Saudi Women Who Fought for the Right to Drive Are Disappearing and Going Into Exile

On the evening of September 26, 2017, 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul sat at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, eyeing her smartphone. A stream of notifications cascaded down the screen as her social media feeds erupted with messages of shock, joy, and speculation. Moments before, an ordinary Tuesday had turned historic: King Salman al-Saud took to state-run television to issue a stunning royal decree: Saudi women, at long last, would be granted the right to drive. The abrupt announcement, orchestrated in concert with a simultaneous press event in Washington, D.C., and a warm commendation from U.S. President Donald Trump, had sent millions of Saudis reeling. For decades, the government had remained intractable on the issue of women’s right to drive, siding invariably with conservative clerics who justified the ban on religious grounds. Human rights groups viewed the ban — unique the world over — as an emblem of a broader oppressive stance toward women, and had long called for its repeal. Yet even the most earnest advocates would have thought such a reversal unthinkable mere hours before.

Al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist with thick, dark hair and penetrating brown eyes, had felt her own flood of emotions on that balmy evening one year go, but surprise was not among them. She’d already had days to process the news, having been tipped off to the coming reform by the Saudi government itself. The phone call from the Royal Court, however, had not been a pleasant one: After informing al-Hathloul of the impending announcement, the government official had instructed her to refrain from making any public comment on the reform, even in praise.

Loujain_Alhathloul-1538084448

Loujain al-Hathloul.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As one of the country’s foremost activists, boasting a large and active social media presence, al-Hathloul struggled to abide by the order. Reflecting on the king’s decree, her mind cycled through the years she’d spent advocating for the right to drive, among other social and civil rights for women — and the international attention she’d garnered for the cause. She recalled the 73-day detention she’d served just two years prior, after being arrested for attempting to drive a car inside the kingdom, an experience that had shaken her deeply without deterring her. Images of women — her mother, sisters, fellow activists, and friends — flicked through her mind. The ability to drive would significantly impact their daily lives, from expanded work opportunities to the simple, radical joy of mobility. She even dared to imagine that this policy change was a sign that the Saudi regime might be open to further, more fundamental reforms. Even with the Royal Court’s warning echoing in her ear, the dynamic al-Hathloul itched to express her elation and tentative hope.

She was not the only one under a gag order that Tuesday night. The government had made similar calls to several other women’s rights advocates in the preceding days, including two who were abroad at the time, ordering them to remain silent when news of the driving reform broke. “We got the impression that they didn’t want activists claiming credit for the change — the message was, this was a top-down decision made by the king, and not a reward for activism,” said one human rights advocate, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. Most complied with the orders, although al-Hathloul took a gamble with a single, seemingly innocuous tweet: “Al-Hamduililah” — thank God. Shortly after, she was contacted by a government affiliate, admonishing her to heed the court’s instructions.

The ominous phone calls, coming alongside the historic announcement, were emblematic of the strange new moment that activists like al-Hathloul were living. In 2016, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi government had embarked on a massive “Vision 2030” campaign for “national transformation,” promising vast social and economic reform, including expanded rights for women. Never before had the government, traditionally yoked to an ultraconservative religious elite, broadcast such a zealous message of reform. Yet at the same time, the government was increasingly censoring civilians of various political and religious persuasions, arresting critical clerics and moderate journalists alike, and placing increasing pressure on state media to publish pro-government stories, sources inside the Saudi press told The Intercept. Hiba Zayadin, Human Rights Watch’s chief researcher on Saudi Arabia, said, “The state was making clear that all the promised reforms were to be accomplished by the state alone, in a top-down manner, on the government’s terms.”

Still, as recently as a year ago, al-Hathloul and those like her held out hope that the state-endorsed push for reform could create conditions for progress on other issues, such as the rights of political prisoners and the kingdom’s male guardianship laws, which subject women to the will of their male “custodians” in various areas of social and civil life. “We weren’t sure how serious the government was about its promises, but we thought, maybe we can work within the system and use their own words to push for change now,” said one woman activist, speaking of last year. “We thought we could present ourselves as allies, to support their work, and maybe they would accept us.”

For al-Hathloul, this hope would be short-lived. Beginning on May 15, 2018, just weeks before the end of the ban on female drivers, the government began a series of arrests targeting prominent activists. Al-Hathloul was among the first to disappear into custody, along with Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, fellow advocates for human rights and reform. Simultaneously, photographs of the women began to circulate on local media and online, accompanied by state accusations of treason and collusion with foreign governments. A hashtag, #AgentsofEmbassies, went viral, as did speculations that al-Hathloul was a Qatari operative intent on harming the Saudi state.

The arrests were the latest example of a new and expanding tactic in Saudi Arabia of the state using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent. “In the past few years, there has been an increasing trend of using nationalist rhetoric and accusations of terrorism to squelch anyone who might question the state,” said Zayadin. Such allegations allow for the authorities to hold people for months without trial and prosecute them in the so-called Specialized Criminal Court, where they could face heavy sentences for nonviolent crimes. “We’ve seen it used against conservatives and liberals alike,” Zayadin added, citing a slew of arrests in September 2017 during which the government rounded up a group of clerics, academics, and journalists under similar charges of treason. (The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.)

At the end of June, the world applauded as women in the kingdom claimed their right to drive for the first time. Meanwhile, al-Hathloul and her colleagues remained incommunicado. Just three days later, Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent professor of women’s history and longtime advocate for reform, was taken into custody on unknown charges. The following month, two more well-known female activists, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, were arrested, despite having largely halted their organizing and online activities after witnessing the crackdown on their peers.

“There’s a feeling now that, even if you’re not an activist, just having an opinion is dangerous.”

In the meantime, other activists fell silent or, along with a growing number of conservatives, academics, journalists, and businesspeople, quietly left the country. “There’s a feeling now that, even if you’re not an activist, just having an opinion is dangerous,” said one human rights advocate, who left the country to avoid detention. “Right now, I don’t have any hope for activism inside the kingdom.” Like many of the activists in this story, The Intercept is withholding the human rights advocate’s name and identifying details at their request, in order to protect them and their family.

Zayadin said the clampdown has been unlike any seen before in Saudi Arabia. “The scope and severity of these crackdowns is really unprecedented,” she said. “Even people outside the kingdom are scared to speak their mind. All the momentum for a grassroots reform movement that was built over recent years has been halted.”

As a result, less than two years into the government’s 24-year plan to reform the kingdom, positing it as a progressive peer among the world’s liberal democracies, the frontiers of Saudi dissent have shifted almost completely abroad.

Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman (C) poses for a group picture with other defence ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance on November 26, 2017 in the capital Riyadh, including Jordan's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Freihat (L) and Afghanistan's acting Defence Minister Major General Tariq Shah Bahrami (R). This is the first official meeting of the 41-member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, first formed in 2015 under the auspices of Prince Mohammed -- whose rapid ascent since his appointment as heir to the throne in June has shaken the regional political scene. / AFP PHOTO / Fayez Nureldine (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, poses for a portrait with other defense ministers and officials of the 41-member, Saudi-led Muslim counterterrorism alliance on Nov. 26, 2017, in Riyadh.

Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, has never offered much in the way of civic engagement. Even so, the kingdom has seen numerous, if marginal, movements for political reform in the course of its 86-year history. Since at least the 1970s, academics and organizers, many of them women, have quietly nurtured a network of “salons,” using private homes as gathering places for political and intellectual discourse. The first mass demonstration for women’s right to drive came in 1990, when 47 women drove cars in the streets of Riyadh. More recently, smaller collectives, such as the “Jeddah Reformers,” the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, the Union for Human Rights, and the Adala Center for Human Rights, emerged to promote civil rights and government accountability.

These activists, and many of their loved ones, have paid heavily for their cause. Women who participated in the 1990 driving demonstration, known ever after as “The Drivers,” faced detention followed by years of social stigma and professional setbacks. Other organizers endured harassment, arrest, incarceration, and even corporal punishment. Groups like the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association were declared illegal by the state. Meanwhile, periodic uprisings from the country’s Shi’ite minorities repeatedly led to violent showdowns with state security forces.

The state’s severity is made all the more terrifying by its arbitrary enforcement. Saudi Arabia lacks an official constitution, relying instead on a diffuse, and malleable, constellation of religious rulings — “fatwas” — alongside royal decrees. For most of the kingdom’s history, the penal code has been likewise ad hoc, allowing the state to prosecute activists and dissenters as it saw fit. “Until recently, there were no clearcut guidelines about crime and punishment,” said one Saudi journalist, who asked not to be named in order to protect their family. “It was terrifying to get taken in for political reasons. There was a feeling that anything could happen to you.” (In recent years, the government has instituted some piecemeal regulations guiding the adjudication of particular crimes, but these broadly defined laws still leave much to interpretation.)

Yet while the state has always been intent on suppressing political protest, the past several years have seen a severe turn. In 2008, subject to pressure from American anti-extremism efforts in the region, the Saudi government established a Specialized Criminal Court tasked with prosecuting terrorism cases. Soon after, rights groups began raising concerns that the court was being misused to prosecute nonviolent dissidents. These fears grew with the passage of the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, in 2014, which leveled harsh punishments for a wide range of expansively defined crimes. Waleed Abu al-Khair, the first activist to be convicted under these expanded laws in 2014, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a 15-year travel ban after speaking out about human rights and signing a petition critical of the government.

Since the imposition of the 2014 law, the government has expanded its counterterrorism mandate, most recently in a 2017 amendment that transferred much of the special court’s prosecutorial powers from the Ministry of Interior to newly created offices that report directly to the king. The latest version of the law, like its predecessors, encompasses a wide array of vague offenses, such as “disturbing the public order of the state” and “exposing its national unity to danger.” It also criminalizes any portrayal of the king or crown prince which, directly or indirectly, “brings religion or justice into disrepute.” The law also allows for a pretrial detention of up to 12 months with unlimited renewal, while curtailing a detainee’s right to legal counsel. In May 2017, a United Nations report declared Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism laws to be in violation of international human rights standards for its “criminalization of a wide spectrum of acts of peaceful expression.”

Members of Human rights NGO Amnesty International hold giant portraits of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and Saudi rights activist and lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair as they demonstrate in front of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Berlin, on January 8, 2016 to ask for their release. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam. / AFP / TOBIAS SCHWARZ (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of human rights group Amnesty International hold giant portraits of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and Saudi rights activist and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, as they demonstrate in front of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Berlin on Jan. 8, 2016.

Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

The government invoked these anti-terrorism laws when it detained al-Hathloul for the first time in 2014. The young woman was arrested one winter day at the Saudi-United Arab Emirates border while attempting to drive a car into Saudi Arabia. Al-Hathloul, then 25, along with her 33-year-old companion Maysaa al-Amoodi, were the first women to be threatened with prosecution under the Specialized Criminal Court and remained in state custody for 73 days. “This was a wake-up call for us,” said one activist who was close to the women. “We expected some backlash for our activism, of course, but we thought it would be interrogation, maybe — not prison. But after that, we started to feel that at any moment, the government could make us disappear.”

Sobered, many activists moved their organizing completely online, often using pseudonyms to screen themselves from the state. A few online campaigns emerged. In 2014, activists on Twitter launched the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian, among others, calling for the end to the kingdom’s repressive male guardianship laws. The petition garnered over 14,000 signatures, which activist Aziza al-Yousef printed and delivered in person to the Royal Court. Arriving with the document in hand, she was sent away and told to mail the petition by post, which she later did. In 2015, women organizers launched another petition, “Baladi,” or “my country,” to push for the right for women to participate in municipal elections. The request was eventually granted, but several prominent women activists, including al-Hathloul, were explicitly banned from running.

Despite the snubs, and although the hyperlocal elections offered little in the way of real-world impact, the victory was still taken as a symbolic win for the movement. “For a while, we were seeing some changes happening, very small, but still happening,” said one female organizer, who now lives overseas. Overall, however, activists report an increasing sense of fear, saying that previous workarounds, such as hedging their critique in the language of moderation, nationalism, and reform no longer ensures their safety. “We used to think if we presented ourselves as allies to the government, wanting to work with them, we would be safe,” said the organizer. “But that changed after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman.”

In some cases, the government targeted the family members of accused dissidents, one longtime activist told The Intercept, including placing them under travel bans. “The travel bans are one less-known form of state suppression,” said Zayadin, of Human Rights Watch. “The government will often block activists or their family members from leaving the country, and some don’t find out about this until they reach the airport.” Others who took part in salons, academic clubs, or other organizing spaces reported being monitored by government operatives, or receiving harassing phone calls warning them to cease their activities.

A protestor holds a picture of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate, on October 5, 2018 in Istanbul. - Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist who has been critical towards the Saudi government has gone missing after visiting the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, the Washington Post reported. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP) (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

A protestor touches a picture of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 5, 2018.

Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

The growing atmosphere of fear prompted some to leave the country, including Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and former newspaper editor, who said he began facing scrutiny after publishing articles in favor of the widespread popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring. “The government made clear they weren’t happy with me then,” said Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Jeddah native whose penetrating eyes had grown weary in recent months. We spoke several times during the summer of 2018, his decisive voice edged with remorse. “There was always a gentlemen’s agreement between the state and media — we published certain things or kept other things out of the press — and it went along pretty smoothly,” he said. “But then we started seeing more direct pressure on journalists to only publish pro-government stories. Some people were asked to sign loyalty pledges. Some people were banned from writing or had their columns taken down. Things got worse for the activists, too, or people with critical opinions. The government was sending a message that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Khashoggi relocated to the United States in June 2017. Al-Hathloul’s colleague, al-Amoodi, also moved abroad shortly after being released from prison.

“The government was sending a message that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

Yet the Saudi state’s efforts to suppress dissent appear to extend far beyond the nation’s borders. Numerous Saudi activists who sought refuge in the United States and Europe have reported receiving phone calls from the Saudi embassies in their host countries. The calls included requests for the activists to report to the embassy for undisclosed reasons. “I would never go,” said one activist who received one such summons. “Who knows what would happen? I’m afraid they would deport me.” (Since 2015, three Saudi princes who had criticized the royal family also disappeared while abroad, and are believed to have been forcibly returned to the kingdom).

