40,000 children left without parents in El Salvador’s mass incarceration

  • Over 40,000 children in El Salvador have experienced the detention of one or both parents as a result of President Nayib Bukele’s anti-gang campaign.
  • Bukele’s campaign has led to the detention of over 76,000 Salvadorans, with families enduring long periods without news of their loved ones.
  • Social workers, religious leaders and Vice President Félix Ulloa have expressed concerns about the long-term effects on children.

Tears welled in Alex’s eyes and he pressed his head into his hands as he thought about more than a year of birthdays and holidays without his mother, who was swept up by El Salvador’s police as she walked to work in a clothing factory.

“I feel very alone,” the 10-year-old said last month as he sat next to his 8-year-old brother and their grandmother. “I’m scared, feeling like they could come and they could take away someone else in my family.”

Forty thousand children have seen one parent or both detained in President Nayib Bukele’s nearly two-year war on El Salvador’s gangs, according to the national social services agency. The records were shared with The Associated Press by an official with the National Council on Children and Adolescents, who insisted on anonymity due to fear of government reprisal against those violating its tight control of information. The official said many more children have jailed parents but aren’t in the records.

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By arresting more than 1% of his country’s population, Bukele, who won reelection to a second five-year term Sunday, is trying to break the chain of violence that has ravaged El Salvador for decades. But many worry that debilitating poverty, long-term trauma and government failures to protect their children could instead fuel a future wave of gang warfare.

Juana Guadalupe Recinos

A family member shows a phone photo of Juana Guadalupe Recinos, who was detained last year during the government’s crackdown on its war against drugs, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, on Jan. 31, 2024. Police detained Recinos on a charge of “illegal gathering” as she walked to work, leaving her two sons motherless for more than a year. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

“Kids aren’t spared when their dad, brother or mom is detained, they carry this trauma with them,” Nancy Fajardo, a lawyer and aid provider working with 150 such families. “They feel as if the president has robbed them of their family … It could push the kids to later join a gang as a form of vengeance for everything they’re suffering.”

Single mother Juana Guadalupe Recinos Ventura raised her boys in a small concrete house in an area coated by Barrio 18 gang graffiti. The family was never rich, but they were able to scrape by.

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When she was detained outside their home in June 2022 on vague charges of “illegal gathering”, the boy’s grandmother, María Concepción Ventura, was left struggling to feed Alex and his brother and pay the bills without her daughter’s salary. The $75 packages of food and clothes the family sends once a month dealt the family another financial blow at a time that poverty has soared in El Salvador.

And that’s made the kids even more vulnerable in the long term.

“They would cry and cry, and still cry when they remember her,” Ventura said. “They’d just ask me, ‘When is mom coming back? When is my mom coming back?’ And you just have to tell them you don’t know when the government will let her go.”

The Associated Press spoke to Alex after being told he wanted to speak about his mother, and with consent of his grandmother Ventura.

Concerns were echoed by social workers, relatives, religious leaders and even Salvadoran Vice President Félix Ulloa, who said in an interview that, “if the state doesn’t do something, these kids will become the criminals of the future.”

Alex’s home in the western city of Santa Ana is like much of the Central American nation: Two gangs once divided its territory.

El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs originated from marginalized migrant communities in Los Angeles in the 1980s, made up in part of vulnerable unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America’s military conflicts. Once deported from the United States, the gangs began to prey upon youth in precarious situations in their own communities in El Salvador, eventually driving new waves of emigration as families fled their terror.

In his effort to eradicate the gangs, Bukele has detained over 76,000 Salvadorans, many with little evidence or access to due process. Families pass months without any news of their imprisoned loved ones. Human rights groups have documented widespread human rights abuses.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said Friday that with 99.1% of the precinct tallies counted Nayib Bukele won 84.6% of the vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

The crackdown has broad support among Salvadorans who have been able to retake their neighborhoods, but children left without parents have been among its heaviest costs.

While younger kids feel abandoned or confused why their parents have left, older teenagers are left with festering resentment or fear of authorities.

In one San Salvador community, neighbors are rotating children as young as 3 years old, sharing the economic burden so the kids don’t end up in the government system, where neighbors worry they could suffer sexual or physical abuse. Kids who slip through the cracks often end up on the street, said a local leader who asked to not share his name because he feared government retaliation.

“They are children, they’re not guilty even if their parents did wrong,” he said. But “they are forced to suffer.”

In Santa Ana, a 61-year-old grandmother had to take in eight grandchildren, feeding them with only the $30 a week she makes picking leaves to wrap tamales, and aid from the local church. The children say that, despite being innocent, they’re treated like criminals by neighbors.

“Now, they look at us as if we were scum,” said 14-year-old Nicole, who still wants to be a police officer.

For Alex, the pain is in the small moments.

He misses his mother helping him with schoolwork and has nightmares about police coming to take away the rest of his family. When he got bullied at school, his mom would go to his teachers to defend him. Until last year the family would set off fireworks together on Christmas in the alley outside their home.

Yet before police swept the neighborhood, the family would often hear gang shootouts ring out over their tin roof and neighbors would go missing. The family would never let the kids play outside.

Now, Alex and his 8-year-old brother run next to walls where the government has painted over the gang graffiti, so María Concepción Ventura sees benefits to the crackdown.

“They just need to free the innocents. Those that are guilty should pay the price, but let the innocents go,” she said, adding that her daughter’s detention prompted her to not vote in El Salvador’s elections.

El Salvador’s government has admitted it “made mistakes” and has released some 7,000 people.

The government has touted a youth program as a “security strategy,” which includes opening up libraries and recreational areas in formerly violence-torn areas, and providing many students in public schools with laptops and tablets.

“Many of those detained right now were kids that the state didn’t care for, orphans of the war, kids whose parents had gone to the United States, or who died and grew up in dysfunctional families, and past governments didn’t do anything for them,” said Ulloa, on his way to a second term as vice president. “And look what we have now – criminals when they are adults.”

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Ulloa said the administration was “100% obligated” to provide for children of detained Salvadorans, but he could not list an example of what the government was doing for them.

None of the five families interviewed by the AP said they’d received any aid from Bukele’s government. Local churches assisting hundreds of families said they had not heard of any government aid being distributed to the kids. Even then, children need more than just monetary support, said Kenton Moody, the pastor of the local church providing Ventura’s family with food.

“These kids need love,” Moody said. “The government can’t give love, only a family unit can.”