“You want the whole packet? Which will it be, Izalco or Mariona?”, repeats clothing vendor Lidia Cruz all day in her shop near the Hula Hula Market in downtown San Salvador. A packet contains a white shirt, the option of shorts or pants, underwear —all of them bleach white— and a pair of sandals imitating Crocs. In El Salvador this is the uniform of detainees.
She calls out 'Izalco' and 'Mariona' as shorthand for prisons in the west and center of El Salvador, respectively. Vendors like Cruz are attuned to the facilities' sole difference in dress code: Izalco has pants and Mariona has shorts. Before it was nearly impossible to find the clothing in downtown San Salvador, but Cruz admits: “Everything increased with the state of exception, with so many arrests.” On her best days she sells 25 packets.
The legislature decreed a state of exception on March 27 after the Bukele administration’s negotiations with the Mara Salvatrucha collapsed, leading to 87 deaths in three days. Since then, the National Civil Police have made 36,000 arrests, doubling the country’s incarcerated population. In the first three weeks of arrests, detainees’ families crowded around clothing stores outside of the prison known as El Penalito, where those arrested under the emergency measures were first held. Now, as most detainees have been moved to the Izalco and Mariona facilities, families have had to look elsewhere for clothing to send to their relatives in prison.
Domestic and international organizations have reported systematic human rights violations under the state of exception. The government has reported 12 in-custody deaths. Some families sleep outside of prisons as they wait for news of their detained relatives, without the money to return home or eat as they pass the time.
Cruz has found a business opportunity in the emergency measures that suspended certain civil rights and allowed the police and military to detain people for up to 15 days without seeing a judge. “What can we do? If we're making sales from others’ wrongdoing, all we can do is treat clients with love, give them a price, and show a little empathy.” Other vendors on the block have had similar fortunes, though they complain that suppliers are raising prices from $10 to $12.50 per packet. But the price hike has not impeded sales. “Right now there are clients who pay us $35 exclusively for clothing to send to prison. We only see that at Christmastime,” says Cruz. “Christmas came early for us.”