The US government has deported people to face abuse and even death in El Salvador. The US is not solely responsible—Salvadoran gangs who prey on deportees and Salvadoran authorities who harm deportees or who do little or nothing to protect them bear direct responsibility—but in many cases the US is putting Salvadorans in harm’s way in circumstances where it knows or should know that harm is likely.
Of the estimated 1.2 million Salvadorans living in the United States who are not US citizens, just under one-quarter are lawful permanent residents, with the remaining three-quarters lacking papers or holding a temporary or precarious legal status. While Salvadorans have asylum recognition rates as high as 75 percent in other Central American nations, and 36.5 percent in Mexico, the US recognized just 18.2 percent of Salvadorans as qualifying for asylum from 2014 to 2018. Between 2014-2018, the US and Mexico have deported about 213,000 Salvadorans (102,000 from Mexico and 111,000 from the United States).
No government, UN agency, or nongovernmental organization has systematically monitored what happens to deported persons once back in El Salvador. This report begins to fill that gap. It shows that, as asylum and immigration policies tighten in the United States and dire security problems continue in El Salvador, the US is repeatedly violating its obligations to protect Salvadorans from return to serious risk of harm.
Some deportees are killed following their return to El Salvador. In researching this report, we identified or investigated 138 cases of Salvadorans killed since 2013 after deportation from the US. We found these cases by combing through press accounts and court files, and by interviewing surviving family members, community members, and officials. There is no official tally, however, and our research suggests that the number of those killed is likely greater.
Though much harder to identify because they are almost never reported by the press or to authorities, we also identified or investigated over 70 instances in which deportees were subjected to sexual violence, torture, and other harm, usually at the hands of gangs, or who went missing following their return.
In many of these more than 200 cases, we found a clear link between the killing or harm to the deportee upon return and the reasons they had fled El Salvador in the first place. In other cases, we lacked sufficient evidence to establish such a link. Even the latter cases, however, show the risks to which Salvadorans can be exposed upon return and the importance of US authorities giving them a meaningful opportunity to explain why they need protection before they are deported.
The following three cases illustrate the range of harms:
- In 2010, when he was 17, Javier B. fled gang recruitment and his particularly violent neighborhood for the United States, where his mother, Jennifer B., had already fled. Javier was denied asylum and was deported in approximately March 2017, when he was 23 years old. Jennifer said Javier was killed four months later while living with his grandmother: “That’s actually where they [the gang, MS-13 (or Mara Salvatrucha-13)] killed him.… It’s terrible. They got him from the house at 11:00 a.m. They saw his tattoos. I knew they’d kill him for his tattoos. That is exactly what happened.… The problem was with [the gang] MS [-13], not with the police.” (According to Human Rights Watch’s research, having tattoos may be a source of concern, even if the tattoo is not gang-related).
- In 2013, cousins Walter T. and Gaspar T. also fled gang recruitment when they were 16 and 17 years old, respectively. They were denied asylum and deported by the United States to El Salvador in 2019. Gaspar explained that in April or May 2019 when he and Walter were sleeping at their respective homes in El Salvador, a police patrol arrived “and took me and Walter and three others from our homes, without a warrant and without a reason. They began beating us until we arrived at the police barracks. There, they held us for three days, claiming we’d be charged with illicit association (agrupaciones ilícitas). We were beaten [repeatedly] during those three days.”
- In 2014, when she was 20, Angelina N. fled abuse at the hands of Jaime M., the father of her 4-year-old daughter, and of Mateo O., a male gang member who harassed her repeatedly. US authorities apprehended her at the border trying to enter the US and deported her that same year. Once back in El Salvador, she was at home in October 2014, when Mateo resumed pursuing and threatening her. Angelina recounted: “[He] came inside and forced me to have sex with him for the first time. He took out his gun.… I was so scared that I obeyed … when he left, I started crying. I didn’t say anything at the time or even file a complaint to the police. I thought it would be worse if I did because I thought someone from the police would likely tell [Mateo].… He told me he was going to kill my father and my daughter if I reported the [original and three subsequent] rapes, because I was ‘his woman.’ [He] hit me and told me that he wanted me all to himself.”
As in these three cases, some people deported from the United States back to El Salvador face the same abusers, often in the same neighborhoods, they originally fled: gang members, police officers, state security forces, and perpetrators of domestic violence. Others worked in law enforcement in El Salvador and now fear persecution by gangs or corrupt officials.
Deportees also include former long-term US residents, who with their families are singled out as easy and lucrative targets for extortion or abuse. Former long-term residents of the US who are deported may also readily run afoul of the many unspoken rules Salvadorans must follow in their daily lives in order to avoid being harmed.
Nearly 900,000 Salvadorans living in the US without papers or only a temporary status together with the thousands leaving El Salvador each month to seek safety in the US are increasingly at risk of deportation. The threat of deportation is on the rise due to various Trump administration policy changes affecting US immigration enforcement inside its borders and beyond, changes that exacerbated the many hurdles that already existed for individuals seeking protection and relief from deportation.
Increasingly, the United States is pursuing policies that shift responsibility for immigration enforcement to countries like Mexico in an effort to avoid any obligation for the safety and well-being of migrants and protection of asylum-seekers. As ever-more restrictive asylum and immigration policies take hold in the US, this situation—for Salvadorans, and for others—will only worsen. Throughout, US authorities are turning a blind eye to the abuse Salvadorans face upon return.
Some people from El Salvador living in the United States have had a temporary legal status known as “Temporary Protected Status” or “TPS,” which has allowed those present in the United States since February 2001 (around 195,000 people) to build their lives in the country with limited fear of deportation. Similarly, in 2012, the Obama administration provided some 26,000 Salvadorans with “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or “DACA” status, which afforded some who had arrived as children with a temporary legal status. The Trump administration had decided to end TPS in January 2020, but to comply with a court order extended work authorization to January 2021. It remains committed to ending DACA.
While challenges to both policies wend their way through the courts, people live in a precarious situation in which deportation may occur as soon as those court cases are resolved (at the time of writing the DACA issue was before the US Supreme Court; and the TPS work authorization extension to January 2021 could collapse if a federal appellate court decides to reverse an injunction on the earlier attempt to terminate TPS).
Salvadoran asylum seekers are also increasingly at risk of deportation and return. The Trump administration has pursued a series of policy initiatives aimed at making it harder for people fleeing their countries to seek asylum in the United States by separating children from their parents, limiting the number of people processed daily at official border crossings, prolonging administrative detention, imposing fees on the right to seek asylum, extending from 180 days to one year the bar on work authorization after filing an asylum claim, barring asylum for those who transited another country before entering the United States, requiring asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexico, where many face dangers, and attempting to narrow asylum.
These changes aggravated pre-existing flaws in US implementation of its protection responsibilities and came as significant numbers of people sought protection outside of El Salvador. In the decade from 2009 to 2019, according to government data, Mexican and United States officials made at least 732,000 migration-related apprehensions of Salvadoran migrants crossing their territory (175,000 were made by Mexican authorities and just over 557,000 by US authorities).
According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, the number of Salvadorans expressing fear of being seriously harmed if returned to El Salvador has skyrocketed. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Salvadoran annual asylum applicants in the US grew by nearly 1,000 percent, from about 5,600 to over 60,000. By 2018, Salvadorans had the largest number (101,000) of any nationality of pending asylum applications in the United States. At the same time, approximately 129,500 more Salvadorans had pending asylum applications in numerous other countries throughout the world. People are fleeing El Salvador in large numbers due to the violence and serious human rights abuses they face at home, including one of the highest murder rates in the world and very high rates of sexual violence and disappearance.
Despite clear prohibitions in international law on returning people to risk of persecution or torture, Salvadorans often cannot avoid deportation from the US. Unauthorized immigrants, those with temporary status, and asylum seekers all face long odds. They are subjected to deportation in a system that is harsh and punitive—plagued with court backlogs, lack of access to effective legal advice and assistance, prolonged and inhumane detention, and increasingly restrictive legal definitions of who merits protection. The US has enlisted Mexico—which has a protection system that its own human rights commission has called “broken”—to stop asylum seekers before they reach the US and host thousands returned to wait for their US proceedings to unfold. The result is that people who need protection may be returned to El Salvador and harmed, even killed.
Instead of deterring and deporting people, the US should focus on receiving those who cross its border with dignity and providing them a fair chance to explain why they need protection. Before deporting Salvadorans living in the United States, either with TPS or in some other immigration status, US authorities should take into account the extraordinary risks former long-term residents of the US may face if sent back to the country of their birth. The US should address due process failures in asylum adjudications and adopt a new legal and policy framework for protection that embraces the current global realities prompting people to flee their homes by providing “complementary protection” to anyone who faces real risk of serious harm.
As immediate and first steps, the United States government should adopt the following six recommendations to begin to address the problems identified in this report. Additional medium- and long-term legal and policy recommendations appear in the final section of this report.
- The Trump administration should repeal the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP); the two Asylum Bans; and the Asylum Cooperation Agreements.
- The Attorney General of the United States should reverse his decisions that restrict gender-based, gang-related, and family-based grounds for asylum.
- Congress and the Executive Branch should ensure that US funding for Mexican migration enforcement activities does not erode the right to seek and receive asylum in Mexico.
- Congress should immediately exercise its appropriation power by: 1) Refraining from providing additional funding to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unless and until abusive policies and practices that separate families, employ unnecessary detention, violate due process rights, and violate the right to seek asylum are stopped; 2) Prohibiting the use of funds to implement the Migrant Protection Protocols, the “Asylum Bans,” or the Asylum Cooperation Agreements, or any subsequent revisions to those protocols and agreements that block access to the right to seek asylum in the United States.
- Congress should exercise its oversight authority by requiring the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Inspector General to produce reports on the United States’ fulfilment of its asylum and protection responsibilities, including by collecting and releasing accurate data on the procedural experiences of asylum seekers (access to counsel, wait times, staff capacity to assess claims, humanitarian and protection resources available) and on harms experienced by people deported from the United States to their countries of origin.
- Congress should enact, and the President should sign, legislation that would broadly protect individuals with Temporary Protected Status (including Salvadorans) and DACA recipients, such as the Dream and Promise Act of 2019, but without the overly broad restrictions based on juvenile conduct or information from flawed gang databases.
The National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC)
The PNC is the only governmental agency with offices in all 262 municipalities of El Salvador. It receives crime reports, but by law must refer them to the District Attorney’s office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR), which officially classifies crimes. The PNC is the first to arrive at homicide scenes. At the center to which deportees arrive (the migrant return center), the PNC conducts one of two interviews deported adults must complete before being released.
The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR)
The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has at least one District Attorney’s Office per department. This agency is responsible for bringing criminal charges and conducting criminal investigations. At homicide scenes, the FGR often enters with the police and always directs the investigation. Given the high incidence of crime in El Salvador, prosecutors and investigators have very large caseloads.
The Salvadoran Institute of Legal Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal, IML)
The Salvadoran Institute of Legal Medicine (IML) is the national forensic body tasked with conducting anthropological, biological, chemical, forensic, and pathological exams and autopsies at crime scenes and for criminal investigations. Every department has at least one IML office, and seven departments have a regional clinic, totaling 17 IML installations countrywide. Of the three governmental agencies that attend homicide scenes and crime victims, IML has the smallest staff and budget, despite some of the highest levels of education and training.
Local Office for Attention to Victims (Oficina Local de Atención a Víctimas, OLAV)
During the Sánchez Cerén administration, Plan El Salvador Seguro (adopted by the Salvadoran government to try to improve security conditions in the country) created 20 Local Offices for Attention to Victims (OLAV) in 10 departments to provide legal, psychological, and social attention to victims of crime, including those displaced by violence. One OLAV is located at the migrant return center. There, migration authorities are expected to screen returned migrants for protection needs in their intake interviews. Any adult who presents a protection need should then be referred to the OLAV.
Salvadoran Institute for the Holistic Development of Children and Adolescents (Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo Integral de la Niñez y la Adolescencia, ISNA)
ISNA is the Salvadoran governmental institution that develops and executes programming for children and adolescents. Their programming includes childcare and foster care, physical and psychological health and wellbeing services, job and vocational training, and education.
The Center for Attention to Children, Adolescents and Family Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia, CANAF)(Centro de Atención a la
Created in response to increased attention to child migration in El Salvador, the Center for Attention to Children, Adolescents and Family (CANAF) is a program overseen by ISNA primarily providing health and social services to returned child and youth migrants and their families. According to the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica, between January to July 2019, 4,150 children were returned to El Salvador from Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States, and CANAF had contact with at least 2,000 of these children through its staff at the migrant return center and four offices in San Vicente, Usulután, San Miguel and Santa Ana departments. Staff at departmental offices reported caseloads no greater than 300 since opening their doors, in part because so many children migrated again.
El Salvador’s General Directorate for Migration and Foreigners (Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería, DGME)
The General Directorate for Migration and Foreigners (DGME) is the Salvadoran government agency responsible for overseeing migration matters. This includes services ranging from the issuance of passports and visas to immigration enforcement.
Directorate for Attention to the Migrant (Dirección de Atención al Migrante, DAMI)
Also called the “Center for Holistic Attention to the Migrant (CAIM),” “Migrant Return Center,” and “Return Center,” the Directorate for Attention to the Migrant (DAMI) is the DGME-run center in the Quiñonez neighborhood (also called “La Chacra”) of San Salvador where people deported from US federal immigration detention are processed back into El Salvador. As of 2018, up to three flights from the US arrive to El Salvador’s International Airport each week, with as many as 135 people on each flight who are taken by bus to DAMI for two interviews. In the first interview, DGME officials ask deportees basic questions about their destination, family, and plans. At the second, PNC agents ask about where the person plans to live, run the deported person’s name in the Salvadoran criminal database, and photograph tattoos and scars. Agents conduct additional questions based upon information received in advance about certain people marked as gang members by US law enforcement agencies or with criminal records in the US. The responses are stored in Salvadoran police databases and shared the same day with local PNC’s where deportees say they will reside.
Yo Cambio (“I Change”)
Officially, Yo Cambio is a government-sponsored program and prison management model administered by El Salvador’s General Directorate of Prison Centers (Dirección General de Centros Penales) that works with former gang members and incarcerated persons on their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. According to El Salvador’s government, Yo Cambio began in 2011 as a treatment project in a sector of the Apanteos Prison in Santa Ana Department. In 2014, Yo Cambio was launched from a program to a prison management model used across El Salvador, but as of 2016, it had hardly any budget. As of February 2018, Yo Cambio has been replicated in 14 prisons. Demand is high, but lack of budget continues to be an issue. Two deportees interviewed for this report who had never been charged with a crime in El Salvador carried with them a Yo Cambio certificate to verify for police who harassed them that they had no criminal record.
