SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Eulalia García was stunned when she opened an envelope to find an invitation from none other than the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele. It promised a bus would take her family the following day to receive a surprise Christmas gift.
García had survived a mudslide that killed four in her extended family and destroyed their humble home on the slopes of the San Salvador volcano. “It will be a good way to end the year after all we’ve been through,” García told her husband, Ramon Sanchez.
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A neighbor in Los Angelitos, Inés Flamenco, was so grateful for her invitation that she spent three days’ earnings on a gift for the president — a bouquet of red, white and pink roses that would turn into a beautiful photo opportunity for Bukele.
“I wanted to tell him how happy I was,” she recalled.
But the Christmas joy would be short-lived. Flamenco and many other guests of the president would soon discover their gifts came with a steep price tag.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, one of the worst ever for Central America, wiped out homes and crops and displaced more than half a million people. Honduras and Guatemala were hardest hit by back-to-back hurricanes, and their governments’ failure to respond fueled soaring migration to the United States.
Even where one government in the region did act, its response was marred by politics, disrespect for the rule of law and a tendency to embrace simple answers to complicated problems.
In El Salvador, a populist president saw opportunity where tragedy struck. After the tropical storm in October, Bukele moved quickly to demonstrate that he could deliver to hundreds of families from Los Angelitos and another community, Nueva Israel, with a program that surely would be appreciated by his countrymen.
There was a problem, though. Bukele forgot to ask the people what they needed to recover. While some appreciated his help, others said they were left out and still others criticized his program, saying it was typical of the way the president governs -- using public funds for political propaganda.
“He acts fast. He does not consult, does not plan and does not listen to anyone,” said Francisco Altschul, a former ambassador of El Salvador to the United States.
On the night of Oct. 29, it rained so hard on the tin roof of their house that Ramon Sanchez fell into a hypnotic “sleep of death,” as he called it.
Heaps of broken trees and rocky soil created a dam high on the volcano during the torrent. The accumulation of groundwater throughout the winter, plus days of pounding rain, caused the dam to break and the landslide that devoured Los Angelitos.
Around 10:40 that night, Sanchez was awakened by what felt like an explosion. “A rock had hit a tree behind my house, the walls shook and water started coming in everywhere.”
Sanchez and García grabbed their two children and got out, fighting the water. A creek to the left and a road to the right were flooded. They reached high ground nearby and, in minutes, a monstrous ball of earth, logs and water that had traveled nearly four kilometers (2 1/2 miles) down the volcano’s slope came to a halt behind them.
Sanchez´s mother, brother and two nephews who were sleeping in an adobe house next to theirs were buried alive.
They were among 11 people who died as 78 houses were demolished.
“It was over as quickly as it began,” Sanchez said.
Nearby, Inés Flamenco, 73, awoke to see her kitchen gone and her goats bleating for help. “If I tried to get closer and got a foot in the current, I would be pulled, go away and die with them,” she recalled.
She started running only to encounter the mangled body of a neighbor dragged to death by mud and stones. She breaks into tears every time she remembers him.
After the deluge, everything seemed to happen fast, like in a movie. Contrary to what usually happens in Central America, solutions arrived, along with cameras recording everything for the Bukele administration’s social media feed.
Within an hour of the mudslide, Defense Minister Rene Merino appeared on the scene and tagged President Bukele in Twitter to let him know that he had taken personal command of the search and rescue operation. Hundreds of soldiers and trusted inmates from a nearby prison started digging for survivors and bodies.
At dawn, Interior Minister Mario Durán joined the effort with drones and cameras. When he spoke to the media, he had smudges of dirt on his face — proof that the government was in the thick of it.
Almost as quickly, Adolfo Barrios, mayor of Nejapa and a member of the opposition Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, arrived with his own camera and interrupted Durán. “I just want to pose some questions to the minister,” he said.
He couldn’t even finish his first question when the general director of the police, Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, politely but firmly told him to leave. He organized his own press conference to say he, too, would divert money from the city budget to help the families.
Funerals and burials were held and shelters were set up in schools for the newly homeless. Within 48 hours, Housing Minister Michelle Sol arrived with a promise: The government would give homeless families houses. And while they waited, she gave them money to rent houses.
Less than a month after the deluge, almost every family had moved to rental locations where, another month later, they received the invitation to meet with the president.
The trip to receive their surprise gift was 15 minutes and a world away. When the bus left the main road, they were surrounded by trucks and cranes. García said, “I think the gift is a house.”
Her husband, a man of few words still traumatized by what had happened weeks before, replied, “How can they give us a house?”
They could. And they did.
The mudslide survivors crossed a security barrier and entered Ciudad Marsella, a huge private residential development under construction, then saw a succession of gleaming new houses on a street so clean and perfect that it didn’t seem real. With mouths agape, they were taken off the bus and asked to form a line.
“It was very fast. A guide came up to us, checked our names and took us straight to the door of a house, gave us the keys, said it was ours and told us to wait because the president was on his way,” García said.
Each family was given a check for $25,300 to buy their house and documents were exchanged. With the houses came a long list of conditions that they signed without reading them. And suddenly, these homeless families — small-scale farmers, shopkeepers, gas deliverymen — were part of a middle-class community.
