Flee or stay?: Being a journalist in Bukele’s country | International

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Never before have so many people asked me to leave El Salvador as happened this week. I count 23 such requests in my messages. They come from relatives, international organizations and, above all, from colleagues. From people who love me mostly: Not worth it; there is nothing to prove; it’s time to do it; you have to take a break; you know you can come to my house. There are, right now, as far as I know, four Salvadoran journalists out of the country preventively, waiting for the harassment of President Nayib Bukele and the apparatus of attack and persecution of him to turn to look elsewhere, to his next victim ; waiting to find out more, for the few brave sources that remain to tell if it is true and imminent that the Police and the Prosecutor’s Office that belong to Bukele are coming for them. But leaving is a painful decision, just like staying.

I really needed this Easter vacation, but only naivety or some strange atheist faith could have led me to conclude that it would be a vacation. The last three weeks in El Salvador have been a mess in a country where almost nothing was left in its place. A series of tragedies were chained to end, among others, in two circumstances: Bukele with more power; the free press under more harassment.

This is a scrupulous summary of what happened: on Saturday, March 26, the gangs of El Salvador (which Bukele revealed last week have increased from 64,000 to 86,000 members in his Administration) murdered like never before in a single day: 62 people that Saturday; 87, between Friday and Monday. Bukele ordered his Legislative Assembly to decree an exception regime for 30 days, and on Monday we Salvadorans woke up to fewer citizens: they can arrest us if the soldier or police officer on duty considers us suspicious, they can detain us for 15 days without the right to see a judge , we can intervene communications, again, without order of a judge. Days later, Bukele ordered his Assembly to increase the penalties for gang members and to impose up to 10 years in prison on children 12 years of age and older for joining these criminal groups.

Then, with the freedoms diminished for all, with the blow of becoming a new leader against the gangs, despite having negotiated with them, it was our turn, the press: Bukele ordered his Assembly to approve a gag law that sanctions with between 10 and 15 years in prison any media outlet that reproduces or transmits messages “originating or presumably originating” by the gangs and that could generate “anxiety”. The law could not be more ambiguous and leaves in the hands of the regime who should go to jail for 15 years in a country where rape is punishable by between six and ten; and torture, with between six and 12.

What is capsizing? What the king says.

I want to emphasize it in a more graphic way: today, publishing the photograph of a pint of gangs in a neighborhood under their control can cost you the same sentence as if you commit simple murder. A picture. A life. 15 years.

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To this we must add that until the Exception Regime ends, one can be arrested for no reason for 15 days and, after seeing a judge, be sent to prison indefinitely if linked to gangs, until the trial concludes: 5 years, 10, 20…

This is how Holy Week arrived, with several journalists who have dedicated more than a decade to understanding the gang phenomenon without fully knowing which paragraph can land us in jail, which cover of our books can be a crime that threatens us in a prison. of gangs. Today, I would feel free to present the book The Hollywood Kid, the story of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 through one of its assassins and traitors, and that I wrote together with my brother Juan José, in any country where it has been published: I would feel free to present it in Italy, Poland, France or Germany … In El Salvador, presenting it could put me in jail until my 53rd birthday. I am 38 years old.

If there were any doubts about the repressive intention of the law towards the press, the regime was in charge of eliminating them on the first day of Holy Week.

On the morning of Saturday, April 9, suddenly, I received dozens of calls from relatives and colleagues, and the doorbell at home, which my mother was busily ringing. A man who presents himself on social networks as an advisor to Nuevas Ideas, Bukele’s party, announced that he would denounce me and another colleague for violating the law, for having published and spread the news that, without legal justification, and according to what is known in a judge’s letter, Penal Centers last year released an MS-13 leader wanted for extradition by the United States.

Because yes, a friend of the regime would formalize the persecution.