Particularly / Chronically Violent Neighborhood
Human Rights Watch will call “particularly” or “chronically” violent those neighborhoods that are typically densely populated and low-resourced and which consistently (year-in and year-out) register higher numbers of homicide, sexual crime, and other crime than nearly all others in a municipality. Gang presence is strong in these neighborhoods. As a result, authorities and society view them and their residents as particularly dangerous, creating stigma impossible to escape, even if a resident from one of these neighborhoods moves to a new neighborhood. State actors, so-called death squads or extermination groups and private actors have also committed abuses in these neighborhoods.
This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States between November 2018 and December 2019. Human Rights Watch conducted multiple-session interviews with more than 50 directly impacted individuals, including 11 female and 22 male deportees; the surviving relatives or friends of two women (one who was transgender) and 16 men killed after their deportations; and the surviving relatives of two women killed following their husbands’ return to El Salvador after long-term residence in the US. In a few cases, our researchers had previously spoken with the same interviewees in 2014.
In El Salvador, we interviewed 41 officials in nine departments at local district attorney’s offices (FGR), forensic units (IML), and police agencies (PNC) who work at homicide scenes and participate in both crime investigations and hearings, and 31 additional authorities at the migration agency (DGME), local child migrant protection offices (CANAF), the armed forces of El Salvador, criminal sentencing courts, and victim’s assistance offices (OLAV) in all 14 departments, as well as researchers, journalists, and non-profit service providers. In the United States, we interviewed approximately 30 immigration attorneys, three defense attorneys, and several social workers, trauma-informed healthcare workers, and researchers in nine states and the District of Columbia. These interviewees identified deportees who suffered harm. They also discussed other cases known to them, professionally or personally, of individuals and families harmed following deportation.
In the United States, we went to the individuals and families those in El Salvador and the US referred to us, visiting the three most common counties of residence of Salvadorans in the US and others in nine states and the District of Columbia. We also contacted reporters, immigration attorneys, social service providers, and organizers and asked them to further reach out to their colleagues and networks about persons who had either been recently deported or harmed after deportation.
Included in this report are cases of people who experienced post-deportation harm between 2013 and 2019. In the majority of these cases, the harm occurred within a year of deportation, often in the same month of deportation. In order to assess harms that escalate over time or which for other reasons do not occur immediately (for instance, because a deportee successfully hides from potential abusers for a period), our analysis also includes cases in which the post-deportation harm started within five years of deportation. For deportees killed, we have detailed the time elapsed between deportations and deaths in section II. Likewise, we focused this report on harms suffered after deportation from the US, as opposed to Mexico or other countries.
We spoke with fewer women than men who had been deported, primarily because they constitute a smaller proportion of deportees. According to statistics obtained through a public information request with El Salvador’s General Directorate for Migration and Foreigners (DGME), women constituted between 7.7 and 17.1 percent of all individuals deported from the United States annually from 2012 to 2017. We chose to conduct our interviews with children with their parents present and therefore could have missed important components of their experiences related to their parents or household, such as domestic violence or neglect.
Human Rights Watch carried out interviews in Spanish or in English, without interpreters, depending on the preference of the interviewee(s). We conducted a handful of interviews in the US and two interviews in El Salvador by voice or video call. We conducted all other interviews in person. Human Rights Watch informed all interviewees of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways in which the information would be collected and used. Interviewers assured participants that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any questions, without negative consequences. All interviewees provided verbal informed consent to participate. When appropriate, Human Rights Watch provided contact information for organizations offering counseling, health, legal, or other social services.
Initial interview sessions with deportees, their family, or friends lasted between one and four hours and were intentionally unstructured so that the interviewee could elect what they shared. Subsequent sessions were shorter and more structured. In El Salvador and Mexico, sessions most often took place in a private part of the preferred restaurant closest to an interviewee’s home, although a few sessions took place at the person’s home, workplace, or by phone or social media (principally Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp). In the US, interviews most often took place in the person’s home but also occurred in a detention center, at an office, and by phone.
Human Rights Watch did not provide interviewees with compensation for participating but did in some cases provide a meal and transportation costs. Interviews with other types of sources lasted between half-an-hour and two hours, with almost all occurring in work offices or over the phone, although a few with persons previously known to Human Rights Watch took place over a meal or while in transit together.
Human Rights Watch took extreme care to minimize the risk that recounting experiences could further traumatize those interviewed. Besides letting interviewees determine the first session’s structure and building rapport over multiple sessions, we also fact-checked aspects of each individual’s account before meeting with them again.
The names of all persons interviewed, including officials, have been replaced with pseudonyms to mitigate security concerns or retaliation. In particularly sensitive cases, like those involving state perpetrators of harm or interviewees in the process of fleeing or seeking asylum, we have also deliberately withheld details about the date or location of abuses and our interviews. Although we analyzed the neighborhoods in which particular deportees were harmed, deportees’ pseudonyms are intentionally disassociated from them to further ensure anonymity.
In addition to interviews, we used four techniques to identify possible cases of harm experienced by deported people, to fact-check individual accounts obtained through interviews, and to deepen our contextual knowledge of the neighborhoods and circumstances surrounding deportees’ daily lives in El Salvador:
- First, we compiled data from the three Salvadoran agencies that maintain registries on disappearances, sexual crimes and violent deaths. Through public information requests to the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Access to Public Information Office, we acquired municipal-level data on adult and child homicides and sexual crimes and arrests, hearings and convictions for these crimes. The supplied data was aggregated annually for the years 2013 to 2018. We also monitored the national Salvadoran attorney general’s Twitter page and compiled a database of public reports of child disappearances.
- Second, we systematically searched the Salvadoran printed press (in Spanish) for the neighborhood names (including various spelling variations, when necessary) where those interviewed lived or fled, yielding over 22,000 articles that formed the basis of analysis. The relevant results were skimmed, and we then read and analyzed relevant articles describing violence or other aspects of neighborhood life relevant to deportees’ (and other residents’) experiences. These data have extreme limitations. However, they did allow us to identify themes in neighborhood dynamics, including incidents of violence, stories evidencing economic hardship in these neighborhoods, crimes committed, victims, victimizers, and state actions. Having these additional data facilitated chronological questioning during subsequent interview sessions.
- Third, we searched the words “deportada/o” in digitized decisions of El Salvador's 24 criminal sentencing tribunals. Among the 260 resulting criminal sentencing tribunal decisions, we found 18 decisions that documented harm to persons deported from the United States in eight Salvadoran departments, but only seven documented harm experienced in 2013 or more recently. We obtained one more 2018 decision by requesting it from the tribunal in person.
- Fourth, we searched the words “deportada/o” in 14 Salvadoran news outlets (all in Spanish). Among the 3,767 articles that returned, we found 288 appearing in 13 Salvadoran outlets and five international or US outlets reporting on abuse of deportees. Among these, we identified 219 articles describing the killings of 106 persons deported from the United States. The deaths occurred between January 2013 and September 2019 in all 14 Salvadoran departments.
When describing our findings from these various sources we used the term “identified” for cases found only through press searches; and the terms “investigated” or “documented” for cases we found through interviews with directly impacted individuals cross-checked with other sources such as criminal tribunal decisions, press accounts, or interviews with officials.
Finally, Human Rights Watch compiled data from El Salvador’s General Directorate for Migration and Foreigners (DGME) on deportations. Through public information requests to DGME’s Access to Public Information Office, we acquired data on deportations from 2012 to 2017 for all countries, and for only Mexico and the United States for 2018, according to municipality of birth and residence for children and adults. However, these data contain no information about the experiences of deportees after their return to El Salvador. No governmental or nongovernmental organizations, domestic or international, monitor what happens to deported Salvadorans, including their criminal victimization or other alleged harm suffered. This makes it impossible to obtain a complete or representative sample of cases of deportees harmed after return to El Salvador.
Human Rights Situation in El Salvador
El Salvador, with just over six million citizens, has among the world’s highest homicide rates, alongside thousands of missing-persons cases and sexual crimes since 2013, according to data from the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Access to Public Information Office. State authorities have historically been largely ineffective in protecting the population from this violence, which is often perpetrated by gangs.
At the same time, Salvadoran security forces have themselves committed extrajudicial executions, sexual assaults, enforced disappearances, and torture. Impunity is widespread. For example, investigations reached hearings in only 14 of 48 cases involving 116 extrajudicial killings committed from 2014 to 2018 that the Salvadoran Ombudsperson for the Defense of Human Rights (PDDH) examined. Two resulted in convictions. Successive Salvadoran governments have deployed military units alongside police in public security operations, despite a 1992 peace accord stipulation against it. Media outlets widely report that the current national police director is under investigation for threats and links to drug trafficking and extermination groups.
In 2019 alone, the Central American University Human Rights Institute received seven reports of elite Salvadoran police units burning victims. For example, in March 2019, Tactical Operation Section agents beat, strangled, blindfolded, and handcuffed a 20-year-old man in a sugarcane field in Apopa municipality whom they suspected of gang membership or hiding weapons or drugs, and set fire to the field where they left him unconscious. He emerged from the fire with burns to his face and feet. Victims or witnesses of eight arbitrary arrests in two incidents in 2019 and late 2018 told Human Rights Watch of beatings at police barracks.
In August 2019, the Lethal Force Monitor reported that Salvadoran police and soldiers killed 1,626 people from 2011 through 2017, including 48 boys, four women, and 355 men in 2017. Authorities recorded every year more than 92 percent of victims as gang members and nearly all incidents as “confrontations” or “shootouts.” However, also in August 2019, the PDDH reported that it had examined killings of 28 boys, seven women, and 81 men and found few resulted from confrontations.
As of October 2019, the country’s jails, juvenile and youth facilities, and adult prisons held 45,439 people in custody, more than twice the official capacity, according to the online database World Prison Brief. The IML registered 14 homicides in police barracks and prisons in 2018. One official told Human Rights Watch that 10 other detainees had died from extreme heat. Two inmates said there was tuberculosis in Salvadoran prisons. One of these same inmates along with another inmate told Human Rights Watch that officials provided them inadequate food, hygiene products, and medicine and, in what appeared to be instances of excessive use of force, beat them and used pepper spray during prison searches.
Gangs in El Salvador effectively exercise territorial control over specific neighborhoods and extort residents throughout the country. They forcibly recruit children. They sexually assault people targeted on the basis of their gender and/or real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Gangs kill, abduct, rape, or displace those who resist. Many of those who are abducted are later found dead or never heard from again. According to unverified estimates cited by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, approximately 60,000 gang members reportedly operate in some 247 out of 262 municipalities in the country. Gangs enforce their territories’ borders and extort and surveil residents and those transiting, particularly around public transport, schools, and markets. Allegations of security and elected officials collaborating with gangs in criminal operations have been reported by the press and all political parties have negotiated with gangs according to consistent allegations reported, but not substantiated by, the UN special rapporteur.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported in December 2019 that the FGR registered 3,289 people who “disappeared” in 2018 and 3,030 in 2019. According to the IACHR, victims said they are at times unable to file complaints regarding family members who have gone missing, and that they usually face delays in the investigations, including failure to respond in the critical first hours after a disappearance.
Between 2010 and August 2019, the police have registered over 10,800 victims who have gone missing—more than the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 disappeared during the civil war (1979-1992), according to press accounts. Because very few cases are investigated, knowledge of perpetrators is limited. These figures likely include suspected abductions by criminal gangs or state authorities and other cases in which people have gone missing in unexplained circumstances.
Harassment and Violence Against Women and LGBT Individuals
A 2017 national survey found that 67 percent of women in El Salvador faced violence at some point in their lives, and the rates of “feminicide,” including domestic violence killings are the highest in the region. Despite some reform efforts, such as specialized women’s courts and dedicated units in the Attorney General’s Office, formidable obstacles remain for women seeking police protection, investigation, or justice through the courts.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who are deported from the United States to El Salvador are likely to face specific threats. Human Rights Watch research has found that LGBT people in El Salvador are often rejected by their families, meaning that many would have no family support during the process of reintegration. Human Rights Watch repeatedly heard from LGBT Salvadorans, both in El Salvador and in the United States, that gangs had targeted them on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, subjecting some LGBT people to sexual violence and extorting others due to their perceived vulnerability. Several LGBT Salvadorans also reported being beaten or sexually assaulted by the police. In January 2019, Camila Díaz Cordova, a transgender woman deported from the United States, was beaten to death. In July, the FGR charged three police officers with her kidnapping and aggravated homicide. The case remained open at the time of writing. Within the span of one month in late 2019, three transgender women and one gay man were murdered in El Salvador in circumstances that led activists to suspect they were hate crimes.
US Laws Affecting Salvadoran Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Other Migrants
Salvadoran nationals who are neither citizens of the United States nor undocumented hold one of several legal statuses, none of which protects them completely from deportation. These various statuses, and the degree to which the US laws affording them comport with international human rights and refugee law are discussed in greater detail in Section VI.
According to 2017 US Census data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute, about 1.2 million non-citizens whose country of birth was El Salvador live in the United States. They in turn fall in four main legal categories.
- First, about 665,000 Salvadorans are living in the United States in an unauthorized legal status, meaning at any moment they could be arrested and deported from the country. During their deportation proceedings, they technically would have the ability to raise their fears of persecution or torture as a defense against removal. In reality, this is extremely difficult to do successfully.
- Second, about 340,000 Salvadorans live in the United States as lawful permanent residents. These people have permission to work and build their lives in the United States, but if they are convicted of any of a long list of crimes (including non-violent drug or driving offenses generally considered as misdemeanors), they are subject to deportation under procedures that severely restrict the possibility of raising their fears of persecution upon return as a defense against removal. They might be able to raise fear of torture in El Salvador, but in reality, the torture standard is more difficult to meet than the “fear of persecution” standard.
