I am honored to appear before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission to discuss the human rights situation in El Salvador during the country’s state of emergency.
Human Rights Watch has been following closely the deterioration of human rights in El Salvador, which is taking place at an alarming speed.
The emergency law was adopted by the Legislative Assembly on March 27, 2022, in response to a spike in gang violence that included the killing of 92 people over a weekend. The law suspended the rights to freedom of association and assembly, and privacy in communications, as well as some basic due process protections. The measure has been extended 5 times and remains in force.
The Legislative Assembly also approved in a series of measures proposed by President Nayib Bukele to address gang violence that allow judges to imprison children as young as 12, restrict freedom of expression, and dangerously expand the use of pretrial detention and counterterrorism legislation.
Gang violence in El Salvador is a serious problem and the government has the responsibility to take serious and rights-respecting steps to protect the population and hold gang members to account. But instead of protecting Salvadorans, this broad state of emergency has been a recipe for disaster.
We have documented widespread human rights violations committed during state of emergency, including massive arbitrary detentions, short-term enforced disappearances, due process violations, and ill-treatment of detainees.
Police and soldiers have conducted dozens of raids, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, arresting tens of thousands of people across El Salvador’s 14 departments. Authorities report that over 51,000 people have been detained, including over 1,600 children. According to our interviews with relatives of detainees and witnesses, many arrests appear to be based on people’s physical appearance and on the fact that they live in low-income neighborhoods where gangs operate. We documented seven cases where people with mental disabilities were arrested and accused of being gang members.
In over 120 cases documented by Human Rights Watch, people were taken from their homes or picked up on the street without being shown a search or arrest warrant by security forces. Detainees were rarely informed of the reasons of their arrest and, and in several cases, officers refused to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts to their families, in what amounts to an enforced disappearance under international law.
Many of them were held incommunicado for weeks or months or were only allowed to see their lawyer for a few minutes before their pre-trial detention hearing.
Over 70 people detained during the state of emergency have reportedly died in custody. Authorities failed to meaningfully investigate these deaths and, in some cases, detainees who died in prison had illnesses and authorities did not provide them the medication they needed.
The massive imprisonment during the state of emergency significantly increased El Salvador’s prison population. Currently, overcrowding is so extreme that detainees barely have space to move, four people who were detained in different detention facilities under the state of emergency and were later released told Human Rights Watch. Historically poor prison conditions, such as overcrowding, violence, and poor access to basic services such as food and drinking water, appear to have seriously deteriorated in the context of the state of emergency.
Authorities repeatedly infringed due process guarantees established under international law, violating detainees’ human rights and making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to adequately defend themselves during criminal proceedings. Over 40,000 people have been arrested for the crime of “illicit association,” which under Salvadoran law carries a range of legal consequences that could run counter to international human rights law, including mandatory pre-trial detention and extremely harsh penalties of up to 45 years that could amount to disproportionate punishment. Hearings have been conducted in groups, sometimes as many as 400 people at a time, which makes it difficult for judges, prosecutors, and detainees’ lawyers to assess the evidence and arguments concerning each individual detainee.
High-level authorities, including President Bukele, have consistently excused or tried to justify human rights violations as supposedly acceptable “errors” committed during what they called a “war against gangs.” President Bukele has also signaled that security forces will be shielded from accountability if they engage in abuses and he has called anyone who criticizes the government’s measures a “gang defender.”
These widespread human rights violations have been enabled by President Bukele’s destruction of the rule of law, including of judicial independence, since he took office in 2019.
In May 2021, the Legislative Assembly summarily removed and replaced all five judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court as well as the Attorney General. The newly named judges voted in September to let President Bukele seek a second term in office, despite a constitutional prohibition on re-election. Legislators have also enacted laws dismissing hundreds of lower-level judges and prosecutors, further weakening judicial independence.
Freedom of expression and association has seriously deteriorated during the Bukele administration. Journalists and human rights defenders have been targets of harassment, digital and physical surveillance and attacks in response to coverage of corruption, concentration of power, and organized crime.
The dismantling of the rule of law in El Salvador is consistent with a troubling regional trend. In addition to the full-fledged dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, we are extremely concerned by the situation in countries where democratically elected leaders, once in power, turn their back on basic democratic guarantees, such as judicial independence, the independent press, and civil society. This authoritarian playbook is followed by Latin American leaders along the ideological spectrum.
This should serve as an alarming reminder for the US Congress and the Biden Administration to prioritize protecting the rule of law in the Americas.
The US has taken some important steps to defend the rule of law in Central America, including freezing assets and suspending visas of individuals implicated in corruption and human rights abuses. USAID has also redirected assistance away from the National Police and the Institute for Access to Public Information in El Salvador, toward civil society and human rights groups.
But more should be done. The US should send a clear-cut message that it will not be an ally to governments that do not respect judicial independence, and that continuing attacks on the courts and widespread human rights violations as those being committed in El Salvador will carry consequences, including, if necessary, the suspension of military aid. It also needs to rally multilateral pressure, starting with like-minded governments in Latin America, to encourage increased oversight mechanisms for existing and new loans so they contribute to protecting human rights.
US officials, including at senior levels, should publicly call out abuses like the ones I've described when they occur. Leaders across Latin America who break the rule of law for their own gain need to know that the United States is watching.