Covid-19 virus, but political forces incapable of acting outside of ingrained opinions. Some communities get generous donations of food. Others, for some reason, don’t. The rightists hate Bukele because he wants to tax them. The old leftists — the FMLN, corrupted by their years in power — hate him because he has stripped them of their privileges.

In Latin America, the coming battle against Covid-19 is likely to be cruel in Brazil, Nicaragua and Mexico, whose governments have refused to adopt containment strategies, whose presidents have downplayed the threat and even said that God and religious medallions will protect them.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said that Covid-19 is merely “a little flu,” and his education minister, Abraham Weintraub, ignited world fury last weekend in a racist tweet that said the coronavirus was intentionally set loose by China in a plan for “world domination.” In the tweet, Weintraub spelled the name of his country as “Blazil.”

At latest count Tuesday, Brazil had reported 14,050 Covid-19 infections and 688 deaths.

In El Salvador, opinion polls show Bukele still commands overwhelming support from his countrymen and -women, who understand the necessity of drastic measures to fend off a global pandemic.

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