I’ve been searching for a video that really impressed me a few years ago. It was an indigenous community in some country on this continent. In front of a large assembly and on a platform high enough to be placed in full view of all, a young man was accused of having stolen a cell phone, his hands were tied to the front and some men with a serious face accompanied him. Before him, some older people were parading who spoke passionately to him in a language that I did not understand, at first the face of the young man showed a defiant attitude, people continued to parade and spoke aloud to him.
The crowd watched at times quieter, sometimes more agitated. He continued to cry, the crowd began to disperse. If my memories don’t deceive me, the images were not accompanied by subtitles, but the words that accompanied the video explained the existence of different systems of doing justice. The comments were also very impressive. A large part of them spoke about how the justice systems of indigenous peoples violated human rights, the humiliation of the young person before a large crowd and the regrets because this happened in the absence of the rule of law.
I remembered this video and started a search after having contemplated a face that stands out from the crowd of bodies wedged one after the other in one of the photographs released a few days ago by the social media account of the Presidential House of the Republic of El Salvador. : This is a photograph that is part of the disseminated images of the prisoners inside the Izalco prison in San Salvador. The prisoners, who seem to be hundreds, are in the prison yard, sitting on the floor, one after the other, they are in shorts and most carry a face mask, each body seems to form a concave that nests the body of a prisoner to Then the heads are lowered and in many cases placed on the back of the next person. There is no healthy distance between them, armed guards watch over them. The images are shocking: among the bodies in mass a face rises and looks at the camera and from there it also looks at us, it looks at us as an individual among the flesh. The images were taken and disseminated in a particular context, approximately eleven months ago, the new president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, took office, who has promoted a policy of police and military control that includes a program called “Plan of territorial control” with the aim to curb the homicide rate. In the second half of April homicides skyrocketed and Bukele began a fight against the gangs. In the official narrative, the rearrangement of the prisoners in the jail was due to the fact that the orders to commit homicides came from that place of confinement. Bukele stated, “We are going to make the gang members who committed these killings regret their entire lives for having made that decision.” The process of inducing repentance that Bukele intended to start in the Izalco prison inmates includes locking their cells with metal plates so that it is impossible for them to communicate between cells by means of signs.
The presidential order also included mixing prisoners from different gangs in each cell. From his account, the president declared: “You will no longer be able to see outside the cell. This will prevent them from communicating with signs to the hallway. They will be inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang. ” Before beginning this relocation, they were stacked in the patio in underwear, sitting on the ground from where a face observes us through a photograph released as a trophy. This image reminded me of the extraordinary book by the writer Marina Azahua called Involuntary Portrait. This face looking at the camera over the lines of bodies placed by force caused me to remember the face of the young man who had stolen a cell phone breaking into tears at the cry of another person who spoke passionately to him. In both cases, repentance seemed to be involved only that the nature of it could not be more dissimilar. In one case the words seemed to have an effect in which the young man recognized the fault and felt pain, in the other case, Bukele intends to make the prisoners regret their entire life of having ordered a murder, we do not know exactly who ordered it, but the state will make them repent. In this case, the word repentance seems to become a euphemism for continued torture. After the images were released, international human rights organizations protested and the debate began: People glorifying Bukele’s actions argued that it was the least they deserved for those gang members who had committed heinous crimes, gang members who had tortured people and had used violence in brutal and unspeakable ways. President Bukele himself complained about the silence that, according to him, people and organizations kept in the face of the violence exerted by the gangs but that now defended them.
