Women hold signs at protest Photo: REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

El Salvador: President Bukele engulfs the country in a human rights crisis after three years in government

June 2, 2022

Under the current state of emergency, the Salvadoran authorities have committed massive human rights violations, including thousands of arbitrary detentions and violations of due process, as well as torture and ill-treatment, and at least 18 people have died in state custody, Amnesty International said today, following its research into the crisis in the country. President Bukele’s government declared a state of emergency on 27 March, following a spike in homicides allegedly committed by gangs, which has since been extended twice.

“Three years ago we met with President Nayib Bukele and he pledged to respect human rights. Since then, however, he has repeatedly failed to keep his word”, said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“On the pretext of punishing gangs, the Salvadoran authorities are committing widespread and flagrant violations of human rights and criminalizing people living in poverty. Instead of offering an effective response to the dramatic violence caused by gangs and the historic public security challenges facing the country, they are subjecting the Salvadoran people to a tragedy. Victims of gang violence urgently deserve justice, but this can only be achieved through robust investigations and fair trials that ensure due process and effective sentencing.”

Over the past few weeks, an Amnesty International crisis response team has meticulously documented 28 cases of human rights violations involving 34 people, interviewing victims and their families, human rights organizations, journalists, people currently or formerly involved in the administration of justice, and community leaders. In addition, the organization requested meetings with various authorities, including President Nayib Bukele.

Arbitrary detention, unlawful deprivation of liberty and judicial guarantees

The state of emergency, recent amendments to the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure and their implementation in this context by the Specialized Courts, the Attorney General’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Office, among others, have undermined the rights to defence, the presumption of innocence, effective judicial remedy and access to an independent judge. International human rights law, which is binding on the Salvadoran authorities, does not allow these rights to be restricted, even under a state of emergency.

Amnesty International found that thousands of people are being detained without the legal requirements being met – there was no administrative or judicial arrest warrant and the person was not apprehended in flagrante delicto – purely because the authorities view them as having been identified as criminals in the stigmatizing speeches of President Bukele’s government, because they have tattoos, are accused by a third party of having alleged links to a gang, are related to someone who belongs to a gang, have a previous criminal record of some kind, or simply because they live in an area under gang control, which are precisely the areas with high levels of marginalization and that have historically been abandoned by the state.

After arrest, people are deprived of their liberty and at their court hearings most are charged with membership of “illegal groups”, a crime that carries a penalty of 20 to 30 years’ imprisonment. During detention, and before being brought before a judge (which usually happens after 15 days’ detention, following the suspension, as part of the state of emergency, of the constitutional maximum period of 72 hours of “administrative detention”), the detainee does not usually have contact with their legal representative, not even just prior to the hearing, or, if they do, it is only for a few minutes. Moreover, a minority of people have been able to access private defenders and they do not have access to the case file and do not know what information the Prosecutor’s Office has submitted. These hearings can see up to 500 people charged at a time and they are summarily resolved. Virtually all the accused are subject to prosecution by the judiciary, even in the absence of any evidence.

In virtually all the cases documented by Amnesty International, people stated that there were times when they did not know where their relatives were being held. In at least one case, they still do not know, which could constitute enforced disappearance. This has led dozens of people to file appeals before the Constitutional Chamber for the person to appear before a court (habeas corpus). However, to date, human rights organizations have reported that there has been no progress in these proceedings.

In one case, the police arrested a woman, who was a single parent and works as a food vendor, in her home at the beginning of April, without an arrest or search warrant, for allegedly being a gang member. At the court hearing, which dealt with more than 500 people at the same time, a Specialized Court imposed a pre-trial detention order on her for the crime of membership of an illegal group, despite the fact that, according to her family, there was no evidence of this. Years ago, police had arrested the vendor on the same charge and beat her severely in detention. In addition to their being unable to prove the charges, she was awarded financial reparation after she reported the police officers for abuse of authority. Since then, she and her children have been forcibly displaced as a result of constant threats from the police. The vendor and her family had returned to their home a few months before her arrest in April.

Her daughter reported that, the next day, local police returned to the house and put a gun to her head, threatening that she would be next. In May, the young woman was arrested by the same police officers who had arrested her mother and threatened her. Amnesty International documented two other cases in which arrests were preceded by situations in which victims had reported police abuse to the authorities in previous years.

“It’s alarming to see how the three branches of the state, including judicial institutions, are operating in an extremely coordinated manner to prosecute thousands of people in a summary, illegal and indiscriminate manner. The political use of the bodies created to guarantee justice undermines the rule of law and is facilitating the commission of serious human rights violations and even crimes under international law”, said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“The arrest and criminal prosecution without due process of more than 35,000 people in less than three months would not have been possible if the judicial authorities had fulfilled their mandate. Instead, they are acting as accomplices to a public security policy ordered at the highest level that tramples on inalienable human rights, accepting as a necessary evil the widespread and unjust prosecution and imprisonment of people living in poverty.”

Right to life and physical integrity

Amnesty International has documented cases of torture and ill-treatment inside detention centres. The statements collected reveal the level of control that gang members exert inside cells and the extreme overcrowding, which result in violations of the right to life and physical integrity, and in insanitary conditions, food shortages and lack of basic hygiene, seriously affecting the health of detainees. By the end of May, local media reported that, due to the increase in arrests, 1.7% of the country’s population over the age of 18 was in detention, resulting in overcrowding of over 250% of the prison capacity.

