CARY, N.C. (WNCN) — 26-year-old Ana Hernandez has not heard from her brother, Nelson, since earlier this year.

The siblings moved from El Salvador to the Triangle in 2013 and are now U.S. citizens. Hernandez had traveled back to his home country at the end of last year to marry his girlfriend. Three days before the wedding, Salvadoran police arrested Hernandez for alleged gang affiliations.

“We never expected this to happen to either one of our family members, especially to him,” said Ana.

The Salvadoran newspaper ‘El Faro’ first reported Hernandez’s arrest, along with further development from the Raleigh-based ‘News & Observer’. Ana says Hernandez had been walking with his girlfriend, when police stopped them because they did not recognize Hernandez. They later found Hernandez’s tattoos and song he recorded under the name “N-Real”.

The police said that his music promoted gang activity and later linked Hernandez to the 18th Street gang. Although there are violent themes throughout some of Hernandez’s work, the song police cite does not have any explicit mention of any gangs. He does mention pride for his hometown of Nahuizalco, which police said is known to be a hotbed of criminal activity. 

“The music is a way of expressing himself. It’s a feeling. If he feels proud of where he comes from, they can’t judge him for that,” said Ana.

Under President Nayib Bukele, El Salvador has been cracking down on gang violence that has long ravaged the country. A 2020 report from UNICEF lists death threats, extortion, and gang recruitment as major reasons why Salvadorans were fleeing the country.

According to data from the World Bank, El Salvador had one of the highest murder rates in the world in 2021. In 2022, Bukele invoked a national “state of exception” in the country, which suspended civil liberties, including due process.

Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 71,000 people have been arrested since Bukele began the gang crackdown. In addition to a government-reported 56.8 percent murder rate drop from 2021 to 2022, Bukele’s popularity has skyrocketed. A February poll showed that nearly 70% of respondents were in favor of the president’s re-election, despite a constitutional ban.

Though there is mass support for Bukele’s initiative, many fear that innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Human rights group Cristosal told El Faro that the organization estimates fewer than 30% of detainees during the past year were inmates. 

“I understand that he’s trying the best he can, and I believe he’s doing a great job in that security matter,” Ana said. “But I feel like many innocent people have been affected as well.”

For now, Ana and her family wait for Hernandez’s next court date. They have not heard from Hernandez since his arrest, but Ana said they send messages through the U.S. Embassy while they update the embassy on Hernandez’s case.

“We try to include them and give them that new information. But from them, there isn’t much they can do,” said Ana.

Ana hopes for her brother’s release and return to North Carolina, with his future wife.

“As soon as he gets out, hopefully, I believe they’re going to keep their plans on going, get married, and move here,” Ana said. “Because I believe that’s the best option for them right now.”