← Hunger in El Salvador

So Those in Prison Can Eat

Under the state of exception, families are going hungry to prevent their loved ones from starving in prison.

Carlos Barrera
Friday, January 19, 2024
Julia Gavarrete

Leer en español

Cecilia Ábrego starts her story with the arrest: “On May 10, since it was Mother’s Day, we were on our way to the cemetery to place flowers on my mom’s grave. It was about nine in the morning and we were getting ready to leave when two agents showed up to the house, asking who lived here. I went out to meet them, since I was the homeowner. My son was sitting at the table. ‘Come out,’ the policeman told him. My son came out, they asked him for his ID and then asked over the radio if he had anything pending against him. We could hear them tell the agents that he was clean, that he had nothing. Then one of the men came over and nodded at him like this, saying, ‘Let’s go.’ I thought they were leaving and would leave my son with me, but they told him, ‘You need to come with us to the police station.”

I met Cecilia on May 30, 2020, on North 79th Avenue in San Salvador, amid the hunger crisis that swept the country during the Covid-19 lockdown. It was pouring rain, but Cecilia was out in the streets anyway, holding a white T-shirt tied to the end of a broom handle — the white flag of hunger. During the pandemic, she and many other Salvadoran families had resorted to flying the white flags after months of unemployment had left them starving. Shortly after we met, Cecilia, who was 49 years old at the time, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

We met again three years later, on May 12, 2023, at her home in the community of Nueva Esperanza, an enclave surrounded by the affluent San Salvador neighborhood of Escalón. Cecilia has lived here for 23 years. I asked her to tell me what her life has been like since the lockdown that left her without enough food. But first, she wanted to tell me about her son’s arrest. Her family has been eating less since they took him.

Cecilia, a lifelong street vendor, has suffered calamity on top of calamity in recent years. In April 2022, her mother died. A month later, her son Jimmy was detained under the state of exception and sent to Izalco Prison. Since the suspension of constitutional rights and the initiation of mass arrests in March 2022, entire families have had to make economic sacrifices in the hopes of ensuring their loved ones don’t starve in prison. The government has ordered family members of the detained to purchase basic necessities for their incarcerated relatives: packages that include a uniform (a white t-shirt and white shorts), food (cereal, milk, basic grains), and personal hygiene products (like floor cleaner and brooms). Inmates who do not have families to support them eat only the minimum rations that the prison provides, which many who have been released describe as a small handful of rice and beans, twice a day.

Every month, Cecilia comes to drop off food for her son. Just the bare essentials, because she doesn’t have enough money for everything on the list. She buys cereal, rice, flour, cookies, and cleaning supplies — an additional $80 a month that she manages to scrape together with the help of the remittances she receives from her 38-year-old son and 33-year-old daughter, who have been living in the United States since they fled the country after facing gang threats. Her son left first, 12 years ago, and then her daughter, two years later. Jimmy, her 36-year-old son in prison, is Cecilia’s only child in El Salvador.

Cecilia Ábrego prepares lunch at home. Most of the time, her menu repeats: rice, tortillas and cheese. When it varies, it’s because she has eggs. Photo Carlos Barrera
Cecilia Ábrego prepares lunch at home. Most of the time, her menu repeats: rice, tortillas and cheese. When it varies, it’s because she has eggs. Photo Carlos Barrera

On September 11, 2022, her brother, who started drinking a lot after the death of their mother, was also detained under the state of exception. Suddenly, Cecilia’s $80 budget for her monthly prison package had come under double strain. Now, she is also responsible for purchasing a package for her younger brother, who is being held at the Santa Ana detention center.

But Cecilia’s story gets even thornier. On November 20, 2022, her stepfather —the father of her detained brother— passed away. He had fallen into a state of depression because he didn’t know what was happening to his son. Two days after his death, some neighbors reported Cecilia’s niece for child abandonment. “When my mother died, she had to find someone else to take care of her children. She had left her daughter with a neighbor, because she had to go to work,” Cecilia said. “When she came back, the girl had been beaten. That’s why they put her in jail.”

With her niece detained, Cecilia must now try to set aside at least $220 a month for her three family members’ increasingly precarious prison packages. It’s a heavy economic burden, and she can only bear it thanks to the remittances she receives from her children. Her 49-year-old husband, Paul, works in construction. He earns $183 every two weeks — a salary the family must stretch to pay for basic expenses, the prison packages, and Cecilia’s cancer treatment. With what they have left, typically around $150, they buy food for Celia, her husband, their two grandchildren —ages 16 and 11, who were left in her care when her daughter migrated to the U.S.— and the son of her incarcerated niece. The boy is seven years old, and Cecilia started taking care of him when she learned that he was wandering the streets after his mother’s arrest.

