Bukele Administration Deploys 2000 Troops to Comasagua Following Community Uprisings

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Military deployment in Comasagua, photo courtesy of Camilo Freedman

Earlier this month, international news agencies reported on the deaths of five soldiers in Comasagua, in the department of La Libertad, as tropical storm Julia passed over El Salvador. But what connections and context did they miss? Why was there a massive troop deployment in a rural municipality in the first place? Outlets cited the Bukele administration's so-called war on gangs as the reason for the deployment—without nothing that the community had, just days prior, risen up to decry local government negligence, collapsing roads, and dangerous infrastructure defunding.

As background, on October 2, 2022, residents of Comasagua found themselves surrounded by a “military fence,” or barricade, made up of 2,000 soldiers and police. This is not the first time the administration has laid siege to an entire community. On the contrary, social movement voices say, it’s yet another show of force from an authoritarian regime that is normalizing the systematic violation of human rights.

The administration began imposing the so-called military fences—tactical blockades that cut off streets, neighborhoods, or larger areas—at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when it deployed hundreds of police and military personnel into the streets of San Salvador and other parts of the country on the pretext of containing the virus. In lieu of implementing established public health protocols, the administration criminalized movement—arresting citizens who did not or could not comply and holding them in detention centers (where the virus flourished).

Some months later, the military again descended on communities in the border regions of Chalatenango, allegedly to stop cross-border drug trafficking. The areas in question were and continue to be strong leftwing footholds with long histories of struggle, including most recently against the Bukele administration. Social movement organizations in El Salvador along with Salvadorans in the diaspora and international allies condemned the military enclosures as political attacks against the government’s opposition.

Around the same time, as investigators in the historic El Mozote trial arrived in the city of San Francisco Gotera with the presiding judge’s orders to inspect military archives, the Bukele administration’s health ministry suddenly declared a COVID-19 outbreak in that city and closed it off with another police and military blockade, this time termed a “health fence.” The health fence was imposed immediately after the Legislative Assembly denied the defense ministry’s request to annul the judge’s order and keep military archives sealed. No one was allowed in or out, including investigators and the archives remained uninspected. The ruse was denounced by victims’ families and advocates.

In this context, Comasagua is the latest community to be enclosed by large-scale military presence, this time under the pretext of gang control during the State of Exception. Since the deployment, more than 150 people have been arrested. (That number is added to the more than 50,000 other people, mostly poor, rural youth, incarcerated since the State of Exception was decreed last spring.) President Bukele announced the operation on social media in response to an apparent gang-related murder that occurred nearby the day before, promising to “neutralize” any gang members present in the area.

Some people suspect another motive for the siege, however; namely, government reprisal for local uprisings. Just days before the arrival of troops, protests against the mayor—a member of President Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party—were gaining steam. In one demonstration, groups “cornered” the mayor demanding a response for negligence in repairing failing, dangerous infrastructure. In another they shut down a major street.

Clamor over crumbling infrastructure brings into focus the withholding of municipal funds (FODES) by the Bukele administration, a policy failure that has bankrupted up to 95% of mayor’s offices across the country. The result has been deep cuts to local services, especially in poor, vulnerable, rural areas, and a collapse of basic maintenance systems. Discontent over these setbacks is growing, with denunciations increasing. In this context, people are asking why, in the wake of uprisings against these failures in Comasagua, the community found itself suddenly surrounded by thousands of the president’s troops.

When tropical storm Julia passed through  El Salvador, Comasagua was one of the particularly hard hit areas. Social movement organizations denounced that the large military presence, which operates with a budget of more than $250 million, was unable to provide care or assistance or to effectively evacuate the many people affected in the area. In fact, five soldiers who took shelter in a makeshift structure themselves lost their lives. Organizations are now asking: what if that budget had been directed to the local community, to infrastructure improvements - like the ones that the local community had been clamoring for just days before the Bukele administration and the military laid siege on Comasagua - to planning and preparedness agencies (all of which have instead been defunded)—instead of to a bloated military. “It’s abnormal to see soldiers armed with rifles during these emergencies, because without proper training, equipment or machinery, what can they do?”

Repression has become a defining feature of the current regime, at a level not seen since the civil war era. Beyond the “new normal” of intimidation, surveillance, harassment, and stigmatization of any voices that are critical of the administration, President Bukele has imprisoned countless prominent opposition and community leaders without due process and forced many to flee the country in search of asylum elsewhere. 

The United States bears significant responsibility for this repression. Despite clear violations of human rights, intensified under the State of Exception in which more than 50,000 people have been unlawfully incarcerated and more than 80 people have died, the United States continues to fund and train the Salvadoran military. Join CISPES in calling on Congress to withhold military and police aid and training to El Salvador.  Go to: cispes.org/cutmilitaryaid.

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