The pro-government deputies approved in early January the tenth extension of martial law that allows the government, among other things, to hide information on public spending. The exception regime includes the suspension of the constitutional guarantees of Salvadorans and the use of the military in public security.
Since March 2022 when El Salvador’s government began implementation of its cornerstone security strategy, it has been marked by reports of human rights violations, arbitrary detentions, abuses by security forces, forced disappearances, and blockades to access to public information by the State.
This is revealed by the latest report from human rights organizations that compiled thousands of complaints of police abuse, torture, persecution and lack of judicial guarantees attributed to the National Civil Police (PNC), the Armed Forces (FAES) and the Prosecutor’s Office (FGR). Despite the mounting evidence of abuses, President Nayib Bukele’s approval levels remain high, and his security actions, which include the emergency regime and the use of the military for public security tasks, also continue to be popular.
Over the last nine months, Cristosal, the UCA Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), the Women Defenders Network, FESPAD, and the Azul Originario organization received 3,211 complaints of arbitrary detentions. “The state of exception regime has had several stages and types in terms of arrests. In the first, it was possible to observe how in the first months there were massive detentions, and the use of stigmatizing criteria such as people’s place of residence. And of course, since there were no criteria for prior investigation, but only where they resided or the existence of tattoos or an age range or physical appearance–there were many arbitrary detentions,” said Ruth Eleonora López, lawyer for Cristosal.
At the end of last year, Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado announced that the government had arrested more than 60,000 suspected gang members in the context of the “war” launched by Bukele in March 2022 under the exception regime. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also pointed out that many of the arrests were made based on physical appearance and place of residence of the detainees, generally from marginalized areas that have historically been hotspots for violence in the Central American country.
According to the organizations that have documented the arbitrary detentions, the police make arrests based on complaints made anonymously, sometimes by relatives or people who have a disagreement with the person they denounce or by neighbors who report someone who does not have gang ties. “This is extremely serious because people are accused and there is no investigation. When there are no investigations, anyone can be detained, but especially since people do not have the right to have the reasons for their detention explained to them, then it could be for any reason,” López explained.
Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said in an interview with a local channel in early January that 3,313 people were released due to lack of evidence in the proceedings. The official also confirmed that this figure represents 5% of all arrests made by the National Civil Police and the Armed Forces of El Salvador in the nine months that the state of emergency has been in force.
“A thousand have been released through legal procedures of the Prosecutor’s Office, another thousand within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, and the other thousand and something remaining are related to the judicial controls over prosecutor and police actions. On behalf of the Ministry of Security and Penal Centers, we are working to remove those who were simply in the wrong place,” said the minister.
Of those arrested, about a thousand people are youth under 20 years of age, according to reports from the organizations. Since last year, four months after the first emergency regime began, Amnesty International warned of the danger posed by extensions of the state of exception and sent a letter to President Nayib Bukele stating that this measure does not comply with international standards for the protection of human rights.
The director of the organization, Erika Guevera Rosas, emphasized the deterioration of human rights guarantees, the closure of democratic spaces and citizen participation, the attacks on freedom of expression and the right to inform, and the hostile environment towards journalists, activists and human rights defenders, which worsened during the first extensions of the state of exception. President Bukele has not responded to requests to hold a meeting with international organizations dedicated to the work of defending human rights.
Detainees under the exception regime do not know if they are being investigated, and because criminal guarantees are suspended under the decree, appearance before a judge can occur up to 15 days after the arrest, rather than during the first 72 hours as established by the Constitution.
Complaints are not only about arbitrary detentions. Zaira Navas, head of Cristosal’s Legal Department, confirmed on February 2 that 102 people have died in prisons. These people were detained under the emergency regime and were in the custody of the authorities of Penal Centers.
Under the exception regime, the government and State security institutions can intervene in the wiretaps of any citizen, without authorization from a judge. At the end of last year, a group of Salvadoran journalists denounced the use of the Pegasus software by the Bukele government to intervene in their communications and to spy on them. Celia Medrano, activist, consultant and researcher on human rights in El Salvador, said in an interview with Hecho en América that Salvadoran citizens should know why confidentiality has been “decreed” for all public information related to the arrests, the processes carried out against the detainees and everything related to the state of exception of the Bukele government.
“We have to talk about the permanent condition of the suspension of legal and constitutional guarantees in El Salvador. It should be public knowledge, accessible to any citizen, journalists, national or international human rights organizations, how many people have been detained, under what charges, under what responsibilities and lawyers should have immediate access to the people they are going to represent legally and know the details of the processes by which these people are being deprived of their liberty,” Medrano said.
Proprietary government information
The lack of public information has exacerbated reports of possible cases of corruption in the security institutions of the Salvadoran State. The tenth extension of the exception regime approved by the pro-government deputies includes the suspension of the constitutional rights of Salvadorans and allows the government to block access to information, especially related to public spending. In January 2022, Bukele’s deputies approved reforms to the Law on Access to Public Information that made it possible to hide reports and data on salaries and trips of public servants, hiring and acquisitions, documents and decrees of the presidency. Due to the state of emergency and the reforms, all this information is reserved for the next seven years.
“One of the most affected rights in the current regime is the right to access public information and this limits the exercise of other rights. The fact that there is no public information about the emergency regime avoids revealing more arbitrariness that can generate rejection in the population, especially when we are talking about people who are innocent,” said López.
Lopez continued: “On the other hand, the regime has been associated with a new public procurement regime and this implies that there is no information, that citizens do not know how funds are being managed, how contracting processes are carried out, or who has been granted the contracts between the government and private individuals”.
The cost of control
Reports from the newspaper El Faro and from other journalists suggest that Bukele’s strategy has succeeded in dismantling gangs in the country. Bukele reported on Twitter that he has gone a year without a single homicide, although several human rights experts question the figure.
The Salvadoran human rights organizations conclude in their report that the cost of lowering crime rates in the country has been very high, with profound impacts for rights and democracy. They say that the bodies that the Police or the Prosecutor’s Office find in clandestine graves, and deaths reported in alleged armed confrontations between the security forces and people designated as gang members have been removed from the homicide figures.
“We cannot evaluate and contrast the public relations information that the government gives out regarding the number of detainees. There are even complaints of graves inside the penitentiaries. There is no information on the conditions of the persons deprived of liberty. And they took out femicides from the homicide figures, so this means that now with the reserved information, it is very difficult to know if we are talking about real data,” Navas warned.
Carmen Rodriguez is from El Salvador, she is a journalist writing on immigration, Central America and violence against women. She is a regular contributor to the Americas Program.