Accustomed as I am to the constant questioning and attacks on the justice system of our communities, this discussion seemed interesting to me. It brings to the table a fundamental debate for human societies: what does it mean to do justice? In a country like this, the judicial system of the Mexican State coexists with other very different justice systems. However, despite the constitutional recognition of the autonomy of indigenous peoples, the margin to exercise, develop and strengthen our own justice systems is diminished before a racist and colonialist structure. In discourse and in practice, our justice systems are opposed to the law where the former are simple “uses and customs” while the legal framework is treated as something that, rather than a human product, seems inspired by a power infallible superior. In many of our own justice systems, prison is a moment of prior detention, but it is not in itself the punishment of a fault, in fact, detention in a cell is prior to confrontation and the determination of the sanction that can vary according to the fault. When it is possible to repair the damage, the sanction implies an exercise in restorative justice in which the different members of a family also participate. In some communities, when there are intrafamilial attacks, older people who witnessed and were godparents of the couple’s union are summoned to ask them to account for their role as companions to the process and, where appropriate, they are asked to use their words in a speech which in itself seems to be also a sanction. In various systems of justice delivery, the community is also involved in the conditions that generated the existence of a crime, this structural approach allows to start a reflection that reorders the social system to prevent future violence.In contrast, the State’s judicial system has in the individual and in prison some of its fundamental elements. The search for justice often focuses on achieving arrest and imprisonment after a trial. Once a person has been imprisoned, social memory seems to erase their fate, no matter that people who have committed rape are also raped in prison, to name a phenomenon. On many occasions it is even celebrated because, as Bukele’s speech reinforces, they deserve it.
The State allows or executes a sanction that instead of justice seems to become an act of revenge. We know that, although the prisons are called the Center for Social Readaptation, what happens in the events is very different. The extreme case, and fully integrated into the legal system, is the death penalty that exists and is exercised in one of the most iconic liberal democracies in the world: that of the United States of America. Proponents of the death penalty convey the horror of a crime to an individual without analyzing the structural causes in which the crimes nest. Few defenders of the death penalty would be willing to execute it on their own behalf on behalf of the State. The conversion of justice into lethal revenge from the State is reinforced in the speech of many rulers, how to forget the words of Arturo Montiel who declared in the midst of the campaign that “human rights are for humans, not for rats” while showing images of imprisoned people. In Felipe Calderón’s six-year term, official publicity celebrated the number of “killed” criminals instead of regretting the terrible ruling that caused those “killed” people not to have had the opportunity to face a fair trial. Along these lines, Bukele has also stated that its police and armed forces are authorized to kill gang members with “possible lethal force.”
Establishing the contrast between different justice systems does not mean that our own regulatory systems are exempt from injustice or abuse, but they outline a horizon in which justice can mean in many ways. Far from making a racist opposition between a justice system that we think is ideal because it is based on a written legal tradition and primitive systems of “uses and customs” that are abusive and savage, it is necessary to recognize that the system of justice delivery and the system The current prisoner is the main violator of human rights. Let us not forget that the torture carried out by State police officers is paid for with public money. In this context, taking into account something that specialists have called “legal pluralism” opens a necessary debate in which we can discuss the way in which crimes and violence carried out by specific individuals reveal collective truths. Prisons shout a complex Fuenteovejuna to our faces. We do not want to hear or see.
What is doing justice? The answers can be many, different, multiple. For a society, the deep repentance of a person for what he has done is fundamental because the individual can formulate and request actions that restore what he has done both materially and symbolically. For many micro systems that seek justice, making someone deeply indignant at their own fault and crime is one of the main objectives, which is why sanctions are aimed at it. Beyond the Catholic statement that implies “feeling pain for your sins”, older people who speak and speak before the haughty face of the young man who had stolen a cell phone seek that he can inscribe his act in a new space of meaning, at some point It succeeds and if it hurts, something has been restored.
For this, the effort, the time, the words and the presences of many people, of a whole community, of the community of the individual who perpetuated the robbery were necessary. In contrast, it is almost impossible to make Bukele understand why his acts on prisoners, beyond an act of justice, are just the opposite; He has transferred the responsibility for crimes supposedly ordered from prison to each of the half-naked prisoners in the courtyard without implying the role that the State he heads has historically had in the production of violence. Bukele, and with him, the State, cannot inscribe his acts in a new space of meaning that allows him to understand why we are horrified by the images that he shows us so proud. Nothing has been restored and the look of the prisoner who responds to the camera reminds us.
Note published in the newspaper El País on May 2, 2020
Author YÁSNAYA ELENA A. GIL