- Third, another 195,000 Salvadorans have temporary protection against deportation as recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that the US Congress put in place for Salvadorans since two devastating earthquakes hit the country in 2001. The Trump administration decided to end TPS in September 2019, but a court injunction has prevented termination from going into effect. Consequently, the Trump administration extended work authorization associated with TPS until January 2021, without extending TPS beyond January 2020. If appellate courts lift the injunction, Salvadorans who have been protected by TPS will be subject to removal. Due to lack of resources, legal advice, fear, or other reasons, some Salvadorans have not re-registered their TPS status, which moves them into an unauthorized status. During their deportation proceedings, former TPS holders technically would have the ability to raise their fears of persecution or other types of harm as a defense to removal; but in reality, this is very challenging to do successfully.
- Fourth, some 25,600 Salvadorans have been living in the US with temporary permission to remain in two-year increments under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which began in 2012, but which the Trump administration decided to end in September 2017. DACA status has been maintained by temporary court rulings but the Trump administration’s decision to end the program is being reviewed by the Supreme Court at this writing, making DACA recipients legitimately fearful of deportation. Due to lack of resources, legal advice, fear, or other reasons, some Salvadorans have not re-registered their DACA status, which moves them into an unauthorized status. During their deportation proceedings, former DACA holders technically would have the ability to raise their fears of persecution or other types of harm as a defense to removal; in reality, this is difficult to do successfully.
II. Deportees Killed
In researching this report, Human Rights Watch identified or investigated 138 cases of people killed between 2013 and 2019 after being deported from the United States. El Salvador’s high homicide rates (alongside many other types of harm), and the fact that these cases have been reported publicly over time, has put the United States government and its immigration officials on notice. On a daily basis, US immigration officials and judges nevertheless turn a blind eye to the reality that people deported by the United States to El Salvador have lost their lives, often at the hands of their original persecutors or people they legitimately feared would harm them in the future. In several of the cases we investigated for this report, such targeting was evident.
In other cases, the US government is returning people to a country with such significant levels of violence that there is a real risk that deportees will face a serious threat to their lives or physical integrity. Because current US asylum law does not provide “complementary protection” that would protect people facing such serious threats of violence, Human Rights Watch calls on the US Congress to adopt such a standard (discussed further in Section VII below). Even without such a standard, Salvadorans subject to deportation should have a meaningful opportunity to describe the risks they would face upon return and have that information considered before they are returned to El Salvador. The deaths described in this section, moreover, represent the tip of the iceberg—as detailed in subsequent sections, people deported to El Salvador encounter a wide range of human rights abuses that fall short of death.
Deported Former or Current Gang Members Killed by Gangs
According to Salvadoran authorities, the deportees at the highest risk of harm are alleged former and current gang members and those with alleged links to gangs. These alleged former and current gang members are sometimes killed by their own or rival gangs (they are also killed by state actors or death squads, as discussed below). An individual deportee’s reported status as a gang member by the press, by the police, or by other observers, may or may not be true.
Accounts of killings of deportees by gangs in court filings and press accounts indicate that a deportee might be killed by his own gang for not “re-activating” with the gang once in El Salvador, battling for power within the gang, committing crimes like robbery, or calling attention to the gang through flamboyant behavior. Gangs reportedly kill members of rival gangs, or those assumed to be members, for living in or transiting their area, including one who was evangelizing after leaving behind gang life and one who was recently deported.
Deported Former or Current Gang Members Killed by State Actors
State actors, such as police or other law enforcement, reportedly have killed deportees alleged to be former or current gang members, according to relatives, journalists, and academics who spoke with Human Rights Watch. Through interviews with directly affected persons and witnesses, we learned of several such cases. For example:
Enrico X. told Human Rights Watch in 2019 his cousin, Luis Y., a former member of a gang then called B-18, tried to leave the gang by fleeing to the United States, but after he was deported from the US in either 2016 or 2017, Enrico said that the police in El Salvador killed Luis. Enrico told us:
After he was deported back to El Salvador, one day he [Luis] was eating breakfast and the police came to the house and shot him in the head and killed him. The police officer said: “I told you I was going to kill you eventually,” and put a gun to his head and shot him right there on the spot in front of the neighbor woman who used to cook his meals for him. Some of the other neighbors also witnessed this shooting.
Enrico told Human Rights Watch that police in 2018 shot another young deportee from the United States in front of his home. “He was known to be deported from the US.” An affidavit filed by Enrico in his asylum and withholding case gave further details:
I don’t know the young man’s real name, but everyone in town called him ‘Roberto M.’.… I heard a shot and a noise.… I ducked down low, and I saw two police officers run towards [him], who was down on the ground in front of my property in the street. Roberto had been going by on a bicycle when he was shot. The two police officers picked him up and took him away with them. I saw them take [him] into a sugar cane field. A police motorcycle drove up around the same time this was all happening. I did not see where they took [him] after they went into the field. I was very scared and I quickly went in my house and closed the door. Not long after this, a police officer came and banged on my door, yelling at me to come outside. I went outside and he immediately put a gun to my head and said, ‘I know you saw.’ I recognized this officer by his face. I had seen him patrol my street many times in the past with other rural police officers.… The officer was very aggressive with me, asking me who else was home with me.… The officer told me that Roberto was a B-18 gang member and that if I said anything about what I saw, the same will happen to me or worse.… Every day after [that], the same rural police officers started to come to the house and bang on my door.… They would bang on my door and yell profanities at me, demanding I come out.
Our research indicates that Salvadoran officials often assume that individuals deported from the US are both active gang members and were convicted of violent crimes while in the US. They also may choose to target specific deportees based on information shared by the United States via INTERPOL. Three departmental police delegations told Human Rights Watch they receive lists of deportees alleged to be gang members and share those lists throughout the department, including with neighborhood-level posts where deportees indicate they will live. One ranking police officer explained to Human Rights Watch: “ICE communicates with INTERPOL in advance of deportation flights, and lists of persons with a capture order [an INTERPOL Red Notice] or guilty of a crime are sent to us in the departmental offices, [even though] most on this list are captured in the airport.” The police then visit the locations provided. This officer said, “We think that if a person wasn’t wanted in the United States, it must be because the deported person is bad.”
Police scrutiny of such individuals may be a legitimate activity in furtherance of public safety. At the same time, even if an individual is an active gang member or has served a sentence for a violent crime in the US and is suspected of further criminal activity in El Salvador, unlawful use of force by law enforcement is never justified. Security officials involvement in extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force is often linked to government efforts to combat gangs, as reported by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings in her 2018 report on El Salvador, as well as the Legal Force Monitor and the Salvadoran Ombudsperson for the Defense of Human Rights in 2019.
Deportees Killed Without Apparent Gang-Involvement
In some cases, the deportee victims had no apparent involvement with gangs, but nevertheless were killed in circumstances suggesting the killers were gang members. For example, several of the below cases identified through press accounts reference failure to pay extortion demands and non-gang-related tattoos as possible motives for the killings.
- Carlos Alberto Garay, 43, was killed while driving his pick-up truck in Usulután. A press account reported that he was intercepted by two men, who shot him several times and then fled on foot, according to police sources. Garay’s neighbors told reporters he had been deported several months earlier from the United States, and they knew he was being extorted by gangs and that his family had been threatened. The press account did not describe Garay as gang-involved.
- Mario Enrique Sandoval Gómez, around 30 years old, was shot dead in his home on June 29, 2017 by two people who convinced him to open the door by pretending they were police officers. According to press accounts, Sandoval Gómez was not suspected of gang affiliation and the “tattoos on his body were not related to gangs.” Sandoval Gómez reportedly had been deported from the United States two years prior to the incident. His wife, who was at home on the night of the murder, had applied for him to return to the US, where the couple planned to join her parents already living there.
- Tommy Eduardo Paiz, 41, who worked in a call center in El Salvador, had been deported from the United States about one year prior to his death. A relative interviewed by the press said of Paiz, “he came here and started working.” On August 4, 2018, he was on his way to visit his partner and 6-month-old son when his car broke down in the department of La Libertad. Paiz had called a family member that same day to ask that they “let her know that I'm going to get home to see my little one." Paiz had several “artistic tattoos” on his body. Police reports indicated he was approached by attackers, hit with a blunt object on the head and shot several times in the head and abdomen. When found, he was handcuffed. The press account did not describe Paiz as gang-involved.
While press accounts did not speculate on whether the victims faced harm from their killers previously, some interviewees specified that the same gang members who targeted individuals before they fled El Salvador were responsible for killing these individuals after deportation. For example, José Miguel C., told us about his nephew, Joaquín, who he did not believe to be gang-involved, and who had fled gang threats to the US, but was deported in 2017 and killed by alleged gang members that same year. He said: “[Joaquín] always said they [MS members] would try to kill him again. They did [kill him] on [Salvadoran] Father’s Day…. The same members who killed him had threatened him beforehand.”
Similarly, a policeman told us about Nicolas P., 25, who was the victim of an attempted homicide by gang members in 2015. The same year, he migrated to the US, only to be deported in 2017. According to a police report, the policeman said, “on the day Nicolas returned to El Salvador, he arrived at his family home…. At 9:30 p.m., he was at home, the gang members arrived and shot him dead.”
Deported Former Police Officers Killed by Gangs
Human Rights Watch interviewed two families who had multiple members working for the Salvadoran military or police who were threatened, then fled to the United States hoping to seek asylum but were subsequently deported and killed.
Adriana J. worked for the Salvadoran police. After being threatened by gangs, she fled El Salvador for the United States, but according to her cousin Irene J., Adriana was detained by US authorities and did not get to apply for asylum presumably because she was rejected after her credible fear interview in the expedited removal screening. Irene believes that Adriana was still in detention in the US in 2015 and deported that year or later to El Salvador. Her death certificate indicates she died in El Salvador from gunshot wounds to her abdomen and skull in 2017. Irene learned from her mother, who lived nearby, that when she went to the cordoned crime scene and spoke with police officers, the officers told her, “The gang members killed her. Three bullets.”
According to press accounts, Mauricio de Jesús Amaya had been a municipal police officer in El Salvador for 14 years. In 2017, his sister, Gloria, was shot dead as they rode together on a motorcycle in the El Vado neighborhood of Nueva Concepción municipality of Chalatenango department. Mauricio believes he was the actual target. Twenty days later, he and his family, including his brother, Santos Amaya, who also worked with the municipal police, fled El Salvador and arrived in the US approximately 10 days later. Santos, who had received death threats from gang members who had been deliberately targeting police in the municipality where the family lived, was deported from the US in April 2018, and was killed that same month.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Jacinto K. and first interviewed his then 15-year-old son, Óscar K., in El Salvador in April 2014.
In December 2011, Jacinto and his wife had been ordered removed from the United States. In order to avoid permanent bars in US law on returning to the country, they chose to depart “voluntarily.” Jacinto and his wife had to borrow money to pay for the family’s plane tickets (they had three children, Óscar, age 15 in 2014, and a younger daughter and US citizen son). Jacinto told us that upon the family’s return to El Salvador:
“I thought starting a small business in [a rural area of El Salvador’s Central Region] was our best bet for paying the loan back quickly. Unfortunately, MS began charging me renta shortly after I opened it. I haven’t been able to pay down the loan, am barely supporting my family, and worry that I won’t be able to keep paying renta.”
At the time of our interview Jacinto discounted the power of MS in the area, telling us he felt relatively safe. However, two weeks after our interview, Jacinto was shot dead in broad daylight in a public space of their town.
Prior to his dad’s death, when a Human Rights Watch researcher sat down to interview Óscar K. he said, “We can speak in English. I’ve missed it.” He said he wanted to return to the Midwestern United States, where he lived from 2003 to 2011, to finish high school.
Óscar said he had just completed 9th grade in his Salvadoran neighborhood public school. Besides the classes not being challenging, he told us, “I do not feel safe. I only leave the house to go to and from school. Still, to get there, I have to walk past the neighborhood’s Mara Salvatrucha gang. They shout insults at me and threaten to kill me if I do not join them.”
After his father was killed, Óscar separated from his mother and siblings, and they each went to a different part of the country in search of safety. According to our subsequent contacts with Óscar, the gang has found them each in their new locations within the country, and at the time of writing Óscar and his mother and siblings had each moved at least one other time.
Data on Deportees Killed
For this report, we identified or investigated 138 cases of people killed after their deportations from the United States between 2013 and 2019. Most of these people died between a few days and two years after their return to El Salvador. Of 106 cases reported in 219 articles by the Salvadoran press, 81 deportees died after being in the country for one year or less, with 15 additional deportees killed after 13 months to two years in the country. Fourteen deportees were killed less than a week after their return, with three dying in their first 24 hours in El Salvador.
We eliminated many cases of deportees reportedly killed between 2013 and 2019 from our final count because they died more than five years after their deportations or after an unknown period from their deportations. For all deported people killed, we focused only on individuals deported from the United States. In addition, of all 138 cases included, the earliest year of deportation was 2010 (this was the year of deportation for one person killed in 2013, for one killed in 2014, and for two people killed in 2015).
In addition to the cases identified through the press, we documented five cases of deportees killed between 2013 and 2019 by reviewing court documents for Salvadoran criminal sentencing tribunals. For 14 cases in the same time frame, we learned of the killing of deportees through interviews with the victim’s family members. We documented 23 cases in interviews with authorities. In all of these cases, we sought corroboration of the killing and circumstances of the individual deportee’s case with other sources. The below graphic illustrates the corroboration we were able to obtain.
Among the 219 press reports on killings of 106 deportees, Human Rights Watch found cases of six deportees killed between 2013 to 2019 that named state authorities or indicated death squads as the alleged killers. The Rural Police were the suspected killers in two cases in an isolated rural area where gang members or authorities had previously prevented press from entering (and where police had been documented to have committed extrajudicial killings starting in 2013). Private actors were the alleged perpetrators in the overwhelming majority of the killings. Only three accounts identified through our press searches–in which one to three others were killed at the same time–left open the possibility that the deported man was not the target of the lethal attack.
Killing of Deportees Likely Undercounted
Homicide data are regularly reported by police authorities in El Salvador. However, we believe our count of 138 persons killed after deportation from the US to El Salvador between 2013-2019 represents a significant undercount for two main reasons. First, the specific victimization of deportees often goes unrecorded in forensic, media, or governmental accounts. Among victims who do report, protocol does not require authorities to ask about migration status of victims.
All homicide journalists interviewed for this report said they mostly rely on police sources to determine if a victim was deported from the United States. Police acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that they do not always consult the relevant database to get a victim’s migration status. In fact, they told Human Rights Watch that they only do so when the victim had no documents or had tattoos. Reports on the killings of 53 deported men included police telling the press the victim had no identity documents or was a gang member; was linked to gangs, a thief, a drug user, or some other type of criminal (including 13 of those with tattoos).
