Walter Cruz-Zavala should have been celebrating. Instead, he spent his 32nd birthday holed up on his father’s property in southern El Salvador, watching in horror as his nightmare scenario came to life on the local news.
Just over a year had passed since Cruz-Zavala accepted his deportation from the United States. It had been a tough decision. The undocumented Cruz-Zavala was twice victorious in his immigration case, but U.S. authorities, taking advantage of their extraordinary power and discretion, had kept him locked up for nearly four years. The reason, U.S. officials argued, was that Cruz-Zavala was a dangerous man. The purported evidence was tattooed across his chest in two large letters: “M” and “S.”
The assertion belied a more complicated reality. As a 2021 Intercept investigation revealed, Cruz-Zavala’s tattoo was given to him shortly after his 18th birthday by a confessed murderer, a man whom U.S. law enforcement had paid thousands to infiltrate Cruz-Zavala’s crew of friends. The informant was prodigious in his work shaping and encouraging young men and boys in an emerging MS-13 clique in San Francisco in the mid-2000s. Eventually, his efforts would land a nascent federal agency known as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement one of its biggest gang cases of all time.
Swept up in the operation, Cruz-Zavala spent his first years of adulthood in solitary confinement as the prosecution unfolded. His charges were dropped, and though he left MS-13 behind, a series of DUIs years later landed him in ICE custody. In May 2021, he was deported to a country he hadn’t seen since he was a child.
For a time, it seemed that Cruz-Zavala might be able to make a life in El Salvador. He sent his U.S.-based attorney Raha Jorjani updates, telling her about the calf he had helped deliver on the family farm and sending her a photo with his newborn nephew. Then, this spring, the precarious foundations of his existence in El Salvador buckled.
Facing an eruption of gang violence, the Salvadoran government empowered itself to undertake an unprecedented crackdown. With more than 51,000 arrests and counting, the campaign has been broadly popular in a nation where gang extortion and impunity have pummeled communities across the country for years. For men like Cruz-Zavala, seeking to escape his past, the “state of exception” instilled terror — fears of government abuse and internment with dangerous gang members who might seek to do him harm. Cruz-Zavala hunkered down at his father’s but was eventually taken and disappeared into a rapidly metastasizing Salvadoran prison system.
While each arrest is a story of its own, Cruz-Zavala’s stands out. The reason, Jorjani argues, is the moral responsibility the U.S. government has for the danger her client now faces. U.S. immigration judges ruled that Cruz-Zavala would likely face torture or murder if he were deported to El Salvador, thanks to the tattoo he was given by a paid U.S. government informant advertising allegiance to a gang he had left a decade and a half ago. ICE, the agency that recruited and paid the informant, kept Cruz-Zavala locked up and pursued his deportation all the same.
“Not only did you help put the tattoo on his body, but then you were given notice of the dangers it created for Walter,” Jorjani, a public defender in Oakland, said of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency. “You heard directly from expert after expert who warned that Walter would be harmed. Your own courts decided, ‘No, this person should be protected’ — but even then, you rejected those findings, and now we’re here.”
Accounts from human rights groups and investigative media outlets reveal that the conditions currently suffered by tens of thousands of people swept up in El Salvador’s crackdown sometimes amount to torture and, for at least 76 known cases as of late July, end in death.
“Your own courts decided, ‘No, this person should be protected’ — but even then, you rejected those findings, and now we’re here.”
Those outcomes — torture or death — are exactly what Cruz-Zavala and Jorjani feared as they appealed to immigration judges for protection. Twice, he won such protection under a provision of immigration law called the Convention Against Torture. The convention is based on a United Nations treaty, later adopted as U.S. law, whose full title is the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The precise day-to-day conditions Cruz-Zavala faces in prison are unclear, but the one piece of evidence available — a TikTok video — shows that he is undergoing cruel and degrading treatment.
The U.S. bears much of the responsibility for the rise and dominance of the two primary Central American gangs, 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha — known as Barrio 18 and MS-13, respectively — both of which were formed in southern California. The U.S. also played a key role in destabilizing El Salvador, and much of the rest of Central America, in the mid-to-late 20th century, as American forces participated in genocidal campaigns and funded right-wing dictatorships that brutally targeted their own populations. As Central Americans began to flee the bloodshed, U.S. deportation policies began sending tens of thousands of young men back to the region, some of whom had since been initiated into the California gangs. Those men found a power vacuum in their devastated and destabilized home countries, quickly extending their ranks and beginning to prey on their communities. These were the conditions Cruz-Zavala fled as a child.
In a desperate attempt to secure Cruz-Zavala’s release, Jorjani has written repeatedly to Rep. Barbara Lee and Sen. Alex Padilla, both California Democrats, pleading for some form of U.S. intervention in his case. “We are calling for the U.S. government to intervene on behalf of Walter Cruz,” Jorjani said. “I understand this may seem like an exceptional ask, but this is an extraordinary situation.”