Such fears were surely on Khashoggi’s mind on October 2, 2018, when he approached the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was seeking documents necessary to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hatice, who requested that her last name be withheld. According to Hatice, before entering the consulate at about 1:30 p.m., Khashoggi instructed her to call the Turkish authorities if he did not return. She waited outside the consulate until after midnight, but Khashoggi never appeared. The Saudi government denied detaining the dissident, claiming that he exited the premises on his own accord. Security footage obtained by Turkish authorities show no sign of Khashoggi leaving the consulate, but the New York Times reported that several diplomatic vehicles have been seen entering and exiting the compound. Khashoggi’s whereabouts remain unknown.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JUNE 22: Young Saudis, including three women wearing the traditional niqab and black abayas, relax on the Corniche waterfront on June 22, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Young Saudis relax on the Corniche waterfront on June 22, 2018, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Today, the Saudi streets are awash with a heady mixture of hope, bewilderment, and, for some, a burgeoning patriotism. Most Saudis agree, with varying levels of excitement or dismay, that their country is living through a moment of profound change — a message the government itself aggressively promotes. State-sponsored billboards, street signs, and social media campaigns tout slogans of national pride and the promise of a Saudi Arabian renaissance embodied by Vision 2030, the government’s vast agenda to reform Saudi’s economic and social life. From malls to hotel lobbies to airports, regal artwork depicts the state’s founder, King Abdulaziz, alongside the current monarch King Salman, who in turn is often flanked by his heir-apparent, 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman.

Bin Salman, or “MBS,” has presented himself as the architect of the kingdom’s promised renewal since announcing Vision 2030 in April 2016. Since then, the crown prince has rapidly consolidated power, undercutting traditional governing protocol, firing dozens of government-appointed officials, and directing abrupt changes in the economic, labor, and religious sectors. Some of the changes have reversed decadeslong conservative norms, such as the decision to allow women to drive and attend sporting events, or the opening of cinemas and concert halls. Seeking to encourage a more diverse and engaged local workforce, the crown prince has overseen programs to incentivize companies to hire Saudis, alongside new policies to curb the country’s massive migrant workforce. In pursuit of foreign capital, MBS has eased regulations on outside investments, courted tech giants such as Amazon and Apple, and announced plans for a futuristic robotic-driven city, Neom.

One pillar to Vision 2030 is the rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia’s image abroad, which has long suffered from associations with religious extremism and gender-based oppression. In a series of much-celebrated interviews with the Western press in 2017, MBS popularized the idea that he was “restoring” Islam in the kingdom to its real, moderate roots. The crown prince also promised that the change would be swift. “We won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts; we will destroy them now and immediately,” he said. In apparently keeping with this promise, the government has silenced many of the country’s conservative religious figures, most notably in a spree of arrests last September that included several prominent clerics, and the scaling-back of the once-feared religious police.

Many in the West have been eager to embrace MBS’s narrative; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lauded the crown prince as embodying “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at last.” Many Saudis, too, proclaim their delight at MBS’s promise and express their relief at the country’s new, moderate image abroad. Roughly 70 percent of the Saudi population is under 30 years old and tend to be particularly receptive to the promises of Vision 2030. “For the first time in my life, I’m proud to be a Saudi,” said Nadia, a 28-year-old Riyadh native, whose last name is being withheld by The Intercept. “My whole life, I’ve had to bear that burden of 9/11 whenever I travel abroad. That was what we were known for — but now, suddenly, it’s cool to be Saudi.”

Behind the carefully curated optics, however, MBS’s execution of his agenda has upended the kingdom’s traditional distributions of power. “The king has always been the most powerful person in Saudi Arabia, but he’s always ruled through a complex system of mechanisms and councils, and in some kind of consensus with princes, businessmen, and religious leaders who met behind the scenes,” said Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and professor at the American University of Beirut. “But what MBS has done is centralize power in every major sphere of life into his own two hands. He has control over political affairs, religious, economic, oil, military, social, media affairs. He controls the levers, directly or indirectly, of every major dimension of life. All the rules have been changed unilaterally.”

“Unlike his predecessors, who have consistently jailed activists and dissenters, MBS is now pre-emptively locking up those who might, in the future, oppose him in some way.”

This has allowed the crown prince to institute drastic reforms in what feels like lightning pace, but, Khouri added, “With this kind of top-heavy rule, there is no room for political or civil discourse. MBS doesn’t want any accountability, and he has made clear he wants to be 100 percent in charge of the narrative.” This, Khouri speculated, is the real reason behind the gag orders and arrests. “Unlike his predecessors, who have consistently jailed activists and dissenters,” Khouri said, “MBS is now pre-emptively locking up those who might, in the future, oppose him in some way.”

The diversity of those targeted is striking, encompassing dozens of conservative religious elites, as well as progressively minded figures such as al-Hathloul. Though the state has continued to use anti-terrorism laws to justify the detentions, the lock-up of al-Hathloul and the other May arrestees was among the most aggressive the country has seen yet, said Zayadin. “In this case, you saw an active smear campaign, linking these activists to foreign governments, especially Qatar,” she said. “This seems unprecedented, to be splattering the women’s faces with the word ‘traitor’ across the front pages of the media. It’s dangerous and stigmatizing. It seems like a push to end their careers in activism or keep them in jail a very long time.” In other arrests, however, no reasons are given, with detainees simply vanishing into the penal system’s inscrutable folds. Such cases are on the rise, added Zayadin. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported a rapid increase in arbitrary detentions, with over 2,000 new cases between 2014 to 2018.

This new sense of vulnerability has all but halted any grassroots movement for reform. “People spent years slowly building momentum around causes related to social, civil, and political rights, and for the moment, it appears to be all but squashed,” said one activist, now living abroad. “It’s very disheartening.” She continued, “The cost has become too high for most of us — there’s a sense that anything could happen if the government decides to target you. We see human rights groups pointing the finger at Saudi after each arrest, but nothing happens. Saudi Arabia is even on the Human Rights Council!” — a reference to the kingdom’s seat on the U.N. body. “With no outside pressure, why would the government change?”

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JUNE 21: Guests chat at Medd Cafe and Roastery, a popular hangout where young Saudi men and women mix together freely, on June 21, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Guests chat at Medd Cafe and Roastery, a popular hangout where young Saudi men and women mix together freely, on June 21, 2018, in Jeddah.

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There are those who defend the government’s heavy-handed approach. Many Saudis, in private conversation, expressed approval of mass arrests of religious conservatives and for the state’s ostensible corruption purge. “I mean, if [MBS] hadn’t gotten rid of those clerics before allowing women to drive, for example, Twitter would have been a mess,” said one 31-year-old male banker, his animated speech weaving between Arabic and English. “These kind of changes have to come top-down. If we waited for society to be ready on its own, we’d never see women driving, we’d never see these changes.” I interviewed him in a Jeddah cafe, where he sat across from me, dressed in a traditional white thobe — the traditional ankle-length Saudi garment — and sporting an Apple Watch. “A few years ago, I could never have sat with a female friend like this in public,” he said, gesturing to the room. Around us, several co-ed clusters of young Saudis leaned over egg-shaped tabletops crowded with iced coffees. “We would have been terrified of the religious police. But now, things are changing almost day to day. And while it’s confusing, it’s also very exciting for us.”

It is undeniable that some Saudis, including many women, now enjoy greater rights and privileges than they have in recent history. It is also true that many are genuinely unaware of the state’s crackdowns on activists, said the Saudi journalist source. “Most of those arrests don’t make it on the public’s radar,” they said. “And when they do, the words ‘traitor’ or the suggestion that they are foreign agents is enough to scare people off the subject.” The state’s newly muscular presence in Saudi life further discourages people from political speech, the source went on. “There’s a paradox now that people are more socially free — they can go to the movies and, in some places, mix with the opposite gender — but they are more afraid than ever to speak their minds about the government,” the source said. “Especially with the war on in Yemen” — where a Saudi-led coalition has fought a brutal and heavily criticized three-year war — “there’s a new pressure to be patriotic. There’s a sense that things are very delicate right now. If you bring up political topics, you’ll see everyone go silent.”

Outside the kingdom, some Saudis are attempting to consolidate a resistance. A constellation of college students, exiled activists, academics, bloggers, and human rights advocates work to keep the issues of political repression in the eye of the international community. “We have to redefine what success means for activists, for now,” said one organizer in self-imposed exile. “The government is waging a PR battle, so we are attempting to do the same. We are trying to get the Western media and world leaders to see what is happening to human rights there, to put some pressure on MBS.” In many ways, these tenacious few represent the last significant counternarrative to MBS’s broadcast image of unfettered forward progress.

Their presence abroad also raises the question of the regime’s missed opportunity. By driving out diverse voices and pre-emptively silencing dissent, Saudi deprives itself of the ingenuity and vitality of many of its own. Domestically, too, the aggressive crackdowns are a risk: To accomplish the national transformation it seeks, Saudi Arabia will need the whole-hearted engagement of its vastly young population — a generation that may be turned off or driven away by government overreach.

Yet the government so far appears unfazed by criticisms and has enjoyed relative immunity in the wake of each crackdown. After a cursory flurry of attention following the arrests of al-Hathloul and others in May 2018, international interest in the cases waned and subsequent arrests attracted little attention. In one exception, the government of Canada very publicly took the Saudi government to task in early August, following the arrests of Badawi and al-Sadah. Since then, the two countries have exchanged a series of increasingly drastic reprisals, but the Saudi government remains unapologetic. “As long as MBS has the support of world powers like the United States, the UAE, and Israel, I don’t think he’s going to change,” Hala Aldosari, a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, said in a phone interview, her voice firm but strained. “Yet the activists and their allies feel they must continue doing what they can.”

Rami Khouri, too, is skeptical of the activists’ chances, but added that the volatility of MBS’s reign leaves many things open to question. “It’s hard to talk about what MBS might do — like Trump, he’s very bold, but inexperienced, and has a lot of power,” Khouri said. “So the question of what kind of opposition could emerge, especially inside the kingdom — that cannot be answered yet. It’s possible that there will be none. Historically, a lot of people get used to authoritarians and can put up with a lot — especially if there’s no mass atrocities and if their basic daily needs are maintained and improved.”

Increasingly, MBS’s future has been pinned on the success or failure of his economic agenda — and this may be the case for the future of political expression in the kingdom, as well. “Right now, there is some hope, some willingness to accept and follow MBS, even if there’s a sense that he’s being heavy-handed,  because people are hopeful that he can improve their financial well-being, their quality of life,” said the Saudi journalist.

The clock, however, is ticking. Some have begun to question the ability of the crown prince to deliver on his many lofty promises. Already, key components of the economic reform plan are in serious doubt — including the much-touted public offering of Saudi’s Aramco oil company. “If, a few years from now, people feel like they are still in the same position, or worse, economically, they might be less willing to put up with MBS,” the journalist added. Khouri agreed: “The social reforms — like concerts, like driving — have excited and distracted people for a time. But in the end, man doesn’t live by bread and concerts alone. Human beings want to be human beings. They want access to the totality of life, to have a voice, to be respected, to have a say in their own lives.”

If, in the meantime, the government continues its crackdowns on all dissent, it may find itself rebuffed by the same Western audiences it hopes to entice. “Going after civil society in such an aggressive way, MBS is shooting himself in the foot,” said Aldosari. “Maybe, when he was just arresting clerics, the Western world didn’t care. But arresting women, elderly people, respected academics, all of them nonviolent — this is a direct contradiction of his rhetoric of modernization and openness. And he can’t stop everyone who wants to criticize him. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Even if he throws all the activists in jail, they started a work that will continue. It cannot be stopped.”

Sarah Aziza’s reporting from Saudi Arabia was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Top photo: People watch a projection of a portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an event in Riyadh on Sept. 23, 2017, commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom.

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Key Senators Say Disappearance of Washington Post Columnist Should End U.S. “Blank Check” to Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government’s apparent arrest of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi is “absolutely unacceptable” and “outrageous,” according to two influential Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

On Tuesday, Khashoggi, a Saudi national and Washington Post columnist, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up documentation to get married. His fiancee, who was waiting outside, told the New York Times that he had not emerged hours later, and he has not been seen since.

Khashoggi, an insider turned staunch critic of Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has been living in self-imposed exile over concerns that he would be arrested during the prince’s crackdown on dissent. Saudi authorities have denied detaining him, but the Turkish government said earlier this week that he was still in the building.

“The administration really needs to step up and protect journalists and freedom of the press. This is outrageous that he’s been somehow disappeared,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told The Intercept. “The administration needs to demand his release.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who is also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that the move called into question the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.  “If he has been taken by the Saudi government it’s absolutely unacceptable and a further sign that this crackdown on free speech is getting more serious.”

He added that it is “another reason why we should probably be rethinking the political and military blank check we’ve been giving the Saudis.”

Bin Salman’s brutal treatment of his internal critics was enabled by a well-funded and orchestrated public relations campaign in Washington, in which he was held up as a reformer in opposition to Mohammed Bin Nayef, who had been next in line for the throne. That campaign was largely directed by Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador to Washington from the United Arab Emirates, which backed Mohammed’s rise.

Van Hollen said that the Washington foreign policy establishment, which bought into MBS’s reformist PR campaign, must now answer for its credulity. “I think a lot of people have been played by the current Saudi leadership and they need to demand his release right away. You also see the same play with women’s rights. They do a press release and the next day they’re threatening to lock people up.”

Khashoggi’s release does not seem to be a priority for the Trump administration. The day after the journalist disappeared, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked with the Saudi crown prince about the war in Yemen, Iran, and “areas for expanding US-Saudi collaboration,” according to a State Department readout of the call. The readout did not mention anything about Khashoggi’s disappearance. A State Department spokesperson told The Intercept that officials were closely following reports of Khashoggi’s disappearance and would “continue to seek information.”

A Saudi spokeswoman did not respond to questions from The Intercept. Bin Salman, in an interview with Bloomberg, denied that Khashoggi is in Saudi custody.

Khashoggi initially entered the consulate on Friday and was told to return on Tuesday afternoon to pick up his documents. Some of his friends believe he was secreted out almost immediately, before Turkish police could intervene. His fiancee accompanied him to the consulate to wait.

In the hours after he disappeared, Khashoggi’s personal website displayed a banner saying “Jamal Khashoggi has been arrested at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul!” It has since been changed to “Jamal Khashoggi has been missing since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.” It is unclear why the change had been made.

Khashoggi’s most recent column called on the Saudi crown prince to end the kingdom’s destructive intervention in Yemen. “The crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam,” he wrote.

On Friday, the Washington Post took the extraordinary step of running blank space where Khashoggi’s column would have been. The headline of the column, “A missing voice,” sat atop a poignant byline: By Jamal Khashoggi.

Top photo: A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014.

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On Russian TV, Brett Kavanaugh Is a Victim of “the Plague of Malignant Feminism”

The Brett Kavanaugh hearings are being watched closely around the world, not least in Russia, where this week the host of a leading news show on state-run television defended the Supreme Court nominee as a victim of “the plague of malignant feminism,” a global pandemic which has previously felled Harvey Weinstein, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ian Buruma.