There is no mandatory requirement that the Salvadoran prosecutor’s office (FGR) collects migratory status in its investigations, including in its homicide investigations. One prosecutor explained his office’s reasoning to Human Rights Watch: “We see crimes and do not give importance to this [migratory status]. It is not relevant.” An investigator in a different department also said migratory status was irrelevant to their office, “unless the person requests it.” Salvadoran authorities told us that too much stigma exists around deportation for victims or their family members to acknowledge it on their own. For example, a police chief told Human Rights Watch: “The deportee is stigmatized.” Likewise, a forensic doctor told us that none of the persons harmed after their deportation, or their surviving loved ones in cases of disappearance or killings, initially wanted to mention the victim’s status as a deportee because, “They do not always identify themselves…. Many times, I think it’s because of stigma, that they would feel pain to say it.”
In addition, Human Rights Watch documented three cases from 2013 to 2018 that illustrate how a victim’s identity as a deportee may go unreported unless they possess a stigmatized characteristic, such as having tattoos, being a gang member, or being a male between the ages of 15 and 39. The press did not mention in any of these three cases that the victim had been deported from the United States. None of the three had tattoos, and two were middle-aged men, perhaps explaining why the police did not check on their status in relevant databases or through other means.
The second reason we believe the 138 cases of killings to be an undercount is that certain categories of homicide cases, regardless of whether the person is a deportee or not, are much more likely to be undercounted, including cases involving (1) female victims, (2) people with identity documents (because they are less likely to be identified as deportees), (3) people without tattoos, (4) people killed in areas where crimes are more likely to go unreported including particularly violent neighborhoods, isolated rural areas, and areas where gangs or authorities do not permit journalists to enter, (5) LGBT victims, and (6) people killed in the custody of Salvadoran authorities.
Police, other Salvadoran officials, and reporters have apparently also failed to determine the migration status of female homicide victims. We could not find a single press report on the killing of any cisgender (non-transgender) female deportees—even for a case of a former female police agent whom we documented through our interview with her surviving relatives, who was killed after her deportation from the United States. Nevertheless, several directly impacted individuals and authorities told us about women killed after their deportations. For example, one forensic official recalled multiple females killed after their deportations, just in the one department where he works:
Yes, there are women among these [who were deported and killed] …. Always by the gang, for the same phenomenon they’d left fleeing. She became their subject and could not free herself. If she gets with another [man], even [one] in the [same] gang, she is killed. Even if he’s in prison, both [she and he] could be killed.
III. Other Harms Faced by Deportees
In our research for this report we heard many gut-wrenching accounts from people subjected to terrible abuse after their deportations from the United States. Often, these were the same abuses from the same abusers that deportees had tried to escape by fleeing to the United States–only to be returned directly back to the violence they originally feared. The cycle of abuse and flight is chronic, and for many deportees feels inescapable. Given the horrors they had endured, it was not surprising to us that these people often tried to flee again.
Even more so than the numbers of killings of deportees, instances in which deportees were attacked by gangs or others, disappeared, forced into hiding, sexually assaulted, and tortured certainly exceed what we have been able to document. Many non-homicide crimes are unreported and thus undocumented in El Salvador. For example, one survey suggests that less than five percent of sexual crimes were reported to Salvadoran authorities in 2018. Crimes less serious than homicide go unreported to authorities, are infrequently investigated and prosecuted; and partly as a result of the lack of public accountability for these categories of crimes, they go unreported in the Salvadoran press. As discussed in the previous section, the victimization of deportees in particular goes almost completely undocumented in the country, due in part to the lack of any requirement that law enforcement authorities obtain the migration status of victims and also because victims and their family members often fail to report the victim’s status as a deportee.
Press reporting on individual cases of disappearances in El Salvador is rare. If a victim is killed, their body may never be found, and if a victim is alive, their whereabouts may not be known. When a victim’s body is found, often too much time has passed for the Salvadoran press to take interest. A common security practice among Salvadoran reporters is not reporting on their own neighborhoods. Not surprisingly then, two journalists each told us about a case of a disappeared deportee they had not reported in 2018, one because the incident happened in his neighborhood and one because he had other incidents to report on the same day that interested his editors more.
Still, we were able to identify 18 separate incidents (between 2013 and 2019, for which the disappearance happened within five years or less of the deportation) involving disappearances of deportees from the United States: at least one woman and four men, alongside 13 men who disappeared or were kidnapped before being found killed.
In a separate case, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) issued precautionary measures (measures the commission adopts after reviewing evidence indicating imminent risk of irreparable harm to an individual) to an 18-year-old man deported from the US in September 2017 who was taken from his home in January 2018 by “some youth [muchachos],” and has not been seen since.
We also spoke with an IML investigator who said that he knew of “people deported who did disappear,” and a second IML investigator who agreed with this statement during the same interview.
The United States Department of State (USDOS) Human Rights Reports on El Salvador from 2013 to 2018 stated that “rape and other sexual crimes against women were widespread.” Even so, news reporting on sexual crimes in El Salvador is rare, and as noted above, we believe widely under-reported by victims to authorities.
We documented four cases of sexual crimes and harassment against people deported from the United States (in three of these cases we know the victimization occurred between 2013 and 2019 and was within five years or less of the deportation. For one of the cases, our source was unwilling to provide any dates for security reasons). A male deportee died after castration, according to a criminal sentencing tribunal decision. In addition, according to a local prosecutor we interviewed, a woman was subjected to sexual harassment after her deportation from the US. Two additional cases include a woman deportee who told us that she was physically assaulted by a person linked to her former intimate partner, and after years of previous emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that prompted her original flight from the country; and a female deportee who said that she was raped by a gang member after deportation from the US.
In 2014, when she was 20 years old, Angelina N. fled abuse at the hands of Jaime M., the father of her 4-year-old daughter, who regularly beat her. Jaime falsely accused her of having an affair with Mateo O., a gang member in their neighborhood who had been persistently making advances towards her. Angelina fled, alone, to the United States and was apprehended at the border and detained. After a rare phone call home brought news that her 4-year-old was hospitalized in El Salvador, she chose not to appeal the US government’s decision to deport her in September 2014.
Once back in El Salvador, Mateo resumed pursuing and threatening her, having his fellow gang members do so as well. She repeatedly rejected Mateo’s advances, but according to a statement of facts in an immigration court ruling, “he threatened to kill Angelina’s father and daughter if she did not accept to be ‘his woman.’”
In October 2014, Angelina’s father took her daughter to church. She told a Human Rights Watch researcher what happened when she heard a knock at the door:
I just opened the door, expecting it to be [my daughter returning home], but it was [Mateo]. He forced open the door because I started trying to close it on him. [Mateo] came inside and forced me to have sex with him for the first time. He took out his gun…. I was so scared that I obeyed…. When he left, I started crying. I didn’t say anything at the time, or even file a complaint to the police. I thought it would be worse if I did because I thought someone from the police would likely tell [Mateo]…. I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening…. He told me he was going to kill my father and my daughter if I reported the [original and three subsequent] rapes, because I was “his woman.” [He] hit me and told me that he wanted me all to himself.
One month later, Mateo returned to Angelina’s home. This time her daughter was at home. Mateo told Angelina’s daughter to stay in the living room “watching cartoons” and “not to go to the bedroom.” He then “dragged [Angelina] to the bedroom, took out a gun, and told [her] to be quiet or [she] would see [her] daughter die before [her] eyes.” After he left, Angelina cried but did not tell anyone. She told an immigration court “sometimes it is worse to tell the police because they do not help.”
Angelina was raped twice more by Mateo before fleeing again—this time with her daughter—to the United States. She was ultimately granted protection from deportation in the United States under a provision known as “withholding of removal,” and her daughter was granted asylum.
Torture, Other Ill-Treatment, or Excessive Use of Force
We investigated five separate cases of torture, other ill-treatment, or excessive use of force by police or soldiers against deportees that we know occurred between 2013 and 2019 and within five years of the person’s deportation. In interviews with deportees and their relatives or friends, we collected accounts of three male deportees from the United States who said they were beaten by police or soldiers during arrest, followed by beatings during their time in custody, which lasted between three days to over a year. One of these deportees, formerly a member of MS, told us that when police came to his home to arrest him he was unarmed and did not resist arrest. Police hit and kicked him before putting him in the patrol car, and then beat him repeatedly during his detention, which lasted for over a year. He told us that during his detention, police officers kicked him repeatedly in the testicles, threatened to kill him, and “asked me about other MS members and were saying that if I name someone from MS, that is, if I turned them in, they would leave me free.”
Salvadoran criminal sentencing tribunal decisions described police abuses of two additional deported men. In one case, a man deported four months earlier, who police accused of resisting arrest, was put in a patrol car and brought to a police station. Throughout, the police repeatedly hit and kicked him, including kicks with their boots to his neck and abdomen. The deported man sustained injuries requiring an operation for a ruptured pancreas and spleen, month-long hospitalization, and 60 days of post-release treatment. In the second case, a deportee who police accused of extortion, evading arrest, and shooting at police; claimed he was face down on the ground but nevertheless shot at by police agents. Once the agents took him into custody, the deportee claimed he was insulted, kicked in the face, and shot at again repeatedly. The deportee was taken to a hospital for his injuries and was later acquitted of all criminal charges.
Armed Attacks, Beatings, Extortion, and Death Threats by Gangs
We documented the cases of 33 individuals who known or suspected gang members threatened with death after their deportations. Presumed gang members subsequently beat three and shot and injured three others. Suspected gang members likewise extorted 13 deportees (including one beaten and one shot and injured). Alleged gang members subsequently killed 14 deportees (including six of those extorted). For these cases, we know the victimization was within five years or less of the deportation between 2013 and 2019.
Among those killed, known or suspected gang members threatened with death surviving relatives of at least four of the deportees killed. While gang members told three to leave their homes or they would be killed within as little as 24 hours, they told one to stay with her family and keep quiet. Jennifer B. explained to Human Rights Watch: “They [the gang members] threatened my sister [with whom Javier B. had wanted to live] that if she opened her mouth or left that place, they’d look for her everywhere and kill her. So, she remains there. … They’ve kept their mouths shut there.”
People Forced into Hiding
Most Human Rights Watch interviewees attempted to go into hiding in their own or different neighborhoods because they were afraid of gang members, police, or former intimate partners from whom they feared harm that authorities would or could not stop. US and Salvadoran authorities often make unrealistic assumptions about a particular individual’s ability to remain safe, thinking a person could easily relocate. For example, when Alexander N. told Salvadoran migration officials he was afraid to return to the home where his sister was taken and killed, they responded: “‘Why not go elsewhere?’”
Safe relocation in El Salvador is incredibly difficult for anyone. According to unverified estimates cited by the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, approximately 60,000 gang members reportedly operate in 247 of the 262 municipalities in the country. State authorities have been largely ineffective at protecting the population from gang or private violence, and Salvadoran security forces have themselves committed extrajudicial executions, sexual assaults, enforced disappearances, and torture throughout the country.
The few organizations now offering assistance to the internally displaced can together only provide services to several hundred people per year and even then, are typically delayed, and limited to helping a limited number of people and for a period of no more than three months. This leaves most of the estimated 285,000 internally displaced persons in El Salvador to rely on familial networks, or more commonly, as one survey with a nationally representative sample found, flee abroad.
For example, after learning gang members planned to kill him in his rural municipality, Gabriel G., a retired high-ranking officer with specialized training in the Salvadoran military in his forties, told Human Rights Watch he fled to the United States in 2018 after “the gang went to the police to tell them when, where, and how they’d kill me.” Gabriel’s wife and children have received threats because of his military service as well, and two of his sons fled El Salvador multiple times between 2013 and 2018 related to these threats. However, Gabriel had previously been deported from the US in 2008, after he went to the US seeking refuge because former guerillas were threatening him. Gabriel was detained in Texas and failed his reasonable fear interview. His prior deportation barred him from asylum under US law, so he had to meet the higher standards of withholding of removal, which means that it would be “more likely than not” that he would be persecuted, rather than the lower asylum standard of a well-founded fear of persecution. Alternatively, he had to show he merited protection under the Convention against Torture. Gabriel remembered US officials asked him if he had been tortured. He told Human Rights Watch, “I didn’t want to lie, because [what I consider torture] had not happened to me, although threats had been made, and they remained active.” Since being deported in 2018, Gabriel remains fearful and stays in hiding when he is not at work as a security guard, leaving his home as little as possible and refusing even to inform his wife of his weekly work schedule for fear that she might inadvertently tell others and the gang would attack him while he travels to work. He described to us how different gang members come to the gate outside his house to demand he turn over his work-issued firearm. He consistently refuses to hand over the weapon, and in response the gang members threaten to kill him.
At least 17 deported individuals whose cases we identified or investigated for this report attempted to hide from the violence or extortion they feared in the same neighborhoods they had originally fled. Two who were beaten and extorted, and one who was beaten, extorted, and raped have since fled El Salvador again. Seven are dead. Discussed more fully in Section IV below, individuals also relocated from one particularly violent neighborhood to another. In another case, a male deportee fled the particularly violent neighborhood where one gang killed his father, to a neighborhood where a different gang controlled the territory. Three additional male deportees attempted to go into hiding in a new location before they were killed or disappeared, according to press accounts.
Several months before our November 2018 interview with 20-year-old Alexander N. and his parents, men dressed in black identifying themselves as police arrived in the night. The men wanted only to take Alicia N., Alexander’s teenage sister. They tied up the rest of the family and posted two men outside to make sure they did not leave. The other men took 17-year-old Alicia with them. Not long after, the family heard a shot, seemingly a few blocks away. Once they broke free and felt sure the men outside were gone, they went toward it. They found Alicia dead with one bullet to her forehead. Alexander and his parents showed a Human Rights Watch researcher the photo of her body, splayed on the dirt, hands above her head and blood coming from the gunshot wound.
After the killing, the press arrived. Nearly every Salvadoran media outlet covered the murder, some in more than one story. Some for several months. None could say definitively if the men in black were gang members of the neighborhood’s particularly strong gang clique, law enforcement, or so-called “extermination groups.” Alexander and his family suspect police involvement. In recent years, the Attorney General’s Office investigated a group, police chiefs and businessmen among them, for forming an extermination group who killed those they believed to be gang members in Alexander’s neighborhood and in surrounding municipalities. Alicia’s murder was at least the seventh in four months in their community; she was the second child to be killed, and the second female. More killings, including of two females, occurred in the same neighborhood before the year ended. Authorities found additional bodies in clandestine graves. A press report alleged a member of the gang had raped girls and young women in the neighborhood.
