(Washington, DC) – El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has ordered a mandatory lockdown in prisons holding gang members, imposing inhumane conditions on the inmates, Human Rights Watch said today. He also announced that he was authorizing “the use of lethal force” by security forces for “self-defense and to protect the lives of Salvadorans” even if it is not a measure of last resort, as required by Salvadoran and international law.
After weeks of very few reported killings in El Salvador, 77 people were murdered between April 24 and 27, 2020. The president claimed he had “intelligence information” that the homicides were orchestrated by gang members inside prisons. The lockdown he subsequently ordered involves holding them in inhumane conditions that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. He also tweeted about using lethal force against gang leaders in the streets.
“Given the Covid-19 pandemic, prisons in El Salvador, as elsewhere, are a potential epicenter for an outbreak, and the Bukele administration’s lockdown has exacerbated an already heightened risk,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “President Bukele’s get-tough-on-crime discourse to address 77 killings in 4 days is, ironically, putting more lives at risk of a potential contagion – inside and outside detention centers.”
On April 25, Bukele, via Twitter, ordered the country’s prisons director to declare a “maximum emergency in every detention facility holding gang members” in the country. Authorities then carried out an “absolute lockdown” on gang members, locking them inside a cell for 24 hours, and “solitary confinement” for gang leaders for an undefined time.
To avoid communication between members of the same gang, the authorities placed members of different gangs in shared cells and, on April 27, Bukele ordered all the gang cells to be sealed so inmates “will no longer be able to see outside the cell,” and will be “inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang.” The Deputy Justice Minister and prisons director, Osiris Luna, later said that “not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells.”
Placing members of different gangs together could increase the risk of riots and violence inside the prisons, Human Rights Watch said.
A similar measure had been put into effect on March 3, when Bukele declared “maximum emergency” in every detention unit after gang members allegedly killed two soldiers. The government said they had “intelligence information” that the order to kill was given from inside detention facilities. He tweeted “[all prisoners should be in] total confinement, not a ray of sunlight for anyone … all in their cells, without any communication, 24/7, until further notice.”
To reduce Covid-19 spreading throughout the prisons, on March 10, Bukele told Luna to “lift the measure” and put in place “sanitary protocols to prevent Covid-19 in prisons.”
Photographs and videos released by the presidency over the weekend of April 25 show thousands of detainees almost completely naked and jammed together on the floors inside prisons while the police searched their cells. Only some wore face masks and they were placed together without any social distancing consideration, failing to observe public health guidance to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Luna said that the emergency declaration in detention facilities would be extended “indefinitely.” However, there is no clear legal basis for such measures, as the law regulating prisons provides that emergency declarations should last a maximum of 15 days, unless they are extended. The law also requires notifying the ombudsperson’s office and the attorney general immediately of the decision to declare an emergency in detention facilities. A representative from the ombudsperson’s office told Human Rights Watch that they had not been notified.
Under international human rights standards, the authorities should ensure that prisoners’ living conditions include access to appropriate light and ventilation, open air and physical exercise, hygiene, and adequate personal space. Where prisoners share a cell, authorities are required to carefully select them to ensure that they are “suitable” to associate with one another. Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, placement of a prisoner in a dark cell, and collective punishment are prohibited under all circumstances.
In addition, article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that “[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” The American Convention on Human Rights includes a similar provision.
The police searches after the declaration of emergency in detention facilities, which led to packing people together without face masks, may have exacerbated the already high risk of Covid-19 spreading in the overcrowded institutions, Human Rights Watch said.
Bukele “authorized” the use of lethal force for self-defense and to protect the lives of Salvadorans on April 26 and added that “the government will see to the legal defense of those who may be unjustly charged, for defending the lives of honorable people.” The next day, he tweeted that security forces were capturing gang leaders in the streets and warned that the “gang member who resists will be put down with proportional and possibly lethal force by our security forces.”
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that law enforcement officials should only use firearms to prevent a threat to life or physical integrity, and only when “less extreme means are insufficient.” Intentional lethal use of firearms – that is, shooting with the intent to kill – is only permissible when “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
The use of lethal force is already regulated in El Salvador’s police protocols for the use of force and its Criminal Procedural Code. Both documents provide that lethal force should only be used as a last resort, only in cases in which there is a risk to life or physical integrity, and strictly in accordance with the principles of proportionality, legality, and necessity.
“President Bukele’s reckless statements about the use of lethal force risk encouraging security forces to execute alleged gang members, in violation of domestic and international law,” Vivanco said.