In a fact-challenged monologue helpfully subtitled on YouTube by Russia’s state-owned news organization, Vladimir Putin’s favorite pundit, Dmitry Kiselyov, dismissed the sexual assault accusation against Kavanaugh, by “physics professor Christine Blasey Ford,” as “like a joke.”

Kiselyov also warned Russian viewers to beware of what he termed an illness, “spreading from America to Europe and toward Russia,” in which “the infected ladies project their sexual fantasies onto men who have a successful life and career, accusing them of attempted rape.”

Kiselyov, whose weekly diatribes on the supposed threats to white, male supremacy in Russia posed by foreign plotters and native homosexuals would not look out of place on Fox News, was chosen by Putin in 2013 to lead an official news agency charged with explaining Kremlin policy to the world.

But, unlike the Kremlin-financed Russia Today or RT — a network of channels in English, Spanish, German, French and Arabic which exist to influence global public opinion — Kiselyov’s weekly, two-hour news review show is aimed squarely at explaining world news events to Russians, on the influential, state-controlled news channel.

Among the other victims of the feminist plot, Kiselyov said, were figures as diverse as the Fox News contributor Kevin Jackson, who was fired for calling Kavanaugh’s accusers “lying skanks,” Les Moonves, the former chairman of CBS, and Ian Buruma, the New York Review of Books editor who lost his job after publishing an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, in which the disgraced Canadian radio host dismissed accusations of sexual assault against him.

The post On Russian TV, Brett Kavanaugh Is a Victim of “the Plague of Malignant Feminism” appeared first on The Intercept.

Brazil’s Far-Right Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro Is Headed For Victory On Sunday — And He’s Bringing His Shock Troops With Him

It was lunchtime on a Saturday, and a crowd of a dozen people stood outside of São Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital. Some wore Brazilian flags as capes. Others sported t-shirts that bore the name and face of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right presidential hopeful — who was at the time due to be discharged from the hospital.

A 20-minute drive away, crossing the city’s festering Tietê River, preparations were underway for a large-scale protest with the slogan #EleNão, or “not him.” With the women-organized demonstration, activists were moving to fight Bolsonaro’s presidential ambitions.

Major Olimpio, a former São Paulo military police officer who is now running for Brazil’s Senate with Bolsonaro’s party, stepped out of the hospital beaming. “He’s completed all of the necessary measures and precautions,” he said of Bolsonaro. “Now, he’s preparing to go to the airport, thank God.”

Bolsonaro now leads in the polls among the 13 candidates vying for the presidency in the October 7 first-round elections.

Three weeks earlier, Bolsonaro – the fiery former army captain with a history of homophobic, racist, and misogynistic remarks, including pro-torture statements and support for police killings – had been stabbed at a campaign rally by a mentally disturbed would-be assassin, puncturing his intestines in three places and landing him in the intensive care unit.

The assassination attempt added an extra level of chaos to an already turbulent election. For months, polling figures suggested that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was almost guaranteed a victory this year — until he was jailed in April on corruption charges that he and his supporters call politically motivated.

Much more turmoil is expected to unfold as the election draws near. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the controversial purge of 3.3 million voters from the rolls, and a judge from a lower court was provisionally removed from his post for planning to confiscate voting machines on the eve of the election. Set amid a backdrop of continuing economic downturn, ongoing corruption scandals, high unemployment, and rising violence, the months since Lula’s arrest have been, according to one seasoned campaign hand, “the craziest election I’ve ever seen.”

Bolsonaro now leads in the polls among the 13 candidates vying for the presidency in the October 7 first-round elections, from which two candidates will emerge, unless someone takes a majority of votes and wins outright. Nipping at Bolsonaro’s heels is Fernando Haddad of Lula’s Workers’ Party, who is seen by colleagues as competent but lacking the imprisoned leader’s charisma and working-class touch. After years of corruption scandals and a barrage of media attacks, a sizable chunk of Brazil’s population vehemently rejects the Workers’ Party and might turn to Bolsonaro as the best shot of crushing out their power.

Violence on the Trail

It’s a messy, polarized race that boils down to a center-left democrat and a far-right authoritarian. Bolsonaro has praised Brazil’s dictatorship-era generals and torturers, as well as the brutal Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet.

Like Presidents Donald Trump in the United States and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro tends to shoot from the hip, lacking the polish and filter of traditional politicians. While the media bashes his rhetorical missteps, his supporters praise his “straight talk.” Like Duterte, Bolsonaro’s outbursts have included repeated promises to grant an already-deadly police force more freedom to kill.

In a country with nearly 64,000 homicides last year — more than any country in the world — and where a large portion of the population agrees that “a good criminal is a dead criminal,” tough-on-crime stances can garner votes. But the approach can have consequences, too: Experts fear an increase in police killings, another Brazilian specialty, on top of the steadily rising statistics of recent years.

True to his words, Bolsonaro — who has said, “You can only combat violence with violence” — performed his signature gun finger salute in the first photo of him released from the hospital. It was an apparent nod to the candidate’s outspoken loathing of Brazil’s restrictive guns laws, which he’s promised to revoke if elected.

False news reports and misinformation, aided by loyal social media soldiers and quite a few bots, have been relentless.

False news reports and misinformation, aided by loyal social media soldiers and quite a few bots, have been relentless. After the stabbing, rumors quickly spread that Bolsonaro’s campaign staged the attack to gain sympathy. Others, including elected officials, accused Bolsonaro’s Federal Police escort of being behind the attempted killing.

Claims that are less conspiratorial but nonetheless false have circulated as well: One rumor, spread through WhatsApp, held that Haddad and the Workers’ Party planned to combat homophobia by distributing penis-shaped baby bottles to daycare centers.

Riding the wave of mistrust, Bolsonaro has repeatedly insisted that Brazil’s electronic voting system is susceptible to frauds that are easily carried out, and that his competitors are poised to steal the election from him. His supporters have eagerly embraced the notion.

One of those supporters is Ramiro Alves Da Rocha Cruz, or “Ramiro of the Truck Drivers,” 44, a leader of the important truckers strike in May. He’s now a candidate for Congress from Bolsonaro’s party, and he’s sure that his political boss will either win or get cheated out of winning. “If he doesn’t win in the first round, it’ll be voting machine fraud,” Da Rocha Cruz said. “It’s a ‘Truman Show’!”

Friday night, from his hospital bed, Bolsonaro had given an interview and declared that he would “not accept” any result other than a win. He later said he meant that he “wouldn’t call Fernando Haddad to compliment him.”

Brazil's leading presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro waves as he deplanes at the Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. Bolsonaro, who suffered intestinal damage and severe internal bleeding after the Sept. 6 attack at a campaign event and has undergone multiple surgeries, was discharged Saturday from a Sao Paulo hospital where he was being treated. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Jair Bolsonaro waves as he deplanes at the Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sept. 29, 2018, after being released from the hospital.

Photo: Leo Correa/AP

Team Bolsonaro’s Stumbles

As Brazilian women planned their protest against him across town, Bolsonaro was finally discharged from the hospital and went straight to the airport. On the plane back to Rio de Janeiro, he was both booed and cheered by raucous passengers aboard the flight.

For supporters, Bolsonaro’s discharge could not have come soon enough; in his absence, some of the candidate’s key allies repeatedly put their feet in their mouths.

One such case was his chief economic adviser, a University of Chicago-educated free marketeer named Paulo Guedes, who acts as something of a liaison between Bolsonaro and powerful business interests. While Bolsonaro was in the hospital, Guedes raised the prospect of reintroducing a financial transactions tax, which is deeply unpopular not only among financial elites, but also with a tax-weary population in general. In another case, Bolsonaro’s vice presidential candidate, the retired Gen. Hamilton Mourão, provoked waves of popular outcry when he spoke pejoratively about single mothers and then questioned the viability of Brazil’s treasured “13th salary,” akin to a government-mandated Christmas bonus.

Also during his hospital stay, a daily newspaper called Folha de São Paulo put out a story, based on diplomatic cables, stating that in 2011, Bolsonaro had threatened to kill one of his two ex-wives; she is now running to be a member of Congress from Rio de Janeiro. She denied the report’s legitimacy, but friends from the time back up the reporting. A journalist with the same name as one of the reporters who landed the scoop was attacked by Bolsonaro supporters online; she reported that her personal details were shared on social media.

Then, on Friday, Veja magazine, which usually supports conservative candidates, put out a damning report detailing his ex-wife’s accusations that Bolsonaro had stolen a bank safe from her, withheld undeclared wealth in public filings, received illicit income of unknown provenance, and acted aggressively toward her.

The media reports brought on a new wave of Trump-like pro-Bolsonaro messaging that questioned the reliability of the Brazilian press. Joice Hasselmann, a disgraced former journalist now running for Congress as a Bolsonaro ally, claimed without any evidence that a Brazilian magazine had mysteriously been paid $152 million to smear the presidential candidate.

The deflection tactics seem to be working: A new poll released Monday night saw Bolsonaro increase his lead by 4 points, to 31 percent, while Haddad, stuck at 21 percent, saw his disapproval rating jump from 27 to 38 percent. Then, Brazil’s powerful agriculture caucus in Congress officially endorsed Bolsonaro.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, called by a social media campaign under the hashtag #EleNao (Not Him), in Brasilia on September 29, 2018. - Women across Brazil launched a wave of nationwide protests on Saturday against the candidacy of the right-wing frontrunner in next week's presidential elections, Jair Bolsonaro who has been branded racist, misogynist and homophobic. (Photo by Sergio LIMA / AFP)

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro using the hashtag #EleNao, or #NotHim, in Brasilia, on Sept. 29, 2018.

Photo: Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

#EleNão

The #EleNão, or #NotHim, protests, held across Brazil last weekend, attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in what is considered to be the biggest women-led protest in Brazil’s history. In the runup to the demonstrations, the stakes became clear: One of the organizers of the Rio de Janeiro event was attacked outside her home, and the main Facebook group for organizing was hacked.

“I’m worried about the kind of people that he’s going to bring out of the closet: people that are racist, homophobic, misogynist, and that now think they are represented.”

In São Paulo, the protest drew a diverse crowd. Attendees included gay couples, transgender people, the rich and poor alike. There were center-left adherents alongside radical Marxist movements; even some centrist candidates for office showed up.

“I’m worried about the kind of people that he’s going to bring out of the closet: people that are racist, homophobic, misogynist, and that now think they are represented,” said Ana Carolina Perreira, 37, a veterinarian, who said her presidential vote would go to center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, now polling around 11 percent.

Bolsonaro “has an extremely homophobic discourse, and I’m worried that some of rights we’ve won would be revoked,” said Daniele Agostine, 33, a photographer who identified as a lesbian, specifically mentioning gay marriage and adoption.

The estranged daughter of far-right philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, best described as Brazil’s Rush Limbaugh and one of Bolsonaro’s leading intellectual inspirations, was also reported present, wearing a bulletproof vest.

A large, inflatable doll of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, with the National Social Liberal Party, stands during a rally along Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. Brazil will hold general elections on Oct. 7. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

A large, inflatable doll of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro during a rally along Paulista Avenue in São Paulo, Brazil, on Sept. 30, 2018.

Photo: Andre Penner/AP

Yes, Him

The next day, on Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, a counterprotest was held with several large sound trucks. Armies of fans wearing Bolsonaro T-shirts posed for selfies, doing the gun-fingers salute in front of a giant blowup of Mourão, who was depicted with a presidential sash.

“This is not Venezuela!” shouted a group holding a banner that read “Bolsonaro for change.” Meanwhile, the unofficial Bolsonaro anthem, “The Legend Has Arrived,” an upbeat rap-reggae-salsa-pop smash by Venezuelan artist El Veneco, blasted from sound systems.

“I’d vote for him because of his security proposals. What’s the point in having a job if you don’t know if you’ll get there alive?” said Antonio Berto, 40, a painter, wearing a white “Bolsonaro President” T-shirt.

“They want to make it possible for 3-year-old children to have sex change operations. The only candidate who is against this is Jair Bolsonaro.”

“They want to make it possible for 3-year-old children to have sex change operations,” said Maria Meirice De Almeida Prado, 63. “The only candidate who is against this is Jair Bolsonaro.”

“Yes, him!” the counter protesters shouted, a direct response to protests the day before. “Get out PT!” others said. “Our flag will never be red,” they said, in reference to communist movements. A helicopter that pro-Bolsonaro protesters suspected was from the Globo TV network drew the crowd’s ire: Demonstrators swore at it from the ground and decried the chopper as “communist.”

In another very Trumpian twist, Bolsonaro’s third son, Eduardo, entered the fray. One of the top vote-getters among São Paulo’s members of Congress in 2014, Eduardo Bolsonaro is in the middle of a re-election bid. Eduardo Bolsonaro posted on Twitter that 1 million people were attending the march; the statement was later proven to be a gross exaggeration.

When Eduardo Bolsonaro took the microphone on top of one of the sound trucks, the crowd roared.

“Do you believe in the polls?!” he shouted.

“No!” replied the hyped-up crowd.

“With God’s will, we’ll win in the first round!”

Top photo: The Brazilian presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro, greets supporters during a campaign motorcade between Ceilandia and Taguatinga in Brazil, on Sept. 5, 2018.

The post Brazil’s Far-Right Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro Is Headed For Victory On Sunday — And He’s Bringing His Shock Troops With Him appeared first on The Intercept.

Rudy Giuliani’s $1.6 Million Amazon Adventure Has Become an Issue in the Brazilian Election

Rudy Giuliani has become a controversial figure in this year’s election — in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. With his eyes on reelection this Sunday, governor Amazonino Mendes signed a controversial $1.6 million consultancy contract with Giuliani Security & Safety (GSS). Mendes is prominently touting the deal in his campaign, promising it will “revolutionize” the state’s grim security predicament.

It’s the latest example of Giuliani traveling abroad to cash in on his tough-on-crime reputation from his days as New York City mayor, despite the fact that new research has increasingly discredited his signature implementation of the “broken windows” policing strategy.

Back home, Giuliani is defending president Donald Trump in a probe related to foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, but his own ties to foreign governments, through lucrative contracts such as this one, have drawn scrutiny in Washington. Critics in multiple countries where Giuliani operates — including the U.S. — argue that his specialty is serving as a media diversion, rather than the job description written on his contracts.

“We sought out the best crime-fighting consultancy in the world. It’s called Rudolph Giuliani.”

In 2009, while mayor of Manaus, Mendes’s vice mayor Carlos Souza was arrested and charged with involvement in the drug trade, and his late brother Wallace was accused of ordering the killings drug dealers to increase the audience of the television crime show both men hosted. Wallace died in 2010. Souza still faces charge of association with the drug trade.

