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El Salvador: Evidence of Serious Abuse in State of Emergency

Arbitrary Arrests, Short-Term Disappearances, Deaths in Custody

People wait for news of the release of relatives detained during the state of emergency in El Salvador, at the security perimeter of the Izalco prison in Izalco, El Salvador, on April 28, 2022. © 2022 REUTERS/Jose Cabeza

(San Salvador) – There is mounting evidence that El Salvadoran authorities have been committing serious human rights violations since adopting a state of emergency on March 27, 2022, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said today. The organizations, which are jointly monitoring the state of emergency, have received credible allegations of dozens of arbitrary arrests, including some that could amount to short-term enforced disappearances, and of two deaths of people in custody.

On April 24, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly extended the state of emergency for 30 days. The emergency provisions suspend the right to privacy, freedom of association and assembly, and some due process protections. The government of President Nayib Bukele requested the extension, contending that the state of emergency had helped address a wave of homicides by gangs, though the conditions leading to the violence persisted. According to the government, more than 20,000 people have been arrested since March 25, many for allegedly “belonging to an unlawful association.”

“During the first 30 days of Bukele’s state of emergency, we have seen evidence of arbitrary arrests of innocent people, some of them subjected to short-term enforced disappearances, and worrying deaths in custody,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting Salvadorans from gang violence, security forces are abusing the overly broad powers granted to them by Bukele’s allies in the Legislative Assembly, who have now opened the door to 30 more days of human rights violations.”

The preliminary findings by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal are based on 43 interviews with victims, their relatives, lawyers, and civil society members, as well as a review of corroborating photographs, judicial files, and medical records. Members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), an international group of prominent forensic experts, provided expert opinion on some evidence of abuses.

As of April 26, the organizations were still analyzing evidence related to 180 additional reported cases, including dozens of reported arbitrary arrests identified by Cristosal.

Since March 25, police and soldiers have conducted dozens of raids, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, arresting thousands of people. In 34 of the 40 cases of abuse for which Cristosal and Human Rights Watch were able to obtain first-hand information, security forces had detained people at their homes or in the streets. In 20 cases, security forces had raided people’s homes without showing a warrant.

In most cases, witnesses said security agents did not show an arrest warrant to justify the detention, nor did they indicate why people were being detained. In 11 cases in which victims asked why they were being arrested, officers said they were “following the orders of their superiors.” In some cases, officers allegedly searched for tattoos on people’s bodies when detaining them, presumably for evidence of gang affiliation. Many people interviewed said that their relatives were not tattooed or had artistic tattoos unrelated to gangs.

In 12 of the 40 cases, witnesses saw security forces take photographs of the detainees. In some of these cases, the security forces later posted the photographs on social media, publicly accusing the detainees of being gang members or “terrorists” before they were taken before a judge.

In five cases, witnesses said that police or soldiers hit people as they were detained. In another five cases, police officers told detainees’ relatives that they were going to be detained if they did not “stop asking questions.” In almost all of the cases, witnesses said, detainees were taken to a nearby police station. Only 10 of those detained were allowed to see or talk with their families before being transferred to another police station or a prison. Twenty-four were held in incommunicado detention for days or weeks.

Relatives of detainees typically said they were not informed of the whereabouts of their loved ones. In five cases, relatives said, officers refused to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts even when family members went from detention center to detention center to inquire. In 19 cases, relatives said they still do not know where their loved ones are being held and have been unable to communicate with them for days or weeks.

When authorities refuse to acknowledge a detention or conceal the whereabouts of a person taken into custody, no matter for how long, it constitutes an enforced disappearance, which is prohibited under international law, even during states of emergency. This leaves the disappeared person defenseless and the family facing levels of uncertainty and suffering that are inhumane and abusive, the groups said.

Human Rights Watch and Cristosal documented two cases of people detained during the state of emergency who died in custody. Salvadoran media outlets have reported three additional cases.

Elvis Josué Sánchez Rivera, a 21-year-old musician, died on April 19, following his arrest on April 3 in Santa María Ostuma. His family said he was arrested when he was on his way to play soccer with a friend. They said they did not know where Sánchez Rivera was after his arrest and were informed of his death on April 19 by hospital authorities. The authorities did not conduct an autopsy, his relatives said. A medical report says he had been transferred from a detention center and indicates that he died of “hypertension” and “sudden death.” Photographs of his body show bruises.

Rusudan Beriashvili and James Lin, members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), analyzed the photos. They told Human Rights Watch and Cristosal that there “appear to be multiple lesions on different areas of the body that may have occurred during custody and may be the result of torture or other ill-treatment.” They said that the death was “suspicious” and that the reported lack of an autopsy was seriously concerning and run counter to international standards and widely accepted medical practice.

Walter Vladimir Sandoval Peñate, a 32-year-old agricultural worker, died on April 3. Police had arrested him on March 30, in La Trinidad. Relatives who witnessed the detention said police officers detained him claiming he belonged “to an unlawful association.” On April 3, his family went to the police station where he was detained to bring him food and water.

Officers told a relative that he should “return the next day early in the morning to speak with the public defender who was assigned to the case.” A few hours later, a person who works at a mortuary went to Sandoval Penate’s house and told his family he had died. A report by El Salvador’s Institute of Legal Medicine says he died due to “severe thorax trauma.” Photographs of his body show multiple bruises.

Many detainees appear to be under investigation for the crime of “belonging to an unlawful association.” Under the state of emergency, the authorities are not required to bring detainees before a judge until 15 days after arrest, as opposed to the 72-hour requirement established in the Salvadoran Constitution.

On April 21, Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado said during a press interview that 5,900 of the more than 14,000 people detained by then had been charged with a crime and sent to pretrial detention. Only 17 people had been released after a court hearing, he said.

Dozens of children have been charged and sent to pretrial detention, according to several tweets by Delgado.

The large-scale detentions have most likely aggravated prison overcrowding. As of December 2020, Salvadoran prisons were 136 percent over capacity, with some holding more than six times the maximum number of prisoners allowed. On April 19, the Legislative Assembly passed a law to create new prisons.

On March 30, the Legislative Assembly passed legislation expanding mandatory pretrial detention to include all crimes committed by alleged gang members and allowing for these people to be held for an indefinite period before trial. The Assembly also lowered the age of criminal responsibility for children accused of the existing crime of belonging to “terrorist groups or any other criminal gang,” from 16 to 12 years. The new legislation allows prison sentences of up to 10 years for children ages 12 to 16 and of up to 20 years for children over 16.

Salvadoran authorities have an obligation to conduct thorough, prompt, and independent investigations into abuses and deaths in custody, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said.

However, investigations face dauting, if not insurmountable, obstacles given the high number of detainees and the fact that there are virtually no independent institutions left to act as a check on executive power in El Salvador. In recent months, the pro-Bukele majority in the Legislative Assembly has packed the Supreme Court, replaced the attorney general with a government ally, and dismissed hundreds of low-level judges and prosecutors.

“The way to prevent these abuses is to end the state of emergency, ensure due process rights, and respect the independence of judges and prosecutors,” Taraciuk Broner said.

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