“Times are desperate. All three kids are in school. We either eat breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, but in this house, we always skip a meal, because it means we can save more for the few packages we’re able to bring to the prisons. The tortillas, they let me buy them on credit. I pay for them every two weeks, when my husband gets paid. We already owe on the energy bill. We’ve had to cut back on a lot of things. I tell my kids: ‘I don’t have enough to buy you shoes, I can’t buy them until later, please be patient with me. I’m going to finish getting the packages together.’ They tell me, ‘Mommy, they said I need a new shirt at school’… Even if it’s just $1.50 or $2, it’s still money. With that much, I could buy a bag of milk or incaparina [a corn and soy flour mix stirred into a breakfast drink] to take to my son, or to my brother, or to my niece. But my boy also needs that shirt,” she says, her voice drowning in tears.

It’s almost 11 a.m. and Cecilia has already decided what to make for lunch. Today they will eat rice with tortillas, to stretch what’s left in the refrigerator: some green beans, three carrots, five potatoes, and two chiles. She hopes it will be enough to supplement the beans and macaroni she has planned for the week’s lunches. Cecilia buys eggs when she has the money. Here in the community, eggs are five for a dollar. Right outside Cecilia’s house, there is a large white wall, about nine feet tall, that divides her neighborhood from the Escalón market, a project of the San Salvador Mayor’s Office that faced community protests. Jimmy used to live where they built the wall, which we can see from the room where Cecilia is telling me her story. She describes how the market displaced her son and other families in the community, who were promised that they would be given an apartment in a complex being built in the community next door.

To treat her cancer, Cecilia has regular appointments at the Salvadoran Social Security Institute (ISSS). Now, Paul needs to keep his job more than ever, because it’s the only reason Cecilia has the medical coverage she needs to receive treatments. They would never be able to pay for the care out of pocket. Recently, Cecilia needed medication to treat a bout of bronchitis, but her healthcare wouldn’t cover it. Her oldest son sent her the money, but she never used it for the medication: she spent half of it on food for her children and the other half on a prison package.

Cecilia Ábrego holds up a T-shirt with pictures of her son and her brother, who were arrested during the state of exception, and whom she now prioritizes by sending care packages with food from her scarce home supply. Photo Carlos Barrera
Cecilia Ábrego holds up a T-shirt with pictures of her son and her brother, who were arrested during the state of exception, and whom she now prioritizes by sending care packages with food from her scarce home supply. Photo Carlos Barrera

“It’s not fair that so many of us are not eating because we’re sending [packages] to our family members in prison, and then they’re not even delivering them,” she says, her face marked with impotence and frustration. The Salvadoran human rights group Cristosal published a report a year after the declaration of a state of exception, denouncing the practice of authorities receiving, but never delivering, food packages to prisoners. The report is based on testimonies from people released from prison, which suggest that the practice is routine.

Cecilia says she is not opposed to justice being done; she only asks that the innocent not be persecuted. “The people who deserve it, okay, we know they’ve done damage to the country, they’ve spilled blood, they’ve extorted and raped, they’ve run people [out of the country] to seek a better life. But the people who haven’t done anything wrong?” she asks, defending her detained family members.

At the back of the room hangs a photograph from the time Nayib Bukele visited her community during his campaign for president. In the picture, Bukele is smiling and hugging Cecilia. The image is framed and hangs in the center of the wall. “For me, it’s very painful to see that photograph every day and think, ‘How is it possible that a person who came to our community and offered to help us, to reduce our hunger, our pain, is now causing us so much harm? It’s not fair,” she says.

“How would things be for you if your children weren’t sending you help from the United States?” I ask.

“¡Ay!” Cecilia takes a deep breath and is silent for a few minutes, gazing at a photograph of her and her son. “I would have sold everything and maybe hung myself,” she says.

On July 12, I spoke with Cecilia again. Her health has deteriorated. She told me, crying, that because her son is detained, he might lose the apartment that was promised to him and his family. One of Cecilia’s few consolations has been that her niece has finally been released from prison.

Reporting: Julia Gavarrete
Photography: Víctor Peña and Carlos Barrera
Translation: Max Granger
Web design: Daniel Reyes, Daniel Bonilla, and Alex Santos
English edition: Roman Gressier and José Luis Sanz