In a campaign video, Mendes put GSS front and center, boasting that he sought out the best security consultancy in the world. “Ideally, when you have a serious illness, you call in a specialist, right? That’s what we did. We sought out the best crime-fighting consultancy in the world. It’s called Rudolph Giuliani.”

The firm’s deal with Amazonas state has been challenged by Brazilian police, prosecutors, and law enforcement specialists who question how Giuliani’s New York experience can translate to the very different realities of this sprawling jungle state, where grueling poverty, systematic corruption, and police violence are intrinsically related to rampant crime levels. The 2017 murder rate in Manaus was 48 per 100,000, higher than the 30.66 per 100,000 in New York at its 1990 worst.

Federal prosecutors have dubbed the GSS contract a “media spectacle”; a leading penal judge asked why Brazilian specialists weren’t being employed, and police officers wondered why the governor wasn’t asking them instead. Brazil’s Federal Police — the country’s equivalent of the FBI, which also control borders and fights transnational drug crime — flatly refused to cooperate. State prosecutors opened an investigation into the GSS contract’s legality.

“This consultancy will tell us what we already knew.”

“This consultancy will tell us what we already knew. It was not well received,” said Ney Gama, an officer in the homicide division of Amazonas Civil Police, the force tasked with crime investigations. “We have to strengthen the borders, reinforce the strength of the police. But this is logical. It needs investment.”

Jacqueline Muniz, an adjunct professor at the Public Security Department at Rio’s Federal Fluminense University, said GSS was offering a “menu of pre-established solutions” aimed at “advertising and marketing.” She said that the money should have been spent on a violence-reduction program for at-risk youth.

Instead, tasked with “identifying measures which turn the repression of criminality and the development of all branches of penal persecution within the scope of the state of Amazonas more efficient,” GSS’s contract projects a system similar to the CompStat statistical intelligence program used in New York.

GSS first sent a proposal for the consultancy work in January 2017 to Amazonino’s predecessor as governor José Melo — a year after the Amazonas state electoral court voted to suspend Melo’s mandate for suspicions of vote buying (he was finally removed last year and Mendes won a snap election), and six months after federal prosecutors had revealed a graft scheme involving tens of millions of dollars diverted from his administration’s health budgets.

Prosecutor Alexandre Jabur, who led the graft investigation that resulted in Melo’s arrest in December 2017, criticized the government’s “media spectacle attitude” in signing the no-bid contract in a state where corruption is endemic. “There is money being diverted, works that are unfinished, works that aren’t done,” he said. “The organs of control are second-rate.”

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, left, adminsters the oath of office to Police Commissioner William J. Bratton at New York City Hall ceremonies Tuesday, Jan. 11, 1994. Bratton's wife, Cheryl Fiandaca, holds the Bible for the former Boston police commissioner. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, left, administers the oath of office to Police Commissioner William J. Bratton on Jan. 11, 1994. Bratton’s wife, Cheryl Fiandaca, holds the Bible.

Photo: Richard Drew/AP

A Disputed Record in New York and Latin America

As mayor of New York City, Giuliani and his Police Chief William Bratton were credited with a sharp decrease in crime rates after implementing the “broken windows” theory, which advocates reducing criminality with a tough approach to misdemeanors like panhandling, graffiti, or vandalism.

“There is absolutely no good empirical evidence that ‘broken windows’ works.”

But this record is increasingly being questioned, with some critics noting that throughout the 1990s crime fell in many American cities as the economy improved, and others arguing that “zero tolerance” strategies led to police abuses and even killings.

“There is absolutely no good empirical evidence that ‘broken windows’ works,” says Bernard Harcourt, a professor of political science and law at Columbia University and one of the leading experts on the subject. He adds that there is a general consensus in the academic community that “it has been enforced in a racially discriminatory manner in New York City.”

The successes GSS claims for its work in other Latin American cities have also been challenged. In 2002, Giuliani’s company signed a $4 million consultancy contract with Mexico City. Crimes fell 8 percent in its first year, but by 2004, homicides were down just half a percent and kidnappings had doubled, according to a Seattle Times report.

“While there were some superficial changes associated with Plan Giuliani, it failed to achieve either a substantive reduction in serious crime or an increased feeling of safety among urban residents,” Alison Mountz and Winnifred Curran, geographers from Syracuse and DePaul universities, respectively, concluded in a 2006 study.

Gov. Amazonino Mendes uses the decrease in crime rates in Medellín, Colombia, in one of his campaign videos, attributing the fall to Giuliani’s work there. In 2016, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Juan Carlos Pinzón praised Giuliani’s support for Colombia’s “transformation.”

“Mayor Giuliani has lent his expertise in fighting crime and leading New York City’s positive security transformation to related projects in Colombia, helping our nation to turn the page on the past toward a prosperous future built on stability, hope, and peace,” Pinzón said.

Giuliani’s recommendations have been followed “to some degree” in the Colombian cities of Bogotá and Cali, the Washington Post reported.

Juan Galvis, a geographer specializing in urban issues in Latin America and assistant professor at the State University of New York, contested that Giuliani’s work had reduced crime in such cities.

“Homicide statistics have been moving down in most large Colombian cities for about 20 years, and I haven’t come across any study that has found one main cause,” he said in an email. “Policies from regulating nightlife to bans on handguns, increased policing, paramilitary and guerrilla demobilization (even if partial) and many others have had to do with this.”

“When you don’t address the corruption in the police who are very badly paid for their work, and you have very high rates of racial inequality, it just exacerbates the problems.”

Other academics also expressed doubts about Giuliani’s work on the continent.

“He’s like a political showpiece,” said Kate Swanson, an associate professor of geography at San Diego State University, who has written about Giuliani’s work in Latin America, arguing that his New York methods were not applicable to Latin American cities where police forces are corrupt and violent, and the divides between rich and poor are accentuated.

“When you don’t address the corruption in the police who are very badly paid for their work, and you have very high rates of racial inequality, it just exacerbates the problems,” Swanson said.

GSS does not disclose its financials, but such criticisms have apparently not hurt its bottom line. The Washington Post reported in 2007 that in its first five years of operation, the firm raked in $100 million and has continued to land many prominent clients since then.

Giuliani’s performance as Trump’s lawyer has also raised eyebrows over his competence. During his first TV interview in this role, the 74-year-old lawyer contradicted Trump’s own public position on hush money payments made to porn actor Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election, much to the shock of the show’s host, Sean Hannity.

Last month, Senate Democrats urged the Justice Department to investigate whether Giuliani’s international consulting work while serving the president violates federal regulations. Giuliani insists that he’s “never lobbied [Trump] on anything” and therefore does not need to register as a foreign agent.

GSS_Governo-do-AM-1538671999

Amazonino Mendes, left, and his team meets with Rudy Giuliani, right, to set out details about the public safety consulting contract for the Amazon.

Photo: Courtesy of the Government of Amazonas

Too Few Resources, Too Many Problems

The contract signed on May 7 between the Amazonas government and Giuliani’s company provides for a three-phase consultancy deal that will analyze crime in the state, its prison system, and its border strategy.

“Activity 1” is a “field evaluation” of the investigative work, structure, and efficiency of the Civil Police. Aside from clauses looking at the Civil Police’s forensic capacity and a design for a public-private “police foundation,” it is strikingly similar – at times word for word — to the proposal sent to José Melo and dated January 3, 2017, which The Intercept has obtained. It also referred to the Federal Police, changing that to Civil Police in the contract. “Activity 1” costs $155,000 in the proposal, with another $100,000 to present a report. This has risen to $475,000 in the signed contract. The contract adds further “activities” examining the prison system and borders.

State prosecutors in Manaus have opened an investigation into the contract, following complaints from members of the public and a state legislature member, prosecutor Edilson Queiroz said, which they have a year to complete. Public contracts in Brazil are normally opened up to tender, but in some cases these can be dispensed with if the company is the only one that can offer this type of service, Queiroz said. “My job is to look at the legality of this contract, if it was really necessary, if this information will be pertinent.”

The public servant who signed a decree on Friday, May 4, making the tender process unnecessary, took the job the same day. The contract was signed the following Monday. Chiefs of the Military and Civil Police were later changed. “The consultancy will bring us the best and most advanced in technology,” said Col. Walter Cruz, coordinating the project for the Amazonas government, during a ceremony to swear in Frederico Mendes, the new Civil Police chief, on September 17.

Training, intelligence, integration, and technology were the pillars of the contract, Cruz said at the event. But the money used to pay for it was taken from projects related to technology, information, communication, and research, according to a decree signed by Amazonino Mendes.

GSS did not answer questions about their contract and work here. In an email, its Latin American representative Kellen Dunning referred inquiries about the consultancy to the state government. “GSS does not discuss with third parties any questions related to contract and proposals submitted to any clients,” Denning said. “GSS does not comment on their findings and decisions in the due diligence process before moving forward with a contracting process.”

The state government scheduled interviews for The Intercept with Cruz in Manaus and then canceled them, and did not respond to written questions. It has begun testing an integrated intelligence system called GuardiAM 24 hours, similar to the CompStat intelligence system used by New York police cited in the GSS contract. Guiliani flew in for the ceremony, in which he handed over the first 30-page report, his only visit to date.

One of the biggest obstacles GSS faces is the refusal of Brazil’s Federal Police to cooperate. Brazil’s most respected crime-fighting force is revered for high-profile operations against political corruption and drug gangs and controls Brazil’s borders, the subject of “Activity 3” of GSS’s contract.

ti-brazil-map-03-1538703805

Map: The Intercept

It runs a base near Tabatinga in the “three-border region” near Peru and Colombia, situated on the River Solimões, a tributary of the Amazon. Much of Brazil’s drug trade flows down this river. Yet there is no border control between Tabatinga and Leticia, its sister city on the Colombian border, and some of the surrounding border region is wild forest.

In an official letter seen by The Intercept and dated May 15, Federal Police in Manaus refused to schedule a “technical meeting” with the GSS team. “The understanding is that we cannot be part of this consultancy, which is a commercial relationship between the state and a private foreign consultancy,” said Federal Police officer Leandro Almada, adding that the force had declined to supply data about borders and protection to GSS.

david-1538672759

David dos Santos was murdered on Sept. 17. His family says he was killed by mistake.

Photo: Courtesy of the family

The need to make Amazona more secure for its residents is a real one. On September 15, David dos Santos, 17, was murdered when armed men rolled down his street looking for blood, relatives said. He couldn’t outrun the bullets, and was shot in the back and killed in Mutirão, a poor neighborhood in the Amazon city of Manaus, where drug gangs vie for control. His relatives clutched each other, sobbing and keening as his body was hoisted into the morgue truck on a metal tray.

An aunt told The Intercept that he attended an evangelical church. A neighbor said he had previously been a drug gang member. “Why did they do this? He didn’t want these things for his life,” his sister said. Like the others, she declined to give her name for fear of reprisals.

In July alone, this north Brazilian city of 2.1 million people, an island of asphalt in the jungle, was rocked by 113 violent deaths, many blamed on the low-intensity war between drug gangs fighting for control of its lucrative trade. The capital of the state of Amazonas, Manaus is located on the smuggling route used by speedboats carrying tons of cocaine and marijuana down rivers from neighboring Peru and Colombia. Local feuds achieved global notoriety in January 2017, when 56 prisoners were butchered in a gruesome riot at a Manaus prison.

As violent crime has intensified, so too has fear, feeding support for hard-line law and order candidates in Brazil’s October 7 presidential, congressional and state government elections.

Relatives near of Anisio Jobim Penitentiary Complex, in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, where at least 60 prosioners died during a prison riot involving two gangs at on January 2, 2017. Photo: SANDRO PEREIRA/CODIGO19/ESTADAO CONTEUDO (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

Relatives gather near of Anisio Jobim Penitentiary Complex in Manaus, where at least 60 prisoners died during a prison riot involving Brazil’s two largest gangs on Jan 2, 2017.

Photo: Sandro Pereira/Agencia Estado via AP

Amazonas Is Not New York

Giuliani’s consultancy will need to confront the grim realities of an under-resourced, underpaid police force battling three vicious drug gangs across a 600,000-square mile state where rivers provide the main transport.

“These gangs dispute the domination of the city, of the route, on the base of violence,” said Paulo Mavignier, head of Civil Police drug squad in Amazonas.

The dominant mafia, the Northern Family (Família do Norte, or FDN), staged the January 2017 riot at Manaus’s Anísio Jobim to eliminate adversaries from São Paulo’s First Capital Command gang (Primeiro Comando do Capital, or PCC) that left 56 dismembered, disemboweled, and decapitated bodies. Dozens were brutally killed in retaliatory riots in other Brazilian states.

“Call the police because they are invading again! They’re shooting!”

The PCC was left weakened. But after a recent split in its ranks, a former FDN leader teamed up with Rio’s notoriously vicious Red Command (Comando Vermelho, or CV) and 35 of its gang members tunneled out of a brand-new prison in Manaus last May, local media reported. Some crime reporters link the escaped prisoners to a new spike in homicides in battle-scarred communities like Mutirão, where fear is a constant.

Minutes after the police and morgue truck left with dos Santos’s body, people scattered after hearing shots and crime reporters ran to a nearby car. Dos Santos’s sister appeared at its window, distraught.

“Call the police because they are invading again! They’re shooting,” she cried, tears pouring down her face.

“It’s Like a Disease”

The third of Brazil’s three police forces, the state government-run Military Police, is not even mentioned in the GSS contract — a remarkable omission, given that it has the biggest number of officers and controls street and so-called ostensive policing. Organized like a military unit, it is the force most regularly linked to the thousands of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses that take place every year in Brazil.

“I shot in the head,” “I like to kill quickly,” “I prefer to leave him in agony.”

In 2015, 12 Military Police officers and three civilians were arrested in an investigation into a “death squad” believed to have executed 19 people and attempted to kill 13 others. Many were innocents targeted at random in a revenge spree after a police officer working as a security guard was killed during a robbery. Leandro Almada ran the investigation. The officers involved called themselves the “Ghost Riders,” after the American superhero movie starring Nicolas Cage as a vengeful motorcyclist who made a pact with the devil, wiretaps and cellphone messages revealed.

“Their conversations were clear during the crimes they committed, at times bragging: ‘I shot in the head,’ ‘I like to kill quickly,’ ‘I prefer to leave him in agony,’” said Almada. “These crime waves following the deaths of police officers have happened frequently in various states.” Eleven people currently face trial on charges like homicide.

