Just over a year into a “state of exception” in El Salvador, Amnesty International on Monday accused all three branches of government of enabling “the systematic, massive, and sustained violation of the human rights of the Salvadoran population” in a supposed effort to crack down on gang violence.
Since the Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele requested and the Legislative Assembly approved the state of emergency that suspended certain civil liberties in March 2022, lawmakers have repeatedly extended it, most recently last month. The policy has “allowed the arbitrary detention and imprisonment of more than 66,000 people,” according to the global human rights group.
“The international community is alert to the grave human rights consequences of the state of emergency in El Salvador,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty’s Americas director. “The compliance of the institutions responsible for ensuring and administering justice in the country has led to the criminal justice system being weaponized to punish people, the majority of whom are from historically marginalized areas, when there is no evidence that they have committed a crime.”
Specifically, according to the organization:
On the one hand, the executive, through the police, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Security, has designed and implemented a security strategy based on the excessive use of force, indiscriminate arbitrary detention, and the practice of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment including torture.
For its part, the legislature has for a year continued to approve and extend the period that the state of emergency, a measure whose nature is temporary and extraordinary, remains in force. In addition, it has supported a series of legal amendments that contravene international human rights standards ratified by the country.
Finally, the judiciary is not acting independently, is violating the right to due process, and is failing to combat impunity for the violations committed. The courts and auxiliary entities as well as those attached to the Public Prosecutor’s Office are flagrantly failing in their duties in criminal proceedings.
“The deaths of 132 people in state custody, arbitrary detention, mass criminal prosecutions, and the indiscriminate imprisonment of tens of thousands of people are incompatible with an effective, fair, and lasting public security strategy,” said Guevara-Rosas. “The systematic violation of human rights and the dismantling of the rule of law are not the answer to the problems facing the country. On the contrary, they set very dangerous precedents.”
While the confirmed death toll as of last month is 132, Amnesty noted that “Salvadoran human rights organizations believe that there is underreporting because of reported cases of exhumations of victims from mass graves after families were finally able to learn of the deaths of individuals who had died months earlier.”
In one case highlighted by the group, a 45-year-old man with mental disabilities was apprehended at his home in April 2022. His family spent months trying to locate him. In September, someone who claimed to have shared a cell with the man called his family and advised them to go to the Forensic Medicine Institute, because he believed the man died after being beaten by guards.
“He told us: ‘Your relative vomited blood through his mouth and nose. I think he died, because they took him to the hospital and they never brought him back,'” the family said. The Forensic Medicine Institute informed them that he died after 36 days in custody and was buried in a mass grave. The family had his remains exhumed in October but is unaware of any investigation into his death.
That’s part of a trend, according to Amnesty. Guevara-Rosas said that “in none of the 50 cases we have documented has it been possible to verify that there were investigation processes regarding the conduct of public officials. The fact that there are widespread human rights violations and virtually no ongoing criminal proceedings evidences the control exercised from the highest level so that all state powers obey this policy of indiscriminate imprisonment.”
Today marks one year since a state of emergency was decreed in El Salvador, since then, more than 66,000 detentions took place and 132 deaths occurred in state custody, most of whom at the time of their deaths had not been found guilty of any crime 👇 https://t.co/TUQymUdrEN— Amnesty International (@amnesty) April 3, 2023
Along with documenting abuse by police and prison guards sometimes resulting in deaths from “beatings,” “mechanical asphyxiation,” and “multiple unidentified traumas,” Amnesty interviewed people subjected to “extreme overcrowding in cells holding more than 100 people.” Detainees disclosed a “lack of sanitation and access to basic services such as water, adequate food, medicines, and medical care,” and said they were cut off from communicating with family.
“We see with alarm how overcrowding and torture continue to claim the lives of innocent people, with the complicity of all the institutions that are supposed to uphold their rights,” said Guevara-Rosas. “The dehumanization that thousands of unjustly imprisoned people are suffering is intolerable and must be urgently addressed by international human rights protection mechanisms.”
“Given the systematic nature of grave human rights violations, we call on international protection mechanisms to intervene urgently to avoid a major crisis in El Salvador,” she added. “The Salvadoran state must know with certainty that the international community will not tolerate these kinds of policies.”
Amnesty’s findings and demands echo those of other advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, which released a lengthy report on the state of exception in December. Juanita Goebertus, the organization’s Americas director, said at the time that “to put an end to gang violence and human rights violations, El Salvador’s government should replace the state of emergency with an effective and rights-respective security policy that grants Salvadorans the safety they so dearly deserve.”
Goebertus also argued that “the international community should redouble its efforts to help ensure that Salvadorans are safe from heinous crimes by gangs, human rights violations by security forces, and other abuse of power.”
#ElSalvador: We are very concerned by state of emergency now in force for 1yr & repressive measures to address insecurity, incl mass detentions. Call on authorities to comply w/ intl law & protect right to life, prohibition against torture & due process: https://t.co/EgDJdDXn2r pic.twitter.com/qiWQU0rFzA— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) March 28, 2023
Al Jazeera reported Monday that “such criticism has done little, however, to deter Bukele, whose popularity has surged as the crackdown exerts pressure on networks of gangs that have brought violence and exploitation to many areas of the country for years.”
The president, the outlet noted, “recently unveiled a new, megaprison to hold people rounded up under the state of emergency,” saying in February that “this will be their new house, where they will live for decades, all mixed, unable to do any further harm to the population.”
Bukele’s five-year term is set to end next year. The president confirmed in September his intention to seek reelection despite arguments that doing so would be unconstitutional.
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