President jails 1 percent of El Salvador’s population — their children are paying the consequences

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, Wednesday, 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)
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, Wednesday, 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)

SANTA ANA, El Salvador (AP) -- 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 are not in the records.

By arresting more than 1 percent 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.

"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.

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 AP 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 youths 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 more than 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 percent of the precinct tallies counted, Nayib Bukele won 84.6 percent 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. If they do, the 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 not to 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 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.

photo Jesús Esperanza Ventura, who helps care for her great-grandchildren, sits on the bed her granddaughter Juana Guadalupe Recinos used to sleep on, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Recinos, a single mother of two, was detained last year during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs, leaving her sons motherless for more than a year. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
photo María Concepción Ventura prepares a care package to deliver to her imprisoned daughter Juana Guadalupe Recinos, a single mother of two boys, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. When Recinos was detained outside their home last June during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs, her mother was left reeling, with two more mouths to feed and struggling to pay the bills without her daughter's salary. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
photo Dilan Recinos Ventura, 8, plays with a box of matches outside the house where he is cared for by his grandmother, after his mother was arrested during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Since the police have swept the neighborhood, Dilan and his 10-year-old brother are now allowed to play outside, so María Concepción Ventura has seen benefits to the crackdown, despite her daughter's imprisonment. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
photo María Concepción Ventura and her 10-year-old grandson, Alex, arrive to the Apanteos women's prison with a care package for her imprisoned daughter and Alex's mother, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Ventura pulls together $75 every few weeks to send fresh clothes, hygiene products and medicine to her daughter, Juana Guadalupe Recinos, who was detained last June during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
photo Alex Recinos, 10, looks at a bulletin displayed with photos of inmates to see if his mom is pictured, at the food drop-off entrance of the Apanteos women's prison, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Alex's mother was detained last year during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
photo Tatiana Mendoza, 17, waits for her grandmother's return, while her cousins carry out other activities in the house where she lives now because her parents were detained during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. 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 El Salvador's social services entity. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
photo Cesar Velasquez, 14, lies on a mattress, while spending time with his cell phone, at his grandmother's house where he now lives, because his parents were detained during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. 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. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
photo Pastor Kenton Moody spends time with members of the Mendoza Velasquez family at the house where they live under the care of their grandmother because their parents were detained during the government's crackdown on its war against drugs, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Local churches assisting hundreds of families said they had not heard of any government aid being distributed to the children of detained Salvadorans. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)