The smaller Civil Police is separate to the Military Police, and officers said its main problem is a lack of staff and equipment. They are unable to talk to their Military Police colleagues by radio because they use a different network, Officer Nev Gama said. Despite a new recruitment drive, many towns still have just one officer, said Henrique Brasil, the officer in charge of the state’s vast interior, as he complained to a superior officer about a power-cut stopping officers in a small town who had arrested a suspected murderer to file paperwork.

Paulo Mavignier, head of its drug squad, has just 23 officers and five speedboats, none of which are armored, even though they engage in armed combat with drug gangs.

Phase two of the contract looks at Amazonas’s prisons — which like most in Brazil are dangerously overcrowded, violent, and heavily under the influence of drug gangs. “Someone from New York does not know the penitentiary system in Latin America,” said Luís Valois, a penal judge who helped negotiate the end of the 2017 prison riot. “Amazonas has very competent people to do this.”

In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, a guard stands inside the Anisio Jobim penitentiary complex, known by its Portuguese acronym of Compaj, in Manaus, Brazil. For years, Brazil's two most powerful gangs had a non-aggression pact. But that truce ruptured in October, for reasons experts say are still unclear, leading to riots in several prisons. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

A guard stands inside the Anisio Jobim penitentiary complex, known by its Portuguese acronym of Compaj, in Manaus, Brazil, on Feb. 2, 2017.

Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

The GSS team has visited Manaus prisons, all administered by private companies, said Col. Cleitman Coelho, who heads up the Amazonas penitentiary department. Coelho has installed body scanners and transferred gang leaders to other states, but the state’s prisons still lack cellphone blockers, and his administration is contracting new prison guards because only 67 are left. “The ones I have are no use,” he said. “There is a very high level of corruption among them.”

The companies that co-run the state’s prisons have around 900 “re-socialization officers” to control 9,700 prisoners, held in prisons with capacity for 3,500. A new prison opened in September 2017, but has already been turned over to a private company after 35 prisoners tunneled out in May. According to João Medeiros, a judge in charge of executing penal sentences, it lacked medical care and even light bulbs. Coelho hopes GSS can help them find stronger building materials.

After the January 2017 riot, the state closed a semi-open prison that was next door. Since then, Coelho said, prisoners serving less than eight years in sentences are released and put on probation, wearing ankle bracelets that monitor their movements, which are restricted.

Carlos Bruno Miranda, 26, was wearing one when he was shot several times and killed in the low-income União neighborhood of Manaus on a recent evening. The names “Fabio” and “Regis” were scribbled on a note left on his bloodied body left slumped on a step beside a polluted stream and a row of wooden shacks. Many lacked windows — another challenge for Giuliani’s “broken windows” policy.

Speaking anonymously out of fear, a childhood friend said Miranda had become involved in drugs in his late teens and drove a taxi. In March 2017, Miranda was arrested when he and four other men held a couple at gunpoint and stole their car. He was later released with the ankle bracelet after receiving a five-year sentence.

Antonio Carlos de Paiva, 31, an accounting assistant, runs a nonprofit group called Equipe Sonic (Sonic Team) that takes children from one Manaus gang-run neighborhood roller skating. He said the government should fund more education and sport facilities to keep young people in desperate poverty out of crime, instead of spending on foreign consultancies.

“It’s like a disease,” said Leonardo dos Santos Junior, 35, a stevedore who beat a cocaine addiction through roller skating with Paiva’s group. “You can’t treat the symptoms. You have to treat the cause.”

Top photo: Amazonino Mendes, second from left, poses with Rudy Giuliani, second from right, and John P. Huvane, CEO of GSS, after signing a contract with Giuliani’s company.

The post Rudy Giuliani’s $1.6 Million Amazon Adventure Has Become an Issue in the Brazilian Election appeared first on The Intercept.

Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas

On October 7, Brazil will hold perhaps the most tumultuous election since its re-democratization three decades ago. The early leader in the polls, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was thrown in jail on controversial corruption charges in April; the current leader, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt last month; and the deep polarization that has permeated daily life has also produced interesting new political alliances. The country of 207 million must elect (through mandatory, universal voting) not only a new president, but 513 federal deputies, 54 senators, 27 governors, and more than 1,000 state representatives.

While much national attention has been given to understanding Bolsonaro voters, last month we sought out an influential, often ignored segment of the voting public: gang members. As we walked through the alleys of a favela — the poor and working-class communities that approximately 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents call home — a drug trafficker from the Pure Third Command gang asked us a striking question: “Do you believe in the government?”

The sentiments expressed by the residents of the favelas are reminiscent of a verse from the song “Candidate Liar, Liar” (“Candidato caô caô) by the original bad boy of samba, Bezerra da Silva, released shortly after Brazil’s re-democratization in 1988. Known for telling it straight, he sang:

He went up the hill without a tie

Saying he was one of us.

Went to the street stall

Drank cachaça

And even smoked a joint.

He ate at my house

And there he used

A jelly tin as a plate.

Quickly I realized

He was just another candidate

In the next election.

Bezerra died in 2005, but his words remain as relevant as ever: Across Brazil, the kingmakers in fine suits and too-white smiles make their pilgrimages to the forgotten urban peripheries every four years asking for votes. And then they disappear. We had to ask permission to record in the favelas, but the decision-makers were not those sitting in City Hall or the governor’s mansion; it was the drug traffickers who oversee the day-to-day functioning of those areas. Drug traffickers dominate entire swaths of Rio and Brazil, making them important political actors who must be heard during this tense national moment, when poverty, unemployment, and security are on the tips of the tongues of every candidate. These themes are most visceral outside the wealthy, urban cores, in the “rest” of the country, where tourists and the privileged rarely step foot. Yet while major newspapers and TV news broadcasters regularly produce flashy headlines about violence and crime, most refuse to even utter the names of these powerful gangs, arguing that that would legitimate the power they already possess.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the entire public security apparatus was literally handed over to the military in February — an unprecedented response to the rising sense of insecurity. But the results have been trifling. Disputes between traffickers, militias, and police dictate the pace of much of the city, closing schools, stopping highways, and killing as never before. Despite the extraordinary cost of military intervention, residents of the capital’s greater metropolitan area endure an average of 27 episodes of gunfire every day, a significant increase from the 2017 average of 16.

So what is the electoral process from the point of view of the two largest factions in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, and how do they participate? As José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book “From Barons to Extermination: The History of Violence” in the Baixada Fluminense, notes, gangs are “not a parallel power” as is commonly claimed — they are a functional “part of the legally constituted power” structures.

Click on the video at the top of this post to watch members of this powerful bloc explain for themselves.

The post Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas appeared first on The Intercept.

Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas

On October 7, Brazil will hold perhaps the most tumultuous election since its re-democratization three decades ago. The early leader in the polls, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was thrown in jail on controversial corruption charges in April; the current leader, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt last month; and the deep polarization that has permeated daily life has also produced interesting new political alliances. The country of 207 million must elect (through mandatory, universal voting) not only a new president, but 513 federal deputies, 54 senators, 27 governors, and more than 1,000 state representatives.

While much national attention has been given to understanding Bolsonaro voters, last month we sought out an influential, often ignored segment of the voting public: gang members. As we walked through the alleys of a favela — the poor and working-class communities that approximately 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents call home — a drug trafficker from the Pure Third Command gang asked us a striking question: “Do you believe in the government?”

The sentiments expressed by the residents of the favelas are reminiscent of a verse from the song “Candidate Liar, Liar” (“Candidato caô caô) by the original bad boy of samba, Bezerra da Silva, released shortly after Brazil’s re-democratization in 1988. Known for telling it straight, he sang:

He went up the hill without a tie

Saying he was one of us.

Went to the street stall

Drank cachaça

And even smoked a joint.

He ate at my house

And there he used

A jelly tin as a plate.

Quickly I realized

He was just another candidate

In the next election.

Bezerra died in 2005, but his words remain as relevant as ever: Across Brazil, the kingmakers in fine suits and too-white smiles make their pilgrimages to the forgotten urban peripheries every four years asking for votes. And then they disappear. We had to ask permission to record in the favelas, but the decision-makers were not those sitting in City Hall or the governor’s mansion; it was the drug traffickers who oversee the day-to-day functioning of those areas. Drug traffickers dominate entire swaths of Rio and Brazil, making them important political actors who must be heard during this tense national moment, when poverty, unemployment, and security are on the tips of the tongues of every candidate. These themes are most visceral outside the wealthy, urban cores, in the “rest” of the country, where tourists and the privileged rarely step foot. Yet while major newspapers and TV news broadcasters regularly produce flashy headlines about violence and crime, most refuse to even utter the names of these powerful gangs, arguing that that would legitimate the power they already possess.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the entire public security apparatus was literally handed over to the military in February — an unprecedented response to the rising sense of insecurity. But the results have been trifling. Disputes between traffickers, militias, and police dictate the pace of much of the city, closing schools, stopping highways, and killing as never before. Despite the extraordinary cost of military intervention, residents of the capital’s greater metropolitan area endure an average of 27 episodes of gunfire every day, a significant increase from the 2017 average of 16.

So what is the electoral process from the point of view of the two largest factions in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, and how do they participate? As José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book “From Barons to Extermination: The History of Violence” in the Baixada Fluminense, notes, gangs are “not a parallel power” as is commonly claimed — they are a functional “part of the legally constituted power” structures.

Click on the video at the top of this post to watch members of this powerful bloc explain for themselves.

The post Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas appeared first on The Intercept.

Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas

On October 7, Brazil will hold perhaps the most tumultuous election since its re-democratization three decades ago. The early leader in the polls, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was thrown in jail on controversial corruption charges in April; the current leader, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt last month; and the deep polarization that has permeated daily life has also produced interesting new political alliances. The country of 207 million must elect (through mandatory, universal voting) not only a new president, but 513 federal deputies, 54 senators, 27 governors, and more than 1,000 state representatives.

While much national attention has been given to understanding Bolsonaro voters, last month we sought out an influential, often ignored segment of the voting public: gang members. As we walked through the alleys of a favela — the poor and working-class communities that approximately 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents call home — a drug trafficker from the Pure Third Command gang asked us a striking question: “Do you believe in the government?”

The sentiments expressed by the residents of the favelas are reminiscent of a verse from the song “Candidate Liar, Liar” (“Candidato caô caô) by the original bad boy of samba, Bezerra da Silva, released shortly after Brazil’s re-democratization in 1988. Known for telling it straight, he sang:

He went up the hill without a tie

Saying he was one of us.

Went to the street stall

Drank cachaça

And even smoked a joint.

He ate at my house

And there he used

A jelly tin as a plate.

Quickly I realized

He was just another candidate

In the next election.

Bezerra died in 2005, but his words remain as relevant as ever: Across Brazil, the kingmakers in fine suits and too-white smiles make their pilgrimages to the forgotten urban peripheries every four years asking for votes. And then they disappear. We had to ask permission to record in the favelas, but the decision-makers were not those sitting in City Hall or the governor’s mansion; it was the drug traffickers who oversee the day-to-day functioning of those areas. Drug traffickers dominate entire swaths of Rio and Brazil, making them important political actors who must be heard during this tense national moment, when poverty, unemployment, and security are on the tips of the tongues of every candidate. These themes are most visceral outside the wealthy, urban cores, in the “rest” of the country, where tourists and the privileged rarely step foot. Yet while major newspapers and TV news broadcasters regularly produce flashy headlines about violence and crime, most refuse to even utter the names of these powerful gangs, arguing that that would legitimate the power they already possess.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the entire public security apparatus was literally handed over to the military in February — an unprecedented response to the rising sense of insecurity. But the results have been trifling. Disputes between traffickers, militias, and police dictate the pace of much of the city, closing schools, stopping highways, and killing as never before. Despite the extraordinary cost of military intervention, residents of the capital’s greater metropolitan area endure an average of 27 episodes of gunfire every day, a significant increase from the 2017 average of 16.

So what is the electoral process from the point of view of the two largest factions in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, and how do they participate? As José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book “From Barons to Extermination: The History of Violence” in the Baixada Fluminense, notes, gangs are “not a parallel power” as is commonly claimed — they are a functional “part of the legally constituted power” structures.

Click on the video at the top of this post to watch members of this powerful bloc explain for themselves.

The post Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas appeared first on The Intercept.

El Salvador is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing Failed “Iron Fist” Policing.

Oswaldo joined the Salvadoran gang Barrio 18 when he was 14 years old. By the time he was in his early 20s, he wanted out — and luckily, gang leaders gave him permission to leave. But they warned him: “No one will offer you a hand out there like the gang has.”

For a long while, that was true. For Oswaldo, his gang clique was his adopted family. They had his back, and they found food and shelter for him and his family. Without the clique, vulnerable and alone, he barely scraped by while selling toothbrushes at a market. Oswaldo had finished high school, and he hoped to find a steady job. But when he was invited in for an interview, he remembers, “the first question was, ‘Are you a gang member?’” Then, it was: Are you tattooed? Do you have family in a gang? Friends? Are you from a gang-controlled neighborhood? Oswaldo denied his past throughout the grilling, but couldn’t lie when the man doing the interviewing said he needed him to lift his shirt. Oswaldo’s torso is covered in Barrio 18 ink. So he was rejected from yet another job, and soon after, his wife left with their toddler son, calling Oswaldo a failure.

He told a trusted pastor that he was struggling. Privately, he was so desperate that he was considering rejoining the gang. The pastor told him he knew a business that wanted to hire ex-gang members. Oswaldo couldn’t believe it.

“This is a country where people don’t believe that gang members can change,” he told The Intercept last fall, sitting in a conference room, employed at the company the pastor told him about on that day three years earlier. The company is League Central America, a textile factory that makes collegiate wear for U.S. universities such as Arizona State and Yale. League’s president, Rodrigo Bolaños, has long been a rare and vocal advocate in the Salvadoran business community for hiring former gang members. Bolaños argues that the problem of gangs in El Salvador isn’t so complicated. There have been gangs across the world, from England to Chicago, at every time in history, he says.

“The same way gangs generate, you can also get them out of gangs, if you do positive forces like second chances, education,” he said. The company tests those who belonged to El Salvador’s three main rival gangs — MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 — with techniques like icebreaker games that require physical closeness. If a new hire couldn’t stand it, Bolaños said, “that person wasn’t ready.” The company subsidizes employees’ secondary and college education if they haven’t finished it, and offers classes on-site.

League’s initiative has been widely celebrated, even by two leaders of MS-13, who once summoned Bolaños to a meeting at the prison where they were held, to say that they hoped all of their members could go through a program like his. Targeting people who have recently left a gang, or would like to leave, and offering them rehabilitation and employment is essential, a growing body of research on gang desistance has found. “League is a model for how to reinsert former gang members into society,” concluded a major academic survey of gang membership in El Salvador in 2017.