Within 48 hours of his sister’s death, the killers called Alexander’s home and told his mother that they would come back and kill her son, Alexander, for “giving the press information” on the way they had killed her daughter. She and her husband could not bear the thought of losing their son too. She told us what little they had; they gave him to flee. Alexander’s father broke down when he told us he had decided, “My only child who remains can at least go.”
Less than a month after his sister’s murder, Alexander was at the border in Texas. He told Human Rights Watch that he had told US authorities what happened to his sister and that he was afraid to return. At the seventh US immigration detention center he was held in, he got lucky: a group of volunteers worked with him and five or six other asylum seekers on how to present himself in his credible fear interview (the first stage of the US asylum process). US authorities determined Alexander had demonstrated credible fear and he was transferred to another detention center to present his case before the Immigration Court nearest it. A fellow detainee from Mexico helped him translate the proof he carried: photos, a news report, death certificate, and letters of support from his Catholic church, work, school, and City Hall.
In our interview with him, Alexander appeared humble and shy. He had recently graduated high school. In his community, eye contact and talking could get you killed, he said. According to Alexander, after four hearings, at which he appeared without counsel, he was denied asylum. Alexander said, “There was no one to help me. I felt so bad. There was danger of return.” About a month later, US officials cuffed him at the wrists and ankles to deport him to El Salvador.
Alexander and his family told us that the men in black have gone to other homes since then, and they see masked police and soldiers stroll their dirt roads. Alexander lives in constant fear, saying that he feels it “day and night.” His strategy: “I don’t go out. I hide.” He is not studying, working, or spending time with friends, despite his dreams to get a college degree and help his family. When asked how long this could last, Alexander’s mom said she did not know. “Meanwhile,” she said, “we fear.”
IV. Particularly Violent Neighborhoods
When people are deported to El Salvador, the original neighborhoods they lived in prior to their emigration may carry significant risks of disappearance, homicide, and sexual crime, such that living in safety at home is nearly impossible. These particularly violent neighborhoods (see Glossary for definition) tend to have not just a concentration of organized crime but also of abusive law enforcement actors, documented cases of domestic and sexual violence, and violence perpetrated by so-called “death squads” or “extermination groups” (as discussed in Section V).
Specific Neighborhoods, High Levels of Violence
According to government data, from 2013 to 2018, all of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities registered at least a homicide or sexual crime. In most municipalities, however, crime tends to concentrate in a small percentage of specific neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods register multiple homicides and sexual crimes each year. Many have also been the sites of clandestine graves containing victims who were kidnapped, disappeared, and often tortured before they were killed. Multiple actors, including gangs, authorities, those who present themselves as authorities, and private individuals are alleged to have committed these crimes. Victims include girls, boys, men, and women and those known or believed to be informants or witnesses. Visitors to these neighborhoods are also victims, and residents of these neighborhoods are victimized elsewhere because they are imputed to be affiliated with the gang that controls the neighborhood from which they fled.
Given persistent violence in these neighborhoods, individuals growing up in them likely experience multiple traumatic events. For example, an aid director for deported persons, in summarizing the case of a mother and her daughters who fled sexual harassment, extortion, and threats (but have since been deported from the US back to El Salvador), said of residents of such neighborhoods: “One [criminal] event does not tend to be it [for what drove them to flee].” The majority of directly impacted individuals we interviewed who originated from a particularly violent neighborhood recounted they or their loved ones being victims of multiple crimes before and after deportation, including witnessing or having loved ones abused, disappeared, or killed. Four deportees we interviewed had to live in the same home in which a family member had been killed. They—like other residents—may show symptoms of trauma. At time of writing, such particularly violent neighborhoods in El Salvador included but were not limited to:
- Lourdes neighborhood of Colón municipality in La Libertad department;
- Altavista neighborhood at the border of Ilopango, San Martín, and Tonacatepeque municipalities of San Salvador department, and surrounding areas like San José Flores neighborhood of Tonacatepeque municipality of San Salvador department;
- San Roque neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods like Zacamil of Mejicanos municipality in San Salvador department;
- Iberia and San Jacinto neighborhoods of San Salvador municipality in San Salvador department;
- La Campanera neighborhood of Soyapango municipality in San Salvador department;
- Amapalita neighborhood of La Unión municipality in La Unión department;
- El Platanar neighborhood of Moncagua municipality in San Miguel department;
- Ciudad Pacífica, Milagro de la Paz and San Antonio Silva neighborhoods of San Miguel municipality in San Miguel department;
- Tierra Blanca neighborhood of Jiquilisco municipality in Usulután department;
- Chaguantique neighborhood and surrounding areas at the border of Jiquilisco and Puerto El Triunfo municipalities in Usulután department;
- El Ojuste and La Poza neighborhoods of Usulután municipality in Usulután department;
- El Junquillo neighborhood of Ahuachapán municipality in Ahuachapán department; and
- Apaneca and surrounding neighborhoods of Chalchuapa municipality of Santa Ana department.
- From 2006 to 2019, four deportees were reported killed in Lourdes neighborhood of Colón municipality, as was an uncle who reportedly died defending his deported nephew in a shootout in which the nephew and one other person with them were also injured.
- In 2017 and 2018, a Salvadoran-born individual who moved between El Salvador and the United States, and two deportees—who residents told reporters were cousins—were killed in El Platanar of Moncagua.
- In 2014, one deportee was reported killed in Tierra Blanca of Jiquilisco.
- Two deportees were killed in the La Poza neighborhood of Usulután municipality in 2014 and 2018.
- In September 2017, according to press sources, in El Junquillo neighborhood of Ahuachapán municipality a deportee’s female partner, her mother, and her child were killed; one article reporting on this incident also reported that the deportee himself had been killed the day prior. An official in that region told Human Rights Watch two other deportees from the United States had also been killed in El Junquillo or adjacent Las Viñas in 2012 or 2013 and 2016. A separate official in the same region told reporters they “go [there] frequently” to investigate homicides.
- In 2014, two deportees were reported killed near Cara Sucia neighborhood in San Francisco Menéndez municipality (where one’s brother was killed a month earlier).
Society and Authorities Stigmatize Certain Neighborhoods
According to a poll by the Salvadoran paper, La Prensa Gráfica, Salvadorans fear particular neighborhoods and try to avoid them. From 2008 to 2017, La Prensa Gráfica three times polled a representative sample of the population in El Salvador’s most populous municipalities, asking: “From what you know and have heard said, what is the most dangerous place in the municipality?” Residents’ responses included Altavista (and San Jose de las Flores next to it), San Roque, Iberia, La Campanera, Ciudad Pacífica, Milagro de la Paz, and San Francisco adjacent to Apaneca of Chalchuapa. These neighborhoods are often notorious beyond just residents. For example, in 2019, the Salvadoran investigative press outlet, El Faro, noted that Altavista, La Campanera, and Milagro de la Paz are nationally stigmatized.
For their security, multiple non-PNC governmental offices keep maps or appoint a long-serving staff member to inform others of neighborhoods where staff have been threatened or harmed in the past, and thus, they either cannot enter or only enter with a police presence. One police officer expressed concerns to Human Rights Watch that naming such neighborhoods can negatively impact their residents and make them “even hotter.”
Police statements to the press in articles reporting on crime sometimes solidified stigmatization. Police would describe homicide victims in these neighborhoods as either gang members, collaborators of gang members, or those with personal relationships to gangs or gang members, even when relatives told the press their loved ones who were killed had no such links. For one youth from Iberia, this stigma from authorities especially stung. He broke down in tears recalling to a reporter what a policeman told him about his neighborhood: “All of them that live in that community, they are rats.”
The stigmatization of these neighborhoods’ residents is partially due to perceived and real links between crime and poverty. The residents of these neighborhoods that Human Rights Watch interviewed reported monthly household incomes of less than US$500, and their homes were often composed of mud- or dirt-mixture for the walls, tin metal for the roof, bars to cover windows, and dirt floors. Similarly, two youth from one of the neighborhoods listed above, who fled in 2013 and were deported in 2018, made only $5 per day in the nearby fields; even in planting and harvesting season, they could not count on five days of work in a week. Another family whose young daughter fled with her grandmother in 2017 and was deported in 2018 did not have a home, and they instead moved from place to place in the neighborhood, living with hosts who would let them stay for brief periods if they paid for their use of utilities only.
One Salvadoran policeman said: “Evidently, there are places safer than others, and it is related to wealth levels. Poverty levels influence [crime]. We rarely go to residences where middle-class people live.” One criminal sentencing judge went further in his analysis of the links between poverty and crime to say that in these places, “We have to say it … the state has been absent.”
Nowhere Else to Go
Deportees often have nowhere to go in El Salvador except to live with family already residing in a particularly violent neighborhood. For example, Nohemy P. fled El Salvador at the age of nine in 2000 because she feared gang kidnapping and rape. She had lived two-thirds of her life in the US, had DACA status, and had three US-citizen children under the age of nine. However, US authorities near the Texas-Mexico border accused her of trafficking her own children across the border (she told us she had not crossed the border), told her “DACA was over,” and detained and deported her in the fall 2018. Upon arriving back in El Salvador, Nohemy had no choice but to live with an aunt in a violent neighborhood “because she is the only family we have here [now].” Nohemy’s mother, Leticia P., told Human Rights Watch that Nohemy and her two deported male cousins “almost don’t go out, because they’re afraid to do so.”
Deportees are often unable to find another, safer neighborhood to live in. Press accounts we identified for this report describe three male deportees’ attempts to hide in new neighborhoods before they were killed or disappeared. An FGR prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that “depending on the deportee’s [neighborhood], we do see changing addresses as a risk [for death].”
Deportees often cannot afford to relocate long distances away nor can they afford exclusive, gated residences with private security. An FGR prosecutor told Human Rights Watch: “People with few resources [who are displaced] have nowhere to go. Someone should be investigating that. Sometimes, it hurts me to observe that there is nothing more we [the authorities] can do for these people.” The brother of a young man killed approximately two years after his September 2013 deportation explained why his brother did not try to live elsewhere: “We don’t have resources to go moving around in El Salvador. Likewise, if he’d gone to a place without the gang [in our neighborhood], they [rival gang members] would have assumed [he was aligned with the gang in our neighborhood]. You are trapped in the same system.”
Individuals we interviewed for this report were repeatedly forced to move from one particularly violent neighborhood to another after being deported to El Salvador from the United States. For example, the neighborhood where Ransés I. grew up no longer existed when he was deported nearly 15 years later in 2015. Therefore, he went to an uncle’s home in a chronically violent neighborhood. He said: “One day, I went to the store not far [from my home] with my nephew who’d lived his whole life there.… Two [gang members] looked at me. Then, five more came and asked who I was, from where I was.… I told them I was deported.… I was there only a month [before I moved again].
In nearly all particularly violent neighborhoods, gang members, authorities, and residents view new arrivals with suspicion. Nelson E., after his most recent deportation from the US in October 2014, tried living on his own in a new neighborhood but soon had to flee that neighborhood. He told Human Rights Watch,
When I got back [in 2014], I didn’t want to live with my mom.… I had work. But one time, people arrived to rob me. They wanted my DUI [government-issued, photo identification]. They told me I couldn’t be there. They told me to remove myself from there. They said they would disappear me if I stayed … so I went back to my mom. This is the risk here. You cannot go where they do not know you.
It is likely, and especially dangerous, that a person who attempts to relocate inside El Salvador will end up in a neighborhood controlled by a different gang. A PNC officer told Human Rights Watch that among murdered deportees, including women, are those who “arrive to live in or visit a neighborhood different from the one they are from.” Irene J., said of her recently deported husband:
It actually worries me more [that he’s not in our old neighborhood]. Our neighborhood was MS-controlled, but where he is now is 18 [18 Revolucionarios or 18 Sureños]-controlled. If they realize that, they’ll take him out and kill him just for that. He is afraid of it, too, so he’s not going out at all. He can’t stay in one place. He’s having to move around.
V. State Actors as Perpetrators of Harm
Many authorities in El Salvador are dedicated to protecting Salvadoran citizens and ensuring justice in the country. However, authorities often face significant barriers to providing protection, especially—as discussed in the previous section—in particularly violent neighborhoods. These authorities and their families face serious threats themselves from gangs or from other authorities within their own government for the actions they may take to protect the public.
Data obtained by Human Rights Watch through a public information request submitted to El Salvador’s Attorney General Office’s (FGR) illustrate pervasive impunity. Nationwide, in 2018, authorities made arrests in approximately 22 percent of registered homicide cases. For homicides of boys, the 2018 clearance rate (meaning charges were filed) in El Salvador is 13.6 percent. The clearance rate for homicides in the US (adults and children) was several times higher at 62 percent; in many European countries the rate is above 75 percent. For sexual crimes, authorities in El Salvador made arrests in only 9.5 percent of registered cases in 2018. The comparable clearance rate for sexual crimes in the US was 33.4 percent in 2018. For sexual crimes against girls in El Salvador, the 2018 clearance rate was 7.6 percent. Low clearance rates can occur for a number of reasons, but in El Salvador, the state is frequently either unable, due to limited resources, or unwilling, because of corruption, infiltration and threats, to protect its citizens.
In this report, we documented cases in which government authorities were responsible for committing grave abuses against deportees in particularly violent neighborhoods. These abuses—alongside low arrest, hearing, and conviction rates—are especially concerning, because they contribute to residents’ perception that authorities are persecutors, rather than protectors facing structural limits on their ability to successfully pursue their work.
Enrico X., a resident of a particularly violent neighborhood, told Human Rights Watch about his state of mind after police killed his cousin, a former gang member, at point blank range in public in 2016 or 2017 (after the cousin had been deported from the US in 2016 or 2017): “I became wary of the police even more after they killed my cousin in this manner…. I was afraid to report [other crimes] to them.”
El Salvador’s crime and insecurity should be seen within the context of the power, control, and violence imposed by gangs, and the state’s feeble struggles to protect public safety. Violence and killings occur against a backdrop of “armed confrontations,” when authorities report being called to an area or on a routine patrol, are attacked with gunfire and respond with reportedly defensive fire. In 2016, the Central American Institute of Investigations for Development and Social Change (INCIDE) reported an increase of these incidents in El Salvador between state actors and gangs, with 142 incidents in 2013, 256 incidents in 2014 and 676 incidents that left 359 people dead in 2015.