Cruz-Zavala set off for the U.S. alone when he was 14 years old, fleeing the gangs in his hometown and an abusive adult neighbor. The trauma of his childhood and his years in solitary confinement in California took a severe psychological toll. He drank heavily, and in 2017 he was arrested on a felony gun charge and turned over to ICE custody, where he would remain for the next four years.
Counselors, human rights experts, and even his probation officer argued that Cruz-Zavala had reckoned with the mistakes of his youth. He was working to understand the relationship between those mistakes and his own trauma, they said, and exiling him to El Salvador would expose him to extraordinary danger, including torture or murder at the hands of gangs or the Salvadoran state. In the end, none of it was enough: Cruz-Zavala was deported in May 2021.
In his first year in El Salvador, he kept a low profile, staying with his father, tending to livestock, and trying not to get killed by members of the gang he had renounced or the Salvadoran security forces that pursued them. He stayed in regular contact with Jorjani through WhatsApp. He told her that Salvadoran police had visited his family’s property shortly after his arrival, inquiring about his whereabouts. He wasn’t home, but he visited the local police station soon after, telling the officers there that he was no longer a gang member and allowing them to photograph his tattoos.
“He wasn’t hiding from anyone,” Jorjani said.
Then, this spring, came a wave of gang violence that rocked El Salvador, with dozens of people killed in a single weekend. Cloaked in the language of counterterrorism, the state of exception that President Nayib Bukele initiated in response was exactly what it sounded like: Salvadoran security forces fanning out across the country to round up suspected gang members, due process be damned.
When Jorjani reached out to wish him a happy birthday in early April, Cruz-Zavala responded with disbelief. Was she not watching the news?
“They’re going to start taking everybody to prison. This is crazy, man.”
On April 5, Cruz-Zavala left Jorjani a voice message. He couldn’t sleep. Young men and boys with tattoos were the target of the government’s crackdown. They already had the markings on his chest on file. It was only a matter of time before they came for him. “I think there is a moment when things are going to get worse. And when that happens, they’re going to start taking anybody with tattoos or they think belongs to the gang or whatever,” he said. “They’re going to start taking everybody to prison. This is crazy, man.”
Four days later, Cruz-Zavala tapped out his final message, and then: silence. He had been captured, his brother told Jorjani in an email. There was no news, no visits, no word of Cruz-Zavala’s condition until mid-summer. Jorjani was forwarded a TikTok video produced by the Salvadoran government, triumphantly depicting the mass intake of suspected gang members at one of the nation’s most notorious prisons. There, amid the shirtless men, their heads shorn by prison guards, was her longtime client, Walter Cruz-Zavala, kneeling on the concrete of a crowded prison yard. The sound of a clock ticking played in the background.
“El Tiempo De Las Pandillas Esta Llegando A Su Fin,” a message displayed at the end of the video read. “The time of the gangs is coming to an end.”
Early in the morning on April 20, less than a year after his deportation, Cruz-Zavala and a friend rode a motorcycle to a nearby city in the department of Usulután to pick up a used car the family had just purchased.
The trip should only have taken a couple hours, and Cruz-Zavala’s father, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation or arrest, was expecting them back by mid-morning. After a slight delay, he was already worried — along with most Salvadorans, he’d been following the national crackdown — and called his son to check in. A mechanical issue had slowed them down, but they promised to be back by 1 p.m. As the afternoon progressed, and Cruz-Zavala hadn’t returned, his dad began to suspect that his son had been arrested.
A few hours later, a neighbor said they had seen Cruz-Zavala’s motorcycle at a police checkpoint. The next morning, the father called the local police station and confirmed that he had been arrested. That same day, he brought food to the local jail where his son was being held, but he was unable to see or speak with him.
In El Salvador, food rations for prisons are meager, unvaried, and inconsistent, Cruz-Zavala’s father explained. In early April, Bukele menacingly threatened to stop feeding prisoners at all if gangs continued making attacks. “I swear to God, they won’t eat a grain of rice, and let’s see how long they last,” Bukele said. That was after a previous reduction had changed the eating schedule from three to just two meals a day. “It’s always the same,” Cruz-Zavala’s father said in Spanish. “Rice and beans, a little bit of bread, and a hard-boiled egg. Every day, every meal, the same thing.”
Three days after his son’s arrest, when Cruz-Zavala’s father returned with additional provisions, he found a sign posted on the jail saying that the prisoners being held there had been transferred. It took a series of calls for him to find out that his son was now in the notorious Mariona prison on the outskirts of the capital, San Salvador.
Mariona has become known in El Salvador as one of the few maximum-security prisons that has been effectively turned into an impenetrable fortress, rife with allegations of abuse, torture, and death. Overcrowding has hit nearly 250 percent. Outside, hundreds of family members wait in line daily to purchase price-spiked basic goods — shorts, sandals, soap, and shampoo as well as food — for their loved ones inside. Neither family nor the media can visit prisoners. Even attorneys rarely see their clients inside. Communication across prison walls has been shut down.