Rodrigo Bolanos (center), a salvadoran businessman who studied in an american University during the 1980s, now ows League Company. Looking to employ salvadorans gang members and then pass for rehab to leave behind crime. The picture was taken inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador and Bolanos is accompanied by two inmates. Rodrigo Bolanos, center, owner of League Company, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Rodrigo Bolaños, center, president of League Central America, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

The U.S. government took a bit longer to come around. One day a few years ago, two representatives from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, came to visit. Bolaños says they were skeptical; it seemed to him that they “didn’t believe in this.” But after spending two hours talking to Bolaños and touring the factory, they seemed pleased — and INL later put funds toward a program that would specifically funnel ex-gang members who had just finished prison sentences into working at League.

It might seem unremarkable that the U.S. government would direct funds to a program that sounds so wholesome. But for El Salvador and neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala, it represents a delicate, tenuous shift in U.S. foreign policy. It marks a step away from years of a U.S.-supported approach that has favored the mano dura, or “iron fist,” response to gangs, and has mostly shunned work that directly engaged current and former gang members who wished to leave crime and violence behind. Past U.S. policy has erred toward an almost exclusively military, police, and mass incarceration response; and when violence prevention work was funded, the government stipulated that the organizations that implemented U.S.-funded projects on the ground must ensure the participants had no ties to a gang. In fact, until recently, it was prohibited under U.S. Treasury Department restrictions to use government aid money for any program that directly engaged members of MS-13.

This policy change could be imperiled by the attitudes and actions, currently in vogue at the White House, that are meant to demonize gang members. From his presidential campaign to the recent policy of separating families at the border, President Donald Trump has used MS-13 to justify his calls for harsher immigration laws. He has insisted that its members — who he has repeatedly called “animals” — should be treated as an existential threat to the United States.

But while Trump and many in his administration act as though Salvadoran gangs exist due to a lack of toughness, parts of the U.S. federal government in Central America — which for years enabled the implementation of exactly the kind of policy Trump calls for now — have recognized that mano dura has failed. “It’s a policy that did not have positive results,” said Enrique Roig, former coordinator of the Central America Regional Security Initiative for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a major vehicle for U.S. funds to the region. “The whole intention to focus more on the prevention side, on respectful law enforcement,” was to correct the mistakes of the past, like “the use of incarceration as the main method of dealing with the problem.” It is also meant to build “relationships of trust between communities and police, so people in communities actually report crime, and police know what’s happening by responding in a way that’s respectful of human rights.”

Exporting a Failed Approach

In the 1980s and 1990s, police forces in major U.S. cities went all-in on a tough-on-crime approach known as “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” policing, using surveillance and high arrest rates in response to all manner of minor crimes in order to stem major ones. Decades later, the United States is still wrestling with the failed legacy of broken windows, including mass incarceration and police brutality that sparked movements like Black Lives Matter and a wave of criminal justice reform. But countries across Central America are still implementing anti-gang zero tolerance policies, pushed and supported by the U.S. government. This is the case despite the fact that the approach has generally failed to lower crime rates across the region; in fact, it has often empowered police and military forces implicated in crimes themselves.

El Salvador, like most countries, has long had disaffected kids in poor communities who create gangs – Salvadoran anthropologist Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson dates the earliest gangs to the 1950s, when state modernization prompted a disorganized mass internal migration to urban centers. What appeared were neighborhood or schoolyard crews defending their honor and territory with fistfights and knives. Throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the homegrown crews meshed with the violent legacy of a recently ended civil war — and with U.S. street gang culture, which arrived among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans deported from the United States during that time. According to the FBI, many of those deportees were members of two gangs formed in the U.S. and composed mostly of embattled Salvadoran war refugees: the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18.

As the gangs grew in size and power, successive Salvadoran governments reacted with mano dura, doing so with the full backing of the United States. First officially implemented in 2003, the policy has consistently been sold to the Salvadoran public as the antidote to an explosion of gang violence that has sent thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring countries north to seek asylum in the United States. But because of mano dura, young people in marginalized neighborhoods face skyrocketing police abuse, including torture and extrajudicial murder. Since the policy’s 2003 adoption, El Salvador’s jails have become notorious: A 2017 United Nations visit found one prison operating at over 900 percent capacity, and others between 200 and 600 percent. Inmates regularly die of preventable diseases. Meanwhile, the policy failed at its one objective; paradoxically, when it was implemented, the country had seen nearly a decade of declining murder rates, but ever since, violence has surged, spiking in the past three years so that El Salvador has held its spot among the murder capitals of the world.

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR - MAY 20: MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 'gang cages' in the Quezaltepeque police station May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador. These overcrowded, 12x15 cages were designed to be 72-hour holding cells for common criminals and the two rival gangs, but many of the individuals have been imprisoned for over a year. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.)

MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 12’x15′ “gang cages” in the Quezaltepeque police station on May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

As mano dura has escalated into a low-intensity conflict between the gangs and the government, over the years, civil society organizations in El Salvador have been trying an alternative approach: working directly with gangs to help members leave or renounce violence, or in some cases, stepping in to mediate and interrupt vengeance killings, for example. These initiatives are often modeled on programs in U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles (the city where El Salvador’s largest gangs originated).

Such work is known in aid industry parlance as “tertiary violence prevention,” and it entails working with people who are not “at risk,” but rather already in conflict with the law. It is a type of restorative, not punitive, justice. No matter the form it takes, tertiary violence prevention faces intense skepticism and involves significant risks. In addition to requiring a closeness to the violence practiced by some gang members and state security officials, the groups that work with gangs are often themselves criminalized, cast by law enforcement or the general public as sympathizing with criminals.

It didn’t help that the U.S. government focused on empowering the Salvadoran police, and did little to address the root causes of gang violence. This was due to a pervasive “nervousness and concern” about tertiary work, said Roig.

The impact of the reticence in El Salvador was that in any project receiving U.S. federal funds, “it was strictly prohibited to work with youth in conflict with the law,” said Rick Jones of Catholic Relief Services. A major international nongovernmental organization and one of the pioneers of tertiary prevention in El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services had, since the early 2000s, been doing street work with current and former gang members to intercede in cycles of violence and to help guide them to licit employment so that they could leave gangs. The U.S. government was squeamish about such innovative work.

That policy was backed by law in October 2012, when the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization,” adding the gang to a list alongside terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Many experts dispute the extent and reach of the gangs’ transnational activities, including cross-border drug trafficking, arguing that most cliques are made up of kids from the country’s poorest neighborhoods who barely manage to feed themselves. Still, the designation set into motion a chain of possibilities for the U.S. government. For one thing, it enabled INL to open a field office in the country, which would be impossible without the presence of an officially designated transnational criminal group. In 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement built an entire cross-border strategy around the designation, “deploying special agents to El Salvador” who would work with the Salvadoran National Civil Police to chase the gang’s assets and act on a “free flow of actionable intelligence between ICE and our host country law enforcement partners.”

The direct impact of the Treasury Department’s designation is that it became illegal for U.S. citizens and corporations to engage in financial transactions with members of MS-13. The indirect impact was that it also became illegal for U.S. federal agencies to financially support any program that engaged with members of the gang, even if the program’s aim was to get those members out.

In conflict zones worldwide, these designations have had a chilling effect on tertiary work in which government or civil society actors attempt to engage with armed groups in order to end violence. Designations have interrupted peace talks and led to the disbanding of negotiation in places as diverse as the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India.

The designation in El Salvador came on the heels of a secret gang truce, which the U.S. opposed. In March 2012, the Salvadoran government brought MS-13 and Barrio 18 to a negotiating table, and international cooperation agencies from the European Union and elsewhere pledged money to build initiatives meant to help former gang members disarm and re-enter society. Seven months later, the U.S. added MS-13 to a list populated by terrorist groups and high-level money laundering organizations.

The leader of the Mara 18 (18th Street Gang), Carlos Mojica Lechuga, a.k.a. "El Viejo Lin" (R), gestures during a press conference at the Female Jail in San Salvador, El Salvador on September 24, 2012. The leaders of the Mara 18 and Salvatrucha offered a press conference during the celebration of the 200 days of truce between them to reduce murder. AFP PHOTO/Jose CABEZAS (Photo credit should read Jose CABEZAS/AFP/GettyImages)

A leader of Barrio 18, Carlos Mojica Lechuga, right, gestures during a press conference at a women’s prison in San Salvador, El Salvador on Sept. 24, 2012. The leaders of the Barrio 18 and MS-13 offered a press conference to celebrate 200 days of truce between the rival gangs.

Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

“It was a mistaken belief in the U.S. Embassy that Salvadoran gangs were some kind of sophisticated criminal enterprise,” said Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who, as then-representative to El Salvador for the Organization of American States, was involved in truce negotiations. “I kept saying to them, ‘If that’s true, if they’re operating at the level of cartels, show me the money.’ And no one ever could.”

The truce was designed on international standards for post-conflict demobilization processes, like those used in Ireland and Colombia — and also on U.S. experiences with gang violence reduction, Blackwell said. “We were trying to convince the [U.S.] Embassy, ‘We’re just trying to do what you guys have done successfully in LA.’” It was to no avail. In El Salvador, where the U.S. has been, for generations, the single most important foreign influence, the message resounded like a gavel: The only acceptable way to define and address the issue of gangs is through punitive measures.

A New Chance for Second Chances

Although little noted at the time, U.S. federal agencies were not unified behind the Treasury Department’s designation and hard-line approach. In a 2014 interview, Roig was tight-lipped, saying only that USAID did not work with people trying to leave gangs, and that the 2012 designation “certainly places limitations on what USAID can do with MS.”

But in a recent interview with The Intercept, Roig, now a director at the Washington-based aid contractor Creative Associates International, said that behind the scenes, he and others were working to educate their peers about tertiary violence prevention. In 2012, USAID brought municipal leaders from Los Angeles to the region to share best practices from the city’s gang violence reduction program, which included tertiary work. Then came the Treasury Department designation, which made it more difficult to put the lessons from LA into practice, Roig said.

The fault lines of resistance didn’t occur by agency, Roig said, but by individual. In interagency meetings that included USAID, the FBI, ICE, and others, “some people would say, ‘You can never work with these kids, they’re criminals.’ Others would say, ‘Oh yeah, these great prevention programs, we should do more to support those.’ My experience was it depended a lot on the people.”

For years after the Treasury Department’s designation, USAID helped organize a series of high-level conferences and events on violence prevention, including tertiary work, in the U.S. and Central America. “We started writing it into all the strategy documents. When we did briefings on the Hill, we talked about it,” he said.  This “helped sensitize policymakers within State and AID,” and introduced into “the bureaucratic consciousness that this was the direction we wanted to move in.”

That analysis remained sidelined until 2015, when thousands of Central American children fleeing violence showed up at the southern U.S. border. Faced with the children, the Obama administration investigated the causes of emigration. In all three countries, it found systemic corruption. In Guatemala, there were conflicts over natural resources that were sometimes drug-fueled and often disproportionately affected native people; in Honduras and El Salvador, what stuck out was violence from narcos and gangs. The administration’s investigation led to a new openness toward tertiary prevention — a shocking move on the ground in El Salvador. Jones from Catholic Relief Services remembered thinking at the time that State Department visitors “are very open right now. … They are seriously exploring what can we fund that will work.”

In 2016, INL funded Florida International University political scientist José Miguel Cruz to conduct a study of how and why members choose to leave gangs or stay in them. His study found that 68.6 percent of current members of El Salvador’s gangs had intentions to leave. And while 16.7 percent said they’d never leave, the vast majority — 81.5 percent — said they knew someone who had “calmed down,” or become inactive in their gang. “Calming down,” more common than leaving entirely, is a way for members to preserve their gang identity while no longer contributing to violence and crime.

Those who are able to leave their gang face endless struggles, Cruz found, including running into former enemies, struggling to find work, family abandonment and police harassment. Employers which, like League Central America, know and accept employees’ pasts and are willing to support them through lingering struggles tied to their old lives are vital to keeping former gang members from joining again, the study reported to INL. That same year, a meta-study of violence prevention strategies around the world,  commissioned by USAID, recommended focused intervention with violent offenders and found that “aggressive ‘zero tolerance’ strategies … can create community tension and undermine collective efficacy.”

In February 2017, the Treasury Department awarded a waiver, called an OFAC license, to the State Department and USAID; the license allows agencies to do certain work with former or nonactive MS-13 members. The waivers expire at the end of this year, and federal agencies are preparing to seek renewal.

The license also covers the third-party organizations, like League and Catholic Relief Services, that carry out the projects funded in part by U.S. federal agencies. Although NGOs are free to apply directly for a license, Jones said Catholic Relief Services applied, was denied, and received no explanation of why. A spokesperson for the Treasury Department said the agency does not comment on individual licenses. (USAID and INL referred all requests for comment for this story to Treasury.)

One significant concern is that under some projects covered by the OFAC license, local organizations are required to hand over the identities of the people who participate in the violence prevention programs to a U.S. Embassy working group – composed of people from the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, and others — for vetting. Participants worry that the requirement will lead to increased surveillance and abuse by authorities, whether U.S. immigration officials or Salvadoran law enforcement. Several NGOs have formally submitted their resistance to the stipulation, which appears in an upcoming USAID project in Honduras, and are awaiting the government’s response.

The Honduras project provides a window into shifts in the federal government’s thinking on tertiary work. In February, USAID invited organizations to apply for funding to carry out a program to reduce recidivism among violent youth. The $8 million project, to be implemented in the five most violent municipalities across Honduras, is called “Improving Tertiary Violence Prevention.” With the project, USAID says it is complementing the work of Honduran state prison agencies that are “seeking to transform the juvenile justice system” to “a modern, rehabilitative, and restorative justice model,” and notes that the agency is now investing in multiple tertiary prevention projects in Honduras.

Roxana Anaya is a social worker that coordinates program Second Chance inside prisons of El Salvador. The program was created by Catholic Relief Sevices.

Rosa Anaya, of Catholic Relief Services, coordinates the program “Second Chances” inside prisons in El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

In El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services and League are using U.S. funds for a program called “Segundas Oportunidades,” or “Second Chances,” which seeks to create a pipeline from prison to employment, including job training for inmates, cognitive behavioral therapy, and workshops focused on topics like “masculinities,” the study of distorted ideas of manhood, childhood trauma, and violence — or, as Jones put it, “where it all came from in the first place.” The idea is to send a message: “You have a choice. This is not normal. You can change,” he said. The 2016 USAID study singled out cognitive behavioral therapy, particularly programs focused on “becoming a man,” as the single most effective violence-prevention strategy.