Unable or Unwilling to Protect
There are many reasons why authorities are unable or unwilling to help protect Salvadoran citizens who are afraid for their safety, including the fact that they themselves are monitored and threatened, authorities’ offices have also been infiltrated by gangs, they lack resources, and carry large caseloads. Women victims of violence face particular obstacles in seeking protection or justice, due to the inadequacy of Salvadoran laws and deeply entrenched institutional resistance to gender equality, which has led to, among other problems, insufficient funding for investigation and law enforcement focused on violence against women, and virtual impunity for the failure of governmental officials to carry out their responsibilities.
For this report, we interviewed several individuals who attempted to seek help from Salvadoran agencies or authorities but were unable to receive assistance. For example, Gaspar T., who fled threats from gangs in his particularly violent neighborhood and has, since his February 2019 deportation, faced new threats by gangs and abuse by state authorities (discussed below):
They [the Salvadoran DGME] asked me why I had left, and I told them I’d been threatened by gangs. They took my name and nothing else, and that was it, they didn’t offer me protection or services ….
Walter T., who had been threatened by gangs and witnessed a murder before fleeing to the US, was deported in 2019 to face new threats by gangs and abuse by state authorities (discussed below). He said: “I told them [the Salvadoran DGME] I’d left because of threats, and they offered me nothing.” Zaida L., who fled domestic violence and rape, was deported in July 2018 and then went into hiding from her abusers, said: “The police asked why I’d left, what my motives were, if I’d reported [the rape and domestic violence] beforehand and why I did not.… No, no one from the government followed up with me.”
Walter T. and Gaspar T.
In 2013, cousins Walter T. and Gaspar T. when they were 16 and 17 years old, respectively, were desperate to escape constant harassment and gang recruitment in their violent Salvadoran neighborhood; between them, they know of six friends or relatives they said were disappeared or murdered between 2013 and the time of our interview with them, in 2019. They crossed into the US without documentation. Walter was able to finish 9th grade in Maryland before he left school to work construction in order to pay the coyote (smuggler) who brought him across the border. Gaspar made his way to New Jersey, where he lived with an older brother, and was excited to enroll in the local high school and resume his studies.
During his junior year of high school Gaspar said he was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement “off the street.” He was put in removal proceedings for his unauthorized status and applied for asylum during those proceedings. He was denied asylum in December 2016, a decision he appealed and lost. He was deported back to El Salvador in February 2019. His cousin, Walter, had already been deported slightly earlier. Gaspar said that in April/May 2019, when they were sleeping at their respective homes:
A patrol arrived and took me and Walter and three others from our homes, without a warrant or a reason. They began beating us [in the vehicle and continued doing so] until we arrived at the police barracks. There, they held us for three days, claiming we’d be charged with illicit association [agrupaciones ilicitas]. We were beaten [repeatedly] during those three days.
Walter and Gaspar were subsequently released from police custody and, through June 2019, were still living in a chronically violent neighborhood in El Salvador. They could no longer be reached in December 2019.
Police Killings and Abuse
In several cases in which deportees were killed after return to El Salvador, police were responsible for the killings (see Section II, above). The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings noted in her 2018 report on El Salvador that killings of alleged gang members by security forces increased from 103 in 2014 to 591 in 2016. Some of these confrontations certainly involve shoot-outs between gangs and police, in which law enforcement is responding to threats with lawful force. In other cases, journalists and human rights investigators question the degree to which police are using force lawfully.
In 2019, the governmental Ombudsperson for the Defense of Human Rights (PDDH) in El Salvador reported that it had examined killings of 28 boys, 7 women, and 81 men and found few resulted from such armed confrontations. In 70 percent, witnesses said victims were unarmed. In 37 percent, witnesses saw police move the body or place or hide evidence. In 30 percent, PDDH concluded that the body showed signs of torture, including sexual assault. Data on police and military’s use of lethal force from 2011 to 2017 include deportee victims, but we could not reliably analyze the data in order to include these cases in our overall counts.
In our research, we also found cases in which authorities without justification stopped and then harassed, and in some cases beat, individuals recently deported from the United States.
Elías F., who migrated to the United States as a teenager in the early-2000s, was deported to El Salvador in early 2011. Upon his return, he learned the home his remittances built was at a dividing line between two gangs. Starting a few years after his return, the rural police began to also view it as a strategic location, which made Elías deeply concerned about the risk to his family. One time, when Elías returned from work, a policeman stopped him and asked him for information about the gangs. When Elías could not answer, the policeman assaulted him:
Some people were playing loud music at another house and drinking. The police saw me walking without a shirt on and stopped me, asking me who had just yelled at them. I didn’t know who yelled. I had just heard music. I did not have the information that the officer wanted but I guess he thought I was lying to him or ignoring him.… The officer grabbed a broomstick and hit me very hard across the stomach.… I was very angry and also scared.… Some other police officers came by and the owner of the store told me to come inside for a while. The police officer told me that he would find me alone one day and get me.… The next day the officer saw me on the street. He told me that one day he will find me alone. He also said that if I try to report him to anyone, I know what will happen to me.
Several people recently deported from the US told Human Rights Watch that law enforcement authorities had detained or stopped and questioned them. They said they lived in fear of something worse. Santiago U., in his early twenties and gay, fled a series of violent neighborhoods in mid-2016 and was deported from the United States in late 2018. According to Santiago, who we interviewed in January 2019—about two months after his November or early December deportation from the United States—his brothers, with whom he had been living, were targeted by an extermination group which Santiago feared would also target him. His brothers and the rest of his family in El Salvador also did not accept his sexual orientation. For both reasons—fear of the gang that was targeting his brothers, and rejection by his own family—he decided to live with friends in a particularly violent neighborhood near the police barracks. In an interview with a Human Rights Watch researcher, Santiago explained that police were constantly stopping him:
The police ask me where I’m from, because they haven’t seen me here.… I got the Yo Cambio document[confirming no criminal record] a week ago. I went [to Yo Cambio] then, because here, the police stopped me many times. There [at the barracks], many people are innocent. Only because they have US$80 in their backpack, they’re accused of extortion. So, when friends send me money, I always have records of the remittance with me.
In 2018, Alexander N. fled El Salvador after men who identified themselves as police arrived at his home stating they were “doing a census,” and took his sister from their family home. She was later found dead. He and his family believe the killers were police. When Alexander sought asylum in the US in June 2018, his application was denied, and he was deported in the fall of 2018. A few months after his deportation, Alexander told us that he and his family feared they would be killed when men who identified themselves as police again arrived at his home claiming they intended to “do a census.”
Death Squads and Extermination Groups
People deported to El Salvador also fear so-called “death squads” or “extermination groups”—not new phenomena in El Salvador. They existed before, during, and immediately after the country’s civil war from 1980 to 1992. Experts have shown that during and after the civil war, “death squads” or “extermination groups” were deeply rooted in the country’s security forces and in specific cases, targeted deportees.
UN agencies, human rights observers, the press, and government all acknowledge that death squads and extermination groups still operate in El Salvador today. Three individuals interviewed for this report, all of whom were gang members but told us they left the gang prior to their deportations from the United States, expressed their fear of these groups to Human Rights Watch. Often, when these cases are described by journalists in press accounts, the assailants are described as “men wearing black” or men “wearing military or police-style” uniforms; victims are sometimes described as blindfolded, with their hands and/or feet tied behind their backs. For example, in four particularly violent neighborhoods:
- In San Antonio Silva, according to press accounts, such groups killed 11 of the 33 reported homicide victims in the neighborhood. A group of men dressed in military- or police-style uniforms arrived in at least five victims’ homes, took them out, and then shot them dead, according to press reports. Men dressed in dark clothing reportedly took at least six more victims from their homes before killing them.
- In Chaguantique, of the 12 homicides the press reported, the killers of three in 2015 wore “clothing similar to what the police use.”
- In Milagro de la Paz, of the 47 homicides reported by press in recent years, seven articles named as killers persons with extermination group profiles.
- In 2017 in El Platanar, “men in black” reportedly took two women from their homes in the neighborhood and then killed them. In 2018, residents and journalists alike reportedly suspected the “exterminators” in a separate double homicide.
According to press accounts, people deported to El Salvador have been killed in circumstances consistent with the methods of operation that death squads and extermination groups have employed:
- In the El Zapote neighborhood of Jucuarán municipality in May 2015, 15 to 20 “men dressed in black and camouflage” entered a home “simulating a police operation,” according to a press report. They killed a 32-year-old deportee in the home’s hallway and took the other six to line them up in the street before shooting dead four face down and two face up.
- In the El Jícaro neighborhood of Lolotique municipality in June 2017, subjects dressed in black simulating a police operation killed a man deported from the United States in 2015 who had non-gang-related tattoos, at his home.
- In the Los Lagartos neighborhood of San Julián in January 2019, armed men arrived at the home of a man deported from the US two months prior, taking him and his teenage nephew, both alleged gang members, some 100 meters away to a coffee field where they were interrogated and killed.
Ransés I., a 44-year-old-man deported from the US to El Salvador in 2018, spoke about the scrutiny he faced from Salvadoran authorities after he returned to his home country, much of it based on tattoos that he had painstakingly tried to remove or alter in order to distance himself from the gang to which he had once belonged. He told Human Rights Watch, “I’d gone [to a tattoo artist] since 2006, changing each of them. Correcting them….”
However, upon arrival in El Salvador, his tattoos became the focus of police attention. Soon after he returned, Ransés got into a dispute with another man, who called the police. When they arrived at Ransés’ home, they seemed to intentionally expose his tattoos, which he otherwise kept hidden wherever he went. He explained, “They called me outside. They took off my shirt in public. ‘Don’t worry about your tattoos,’ they told me. ‘Do you have documents?’ I showed them my DUI [documento único de identidad] and passport … They took photos of everything … and told me it was evidence.”
When Ransés complained to the Human Rights Ombudsperson about police harassment and exposure of his tattoos in public, he said the Ombudsman staff, “told me to be careful, because extermination groups use those photos to exterminate.”
VI. Long-Term Residence in the US
Salvadorans who have resided for an extended period in the United States face several unique risks as deported persons. They are often easily identified because of their style of clothing, way of speaking, and financial resources. At the same time, because they have been away for so long, they often do not understand the unspoken rules Salvadorans follow in order to protect themselves from gangs, extermination groups, or corrupt authorities. As a result, they can be particularly susceptible to harm in El Salvador after deportation.
Several people harmed after being deported to El Salvador had arrived in the United States as children and adolescents. Several described attending school in the US and nearly all worked, but given their limited economic means and precarious legal status, many also found themselves living in US communities with higher levels of poverty. In the areas where they resided in the US, poverty also coincided with higher levels of police abuse, gangs, and violence, placing them at higher risk of being victims of crime and of being accused of crimes themselves.
Former Long-Term US Residents Easy Targets of Abuse
Salvadorans who have lived for a long time in the United States are often easily identifiable. One director of an agency providing aid to deported persons told us: “At the beginning, there’s no problem. But as they’re noticed—their clothing, their accent, their money—the gang finds interest.”
Yeshua O., in his late-thirties, fled a particularly violent neighborhood in El Salvador for the United States as a teenager and remained there nearly two decades with TPS before his deportation in 2018 after serving a sentence for first degree assault in Maryland. Within weeks of his arrival back to his particularly violent neighborhood in El Salvador, Yeshua told Human Rights Watch he had tried to keep track of rules over whether he should or shouldn’t wear “certain shoes, certain colors and certain hair styles,” because they could signal membership in a gang and put him in danger. He said, “It’s confusing here. I’d always had a military style, but in [US immigration] detention, they [other detainees] told me to keep my hair longer.… I guess the military style is linked with one of the gangs.”
The sister of Baltazar G., a man who had been deported in January 2012 after 10 years in the US, told Human Rights Watch, his style of dress was dangerous: “After living so long there, he dressed differently. Loose. It attracted gang members’ attention here. I told him to dress differently.”
Bernardo A., in his late forties, first fled to the United States as a teenage child trying to avoid forced conscription into the guerilla forces. He has lived most of his life since then in the United States but has been deported multiple times to El Salvador, the first of which occurred in 1990 as a young adult and the most recent of which occurred in December 2017. He remembers that after his first deportation: “I was at church, and people wanted to beat me. So, I left. I think they didn’t like the way I talked. I didn’t speak Spanish well anymore. I’d learned English … and no longer spoke Spanish well.”
People deported from the United States, through remittances sent to their families, often end up having noticeable assets compared to others. For example, Elías F., who fled to the United States as a teenager from a violent neighborhood in the early 2000s, had sent money to his family for seven years to buy a home in their neighborhood. When he was deported in the early 2010s, he realized his home was better constructed and had better finishes than the others and marked him as a target.
In our research for this report, we also learned of two cases of wives of former long-term US residents who were killed, and of the case of a US citizen who was killed after traveling to El Salvador to marry his fiancée (who had been deported from the US and had an infant child). While we were unable to document the motivation for the killing of the US citizen; in the two cases of the wives, we know from our interviews with them that one victim had regularly received money from the US and the other had resisted gang extortion. In all three cases, their linkages to former long-term US resident deportees who were perceived to have greater wealth seemed to make them conspicuous targets.
Deportees who spent a long time in the US are often targeted for extortion because they are perceived as having greater financial resources. Several of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report told us that their unwillingness to succumb to gang extortion or other demands (motivated, they believed, by their perceived wealth resulting from their long residence in the US) put them or their family members at risk, including risk of death. Police officers interviewed for this report thought failure to pay extortion was the most common factor in the killings of deported former US long-term residents because some respond in ways—refusing to pay or reporting demands to authorities—that while typically non-life threatening in the United States, got them or their loved ones killed in El Salvador.
A police investigator told Human Rights Watch that among his recent homicide cases were several involving deportees who had been extorted:
I can think of three cases. One was in El Junquillo, I think in 2016.… He was deported and was killed. The investigation showed that the gang extorted him. The second was in [neighborhood name withheld], likewise because of extortion. He set up a business, a cereal products store, and they killed him. That was in 2018. The third was in [municipality name withheld], but I don’t remember the neighborhood. It was the same: the person was deported with a little money, set up a business, and [the demand for] la renta came.
