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Mothers in El Salvador wonder if their imprisoned sons will ever be released

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In El Salvador, the government has jailed more than 60,000 people in an effort to end the dominance of gangs. After almost a year, some families haven't had any contact with their imprisoned loved ones, so a group of mothers have held vigil outside prisons, some for months at a time. NPR's Eyder Peralta spoke to some of these moms caught in the middle.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: They call this place El Penalito, the little prison. And just on the other side of the street from the big walls, I find Maria slumped over a table. It's the middle of the day. It's hot, and this is her ninth month of vigil, hoping for her son-in-law to be released.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) Every day, we keep the faith that at any minute, he'll get off some bus and be released from prison.

PERALTA: Maria says her son-in-law is a good, loving father who has nothing to do with gangs. Like most of the other people in this story, she's asked us to use only her first name because she fears government retribution. Maria says police picked him up last April, saying a neighbor reported him as a gang member. That day, 10 months ago, was the last time she heard his voice.

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She sleeps here every Monday through Friday. The sidewalk is stacked with the floor mats and the pieces of cardboard they sleep on. Without warning, usually in the middle of night, buses pull up in front of the prison, or sometimes, the doors of the prison swing open, and young men stumble out.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) They come out disoriented. Some don't even recognize their mothers. It's like their world closed, and they don't even realize they're alive.

PERALTA: When you walk into the office of defense attorney Lucrecia Landaverde, her waiting room is full of clients asking about their loved ones. Unfortunately, she says, there's very little she can do to help because the judicial system in El Salvador has completely changed.

LUCRECIA LANDAVERDE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "In El Salvador, the presumption of innocence no longer exists," she says. For almost a year now, the government has suspended some of the most basic civil rights.

LANDAVERDE: (Through interpreter) Now, you're guilty unless you prove you're innocent. But I also make it impossible for you to prove you're innocent.

PERALTA: The current state of exception in El Salvador allows the government to hold anyone for two years without charges. In proceedings that are closed to the public, she's seen 400 people tried at the same time. It's so chaotic that some of her clients have found out their loved ones are dead months after they died in custody. Over the past year, she says her office has been full of desperate family members. She remembers one woman who came in carrying three grandbabies. Two of her daughters, she says, were imprisoned.

LANDAVERDE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "The woman," she says, "would put the babies to her breasts so they could at least stop crying."

LANDAVERDE: (Through interpreter) That broke my heart. It broke my heart because those babies are human beings, because they deserve the protection of the state and precisely because the government promised children would now be born to a caring society, and yet they take their parents.

PERALTA: I return to the prison in the middle of the night. I meet Rosa, who says her son was a drunk but not a criminal. I meet Teresa, whose son ran a gas delivery company. A jealous neighbor called the police, she says, and now he's been gone for eight months. Elena says her son was running an errand and never came back. She's been here every day for nine months.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She's been to the prosecutor's office, to the police, to lawyers, to the prisons, and no one has told her anything about her son.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It's like he's been kidnapped."

As we talk, the door to the prison opens.

(APPLAUSE)

PERALTA: So right now, they're releasing inmates one by one. They come out dressed in white T-shirts and white shorts. And as they come out, people clap.

(APPLAUSE)

PERALTA: The former inmates cry and hug. One of them doesn't want to hold his toddler son because he feels dirty. The men say they've been warned not to talk to reporters, so they stay quiet. And for a moment, the moms breathe easy. But today, the state only releases six inmates. Elena's son was not one of them. The worst part, she repeats, is not knowing anything.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "The uncertainty is killing us," she says. "It's killing us day by day."

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, San Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.