El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele, accompanied by members of the armed forces, speaks to his supporters outside Congress in San Salvador, El Salvador. © 2020 AP Photo/Salvador Melendez

(Washington, DC) – El Salvador’s police have arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people in the name of enforcing restrictions to prevent the transmission of Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Nayib Bukele’s statements have encouraged excessive use of force and the draconian enforcement of measures imposed by his government. His comments, through Twitter and nationwide broadcasted speeches, have most likely emboldened abusive law enforcement agents and contributed to the disproportionate police response. Hundreds of detainees have been held in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions that threaten their health, and one man died on April 1, 2020 after not receiving appropriate health care.

“President Bukele acts as if any policy is justifiable to stop the spread of Covid-19, including adopting measures that have led to hundreds of arbitrary arrests,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces need to be subject to strict scrutiny and held accountable if they commit abuses, given their record of past and present serious human rights violations.”

On March 21, Bukele announced, on a nationwide broadcast, the adoption of a decree that established a 30-day nationwide mandatory lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. The decree, published in the Official Gazette on the night of March 22, allowed only one person per family out at a time to shop for food or medicine. It made exceptions for public officials, doctors, journalists, food distributors, military and police officials, and highway, energy, bank, and restaurant workers.

Some of those authorized to circulate did not need to show paperwork, but those who worked for private companies or provided care for children, the sick, people with disabilities, or older people needed to show identification and a letter from their employer.

The decree provided that violators would be held in a “containment center” or other facility that the Health Ministry considered adequate and that the ministry authorities would determine whether a person would be held in a mandatory quarantine facility or sent to home quarantine.

In the early hours of March 22, after Bukele’s announcement but before the decree was published in the Official Gazette, seventy people were detained. Others were arrested for not wearing face masks, though the decree did not require it and a high-level authority reported masks were out of stock in pharmacies, or for going out to buy food or medicine.

Others were arrested while working in essential services, even though the decree permitted their work, and some due to the fact that their companies had not been included in a limited police list of authorized companies.

When reporters asked, on the same day the decree was published, for the criteria for detention, the Defense Minister said, “when someone is lying, it shows.” Later, on March 30, the government issued another decree that provided further details about the criteria for being able to circulate during the lockdown, including the documentation people should carry.

On March 22, the National Police director said that because containment centers had not yet been established, detainees would be transferred “temporarily” to police stations. 

According to the Ombudsperson’s Office, dozens of people were forced to sleep in parking lots at police stations. Detainees held in police stations said they were held all day without food or water in unhygienic conditions.

Between March 21 and April 11, the Ombudsperson’s Office preliminary documented 343 complaints, including 102 about arbitrary detention or excessive use of force. There were other complaints of lack of access to health care at containment centers and to Covid-19 tests.

The Supreme Court, on March 26, ordered the release of three people who had been detained four days earlier while buying food and medicine at a market in Jiquilisco. The police provided no explanation for the arrests, held them during the first three days without food in a police station, then moved them to a containment center. The court stated that “hundreds of people” had been similarly detained and that “under no circumstance should police stations be used for detention, not even for a short period.” 

Even though the habeas corpus ruling benefitted the three people whose release the court ordered, the court stressed that the ruling was also applicable to any other person detained under the same circumstances. Therefore, Bukele’s detention policy should no longer be applied, several jurists told Human Rights Watch.

As of April 13, 4,236 people were being held in 87 containment centers, including some detained for violating the mandatory home quarantine and others after returning from abroad. The Ombudsperson’s Office reported that the containment centers were initially created to isolate potentially infected people returning from abroad for 30 days, but they soon became overcrowded.

According to the Ombudsperson’s Office, people in these centers lacked appropriate access to water, food, and medical treatment. Some were forced to sleep on the floor. Older people and people with underlying health conditions, considered at higher risk of serious illness from the virus, were not isolated from other detainees. Many detainees said they had not had a Covid-19 test, and some of those tested had not received results. The Ombudsperson’s Office added that some were moved from one facility to another without respect for health protocols.

Arresting people for violating quarantine rules may increase disease transmission if authorities place people in crowded containment facilities where the virus could spread easily, Human Rights Watch said. On April 6, the justice and security minister said at a news conference that “people need to cooperate with the mandatory quarantine or otherwise be taken to a containment facility and risk contracting the virus in the facility.”

As of April 13, El Salvador had confirmed 137 cases of Covid-19, but given limited testing capacity, the number of infections is most likely higher.

On April 1, Oscar Méndez, a 56-year-old industrial engineer, died after being forcibly quarantined in a containment center since his return from Panamá on March 13. When he became ill doctors diagnosed a urinary tract infection and prescribed antibiotics. On March 25, he was transferred to a second makeshift containment center at a hotel. When his wife went to the hotel to find out what had happened to him because he was not answering his phone, the authorities told her he had died but did not disclose the cause of his death. Later, the Health Ministry said he had died from respiratory failure. The Ombudsperson’s Office said he had not received adequate medical treatment, and the Attorney General’s Office said it would investigate the circumstances of his death.

A video circulating on social media on March 25 showed police beating an 80-year-old man for not complying with the quarantine. Another video showed police forcing a group of men to line up and walk down the street with their hands on their heads, shouting: “I do not have to leave my home!” The Ombudsperson’s Office condemned these last actions as humiliating. The attorney general said people should not be taken to police stations for violating the lockdown and promised to investigate the beating and other abuses.

On March 29, President Bukele tweeted, in response to criticism of his management of the pandemic, that “it seems there are some ‘human rights’ organizations that only work to ensure that more people die.” On March 27, the president retweeted a Salvadoran who called the ombudsman an “idiot.”

On April 6, President Bukele said he had ordered the police and the military to “be tougher with people violating the quarantine,” and added that he would not mind if the police “bent someone’s wrist” during an arrest. That night, hundreds of people were detained, including some who were reportedly arrested for breaking the home quarantine, even if they provided valid reasons for doing so. Some were taken to police stations, in contravention of the Supreme Court decision.

In a second ruling, on April 8, the Supreme Court ruled again that people could not be held in a containment center solely for violating the lockdown rules. Rather, police could only confine a person in such a center when there were good reasons to believe they had been exposed to the virus and not merely because they violated the quarantine.

In defiance of the ruling, President Bukele tweeted on April 9 that “anyone who violates the quarantine will be held in a containment center for 30 days or until health professionals determine if they are infected.” He added that testing people at quarantine facilities will not be “a priority,” so they “could be there for a long time.”

The government should send a clear message that excessive use of force and arbitrary detention is illegal, Human Rights Watch said. Any detention in containment facilities should be carried out both in strict adherence with the law and under conditions designed to prevent the spread of the virus.

The government is obligated to ensure access to adequate food, water, and health care, and to provide facilities with enough room to allow for social distancing and isolation, as appropriate.

The Salvadoran government should also stop lashing out against people who question the president’s policies, including the Ombudsperson’s Office and other human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said. Salvadoran officials should ensure that they can carry out their work without fearing retaliation.