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El Salvador is about to enter its 11th month of limited constitutional rights

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

El Salvador is about to enter its 11th month under what the government calls a state of exception. That means the government has suspended certain constitutional guarantees in an effort to fight criminal gangs. NPR's Eyder Peralta has been reporting in El Salvador, and he joins us now from the capital, San Salvador. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us how we got here.

PERALTA: Yeah. Nayib Bukele became president in El Salvador in the summer of 2019. At the time, he was the youngest president in Latin America, and he tried a truce with the gangs that had dominated much of this country. But in March of last year, gangs killed 80 people in a single weekend, and President Bukele responded with overwhelming force. He deployed the military, and so far, according to the government, they have arrested more than 60,000 people. By some estimates, that is about 2% of the adult population here.

FADEL: Wow. That's a lot of people.

PERALTA: Yeah.

FADEL: Now, you've been out reporting in the country. What does it feel like?

PERALTA: There's troops everywhere. Some neighborhoods are literally surrounded by military men. Outside of the prisons, we've seen mothers looking for their sons who they say are innocent. We've seen a lot of empty neighborhoods. Some that used to be bustling are now eerily quiet. I spoke to El Salvador's justice minister, Gustavo Villatoro, and he was emphatic that this is the only way to end the violence that has plagued this country for so long. And he was emphatic that a lot of the people who are in jail will remain there. Let's listen.

GUSTAVO VILLATORO: A big part of the Black Brotherhood - it's against society. For them, we have just one way - put all of them in prison forever.

FADEL: Putting all of them in prison forever - a pretty extreme approach, it appears. One of the reasons so many Salvadorans leave their country is violence, though. Is this approach working? Is it popular?

PERALTA: The easy answer is yes, it's working. Yes, it's popular. People here say that the murders that they used to see every day have stopped. In some of the neighborhoods that we've been in, people joked that you used to get in, but you never got out. But human rights groups say that this approach is simply cruel, and that we don't know what the government's true intentions are. For example, the U.S. has accused one of President Bukele's top advisers of paying gangs for political favors. And El Faro, an investigative outfit here, has published pictures of him meeting with top gang leaders. I asked the justice minister about this. I asked him why somebody like Carlos Marroquin wasn't in jail when everyone else suspected of dealing with gangs was.

FADEL: Yeah.

VILLATORO: Here in El Salvador, we have a lot of people who are trying to create some type of tales about different people who work for the president. We are fighting against terrorists. So what those periodists (ph) try to create - what is the truth about their stories?

PERALTA: But look, it's not just the journalists here in El Salvador. It's the US government - right? - that has said it in black and white. And they have...

VILLATORO: Paid by whom? Paid by whom? Who paid those periodists?

PERALTA: So you're saying those allegations are not true.

VILLATORO: No, they are trying...

PERALTA: But there's audio.

VILLATORO: ...to destroy...

PERALTA: There's images of...

VILLATORO: Look, in...

PERALTA: ...This man with the maras.

VILLATORO: Yeah. Yeah. You know, OK, you're right. But in now, nowadays, I can create audio with your voice.

PERALTA: Essentially, he's claiming fake news, but these things raise questions about whether the government is cutting deals that they're not telling anyone about.

PERALTA: NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from San Salvador. Thank you so much, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.