On February 9, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele deployed dozens of heavily armed soldiers and police inside San Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, a stunt designed to strong-arm legislators into cooperating on a $109 million loan for Bukele’s pet national security project, the Territorial Control Plan. After engaging in an exaggerated bout of prayer, Bukele revealed that god had told him to have “patience” — and so he gave lawmakers an additional week to get their act together.
In a subsequent op-ed for the Miami Herald — penned in response to suggestions that his antics may have been a little antidemocratic — Bukele contended that both El Salvador’s “unchecked violence” and Salvadoran migration to the United States had decreased under his enlightened rule. And things would only improve, he insisted, with his loan, which was “earmarked exclusively to purchase equipment and logistical support for the police and military, who have been neglected for more than thirty years.”
Lest anyone feel too sorry for the Salvadoran security forces, recall that these very forces have for over thirty years done more than their fair share to sustain the violent landscape in El Salvador — from the US-backed right-wing slaughter of the civil war (1980–1992) up to the present era. Consider, for example, Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s recent reminder that “Salvadoran security forces have…committed extrajudicial executions, sexual assaults, enforced disappearances, and torture” — all within a context of essentially institutionalized impunity.
The reminder incidentally appears — speaking of Salvadoran migration to the United States — in a report titled “Deported to Danger: United States Deportation Policies Expose Salvadorans to Death and Abuse,” which shows how, for many deportees (among other sectors of Salvadoran society), the country is still a place of “unchecked violence.”
The paper draws on 138 cases, between 2013 and 2019, of Salvadorans killed following their expulsion from the United States, as well as more than seventy cases in which deportees were disappeared, sexually assaulted, tortured, or otherwise harmed by gangs, security forces, or other actors. But given El Salvador’s position as one of the homicide capitals of the world — where crimes frequently go unreported — the problem is undoubtedly more vast.
Often, Salvadorans are sent from the United States back to the very violent threats they were trying to get away from in the first place. There’s the case of Camila Díaz Córdova, a transgender woman slain by police in 2019 after unsuccessfully seeking asylum in the States. There’s “Angelina N.,” who fled abuse by her husband and threats from a gang member — the same gang member who raped her after she was deported and who threatened to murder her father and daughter. And there’s “Javier B.,” who fled gang recruitment in El Salvador only to be found dead shortly after his forced return.
Deportees can face lethal risks for something as simple as having tattoos — which in El Salvador can get you into trouble with both the gangs and the police, even if the marks aren’t gang-related. There’s also a threat from death squads or “extermination groups,” which, the report notes, have traditionally been “deeply rooted in the country’s security forces.” Meanwhile, deportees who have lived in the United States for a long time can be “easy and lucrative targets for extortion or abuse” and can “run afoul of the many unspoken rules Salvadorans must follow in their daily lives in order to avoid being harmed.” In a country saturated with invisible borders delineating the respective territories of rival gangs, an act as mundane as crossing the street can literally get you murdered.
HRW quotes a Salvadoran police officer on the criminalization that also attends deportation: “We think that if a person wasn’t wanted in the United States, it must be because the deported person is bad.” This can be especially troublesome for young Salvadoran men, who are already often presumed by security forces to be “bad” simply because of their youth or residence in a gang-controlled area. Likewise, a young man unaffiliated with a certain gang will automatically be presumed by that gang to be the enemy — the upshot being that young Salvadoran men in particular are often contending with various layers of criminalization.
As for the United States’ criminalization of migration and punitive deportations, it’s worth recalling that much of the violence Salvadorans are fleeing is the result of a former US deportation scheme in the 1990s, when gang members were sent en masse back to El Salvador. And why, pray tell, had these gangs formed in the United States? As a means of self-defense for Salvadoran communities that had left because of the civil war — another instance of US-bound Salvadoran migration fueled by violence in which the United States was hugely complicit.
HRW observes that the United States “is repeatedly violating its obligations to protect Salvadorans from return to serious risk of harm,” and that “in several key respects, US immigration law and policy violate international human rights and refugee law.” Donald Trump, of course, has bumped it all up to another level of inhumanity by working to effectively eradicate asylum options.
In light of the rampant violence in El Salvador — and the fact that many Salvadorans escape the country precisely because there is a “serious risk of harm” — it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that deported Salvadorans will often be put once again in harm’s way. And yet they are preemptively criminalized by an imperial power that valiantly defends the sacrosanctity of its own borders while violating everybody else’s.
Bukele, meanwhile, is of the opinion that “President Trump is very nice and cool, and I’m nice and cool, too.” But as the United States deports people to death in a country where it has long abetted lethal human rights abuses, it’s time to kill deportations and criminalize a system that is totally uncool.