Implicit in these cases is that the person either did not pay at all or stopped paying. In the case of a woman killed by a gang, family members told Human Rights Watch the family, including the woman killed, had resisted extortion because after living for years in the United States, they felt they had worked too hard for their money to give it to “criminals.” Similarly, an official [office withheld for security] reported a concluded case in which a former legal resident of the United States had started a business in Los Blancos neighborhood of San Luis La Herradura. The official said, “She refused to pay extortion and told them [the gang members]: ‘I didn’t owe my money to bums [a vagos, no debía mi dinero].’”
Tattoos are common in the United States. Some deportees who had been long-term US residents we interviewed for this report had gotten them for artistic and sentimental reasons. For example, we interviewed Paloma V., who entered the US at around age 20 and lived there for six years. She returned from the US voluntarily to El Salvador to visit her sick family and because she was worried her sons were being forcibly recruited by the gangs. Upon her return, Paloma remained in hiding most of her time in El Salvador to avoid gang extortion demands rising to US$50 per week and increased recruitment of her two boys. She explained the artistic tattoos on her neck, shoulder, and side were visual remembrances of her family, country, and God. A few other former long-term US residents we interviewed acknowledged their tattoos were gang-related.
Even gang-related tattoos are sometimes obtained in the United States as a survival mechanism rather than simply as a mark of gang affiliation. Bartolo A., who had lived in the US for 17 years before he was deported in 2017, got tattoos, according to his attorney, after being beaten repeatedly in a US federal prison when he was young and vulnerable. Bartolo A. agreed, stating: “Many times, one does it [gets tattoos while in prison] to obtain protection from the gangs. Yes, when one walks with gang tattoos, no one messes with him.” Bartolo maintains it saved his life: “The tattoos were my help and my survival in prison.”
In El Salvador, however, tattoos are deeply stigmatized, and can prove deadly. This has been true for many years.
Today, gangs, authorities, and death squads link tattoos to gang membership in El Salvador. Officials interviewed for this report thought tattoos were the most common factor among deportees who were killed:
- “Usually, the common factor is a tattoo, because people think that they are gang-related, but some are decorative.” This official remembered his own voluntary return to El Salvador at the end of the civil war in the mid-1990s, saying: “My own mom inspected me for tattoos. Apparently, all the [news] stories at the time were about tattooed gang members coming from the United States. My friends deported [around then] had tattoos and faced discrimination.”
- “What I have noticed about those murdered after their deportation is nearly all have tattoos. Among them, they have artistic tattoos that do not allude to gangs. Yet, gangs will kill them, as will others. This happens primarily in rural areas. The constant variables among murdered deportees and disappeared deportees is tattoos. Some are gang members.”
Deportees who were disappeared and/or killed often had tattoos. Out of 30 cases reported in the Salvadoran media of deportees with tattoos from the United States who were killed between 2010 and 2019, only seven had gang-related tattoos, the 23 others had artistic or non-gang-related tattoos, like a tribute to children, an angel and Christ, a shield, stars on the elbows, and allusions to the US city of Los Angeles. In some of these 30 cases, the individuals had spent their childhoods, their adolescence and/or more than 10 years in the US. Some were killed within days of their deportation, but others were killed years later, despite trying to leave their homes as little as possible (for example, travelling only to and from work). Other cases we documented through interviews for this report include:
- A man, Jaír F., whose cousin Ángel F. had arrived in the US during his adolescence, had tattoos that Jaír believed were not gang related. Jaír told a Human Rights Watch researcher that Ángel was killed in 2018 in their rural municipality after Ángel’s deportation in 2018.
- A Salvadoran journalist told us in 2018, “[D]ays ago, a youth arrived deported who had tattoos. He disappeared. Some cases like that are never reported.”
- Another Salvadoran journalist remembered, “In [the neighborhood] where I live, a deportee around 40 years old got back [returned to El Salvador]. He had tattoos that I thought were super cool and in no way associated with a gang. However, few in El Salvador understand this. Here, having tattoos is a problem. He disappeared about a month later. The case was not reported [in the press]. I didn’t cover it, because of our [Salvadoran journalists’] rule: don’t cover anything in your own neighborhood.”
Despite the grave risks associated with having tattoos, getting them removed is difficult in the United States, especially when a person is held in immigration detention. In one case, after living in the US for 17 years, while his deportation proceedings were underway, Bartolo A.’s defense attorneys tried to arrange for the removal of his tattoos, but the immigration facility detaining him would not coordinate visits by tattoo-removal professionals or allow Bartolo to leave the facility to have them removed.
According to Salvadoran officials, the government agency for the health and welfare of youth, the National Institute of Youth (Instituto Nacional de la Juventud, INJUVE) offers a tattoo removal program in El Salvador, so as one return center official put it to Human Rights Watch “you will not be confused with gang members.” However, the removal sessions are only offered in San Salvador, must be spaced weeks apart, and can take years to completely remove tattoos.
In 2010, Javier B., 17, fled his particularly violent home neighborhood in El Salvador, where the local gang had repeatedly attempted to recruit him. His mother, Jennifer B., said that the gang had killed a close family member and generally targeted the family.
After crossing the border, Javier lived with his mother in an unauthorized immigration status in a city located on the East Coast of the United States, where she worked to send money home to El Salvador. Javier started high school, but soon dropped out and began living with a friend. He also worked the limited odd jobs that were available, such as construction, two or three times per week. In 2012, Javier’s girlfriend became pregnant. Javier later testified before the immigration judge in his deportation proceedings that he “was excited” to become a father, but he was also worried that he could “not support a family.” Javier testified that he “gave in to the easy money” of participating in burglaries.
In June 2013, Javier was convicted, at the state level, of two separate counts of attempted burglary and burglary in the second degree. After serving his sentence in an East Coast prison, he was put in removal proceedings in New York State.
In August 2016, when Javier was 23, the immigration court denied him asylum due to his criminal convictions. Although Javier raised fears that gangs in El Salvador would attack and even kill him, the court found that it was not “more likely than not” that Javier would be tortured (defined in part as any act to intentionally inflict severe pain or suffering on an individual) upon return to El Salvador, thereby denying him protection under the Convention against Torture and ordering him deported from the United States. Javier was deported in approximately March 2017. He was killed by MS in June that same year, according to his mother, Jennifer. She told Human Rights Watch:
Only four months passed. He was thinking of living with my mother in [the neighborhood he had fled], but he decided to live with [my] sister in [a different but also violent neighborhood]. That’s actually where they [MS] killed him…. It’s terrible. They got him from the house at 11:00 am. They saw his tattoos. I knew they’d kill him for his tattoos. That is exactly what happened.… The problem was with [the gang] MS [-13], not with the police [who had stopped him multiple times but not beaten him]. 
VII. US and International Law
In several key respects, US immigration law and policy violate international human rights and refugee law, with direct effects upon people seeking asylum or facing deportation from the United States, like the Salvadorans featured in this report.
US Failure to Prevent Return to Persecution
The United States is obligated to uphold the central provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention by its accession to the Refugee Convention’s 1967 Protocol. The US government passed the Refugee Act of 1980 in order to bring the country’s laws into conformity with the Refugee Convention and Protocol, by incorporating into US law the convention’s definition of a “refugee” as a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and by incorporating the principle of non-return (also called “nonrefoulement”), which prohibits the return of people whose lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
Despite the fact that the principle of nonrefoulement is codified in US law, the cases in this report illustrate that Salvadorans face very uncertain odds when trying to convince US courts and authorities that they should not be deported due to their fears of serious harm.
Anyone who is an unauthorized immigrant (Salvadorans among them) will find it difficult to obtain protection from deportation to harm, especially once such an immigrant has been apprehended by immigration enforcement and put in removal proceedings. One of the biggest obstacles for these people is the reality that they are very likely to be locked up in immigration detention, from where they are expected to claim asylum, usually without assistance from an attorney, since nearly all migrants and asylum seekers facing deportation in the United States have no right to a court-appointed lawyer.
In a review of immigration court data from 2007 to 2012, the American Immigration Council determined that of all Salvadorans (detained and non-detained) in removal proceedings, only 40 percent were represented by counsel. In addition, 38 percent of Salvadorans in removal proceedings were detained.
Under a July 2019 rule that is currently enjoined, all unauthorized immigrants living in the US will become targets for arrests and deportation through expanded procedures that accelerate deportation known as “expedited removal.” Any unauthorized foreigner who cannot prove continuous presence in the US for at least two years could, if the rule goes into effect, be placed in a fast-track deportation process, without the opportunity to plead their case in front of an immigration judge or, in most cases, to get the help of an attorney. Expedited removal proceedings do allow individuals to seek referral to an immigration court proceeding to seek asylum, but make access to a court hearing contingent on a screening procedure, and Human Rights Watch and other groups have consistently criticized expedited removal for DHS officers’ failure to identify legitimate asylum seekers during that screening process.
Although deportations of individuals with TPS or DACA status are on hold as of the writing of this report, those court-ordered injunctions could be lifted at any time. If this happens, these people are also likely to struggle to defend against deportation without assistance from a court-appointed attorney. Even with the aid of an attorney, every individual trying to prevent their deportation because they fear harm in El Salvador faces a battle to successfully make such a claim under current US law, discussed more below.
For individuals with criminal convictions, the odds against them being able to prevent deportation due to fear of harm in El Salvador are nearly insurmountable. Article 33(2) of the Refugee Convention states that protection against refoulement may not be claimed by a refugee, “who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.” The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has defined such a crime as a “capital crime or a very grave punishable act.” UNHCR’s Executive Committee has further explained that deporting a refugee under article 33(2) “may have very serious consequences for a refugee and his immediate family members … [and therefore should only happen] in exceptional cases and after due consideration of all the circumstances.”
Therefore, in accordance with international refugee law, procedures must be in place to ensure careful application of this narrow exception. Even individuals convicted of “particularly serious” crimes are guaranteed the right of a hearing to establish whether or not they pose a current threat. Indeed, the “danger to the community” exception “hinges on an appreciation of a future threat from the person concerned rather than on the commission of some act in the past.” Accordingly, under international refugee law, past criminality is not per se evidence of future danger.
Unfortunately, United States law falls short of these standards, which helps to explain why some of the people featured in this report were deported to El Salvador after criminal convictions despite the clear harm they faced and the lack of danger they posed. People who have criminal convictions that are not “particularly serious” are usually barred from asylum in the US, but can seek protection from refoulement based on the much higher standard known as “withholding of removal.” But for people who have been convicted of what are regarded as “particularly serious crimes,” withholding is also barred.
In addition to all refugees convicted of aggravated felonies with five-year sentences, some US courts have found that the US attorney general has discretionary authority to send refugees or asylees back to persecution based on the attorney general’s often-unreviewable determination of what constitutes a particularly serious crime.
A final defense against removal for people convicted of particularly serious crimes derives not from the Refugee Convention and Protocol but rather from the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which prevents the United States from returning anyone without exception to countries where they would more likely than not face torture. The CAT defines torture as severe pain or suffering that is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official, or other person acting in an official capacity. CAT withholding or deferral of removal therefore requires that an applicant prove that he or she will “more likely than not” face torture upon return, which must be shown to be severe pain or suffering inflicted by or with the acquiescence of a government official. Though it is an essential protection in international and US law, and people with criminal convictions are eligible to seek CAT relief, it is a very difficult standard to meet, especially without the assistance of an attorney.
Overly broad United States interpretation of crimes as “particularly serious” for purposes of barring individuals from asylum and withholding of removal, failure to assess whether the potential deportee poses a risk of dangerousness to the community of the US, and the failure to provide court-appointed legal representatives to people facing deportation on their rights and on the mechanics of due process, has resulted in the US failing to meet its obligations under international law not to return Salvadorans (and others) to countries where they would be under threat of persecution, torture, or other serious harms. In addition to policy changes within the authority of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, Congress should amend US law to ensure that criminal bars to asylum and withholding are consistent with international law, that there is greater judicial scrutiny of the application of these bars, and that people facing removal have the right to court-appointed attorneys.
The United States Eviscerates the Right to Seek Asylum
There is no right to be granted asylum under international law, but there is a right to seek asylum. On its face, US law generally recognizes this right. The law provides that any person “physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States … irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum….”
However, since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the federal government has nearly eviscerated the right to seek asylum in a relentless series of policy and legal changes. This attack on asylum affects all nationalities, Salvadorans among them. Salvadorans whose claims to asylum have not yet been resolved, and those who may be attempting to travel to the United States to claim asylum from persecution in their home country, face enormous obstacles due to these changes to asylum law and policy.
One of the most sweeping US policies undermining the right to seek asylum in the United States is the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also called the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which have been in place since January 2019. Under this policy, the implementation of which Human Rights Watch has investigated, the US government returns to Mexico nearly all asylum seekers who have been put into removal proceedings. Since its inception, the program has been implemented at ports of entry and Border Patrol sectors across the southern border, placing asylum seekers at risk of violence, exploitation at the hands of cartels and corrupt officials, and death. Approximately one percent of people returned to Mexico under the program are able to find representation in their court cases, vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, babies, and LGBT individuals have been regularly returned, and our own research shows the program regularly results in family separations.
Although legal challenges continue, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed this sweeping policy to remain in place. At time of writing, more than 59,000 asylum seekers had been returned to dangerous and unlivable conditions in Mexico, with significant barriers to obtaining legal representation and a fair asylum hearing.
The MPP program is layered on top of a policy that dates back to 2016 (called “metering”), under which United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) turns back asylum seekers at ports of entry where they are forced to wait in haphazardly operated queues in Mexico, which can cause weeks and months of delay. People affected by these policies often make desperate decisions to attempt to cross the border in dangerous locations. Among these were Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria, both from the particularly violent Altavista neighborhood in El Salvador, who both died while trying to cross the Rio Grande in June 2019.
In July 2019, in another change with devastating effect on all people trying to cross the United States-Mexico border to seek protection from persecution, the administration published an interim final rule banning all people, including children, who have traveled through another country first, and did not apply for and get asylum there, from applying for asylum in the United States. This rule (sometimes referred to as “Asylum Ban 2.0”) is a ban of nearly all non-Mexican asylum seekers attempting to enter the US through the southern border. On September 11th, the Supreme Court issued a decision allowing the ban to go into effect while litigation challenging it continues.