Catholic Relief Services and League also recruited other NGOs and the Salvadoran national justice and prison systems to join Second Chances. The wide buy-in is important, because the root of gang violence isn’t individual failure, but systemic injustices that must be rectified across society, said Rosa Anaya, the Catholic Relief Services chief of party for Second Chances. “No judge, government institution, company, family, or individual will be able to overcome alone the great disaster in which we’ve found ourselves.”

And not a moment too soon: “Over the next five years, 12,000 people will have fulfilled their sentences. What will they do?” asked Jones. “These programs are critical to reducing recidivism.”

Last October, we entered a prison outside San Salvador called Apanteos, along with a major delegation of NGOs, local businesspeople, and two representatives from INL. Painted a fresh yellow, with the words “Yo Cambio,” or “I Can Change,” across the gate and many of the walls inside, Apanteos was decked out for a graduation celebration for Second Chances. We were led on a tour of the prison’s kitchens, where inmates train as cooks; the hen cages, where a teenage prisoner showed off rows of eggs to the visitors; and tanks where they farmed tilapia. It was a visit day, and the common yard was full of families.

A small chicken farm is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison, in Santa Ana, El Salvador. American organizations visited the prison looking to help salvadorans who were gang members.

Media, representatives from the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, and local business leaders take a tour of a small chicken farm, which is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

Over the last year, Second Chances has trained 811 people, including current and former inmates and employees of the justice system and private sector. Among other factors, Catholic Relief Services measured inmate participants’ positive changes in attitude. “To have evidence of a trustworthy change and a credible support network behind them helps businesses feel like they can employ these people,” said Anaya. Among the 21 Second Chances participants who have completed the program and been released, 18 have been able to find jobs.

The Treasury Department ban on using U.S. money to engage with MS-13 is still in effect. But none of the organizations that make up Second Chances are violating it, because they’re covered by the OFAC waiver. Without the dispensation, this work would be a violation of U.S. federal law.

Mixed Messages

INL now publicly celebrates the tertiary work it funds. In an April 2017 speech at League Central America about Second Chances, Glenn Tosten, then-director of the INL section at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, said that to watch the first people pass through Second Chances “changed the way I saw security challenges in El Salvador.” He continued, “I should admit that at first I felt skeptical. I thought there was no other option … that the young people who joined gangs in El Salvador were lost forever.” But the program “convinced me that, in fact, there is another way. There is a process and a support system that truly can transform people’s lives.”

That message is still a minority voice in the U.S. government. Mostly, the focus is on aiding and training the Salvadoran police — despite a well-documented record of shakedowns, abuses, and extrajudicial killings.

When his shift ended at League, Oswaldo still had to return to the streets of a society that believes gang members leave “only through the grave.” He was terrified of the police. One of his greatest fears, he said, is that officers will stop him on payday, see the cash in his pocket from his salary, “and say it’s [money from] extortion. And then kill me.” His wife still hadn’t returned with their son. She said she feared drawing police attention through her association with him.

The Salvadoran press has repeatedly uncovered cases of torture and extrajudicial murder of suspected gang members by police and soldiers. Young people from poor communities face constant harassment from authorities; are often taken into custody without reason; and frequently have drugs or “extortion money” planted on them. Sometimes, the police are working for a rival gang, but often, they’re just corrupt. Abuse of authority is so bad that the minister of security recently admitted that state violence contributes to the country’s refugee crisis.

U.S. federal agencies continue supporting the Salvadoran police in an attempt to professionalize them, they say — but the aid flows even to units implicated in severe and systematic human rights abuses. The Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security reported a wide range of donations and training for the Salvadoran National Civil Police in 2015 and 2016, according to data released to Congress and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request. The donations and training spanned combating cybercrime and narco-trafficking, administering polygraphs, “arrest techniques and self defense,” and “K9 nursery care.” Trainings also covered intelligence gathering and special ops commando courses. Donations include items like pickup trucks, computers, cameras, bunk beds, and bulletproof vests.

The State Department also reported that it donated body cameras and provided other assistance to the internal department of the national police that investigates allegations of police abuse. But a recent study from the Government Accountability Office found that overall, State and other departments are not systematically implementing human rights into their trainings in El Salvador and other Central American countries. Roig, the former USAID official, says the fact that aid reaches units implicated in systemic abuses “is not positive at all,” and is an obstacle to effective violence prevention. “It’s harder to do prevention work and community policing when you’ve got a general distrust of the police and human rights abuses,” he said.

Another place the U.S. has loudly supported a system rife with rights abuses is in El Salvador’s prison system. A regime of special laws known as “extraordinary measures” restrict alleged gang members’ access to basic needs like food, water, and communications with the outside world. With “extraordinary measures,” inmate deaths doubled, largely because of outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, according to a June 2018 U.N. report.

The U.N. and Red Cross have called “extraordinary measures” a violation of human rights and urged the Salvadoran government to repeal them. The current administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has said that such outcry is based on falsehoods, and successfully enshrined the policy, originally temporary, into law — which the U.S. Embassy supports. In April 2018, when the measures came up for renewal, U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes encouraged Salvadoran congressmen to vote affirmatively, saying in a televised interview, “We talk about extraordinary measures, but these are normal measures.” Then she joked, “If the gang leaders don’t like it, then I do like it.”

By pushing policies like these, the U.S. is fueling violence on one hand, while trying to solve it with the other through tertiary prevention.

Commissioner Hugo Ramirez, subdirector for public security in El Salvador’s National Civil Police, wishes that would change. “It turns out that the more muscle we developed, the more undesirable effects we saw,” he told The Intercept. Ramirez has traveled around the United States to study community policing and tertiary violence prevention initiatives. His is not a common view among Salvadoran police, but he now argues that, “definitively, if we don’t take this on from a focus of tertiary prevention, it won’t be possible. It’s a debt we owe to this country.”

“If the U.S. would support this,” he added, “it’s fundamental.”

Currier and Mackey reported this story as Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Mackey’s reporting was also made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and a fellowship with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, with support from the Ford Foundation.

Top photo: A group of inmates inside San Vicente prison celebrate their completion of the “Second Chances” program.

The post El Salvador is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing Failed “Iron Fist” Policing. appeared first on The Intercept.

El Salvador is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing Failed “Iron Fist” Policing.

Oswaldo joined the Salvadoran gang Barrio 18 when he was 14 years old. By the time he was in his early 20s, he wanted out — and luckily, gang leaders gave him permission to leave. But they warned him: “No one will offer you a hand out there like the gang has.”

For a long while, that was true. For Oswaldo, his gang clique was his adopted family. They had his back, and they found food and shelter for him and his family. Without the clique, vulnerable and alone, he barely scraped by while selling toothbrushes at a market. Oswaldo had finished high school, and he hoped to find a steady job. But when he was invited in for an interview, he remembers, “the first question was, ‘Are you a gang member?’” Then, it was: Are you tattooed? Do you have family in a gang? Friends? Are you from a gang-controlled neighborhood? Oswaldo denied his past throughout the grilling, but couldn’t lie when the man doing the interviewing said he needed him to lift his shirt. Oswaldo’s torso is covered in Barrio 18 ink. So he was rejected from yet another job, and soon after, his wife left with their toddler son, calling Oswaldo a failure.

He told a trusted pastor that he was struggling. Privately, he was so desperate that he was considering rejoining the gang. The pastor told him he knew a business that wanted to hire ex-gang members. Oswaldo couldn’t believe it.

“This is a country where people don’t believe that gang members can change,” he told The Intercept last fall, sitting in a conference room, employed at the company the pastor told him about on that day three years earlier. The company is League Central America, a textile factory that makes collegiate wear for U.S. universities such as Arizona State and Yale. League’s president, Rodrigo Bolaños, has long been a rare and vocal advocate in the Salvadoran business community for hiring former gang members. Bolaños argues that the problem of gangs in El Salvador isn’t so complicated. There have been gangs across the world, from England to Chicago, at every time in history, he says.

“The same way gangs generate, you can also get them out of gangs, if you do positive forces like second chances, education,” he said. The company tests those who belonged to El Salvador’s three main rival gangs — MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 — with techniques like icebreaker games that require physical closeness. If a new hire couldn’t stand it, Bolaños said, “that person wasn’t ready.” The company subsidizes employees’ secondary and college education if they haven’t finished it, and offers classes on-site.

League’s initiative has been widely celebrated, even by two leaders of MS-13, who once summoned Bolaños to a meeting at the prison where they were held, to say that they hoped all of their members could go through a program like his. Targeting people who have recently left a gang, or would like to leave, and offering them rehabilitation and employment is essential, a growing body of research on gang desistance has found. “League is a model for how to reinsert former gang members into society,” concluded a major academic survey of gang membership in El Salvador in 2017.

Rodrigo Bolanos (center), a salvadoran businessman who studied in an american University during the 1980s, now ows League Company. Looking to employ salvadorans gang members and then pass for rehab to leave behind crime. The picture was taken inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador and Bolanos is accompanied by two inmates. Rodrigo Bolanos, center, owner of League Company, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Rodrigo Bolaños, center, president of League Central America, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

The U.S. government took a bit longer to come around. One day a few years ago, two representatives from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, came to visit. Bolaños says they were skeptical; it seemed to him that they “didn’t believe in this.” But after spending two hours talking to Bolaños and touring the factory, they seemed pleased — and INL later put funds toward a program that would specifically funnel ex-gang members who had just finished prison sentences into working at League.

It might seem unremarkable that the U.S. government would direct funds to a program that sounds so wholesome. But for El Salvador and neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala, it represents a delicate, tenuous shift in U.S. foreign policy. It marks a step away from years of a U.S.-supported approach that has favored the mano dura, or “iron fist,” response to gangs, and has mostly shunned work that directly engaged current and former gang members who wished to leave crime and violence behind. Past U.S. policy has erred toward an almost exclusively military, police, and mass incarceration response; and when violence prevention work was funded, the government stipulated that the organizations that implemented U.S.-funded projects on the ground must ensure the participants had no ties to a gang. In fact, until recently, it was prohibited under U.S. Treasury Department restrictions to use government aid money for any program that directly engaged members of MS-13.

This policy change could be imperiled by the attitudes and actions, currently in vogue at the White House, that are meant to demonize gang members. From his presidential campaign to the recent policy of separating families at the border, President Donald Trump has used MS-13 to justify his calls for harsher immigration laws. He has insisted that its members — who he has repeatedly called “animals” — should be treated as an existential threat to the United States.

But while Trump and many in his administration act as though Salvadoran gangs exist due to a lack of toughness, parts of the U.S. federal government in Central America — which for years enabled the implementation of exactly the kind of policy Trump calls for now — have recognized that mano dura has failed. “It’s a policy that did not have positive results,” said Enrique Roig, former coordinator of the Central America Regional Security Initiative for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a major vehicle for U.S. funds to the region. “The whole intention to focus more on the prevention side, on respectful law enforcement,” was to correct the mistakes of the past, like “the use of incarceration as the main method of dealing with the problem.” It is also meant to build “relationships of trust between communities and police, so people in communities actually report crime, and police know what’s happening by responding in a way that’s respectful of human rights.”

Exporting a Failed Approach

In the 1980s and 1990s, police forces in major U.S. cities went all-in on a tough-on-crime approach known as “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” policing, using surveillance and high arrest rates in response to all manner of minor crimes in order to stem major ones. Decades later, the United States is still wrestling with the failed legacy of broken windows, including mass incarceration and police brutality that sparked movements like Black Lives Matter and a wave of criminal justice reform. But countries across Central America are still implementing anti-gang zero tolerance policies, pushed and supported by the U.S. government. This is the case despite the fact that the approach has generally failed to lower crime rates across the region; in fact, it has often empowered police and military forces implicated in crimes themselves.

El Salvador, like most countries, has long had disaffected kids in poor communities who create gangs – Salvadoran anthropologist Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson dates the earliest gangs to the 1950s, when state modernization prompted a disorganized mass internal migration to urban centers. What appeared were neighborhood or schoolyard crews defending their honor and territory with fistfights and knives. Throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the homegrown crews meshed with the violent legacy of a recently ended civil war — and with U.S. street gang culture, which arrived among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans deported from the United States during that time. According to the FBI, many of those deportees were members of two gangs formed in the U.S. and composed mostly of embattled Salvadoran war refugees: the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18.

As the gangs grew in size and power, successive Salvadoran governments reacted with mano dura, doing so with the full backing of the United States. First officially implemented in 2003, the policy has consistently been sold to the Salvadoran public as the antidote to an explosion of gang violence that has sent thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring countries north to seek asylum in the United States. But because of mano dura, young people in marginalized neighborhoods face skyrocketing police abuse, including torture and extrajudicial murder. Since the policy’s 2003 adoption, El Salvador’s jails have become notorious: A 2017 United Nations visit found one prison operating at over 900 percent capacity, and others between 200 and 600 percent. Inmates regularly die of preventable diseases. Meanwhile, the policy failed at its one objective; paradoxically, when it was implemented, the country had seen nearly a decade of declining murder rates, but ever since, violence has surged, spiking in the past three years so that El Salvador has held its spot among the murder capitals of the world.

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR - MAY 20: MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 'gang cages' in the Quezaltepeque police station May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador. These overcrowded, 12x15 cages were designed to be 72-hour holding cells for common criminals and the two rival gangs, but many of the individuals have been imprisoned for over a year. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.)

MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 12’x15′ “gang cages” in the Quezaltepeque police station on May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

As mano dura has escalated into a low-intensity conflict between the gangs and the government, over the years, civil society organizations in El Salvador have been trying an alternative approach: working directly with gangs to help members leave or renounce violence, or in some cases, stepping in to mediate and interrupt vengeance killings, for example. These initiatives are often modeled on programs in U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles (the city where El Salvador’s largest gangs originated).

Such work is known in aid industry parlance as “tertiary violence prevention,” and it entails working with people who are not “at risk,” but rather already in conflict with the law. It is a type of restorative, not punitive, justice. No matter the form it takes, tertiary violence prevention faces intense skepticism and involves significant risks. In addition to requiring a closeness to the violence practiced by some gang members and state security officials, the groups that work with gangs are often themselves criminalized, cast by law enforcement or the general public as sympathizing with criminals.

It didn’t help that the U.S. government focused on empowering the Salvadoran police, and did little to address the root causes of gang violence. This was due to a pervasive “nervousness and concern” about tertiary work, said Roig.

The impact of the reticence in El Salvador was that in any project receiving U.S. federal funds, “it was strictly prohibited to work with youth in conflict with the law,” said Rick Jones of Catholic Relief Services. A major international nongovernmental organization and one of the pioneers of tertiary prevention in El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services had, since the early 2000s, been doing street work with current and former gang members to intercede in cycles of violence and to help guide them to licit employment so that they could leave gangs. The U.S. government was squeamish about such innovative work.