In one case, a 16-year-old adolescent was arrested on 29 April by members of the police and armed forces and detained for 13 days, accused of membership of an illegal group. During the first night he was chained to the wall in a police detention centre for adults and he said he was beaten by police officers. He was later transferred to a youth detention facility, where members of a gang with whom he shared a cell repeatedly tortured him, punching him in the head and face, kicking him in the chest, abdomen and legs and constantly threatening him. He said they also threw a bag full of urine at his head. He said that officials at the facility knew about and tolerated these acts of torture and ill-treatment.

As of 28 May, at least 18 people were reported to have died in state custody during the state of emergency. Given the precarious prison conditions, there is a well-founded fear that the number of fatalities could increase in the coming days.

Amnesty International documented the death of William Alexander Galeas Gonzales, aged 36, who was detained on 13 April along with his mother and sister for alleged links to gangs. On 12 May, a funeral home visited the family to inform them of William’s death; the family had been unable to communicate with him since his detention. To date, no authority has notified them of the death or contacted them. According to a document from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, the forensic report points to pulmonary oedema as a preliminary cause of death. The family reported that when they checked the body they observed multiple bruises.

“These deaths in state custody are the ultimate expression of the cruelty of a policy implemented with the ostensible justification of reducing violence in the country at any cost. The Salvadoran authorities must investigate all arbitrary deaths immediately and not allow a single one more”, said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

Rights of children and adolescents

According to data from the Salvadoran Institute for the Comprehensive Development of Children and Adolescents, between 27 March and 17 May at least 1,190 people under the age of 18 were detained and held in youth detention facilities. Most were charged with membership of illegal groups or terrorist organizations.

Amnesty International documented the case of two cousins, aged 14 and 15, who were both detained on 26 April while they were playing outside their home in Ilopango. Their families reported that police officers accused them of “looking like criminals” (“cara de malandros”) without giving any further justification for their detention; they also told the mothers that their children would spend 30 years in detention. Since then, their mothers have been unable to communicate with them and have little information about the criminal proceedings they face. They say the assigned public defender gave them very little information and barely argued on behalf of their children during the hearing.

Journalists, human rights defenders and judicial officials

Amnesty International spoke with five Salvadoran journalists, three of whom had had to move house or leave the country because of harassment by the state or third parties. Two reported having reliable information about possible criminal investigations against them as a form of retaliation. In the context of the state of emergency, not only have changes to the law been approved that put people who report on the phenomenon of gangs at risk of criminalization and potential sentences of up to 15 years in prison, but, public officials and the official media have also publicly accused journalists and researchers of having links with gangs, without evidence, in an attempt to stigmatize and deter them from carrying out their work as journalists.

On 11 April, President Bukele tweeted that Juan Martínez, a researcher and anthropologist specializing in issues of violence and gangs, was “trash“, following an interview in which he expressed his views on the phenomenon of gangs in the country. Juan Martinez told Amnesty International that the authorities are trying to silence and exile journalism, as well as discrediting recent pieces of investigative journalism that point to the existence of secret negotiations between the government and the gangs. Hours after President Bukele publicly denigrated Juan Martínez, the Director of the Prison Service accused journalists at the newspaper El Faro of being terrorists, spokesmen for the gangs, and mercenaries.

Similarly, public officials at the highest level have publicly accused human rights organizations of supporting gang-generated crime. In addition, the Salvadoran Network of Human Rights Defenders recorded the arrest of six community leaders from the municipality of Jiquilisco in Usulután in the context of the state of emergency. The authorities had put them under house arrest, without giving any reasons for their detention, and they had subsequently been accused of having links with gangs.

In another case, Amnesty International documented the detention of four trade unionists, including Dolores Almendares, who works in the Cuscatancingo Town Hall and is General Secretary of the SETRAMUC union, who was arrested on 6 May while on sick leave with an arm injury. She was charged and placed in pre-trial detention, accused of membership of an illegal group, but her family and union colleagues believe that the detention may be connected with her defence of workers’ rights.

In addition, Amnesty International spoke with two former judicial officials and a sitting judge who detailed the attacks on judicial independence experienced by those involved in the administration of justice, including reprimands and appeals from high-level judicial officials demanding that they do not acquit those accused under the state of emergency and that they impose pre-trial detention as a general rule.

“The magnitude of the human rights violations demands a strong and immediate response from the international community. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and UN protection mechanisms must be given access to the country, and in particular to detention centres and judicial hearings, so that they can verify the general situation in relation to respect for human rights”, said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“We call on President Bukele’s government to immediately reverse the recent measures that violate human rights and to establish a dialogue with national and international civil society organizations and international human rights protection mechanisms in order to establish a public security policy that is effective and respects human rights.”

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Duncan Tucker: +52 55 4848 8266, duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

More information:

El Salvador: State of emergency has created a perfect storm of human rights violations (News, April 25, 2022)

El Salvador: Violence merits a comprehensive response that respects human rights (News, April 1, 2022)

El Salvador: Open Letter to President Nayib Bukele (April 1, 2022)