In yet another effort to block people from even accessing the United States asylum system, in the summer and fall of 2019, the Trump administration reached agreements with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala that will enable the administration to reject asylum claims from people who first pass through any of these countries. The United States’ Asylum Cooperative Agreement with Guatemala, in particular, raises alarm bells for Salvadorans, since nearly all Salvadoran asylum seekers transit through that country on their northward journey. Few details about these agreements had been released at time of writing; however, what is known about each country’s refugee protection system raises serious doubts about their ability to handle large numbers of asylum claims and offer effective protection.
Each of these changes are layered upon other, earlier policy shifts engineered to create a harsh and punishing response to arriving asylum seekers. In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions introduced a "zero-tolerance" policy, which required that all migrants arriving between ports of entry, including asylum seekers, be prosecuted for the federal crimes of illegal entry or reentry. What resulted was the mass, systemic separation of families, as parents were prosecuted and children were ripped away from them to be taken into separate custody, causing irreversible, life-long trauma to over 5,400 children, including all but one of the Salvadoran children interviewed for this report. Subsequently revealed internal government memos show that this policy was explicitly intended to serve as a deterrence mechanism for asylum seekers. Despite the official end to family separation in June 2018, many separations are still happening, and the “zero-tolerance” memo was still in place, at time of writing.
Other changes have attempted to narrow the definitions United States immigration judges use to determine who merits asylum. In 2019, US Attorney General William Barr reversed a case, Matter of L-E-A, limiting and in some cases eliminating the possibility of even presenting a claim for asylum for individuals who are fleeing harm on the basis of their membership in a particular family. This decision holds dire consequences for many asylum seekers, including several of the Salvadoran individuals and their family members whose cases are documented in this report. Also, in 2018, then-Attorney General Sessions issued Matter of A-B, effectively limiting the availability of asylum to most individuals fleeing gender-based violence or violence at the hands of gangs—each of which is often central to the fears of harm that prompt people from El Salvador to flee to the United States.
Former Attorney General Sessions took this decision despite caselaw in the United States clearly establishing, for decades, that gang violence and gender-based violence can constitute persecution under international refugee law. This established legal understanding is shared by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, which has concluded that people fleeing gang and gender-based violence, as well as forced recruitment by gangs, may have valid persecution claims under the Refugee Convention. Beyond that, his decision failed to evidence awareness of the state’s absence and inability or unwillingness to protect, as well as its role in active persecution, as root causes of gender-based and gang violence.
In February 2017, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) raised the threshold for demonstrating credible fear in the first stage of the asylum process. This new guideline ordered asylum officers to be stricter in assessing claims of fear made during “credible fear interviews,” the threshold interview that is required before an affirmative asylum seeker is allowed to present their claim to an immigration judge.
Each of these policy changes on its own represents a significant erosion of the right to seek asylum in the United States. Taken together, the US is violating the rights of hundreds of asylum seekers on a daily basis. One proposed bill before Congress, the Refugee Protection Act of 2019, would make important strides towards reversing these, and other, harmful policies.
US Law Fails to Adequately Value Long-Term Connections to US
Salvadorans (and immigrants of other nationalities in similar situations) who have lived in the United States for many years in an unauthorized status, as legal permanent residents, or as TPS or DACA beneficiaries often have developed and/or deepened family and other ties to the United States. Under current US law these ties are often not weighed at all before deportation. This is despite the fact that the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), the expert body that interprets and monitors state party compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has explicitly stated that the right to family unity entails limits on states’ power to regulate immigration. Though it has not always ruled in favor of migrants seeking to defend against their deportations, the HRC jurisprudence establishes that any interference with a person’s family caused by deportation is “arbitrary” if the state fails to weigh that human rights impact in the balance against its own interests in deporting the person. Moreover, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of non-citizens has stated, “[D]eportation is justified only if the interference with family life is not excessive compared to the public interest to be protected.” Even without strong family ties, an unauthorized immigrant develops stronger ties to the country of immigration over time. Children brought as unauthorized immigrants to the US at a very young age often have no ties at all to their country of origin, other than birth, yet are subject to deportation without consideration of their ties to the US.
There is no recognized human right to immigrate to another country and obtain legal status, and states enjoy considerable leeway to remove non-citizens from their territory—particularly those who are present unlawfully. But this discretion is not unlimited, and the US should ensure its immigration policies meet its obligations under international human rights law. In particular, US law should take into account the often profound human rights impacts and other hardships of deportation, and weigh those in the balance against its interest in deporting a person.
Article 12(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country,” and the Human Rights Committee has found that the definition of “one’s own country” is broader than the concept of a person’s country of nationality. In two cases involving people who were brought to Australia and Canada from other countries as young children, the Committee found a violation of article 12(4) where the state sought to deport those individuals later on in life. These cases are closely analogous to the situation of DACA beneficiaries and, in some cases, TPS beneficiaries as well.
Instead of requiring deportation of almost any immigrant without legal status, including those who have lived in the country for many years, US law should be changed to uphold these rights to family unity and to enter one’s own country, among others. One way to recognize these rights is to weigh them before deporting someone from the United States. Another is to implement a fair and inclusive legalization program that provides legal status for certain qualifying unauthorized immigrants in the US—including those who previously qualified for and had a prolonged temporary legal status—who meet a clearly defined set of criteria, and that aims to integrate those with strong family and community ties to the US.
US Law Should Protect People at Risk of Serious Harm Who Do Not Qualify for Asylum
In addition to all the limitations to the right to seek asylum and to be protected from return to persecution outlined above, Human Rights Watch notes two additional gaps in US law governing who should be protected from return to harm: first, US law fails to meet US treaty obligations not to return people to places where they would be at real risk of facing cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; second, US law fails to protect from deportation newly arriving asylum seekers who are fleeing situations of indiscriminate violence or other exceptional circumstances that would threaten their lives or personal security.
On the first gap, the United States has rejected any obligation to prevent people from being returned to face the risk of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment that does not rise to the level of torture, in contravention of the requirements of the Convention against Torture. In the case In re J-E- , the US Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed the appeal of a Haitian man who showed that he would most likely be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment upon return, saying, “we find that the respondent has failed to establish that these severe instances of mistreatment are so pervasive as to establish a probability that a person detained in a Haitian prison will be subject to torture, as opposed to other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.”
This interpretation is inconsistent with the United States’ obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body that interprets and assesses state compliance with the ICCPR, has stated that, “States parties must not expose individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement.”
On the second gap in US law, countries around the world receiving migrants conduct a two-pronged assessment when considering a claim for protection against deportation. First, they examine claims using the international refugee definition from the Refugee Convention: a well-founded fear of being persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. But they also assess in the same individualized interview whether an asylum seeker who does not meet this definition can also be recognized as qualifying for a complementary status as a protected person if they can establish that, if returned, they would face a real risk of serious harm for reasons other than a fear of being persecuted. This type of “complementary protection” provides a safety net for those people who still face extreme risks.
Human Rights Watch recommends that US law be amended to ensure protection from deportation for people who would face serious threats to life or physical integrity if returned to their countries because of a real risk of violence or in exceptional situations, such as natural or human-made disasters, including from the effects of climate change, for which there is no adequate domestic remedy. As this report has shown, this is important for those Salvadorans who might not meet the high persecution or torture standard but who nevertheless would be at real risk of death or serious bodily injury if returned. It is also important for individuals of any nationality who would face a real risk of serious harm after deportation from the United States.
Medium and Long-Term Recommendations
To the US Congress
- Enact legislation that codifies into domestic law the international legal obligations of the United States by passing the Refugee Protection Act of 2019 or similar legislation that:
- Realigns the definition of terms in US law like “particular social group” to international standards;
- Clarifies that transit through a third country shall not be grounds for discretionary denial of asylum;
- Provides that asylum officers, with training in asylum law and non-adversarial interviewing techniques, have initial jurisdiction over all asylum claims;
- Ends federal criminal prosecution, such as the “zero tolerance policy,” for asylum seekers;
- Ensures access to counsel for all persons in immigration detention and border facilities and provides counsel for certain particularly vulnerable populations;
- Creates a presumption of release from detention for all asylum seekers.
- Enact legislation that enables access to fair asylum determination proceedings in the United States by: 1) Rescinding the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) with retroactive effect. For individuals already in the MPP program, ensure that each has access to full and fair asylum proceedings under US law by paroling them into the United States and enrolling them in community-supported release programs that will ensure their appearance for immigration proceedings and provide support for them while their claims are pending; 2) Providing a right to readjudication for those deported to El Salvador under the Trump administration; and 3) Ending metering of asylum claims.
- Also, in order to provide access to fair asylum determination proceedings in the United States, enact legislation to eliminate expedited removal from US law. Until such legislation is adopted, while expedited removal remains in place: 1) Provide sufficient resources to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for additional asylum officers; 2) Allow the USCIS to conduct timely in-person “credible fear” and “reasonable fear” screening interviews and address backlogs, without creating delays for affirmative asylum interviews or for USCIS interviews in the overseas US refugee admissions program; 3) Ensure that USCIS has adequate training and supervision; 4) Expand the grounds of qualification for parole.
- Protect and safeguard the independence and impartiality of the immigration court system by adopting a law creating an independent immigration court system in the form of an Article I court, modeled after the US Bankruptcy Court.
- Enact the New Way Forward Act of 2019 or similar legislation that improves due process for all immigrants by:
- Ending near-mandatory deportation for people with criminal convictions and ending expedited deportation proceedings;
- Restoring discretion to immigration judges to grant relief to those otherwise barred by criminal records or certain conduct if it would serve humanitarian purposes, to assure family unity, or in the public interest;
- Reducing unnecessary detention by adopting a presumption of liberty for immigrants during deportation proceedings;
- Repealing laws making illegal entry and reentry federal criminal offenses, rather than simply civil offenses to be addressed in an administrative court.
- Enact legislation providing “complementary protection” from removal to people outside their country and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States who would face serious threats to life or physical integrity if returned to their countries because of a real risk of violence or exceptional situations, such as natural or human‐made disasters, including from the effects of climate change, for which there is no adequate domestic remedy.
To Congress and the Executive Branch
- The Attorney General should withdraw or Congress should rescind through legislation the Attorney General decisions that overruled Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decisions Matter of AB and Matter of L-E-A- narrowing gender, gang-related, and family-based grounds for asylum.
- Ensure that US funding for Mexican border and immigration enforcement capacity includes funding:
- To improve and expand Mexico's capacity to register and process refugee and other protection claims;
- To increase Mexico's capacity to provide social support for asylum seekers with pending claims and for other vulnerable migrants; and
- To integrate recognized refugees and beneficiaries of complementary protection.
- Direct US foreign assistance to El Salvador and other countries in the region to initiatives designed to enhance due process, accountability, and equitable economic development, and support critical efforts to promote human rights, tackle corruption, strengthen the rule of law, reintegrate Salvadorans who repatriate, and provide trauma-informed care to Salvadorans.
- End political pressure and US funding to El Salvador and other countries in the region for border security or immigration enforcement that has the purpose or effect of infringing on the right to leave one’s own country, the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, or in any other way violates fundamental human rights.
To the US Department of Justice
- Reduce barriers to due process and backlog in the immigration court system, including by restoring the ability of immigration judges to close cases administratively and funding court-appointed counsel for removal proceedings.
- End reliance on gang databases as an indicator of gang membership for arrests and detention decisions without a criminal conviction evidencing gang membership and warranting detention for removal purposes.
To the Attorney General of the United States
- Issue a new opinion reverting to the pre-2018 definition of a “particular social group” and recognizing that certain individuals (including those of Salvadoran nationality) may possess a well-founded fear of persecution and/or a need for complementary protection from removal due to factors that include long term residence in the United States, neighborhood of origin, tattoos, sexual violence, and all forms of intimate partner violence.
To the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency
- Grant parole to people in expedited removal who have established a credible fear.
- End all unnecessary immigration detention. In instances in which detention is warranted based on flight risk or danger demonstrated by the government to an immigration judge and regularly reviewed, locate immigration detainees in areas more accessible to families, lawyers, and community support.
- Promulgate a new policy allowing individuals in immigration detention to access tattoo removal at their own (or at charitable organizations’) expense, without extending the period of detention for such individuals.
To the Government of El Salvador
- Conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into allegations of killings and other abuses committed by gang members, including into their possible links to authorities.
- Collect accurate data about victims and perpetrators of crime who are also returned migrants.
- Train police and law enforcement not to make assumptions that individuals have committed a crime or belong to a gang based on reasons such as being a deportee or having tattoos.
- Conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into allegations of abuses committed by authorities and security forces and remove them from their official duties that relate to contact with the public until their cases are resolved.
- Invest in the justice system, particularly around gender equity and inclusion, investigation capacity, and addressing state corruption and gender-based violence.
- Enhance the government’s ability to provide trauma-informed care to victims of crime and human rights abuse.
- Enhance the government’s reception and re-integration capacity for Salvadorans who repatriate.
- Ensure Consular staff in the United States are monitoring abuses experienced at the hands of immigration enforcement and border protection personnel and submit complaints with individuals’ consent.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy, former researcher on El Salvador for the United States Program of Human Rights Watch, researched this report. It was jointly authored by Kennedy and Alison Parker, managing director of the US Program. Clara Long, US Program senior researcher, edited and contributed writing to the report. Thomas J. Rachko, Jr., US Program acting advocacy officer, assisted with systematic searches of Salvadoran criminal sentencing tribunals and news, as did an assistant researcher who remains anonymous for her security. Jorge Beltrán Luna, Anna-Catherine Brigida, Virginia Salazar, and Israel Serrano identified some individuals to interview. Anna-Catherine Brigida additionally edited sections of this report for brevity and clarity. Jorge Beltrán Luna did additional reporting for one neighborhood.
Grace Meng, US Program senior researcher; Thomas J. Rachko, Jr., US Program acting advocacy officer; Dani Hass, senior editor; Joseph Saunders, deputy program director; Bill Frelick, refugee rights director; Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher in the LGBT Rights Program, Nisha Varia, advocacy director of the Women’s Rights Division, Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting deputy director of the Americas Division; Michael Bochenek, senior counsel in the Children’s Rights Division and acting senior legal advisor edited the report. Colleagues from Alianza Americas also provided very helpful feedback. Remy Arthur, digital associate prepared the report for publication. Gabriela Haymes translated it into Spanish.
Most of all, Human Rights Watch thanks the persons deported and their surviving relatives who made this report possible by taking time, and risks, to share their experiences. We likewise appreciate the Salvadoran and US officials, lawyers, social service providers, researchers and others who spoke with us or identified cases during research for this report.