El Salvador's false dilemma

Bukele addresses the General Assembly at the United Nations on September 20, 2022 in New York City.

(CNN)They were stripped down to their boxers and left barefoot. Many had their heads shaved as they were forced to run with their hands behind their back or neck. Altogether, there were 2,000 convicts who were transferred last week to El Salvador's new "mega prison", officially named the Center for Confining Terrorism.

The event was announced not only on national television but by President Nayib Bukele himself, who tweeted a much-discussed video of the transfer set to dramatic music.
The arrival of inmates belonging to the MS-13 and 18 gangs to the new prison known as "Terrorist Confinement Centre" (CECOT), in Tecoluca on February 25, 2023.
Many in El Salvador (and foreign fans) applauded the footage -- more evidence of Bukele's tough "mano dura" approach to crime. And if critics and the families of those incarcerated found the footage chilling, their arguments found little traction in the country, where Bukele has effectively proposed a false dilemma: either embrace his lock-em-up strategy or relinquish control of the country to murderous criminal groups.
    Last year, after an infamous weekend of killings, Bukele declared a state of emergency with the support of his country's Legislative Assembly, controlled by his "New Ideas" party. The state of emergency has allowed the government to temporarily suspend constitutional rights, including freedom of assembly and the right to legal defense.
      Under the state of emergency, which has been extended 11 times, suspects can be detained for up to 15 days without being charged, instead of the constitutionally mandated 72 hours. Once charged, a suspect can spend months in detention before facing trial.
        Many of the people arrested under the state of emergency have been charged but not convicted, and receive little opportunity to argue their innocence in El Salvador's group hearings. At the beginning of January, just over 3,000 detainees had been freed due to lack of evidence -- of the over 64,000 people arrested since the state of emergency began.
        Overview of cell blocks during the inauguration of the megaprison on February 2, 2023.
        Criminal gangs in El Salvador trace their origins to those formed in the United States by Salvadoran immigrants fleeing the country's civil war in the 1980s. More than 330,000 Salvadorans came to the US between 1985 and 1990, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
          In the 1990s, US immigration authorities deported large numbers of MS-13 gang members, many of whom had arrived as children, back to their home countries -- El Salvador for most. Once there, these groups metastasized, controlling vast portions of the country and making life miserable for many law-abiding citizens.
          The issue now is not the validity of the crackdown or the decision to free Salvadorans from the scourge of the criminal gangs. For observers, analysts and human rights groups, the question is at what cost? How long will Salvadorans allow the suspension of their basic constitutional rights in the name of security? Are they willing to live under a state of emergency indefinitely?
          For decades, Salvadorans endured criminal gangs that robbed, extorted, killed, raped, and terrorized the population. Now, the vast majority of Salvadorans (and some in Latin American) support their president as the first leader to take the problem seriously.
          In El Salvador, there is little room for criticism or dissent about the state of emergency. In the country of more than six million, you're either with the president or against him; those who question Bukele's heavy-handed policy get sternly rebuked by the president's supporters and the Central American version of cancel culture (in the best of cases). For legislators, questioning his policies would be political suicide; as of November last year, according to a poll by Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica, 89% of Salvadoreans approved of their president.