Jose Antonio Potes and his childhood friend Manuel Castrillón travelled to El Salvador hoping to find the safe, prosperous, tech-friendly paradise that they had heard about in Colombian media.
President Nayib Bukele’s draconian crackdown on gangs and ambitious plans to convert the country into a bitcoin-powered regional powerhouse have made him the most popular leader in Latin America – and El Salvador a destination for surfers and tech-bros alike.
“We’d heard about this transformation: that there were no more gangs, that things had gotten really safe and that there was an infrastructure boom because of all the investment,” said Castrillón. “We thought we could thrive there.”
Potes is a welder and Castrillon an expert in mechanised farming. The two, both 27, come from the tiny town of Riofrío in Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
Together they set out to find work and send dollars –home to their families. But instead of benefitting from Bukele’s war on gangs, the pair were arrested and locked up in squalid prisons for three months.
“They went looking for paradise,” said Ruth Elonaro Lopez, a lawyer at Cristosal, a Salvadoran human rights group. “Instead they found hell.”
On 21 January, the day after Potes flew out to join Castrillon, the two men met for lunch in Soyapango, a satellite town just outside the Salvadoran capital. Shortly after they were detained by soldiers and asked for documents.
Eight hours later they were taken to a jail, where they were questioned, strip-searched and photographed. They say the officials paid particular attention to their tattoos – a hallmark of the country’s gangs.
“They asked where we got our money from and said it must have been from narco-trafficking in Colombia. But I had $125 in cash and Jose had $75,” said Castillon.
It was when they were first thrown into a jail cell with 25 others that they began to realise it might be more than a mistake.
“We were confused, terrified and couldn’t sleep,” said Potes. “And the nightmare was only just beginning.”
Bukele’s firm hand has gained him a cult following at home, and his authoritarianism is admired by the right wing across Latin America.
Related: El Salvador crackdown breaks the gangs – at huge cost to human rights
While countries across the region are struggling to control criminal violence, the Salvadoran strongman is credited with beating criminal organisations into submission and given glowing profiles in newspapers and magazines.
After taking office in 2019, Bukele first tried brokering a pact with gangs, allegedly promising to block extraditions in exchange for law and order, but when the deal broke down he declared a state of emergency in March 2022 – and dropped diplomacy for brute force.
Since then, the country has experienced a dramatic drop in violence.
El Salvador has frequently ranked as the most murderous country in the world but on 11 May Bukele tweeted that it had not recorded a single homicide in a year.
The Salvadoran government says it has jailed nearly 70,000 gang members – about 2% of the country’s population. But human rights groups say thousands of innocent people are being caught up in the offensive.
Outside the Ilopango prison where the two Colombians were held, Potes saw dozens of women asking for their children’s whereabouts, all saying they had nothing to do with the gangs.
“It started really making sense then that they were just throwing innocent people in jail to show them off to the outside world,” he said.
The two men eventually spent a month in Ilopango and almost two more in equally hellish conditions at Jucuapa, where they shared a cell with no toilet – just a bucket – with 400 others.
Under the state of emergency, no trial or charges are required to detain someone. Disgruntled neighbours, unhappy partners or rival businessmen can easily take advantage of the breakdown of due process.
“You no longer need to have any link with the gangs to be locked up in El Salvador. You simply need to be a young male,” said López.
The pair say they saw countless other foreigners caught up in the crackdown, including Hondurans, Guatemalans and North Americans.
As Bukele ramps up his attack on the gangs such tales are increasingly common.
On the 9th of May a fisherman from Isla El Espíritu Santo in the south of the country was released after a year in prison after authorities admitted he was wrongly imprisoned following an anonymous phone call.
In another case a young lesbian woman was taken from her home by soldiers after she was reportedly denounced by taxi drivers who did not like her sexual orientation.
“What these Colombians are living, thousands of Salvadoreños are going through,” said Lopez. “The government is trying to project the image that it is restoring order but in reality it is losing control and causing immense, irreversible social damage.”
As El Salvador runs out of space to house inmates, prison conditions are growing increasingly dire.
Potes and Castillon say their heads were shaven, their clothes stripped and that guards fired tear gas into their cells if they broke silence.
Related: ‘It’s a war on the people’: El Salvador’s mass arrests send thousands into despair
Potes and Castillon were eventually freed in April after Potes’s partner, Claudia Marcela García, relentlessly lobbied for the pair’s release in the Colombian press. They had each lost more than 10kg.
“We were terrified that if we made this public that it would make things worse but we had to do something. Our four-year-old daughter was asking every day when José would be back and we had no idea if he ever would,” said García.
Following their release the rightwing Colombian magazine Semana shared a video of the two men walking along a beach, explaining that the whole thing was a misunderstanding.
Castrillon and Potes say they were pressured into making the recording by government officials who promised them houses and jobs. Bukele has since blocked Castrillon on Twitter for making the claims. The Bukele administration did not respond to requests for comment.
The two friends say they are trying to set the story straight and raise awareness of two other Colombians, Andres Felipe Castañeda González and Octavio de Jesús Marin, who they say were also imprisoned without charges.
“What’s happening over there is not what it seems,” Potes says. “Yes, they are locking criminals up to make things safer but what good is that when they could come for you in the middle of the night?”