Karina Gamez: Preparing for Research in El Salvador’s State of Exception

San Salvador, El Salvador: Los Planes de Renderos

I began this project with the intention to travel to El Salvador to undertake a “cultural translation,” as Judith Butler terms it, a cross-cultural listening and dialogue aimed at understanding what has become the alarming political situation unraveling in El Salvador. In the three years he has been in power, with great popular support, Pres. Nayib Bukele has enacted a series of strategic moves aimed at dismantling the country’s young democracy, including sending armed troops into congress to coerce a vote, expelling independent judges from the nation’s highest courts, and clearing the way to control all branches of government. Most recently, however, in response to a spike in gang violence in late March 2022, Bukele’s government surpassed its own extremes. It orchestrated one of the most extraordinary security crackdowns in El Salvador’s recent history, which has now seen more than 40,000 people arrested in just over three months.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele – Image by TIME

This accompanies the State of Exception that, now having been extended for the third time, has led to the suspension of civil liberties such as due process, the state surveillance of journalists and dissidents, and the arbitrary detention of hundreds, likely thousands of people. Many people both inside and outside of El Salvador have been vocal in their condemnation of Bukele’s actions, but it appears that still, even after Amnesty International accused Bukele’s government of committing “massive human rights violations,” many Salvadorans continue to defend Bukele and his consolidation of power.

Whatever this support may look like now, from the beginning, it is this very phenomenon that I wanted to understand—to identify what factors (e.g. historical, political, psychological) are not so much advancing support for Bukele at this point, but sustaining it, especially now as it becomes, with rapid momentum, unsettlingly clear the direction Bukele is determined to take El Salvador in. To explore this, I originally planned to directly reach out and interview people from Salvadoran local newspapers, universities, and civil society organizations. However, given how delicate the situation has become, I’ve been strongly advised by my family, as well as my research advisers, that I should limit, if not altogether avoid talking about the government in the sort of structured way that I wanted to while I am in the country.

Thus, I will postpone any interviews until it is safe to do so, likely until after this research project has ended. I will instead shift the focus of this trip to El Salvador to making my own observations of the country’s political scene, paying particular attention to the real time circulation of newspapers, radio, and other forms of potential propaganda. I will also arrange visits to various historical sites to determine what the lingering connections may be between what’s going on now in El Salvador and the brutal civil war that took place four decades ago. Most importantly, however, given the tremendous value of being physically immersed in El Salvador, I will hone in on the details of people’s reactions to the ongoing State of Exception, and how those reactions may correspond to, and contradict, their current and historical realities.