In record time, 50 days after the storm, the government had delivered its gifts. Survivors from Los Angelitos and Nueva Israel, another neighborhood flooded in the capital in June 2020, received 272 furnished houses in a private development, with access to play spaces for children, a swimming pool, outdoor cinema, medical visits, psychological support, food bags, $250-a-month checks until August and a temporary exemption from paying the expenses for security and common premises.
President Bukele arrived with cameras for a short speech, hugs and pictures. At a podium, he lambasted Congress for failing to approve an emergency declaration that would have allowed him to use government funds without legislative oversight.
Instead, he had earmarked $5 million that he said was “saved” from the construction of a hospital in the capital to spend on a privately owned, already built residential community with available houses. There was no public bidding, just his decision to give the victims money to buy houses in Ciudad Marsella.
He knew the decision he had taken was considered unconstitutional by many, but Bukele said, “rain cannot be unconstitutional.”
García was grateful: “We lived in adobe in a ravine. When were we going to be able to buy a house? Never.”
Then the problems began to emerge.
After hugging and giving the bouquet of roses to Bukele, Inés Flamenco remembered that she had to go back to Los Angelitos to tend her animals. She milks the five cows and some goats that survived the mudslide and sells that milk to make a living. She realized that the bus ride would cost $3 round trip.
“I panicked. I barely make $5 a day.”
Security guards at the gated community couldn’t understand why she had to leave in the wee hours to get to her animals. And she felt they treated people like her differently than the middle-class residents who had bought their own homes.
“Darker, with no vehicles, walking in and out, wearing humble clothes, we feel abused by guards who follow and question us all the time,” she said.
Naively perhaps, she asked if she could bring her animals to the residence and let them graze in the common areas. They looked at her as if she was crazy.
“I didn’t know who to talk to,” she said. So, she went to the mayor. “How am I going to live?” she asked him.
On Jan. 15, he called another press conference, this time to criticize the president’s actions, surrounded by a dozen people who were ready to give the houses back to the government.
Flamenco was the first person to speak. “The house is beautiful, but I feel depressed, it is not for me. I want to ask the government if they could look for a place in the countryside,” she said.
Others continued with similar complaints. In Ciudad Marsella, it is prohibited to keep animals, and that means no chickens and no eggs to eat or sell. In any case, they weren’t allowed to set up small stores to sell their farm goods. They also cannot plant trees for shade and fruit to eat.
Unemployed, displaced, earning $3 a day, they said they wouldn’t be able to afford utility payments of about $70 per month when the government-subsidized period ends.
And there is no agricultural employment near Ciudad Marsella for laborers who earn $200 a month when they find consistent work.
“The minister called me immediately, outraged, asking me why I was so ungrateful with a government that had given me so much, and had agreed to be used in an opposition political show,” Flamenco said in tears.
“They took me to a place without asking and then accused me of being ungrateful for a gift that I didn’t ask for.”
García and Sanchez do not plan to give up their houses, but share the concerns of those who do. “We have no income, we have no idea how we are going to survive, the government will have to give us solutions,” García said.
Sanchez´s grandmother, Victoria Crisóstoma, added, “We are not allowed to cook with wood and we have to pay for gas. I cannot afford it. We are not allowed to grind corn so I cannot make my own tortillas and I have to buy them. I have no income.”
As of July, at least 28 families had decided to return the houses. Like Flamenco, most of them went back to Los Angelitos.
“I am defeated. I’m afraid of dying here as soon as it starts raining again,” Flamenco said.
For now, popular support is going Bukele’s way. He is getting credit for providing housing to the victims of mudslides as his counterparts in Honduras and Guatemala have yet to do.
After trying to stop the president’s plans since the first night of the tragedy, the opposition mayor of Nejapa lost local elections in a political landslide to the candidate of Nuevas Ideas — Bukele´s party.
But the problems continue.
The Orellana family is among the residents of Los Angelitos who did not receive an invitation from the president and feel no one is listening. Their shack of wood pallets and aluminum sheeting held up in the tropical storm, so they await the next hurricane season with fear.
“They say we are not in danger,” said Lourdes Orellana, 27. “How do they know how high the water will rise the next time it rains?”
Cecilia Flores’ ailing mother got a house in Ciudad Marsella because she held the title to their family house even though it was not completely destroyed.
But her mother, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, could not live alone in the new house because of her health, and it was not large enough for all 11 family members. If Flores was to move in with her mother, she’d have to leave her children behind with the others. She’d also have to leave her business selling lunches to workers at a nearby factory — her only source of income.
They thought of renting out the new house to live off the income and fix up the old house, but it turned out they weren’t allowed to do that in the new neighborhood.
“What is this property that cannot be sold or rented? Either it is ours or not,” Flores said.
So they abandoned the gift house, which now sits empty, and returned to the adobe house where they survived the tragedy. But now the house in Los Angelitos has been seriously damaged by government when it cleared land after the mudslide. There are cracks running along the walls and the floor is sinking.
“There were options for land nearby and tailored to our needs,” Flores said, “but instead of sitting down to listen and think about the options, Bukele looked for a quick photo op and created a bigger problem for people who already had a lot of problems.”