That policy was backed by law in October 2012, when the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization,” adding the gang to a list alongside terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Many experts dispute the extent and reach of the gangs’ transnational activities, including cross-border drug trafficking, arguing that most cliques are made up of kids from the country’s poorest neighborhoods who barely manage to feed themselves. Still, the designation set into motion a chain of possibilities for the U.S. government. For one thing, it enabled INL to open a field office in the country, which would be impossible without the presence of an officially designated transnational criminal group. In 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement built an entire cross-border strategy around the designation, “deploying special agents to El Salvador” who would work with the Salvadoran National Civil Police to chase the gang’s assets and act on a “free flow of actionable intelligence between ICE and our host country law enforcement partners.”

The direct impact of the Treasury Department’s designation is that it became illegal for U.S. citizens and corporations to engage in financial transactions with members of MS-13. The indirect impact was that it also became illegal for U.S. federal agencies to financially support any program that engaged with members of the gang, even if the program’s aim was to get those members out.

In conflict zones worldwide, these designations have had a chilling effect on tertiary work in which government or civil society actors attempt to engage with armed groups in order to end violence. Designations have interrupted peace talks and led to the disbanding of negotiation in places as diverse as the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India.

The designation in El Salvador came on the heels of a secret gang truce, which the U.S. opposed. In March 2012, the Salvadoran government brought MS-13 and Barrio 18 to a negotiating table, and international cooperation agencies from the European Union and elsewhere pledged money to build initiatives meant to help former gang members disarm and re-enter society. Seven months later, the U.S. added MS-13 to a list populated by terrorist groups and high-level money laundering organizations.

The leader of the Mara 18 (18th Street Gang), Carlos Mojica Lechuga, a.k.a. "El Viejo Lin" (R), gestures during a press conference at the Female Jail in San Salvador, El Salvador on September 24, 2012. The leaders of the Mara 18 and Salvatrucha offered a press conference during the celebration of the 200 days of truce between them to reduce murder. AFP PHOTO/Jose CABEZAS (Photo credit should read Jose CABEZAS/AFP/GettyImages)

A leader of Barrio 18, Carlos Mojica Lechuga, right, gestures during a press conference at a women’s prison in San Salvador, El Salvador on Sept. 24, 2012. The leaders of the Barrio 18 and MS-13 offered a press conference to celebrate 200 days of truce between the rival gangs.

Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

“It was a mistaken belief in the U.S. Embassy that Salvadoran gangs were some kind of sophisticated criminal enterprise,” said Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who, as then-representative to El Salvador for the Organization of American States, was involved in truce negotiations. “I kept saying to them, ‘If that’s true, if they’re operating at the level of cartels, show me the money.’ And no one ever could.”

The truce was designed on international standards for post-conflict demobilization processes, like those used in Ireland and Colombia — and also on U.S. experiences with gang violence reduction, Blackwell said. “We were trying to convince the [U.S.] Embassy, ‘We’re just trying to do what you guys have done successfully in LA.’” It was to no avail. In El Salvador, where the U.S. has been, for generations, the single most important foreign influence, the message resounded like a gavel: The only acceptable way to define and address the issue of gangs is through punitive measures.

A New Chance for Second Chances

Although little noted at the time, U.S. federal agencies were not unified behind the Treasury Department’s designation and hard-line approach. In a 2014 interview, Roig was tight-lipped, saying only that USAID did not work with people trying to leave gangs, and that the 2012 designation “certainly places limitations on what USAID can do with MS.”

But in a recent interview with The Intercept, Roig, now a director at the Washington-based aid contractor Creative Associates International, said that behind the scenes, he and others were working to educate their peers about tertiary violence prevention. In 2012, USAID brought municipal leaders from Los Angeles to the region to share best practices from the city’s gang violence reduction program, which included tertiary work. Then came the Treasury Department designation, which made it more difficult to put the lessons from LA into practice, Roig said.

The fault lines of resistance didn’t occur by agency, Roig said, but by individual. In interagency meetings that included USAID, the FBI, ICE, and others, “some people would say, ‘You can never work with these kids, they’re criminals.’ Others would say, ‘Oh yeah, these great prevention programs, we should do more to support those.’ My experience was it depended a lot on the people.”

For years after the Treasury Department’s designation, USAID helped organize a series of high-level conferences and events on violence prevention, including tertiary work, in the U.S. and Central America. “We started writing it into all the strategy documents. When we did briefings on the Hill, we talked about it,” he said.  This “helped sensitize policymakers within State and AID,” and introduced into “the bureaucratic consciousness that this was the direction we wanted to move in.”

That analysis remained sidelined until 2015, when thousands of Central American children fleeing violence showed up at the southern U.S. border. Faced with the children, the Obama administration investigated the causes of emigration. In all three countries, it found systemic corruption. In Guatemala, there were conflicts over natural resources that were sometimes drug-fueled and often disproportionately affected native people; in Honduras and El Salvador, what stuck out was violence from narcos and gangs. The administration’s investigation led to a new openness toward tertiary prevention — a shocking move on the ground in El Salvador. Jones from Catholic Relief Services remembered thinking at the time that State Department visitors “are very open right now. … They are seriously exploring what can we fund that will work.”

In 2016, INL funded Florida International University political scientist José Miguel Cruz to conduct a study of how and why members choose to leave gangs or stay in them. His study found that 68.6 percent of current members of El Salvador’s gangs had intentions to leave. And while 16.7 percent said they’d never leave, the vast majority — 81.5 percent — said they knew someone who had “calmed down,” or become inactive in their gang. “Calming down,” more common than leaving entirely, is a way for members to preserve their gang identity while no longer contributing to violence and crime.

Those who are able to leave their gang face endless struggles, Cruz found, including running into former enemies, struggling to find work, family abandonment and police harassment. Employers which, like League Central America, know and accept employees’ pasts and are willing to support them through lingering struggles tied to their old lives are vital to keeping former gang members from joining again, the study reported to INL. That same year, a meta-study of violence prevention strategies around the world,  commissioned by USAID, recommended focused intervention with violent offenders and found that “aggressive ‘zero tolerance’ strategies … can create community tension and undermine collective efficacy.”

In February 2017, the Treasury Department awarded a waiver, called an OFAC license, to the State Department and USAID; the license allows agencies to do certain work with former or nonactive MS-13 members. The waivers expire at the end of this year, and federal agencies are preparing to seek renewal.

The license also covers the third-party organizations, like League and Catholic Relief Services, that carry out the projects funded in part by U.S. federal agencies. Although NGOs are free to apply directly for a license, Jones said Catholic Relief Services applied, was denied, and received no explanation of why. A spokesperson for the Treasury Department said the agency does not comment on individual licenses. (USAID and INL referred all requests for comment for this story to Treasury.)

One significant concern is that under some projects covered by the OFAC license, local organizations are required to hand over the identities of the people who participate in the violence prevention programs to a U.S. Embassy working group – composed of people from the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, and others — for vetting. Participants worry that the requirement will lead to increased surveillance and abuse by authorities, whether U.S. immigration officials or Salvadoran law enforcement. Several NGOs have formally submitted their resistance to the stipulation, which appears in an upcoming USAID project in Honduras, and are awaiting the government’s response.

The Honduras project provides a window into shifts in the federal government’s thinking on tertiary work. In February, USAID invited organizations to apply for funding to carry out a program to reduce recidivism among violent youth. The $8 million project, to be implemented in the five most violent municipalities across Honduras, is called “Improving Tertiary Violence Prevention.” With the project, USAID says it is complementing the work of Honduran state prison agencies that are “seeking to transform the juvenile justice system” to “a modern, rehabilitative, and restorative justice model,” and notes that the agency is now investing in multiple tertiary prevention projects in Honduras.

Roxana Anaya is a social worker that coordinates program Second Chance inside prisons of El Salvador. The program was created by Catholic Relief Sevices.

Rosa Anaya, of Catholic Relief Services, coordinates the program “Second Chances” inside prisons in El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

In El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services and League are using U.S. funds for a program called “Segundas Oportunidades,” or “Second Chances,” which seeks to create a pipeline from prison to employment, including job training for inmates, cognitive behavioral therapy, and workshops focused on topics like “masculinities,” the study of distorted ideas of manhood, childhood trauma, and violence — or, as Jones put it, “where it all came from in the first place.” The idea is to send a message: “You have a choice. This is not normal. You can change,” he said. The 2016 USAID study singled out cognitive behavioral therapy, particularly programs focused on “becoming a man,” as the single most effective violence-prevention strategy.

Catholic Relief Services and League also recruited other NGOs and the Salvadoran national justice and prison systems to join Second Chances. The wide buy-in is important, because the root of gang violence isn’t individual failure, but systemic injustices that must be rectified across society, said Rosa Anaya, the Catholic Relief Services chief of party for Second Chances. “No judge, government institution, company, family, or individual will be able to overcome alone the great disaster in which we’ve found ourselves.”

And not a moment too soon: “Over the next five years, 12,000 people will have fulfilled their sentences. What will they do?” asked Jones. “These programs are critical to reducing recidivism.”

Last October, we entered a prison outside San Salvador called Apanteos, along with a major delegation of NGOs, local businesspeople, and two representatives from INL. Painted a fresh yellow, with the words “Yo Cambio,” or “I Can Change,” across the gate and many of the walls inside, Apanteos was decked out for a graduation celebration for Second Chances. We were led on a tour of the prison’s kitchens, where inmates train as cooks; the hen cages, where a teenage prisoner showed off rows of eggs to the visitors; and tanks where they farmed tilapia. It was a visit day, and the common yard was full of families.

A small chicken farm is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison, in Santa Ana, El Salvador. American organizations visited the prison looking to help salvadorans who were gang members.

Media, representatives from the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, and local business leaders take a tour of a small chicken farm, which is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

Over the last year, Second Chances has trained 811 people, including current and former inmates and employees of the justice system and private sector. Among other factors, Catholic Relief Services measured inmate participants’ positive changes in attitude. “To have evidence of a trustworthy change and a credible support network behind them helps businesses feel like they can employ these people,” said Anaya. Among the 21 Second Chances participants who have completed the program and been released, 18 have been able to find jobs.

The Treasury Department ban on using U.S. money to engage with MS-13 is still in effect. But none of the organizations that make up Second Chances are violating it, because they’re covered by the OFAC waiver. Without the dispensation, this work would be a violation of U.S. federal law.

Mixed Messages

INL now publicly celebrates the tertiary work it funds. In an April 2017 speech at League Central America about Second Chances, Glenn Tosten, then-director of the INL section at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, said that to watch the first people pass through Second Chances “changed the way I saw security challenges in El Salvador.” He continued, “I should admit that at first I felt skeptical. I thought there was no other option … that the young people who joined gangs in El Salvador were lost forever.” But the program “convinced me that, in fact, there is another way. There is a process and a support system that truly can transform people’s lives.”

That message is still a minority voice in the U.S. government. Mostly, the focus is on aiding and training the Salvadoran police — despite a well-documented record of shakedowns, abuses, and extrajudicial killings.

When his shift ended at League, Oswaldo still had to return to the streets of a society that believes gang members leave “only through the grave.” He was terrified of the police. One of his greatest fears, he said, is that officers will stop him on payday, see the cash in his pocket from his salary, “and say it’s [money from] extortion. And then kill me.” His wife still hadn’t returned with their son. She said she feared drawing police attention through her association with him.

The Salvadoran press has repeatedly uncovered cases of torture and extrajudicial murder of suspected gang members by police and soldiers. Young people from poor communities face constant harassment from authorities; are often taken into custody without reason; and frequently have drugs or “extortion money” planted on them. Sometimes, the police are working for a rival gang, but often, they’re just corrupt. Abuse of authority is so bad that the minister of security recently admitted that state violence contributes to the country’s refugee crisis.

U.S. federal agencies continue supporting the Salvadoran police in an attempt to professionalize them, they say — but the aid flows even to units implicated in severe and systematic human rights abuses. The Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security reported a wide range of donations and training for the Salvadoran National Civil Police in 2015 and 2016, according to data released to Congress and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request. The donations and training spanned combating cybercrime and narco-trafficking, administering polygraphs, “arrest techniques and self defense,” and “K9 nursery care.” Trainings also covered intelligence gathering and special ops commando courses. Donations include items like pickup trucks, computers, cameras, bunk beds, and bulletproof vests.

The State Department also reported that it donated body cameras and provided other assistance to the internal department of the national police that investigates allegations of police abuse. But a recent study from the Government Accountability Office found that overall, State and other departments are not systematically implementing human rights into their trainings in El Salvador and other Central American countries. Roig, the former USAID official, says the fact that aid reaches units implicated in systemic abuses “is not positive at all,” and is an obstacle to effective violence prevention. “It’s harder to do prevention work and community policing when you’ve got a general distrust of the police and human rights abuses,” he said.

Another place the U.S. has loudly supported a system rife with rights abuses is in El Salvador’s prison system. A regime of special laws known as “extraordinary measures” restrict alleged gang members’ access to basic needs like food, water, and communications with the outside world. With “extraordinary measures,” inmate deaths doubled, largely because of outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, according to a June 2018 U.N. report.

The U.N. and Red Cross have called “extraordinary measures” a violation of human rights and urged the Salvadoran government to repeal them. The current administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has said that such outcry is based on falsehoods, and successfully enshrined the policy, originally temporary, into law — which the U.S. Embassy supports. In April 2018, when the measures came up for renewal, U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes encouraged Salvadoran congressmen to vote affirmatively, saying in a televised interview, “We talk about extraordinary measures, but these are normal measures.” Then she joked, “If the gang leaders don’t like it, then I do like it.”

By pushing policies like these, the U.S. is fueling violence on one hand, while trying to solve it with the other through tertiary prevention.

Commissioner Hugo Ramirez, subdirector for public security in El Salvador’s National Civil Police, wishes that would change. “It turns out that the more muscle we developed, the more undesirable effects we saw,” he told The Intercept. Ramirez has traveled around the United States to study community policing and tertiary violence prevention initiatives. His is not a common view among Salvadoran police, but he now argues that, “definitively, if we don’t take this on from a focus of tertiary prevention, it won’t be possible. It’s a debt we owe to this country.”

“If the U.S. would support this,” he added, “it’s fundamental.”

Currier and Mackey reported this story as Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Mackey’s reporting was also made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and a fellowship with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, with support from the Ford Foundation.

Top photo: A group of inmates inside San Vicente prison celebrate their completion of the “Second Chances” program.

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