“Not even lawyers have access to the prisons now. The only people who can get in are government-approved TikTokers or media outlets aligned with the administration.”
Since the Bukele administration instituted the state of exception in March, nearly 1 percent of El Salvador’s entire population — overwhelmingly men between the ages of 18 and 30 — have been rounded up and crammed in these prisons. A series of hastily passed laws have suspended basic constitutional rights and protections, including the right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest, and the right to an attorney. The government monitors phone calls and intercepts mail, and someone placed under arrest can be held for up to 15 days without charges. When charges are brought, usually for belonging to or associating with a gang, defendants appear before a judge en masse, as many as 500 people at once, and little or no evidence is presented.
The information firewall erected around the prisons is compounded by another recent law that effectively places a gag order on media. Passed in early April by the Bukele-dominated legislature, the law criminalizes journalists or media organizations that “reproduce and transmit messages from or presumably from gangs that could generate uneasiness or panic in the population.” Punishment can result in up to 15 years in prison.
The flurry of new laws also strip judges of the power not to imprison alleged gang members, even in cases of people with chronic medical conditions that can’t be treated in prison or people who have long left gang life. As Ruth López, head of an anti-corruption and justice initiative at Cristosal, a Salvadoran human rights organization, told The Intercept, the laws “violate the presumption of innocence, violate the ability for ex-gang members to reinsert themselves into society.”
“Not even lawyers have access to the prisons now,” López said. “The only people who can get in are government-approved TikTokers or media outlets aligned with the administration.”
Cristosal has documented nearly 3,000 complaints of violations registered by family members, most of them for arbitrary arrests. A late May report from Cristosal confirmed “signs of extralegal executions, as well as the perpetration of torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, as well as other grave abuses.” López said that some of the few people released from prisons — mostly minors — have shown signs of being beaten, starved, and medically neglected. Some have shown signs of torture.
The U.S. has been mostly silent in response to the unprecedented crackdown. The temporary chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, Patrick Ventrell, praised the actions the Salvadoran government was taking in a press conference in late June, noting that everyday Salvadorans feel a renewed sense of security in the streets. Ventrell did note the “high cost” of that security, mentioning the “numerous accusations of human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, and also deaths.” He said, “The state of exception is unsustainable.”
The U.S.’s failure to strongly condemn the excesses of the crackdown owes to its effectiveness, said Tiziano Breda, a Central American analyst at Crisis Group, explaining that the gangs have retreated, at least temporarily, and the homicide rate has plummeted. “The fact that gangs are being affected is playing a role in the U.S. not taking a stronger stance,” Breda said.
Washington’s priorities for El Salvador — “curbing migration and drug trafficking” — remain unchanged, said Breda, leading to two competing messages from the U.S. “On the one hand, Bukele is being scolded by the State Department for the erosion of democratic checks and balances and the concentration of power,” he said. “On the other hand, whenever there is a drug seizure or a human trafficking ring dismantled, there is a round of applause from the Department of Homeland Security.”
How long the experiment with mass incarceration, the presumption of guilt, and the gutting of due process can last remains to be seen. Bukele is positioning himself for reelection in 2024 — despite a constitutional bar on serving more than one term — and he seems to be betting on perceived feelings of security maintaining his high approval rating.
Last week, the young president extended El Salvador’s state of exception for yet another month.
Until his arrest, Cruz-Zavala’s bucolic life attracted little attention in El Salvador. He worked on his family farm, helped raise cattle, and harvested small plots of corn and other vegetables. He played soccer and went to church on Sundays but otherwise stayed at home.
“They know it, they know he didn’t do anything bad, nothing,” his father said. “The police never even stopped him for a ticket, never stopped to even talk to him. The only charge are the letters. The Bukele regime is looking for anyone with letters or anyone with any tattoo — they say you’re a terrorist.”
His father was careful about what he would share with The Intercept, worried that police were listening in on the calls or that he would be “put on a list.” Cruz-Zavala’s brother, who lives with the family in El Salvador, similarly declined to comment for this story due to fear of retaliation from the police.
“It’s frustrating, painful not to know anything about him,” his father said. “We can’t send letters, make calls, see him.”
When Cruz-Zavala was transferred from Mariona to Izalco, a prison about an hour from San Salvador, the family had no word on his whereabouts for weeks. “Nothing,” his father said, besides the few reports that come from investigative outlets and human rights organizations. “The government is being so cruel. They’re not just punishing the people they’re accusing. They’re punishing the whole family.”
“People are dying; we don’t even know how many,” he added. “So much anguish. Any day they might call and tell us he’s dead. The government locks them away for so long and doesn’t let you see them. We’re all suffering because of this.”
“It’s almost like he was dead.”