For that day, Bryan Avelar, collaborator of New York Times, had already been accused by the official newspaper of being the brother of a gang leader. Bryan, who is one of my closest friends, doesn’t have any siblings, but it didn’t matter. The official pamphlet had set its sights on him. His narrative matters, because in it are the signs that a journalist must read standing on this fine glass. Reality is just a plasticine that they mold.

Bryan took preventive shelter in a safe place, with the help of his media and the Association of Journalists of El Salvador, which in times like these not only defends, but is on the front line of risk.

On April 10, the Press Secretary of the Presidency attacked Roberto Valencia, a Basque-Salvadoran journalist with more than a decade of work explaining criminal groups, on Twitter. The official posted on his social network a 52-second excerpt from a November 2018 presentation at Casa América in Madrid, where Roberto launched his book Letter from Zacatraz, about the gang phenomenon. They basically accuse him of being a messenger for the gangs. As with Bryan, the official newspaper also published an article, using the photograph of my other brother, Carlos, also a journalist from The lighthouse. Government pamphlets and various officials gave vent to the smear.

By that day, another colleague had already taken preventive shelter after receiving information that, like another journalist from The lighthouse and I was part of a tax investigation for having revealed negotiations between the government and gangs. The regime in its absurdities, as if revealing were not a guiding verb of the trade. I tell you which verb is not: applaud.

Continuing with the vacations, on April 11, Bukele published from his account of 3.7 million followers, an excerpt from an interview with my brother Juan José. Taking out of context a collective conversation of almost 30 minutes that RussiaToday made three experts on gangs weeks ago, the president was left with 22 seconds where Juan José, with more than a decade of studying these criminal groups, two published books and worldwide recognition, began to explain the disastrous social role they play in a country that they largely control and in which, whenever they want, as happened on that bloody Saturday, they kill 62 people. “This garbage, nephew of a genocide, says that:”, Bukele began the message.

The genocidal thing comes from our kinship with my uncle Roberto d’Aubuisson, who died in 1992 and was the murderer of Monsignor Romero, torturer and murderer of several thousand during the war, and someone with whom we did not have much more family relationship than the one we the last name leaves on the identity document. But for the regime, everything counts and everything fits in the Twitter messages.

After that, Juan José is also preventively in a safe place. Several deputies from the ruling party, obedient and unconscious, followed the path of defamation traced by their leader, accusing Juan José of whatever it was: from assaults on his partner to leadership in gangs. Several accounts call for jail or death for him. Repression needs to shake off reason. Confusing is a good way to shake off.

For many of us journalists, there is no way to get confused. Once the law is created, they seek to fit the culprit before the public opinion that they dominate at will. Created the ambiguous law, they seek to recast us in one of its multiple gaps.

The equation is being put in order, but the result is announced: repression of those who freely exercise their trade. The variables accumulate: gag laws, complaints before the Prosecutor’s Office, public accusations by the ruling party, interventions with Pegasus, insults from the president.

The decision of the colleagues who are sheltered is still tremulous. Fleeing is not a verb that is executed without pain. Fleeing is a verb that changes lives. Also go to prison.

For this article, I called Carlos Fernando Chamorro, founder of Confidencial in Nicaragua, persecuted by the dictator Daniel Ortega and currently exiled for his journalistic activity, recognized throughout the world. He, under harassment for more than a decade, with two illegal raids on his newsroom and several of his colleagues in the same situation, answered this question: How long did it take you to decide to leave the two times you did? “The first time, five days; the second, 24 hours”.

I feel that this infamous clock is ticking in El Salvador. The hours advance and the doubt is fully installed.

I asked him why he did it, and he told me that running away was never the central act of his decision, but doing journalism. “An imprisoned journalist is useless”, he repeated to me.

His response enlightened me. But I can’t help but think, here, under the ticking of the needles, that running away is not unrelated to the possibility of doing journalism and that, for now, no matter how many dire signs are accumulating, I will try to continue doing journalism from here. It’s a personal decision, Chamorro also told me.

I hope the clock waits for me.

I hope I read the signs well.

I hope to continue doing journalism.

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